Situated in 28,000 acres of Yorkshire Dales national park, beside the trout-filled River Wharfe, are the crumbling ruins of Bolton Priory. Next to it sits The Hall at Bolton Abbey, its extraordinary ancestral house. The estate’s ruins inspired paintings by the Romantics, including Landseer and Turner; in his poem “The White Doe of Rylstone”, Wordsworth wrote, “From Bolton’s old monastic tower/The bells ring loud with gladsome power.” Queen Elizabeth herself visited the Hall in 2005 and stayed an entire week.
The Hall – a sprawling, crenellated sandstone pile – has been a holiday home to the Dukes of Devonshire and their families since the 18th century, when they would leave their main residence, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, to spend the month of August in Yorkshire. It’s a tradition that continues today; but from this year, for the first time, The Hall is opening its 20ft-high double doors to paying guests.
Adept and entrepreneurial, the current Duke and Duchess have transformed their estate at Chatsworth into a thriving, multifaceted business: more than 600,000 visitors a year pour through the golden gates to view the house, art exhibitions and gardens. More recently, the baton of managing the family’s hotels and holiday cottages has been passed on to their daughter-in-law, Laura Burlington, wife of their son, William. Burlington, a contributing editor for Vogue and The World of Interiors, has worked as a consultant to fashion and retail brands including Selfridges and Acne; and she was at one time a muse to Roland Mouret – “though it involved more accounting and production than actual musing”, she laughs.
“The decision to rent Bolton allows us to invest in the property and the estate,” Burlington says. “But it’s also wonderful to share this extraordinary place with others. I believe that for a house to live and breathe it needs to be enjoyed.”
The Hall is a wildly accretive building that began as two great entrance arches that formed a gatehouse to the Priory, which was built on land granted to the Augustinian Canons in 1154. With Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, Bolton Abbey was left uncompleted and to ruin; the gatehouse was turned into a small shooting lodge and now forms the barrel-vaulted dining room that seats 22 for dinner (the vast gatehouse door hinges can still be seen – just – jutting out from the stone arch). In the 1840s, Crystal Palace architect Sir Joseph Paxton added the crenellated north range.
Under Burlington’s eye, the evolution has continued: 10 bedrooms and bathrooms leading off the long first-floor hall have been completely reimagined by London-based designer Rita Konig. “The magic lies in the layers of weird and wonderful stuff: presents, books, collected art that has true meaning rather than being just props,” says Konig. She points out the figurative rag rugs made by the Duke’s sister, Emma Tennant; wooden chairs with quirky black-leather cushion pads, and a run of horse-and-carriage lamps found in storage at Chatsworth, now repainted and hung on the walls. Konig has used wallpapers from Soane, lamps from Antoinette Poisson and tweed carpet by Tim Page, and no two bedrooms are the same. “It was fun working with Laura who is bold, not at all fearful,” she says. “We painted the windows black – which often takes a bit of persuading – but it works so well, looking out of a black frame onto the green countryside.”
“Rita understands that this is not a hotel – it’s a family home with a lot of old furniture and family photos and paintings,” says Burlington. “Many decorators wouldn’t be able to deal with that level of stuff, or would have tried to straighten floorboards or take out old cupboards. But Rita has the lightness of touch needed for this old house.” I stayed in a room with an old bed frame resprayed glossy black. My bathroom was a shade of grubby Pepto-Bismol with a chequerboard-painted wood floor that would lift the mood whatever the British weather.
Traditionally, daytime pursuits at Bolton Abbey Estate have always been shooting (grouse and pheasant) and fishing on the river. These activities are still on the cards; but as modern appreciation and curiosity for rural land expands, the Hall’s concierge team have adapted a vast range of guided activities – what Burlington describes as a sort of “British safari”. There are helicopter tours of the moor, cycling the Tour de France route, and local foraging; guests can visit the last remaining piano factory in the UK or dabble at en plein air water-colour painting with Yorkshire artist John Harris. There’s also horse-racing at local courses, fell running and yomps across the moor – including up to Simon’s Seat, on the Abbey’s land – with picnics in heather-thatched huts using produce from the estate and the vegetable garden.
A number of these activities are guided by some of Bolton Abbey Estate’s 77 employees; much more than just staff, these characters are cornerstones of life at the hall. With a degree in conservation, Tom Adamson, the head gamekeeper, is shaking up traditional methods of land management. In April and May, he and his team lead crack-of-dawn drives onto the moor to observe timid and endangered curlew chicks, and guests are invited to aid his keepers in the twice-annual rare-bird count. “We’re focused on holistic management,” Adamson explains. “Which includes protecting the habitats for diverse species and reintroducing others.”
Mark Whitehead, the estate’s river keeper, describes other wildlife adventures as he patiently reminds me to work my rod rhythmically, like a metronome, during a fly-fishing lesson (there’s no hook on the line – possibly a concession to my erratic casting technique). Bolton has five miles of fishing rights beside Strid Wood; some of the activities Whitehead guides include early-morning otter- and pup-spotting and other twitching, including for ospreys, cormorants and herons.
Peter Smith, the head gardener, has worked for the family for 46 years. I meet him in his “office”: a walled garden across a field from the Hall entered through a mysterious door. Dilapidated when Peter first arrived, the garden is now a showpiece, with maze-like topiary dividing up beds for cut flowers, vegetables and fruit trees. “Would you like to see the ice house?” he asks. I follow him across a field to steps leading down into a thicket. There, like something from The Secret Garden, he unlocks the door to an egg-shaped building so deep I can’t see the bottom of it. “In the winters of the 19th century, ice was harvested from ponds on the moor, brought here by horse and cart and funnelled through a hole at the top,” Smith explains. “A lad at the bottom would break it up until it was full to the brim so there would be ice for cocktails and ice cream all through the summer.”
That evening, I sit with Laura Burlington in the drawing room, the red silk walls and gilt ceiling glowing with the reflected light of a roaring fire. “If it’s an Aman you want, then this is not for you,” she says. Indeed: there are no minibars, there’s just one smart TV, and instantaneous, all-hours room service isn’t part of the plan. But it is easy to imagine being here with friends or family – or for a wedding – scoffing cream teas, playing cards or having a raucous game of billiards after a handsome dinner.
thehallatboltonabbey.co.uk. From £21,900 for three nights for 18 guests, inclusive of room, board and staff