In terms of why people visit York – history, atmosphere, romantic seclusion – Grays Court could be the city’s quintessential bolthole. You will find it down a narrow cobbled street, in the shadow of the Minster, its entrance – a heavy, seemingly ancient wooden door – recessed on a quiet courtyard. The whole thing is a rare portal into that York beyond hog roasts, ghost walks and shuffling anorak-clad tourists.
Sections of Grays, which was bought, seven years ago, by Helen Heraty and John Edwards (an English Heritage architect, who sadly died in January), date to 1080. On the first floor, you will find a Victorian dining room, a wood-panelled Jacobean gallery and a Georgian room designed by Jacques Sterne, uncle of novelist Laurence. Those three overlook immaculate gardens with private access to the city walls. The hotel tagline “A country house in the city” is no hype. I wake not to traffic noise, but birdsong.
Not that you need sleep here to visit. Grays also comprises a public tearoom and a small commercial art gallery. Although, note: evening meals are not served. You will have to venture out. My advice? Book! On a Wednesday, in June, both ace budget Italian, Il Paradiso del Cibo, and Melton’s Too, were packed. I settled for a pint and a sensational pork pie (Robinsons of Knaresborough, ?2) at new-ish beer haven the York Tap (yorktap.com).
Grays’ seven bedrooms are secreted in one wing. I stayed in Willoughby, a spacious suite, dressed with handsome antique furniture. It delivered all the upmarket amenities you would expect: separate bath and Grohe shower; big fluffy towels; flatscreen TV, iPod dock. It was efficiency itself. Well, almost. Oddly, the canopy was missing from the four-poster – off being fireguarded – and a wonky holder meant the loo roll kept shooting across the bathroom. Which could have got tricky. The Wi-Fi signal was also faint, in my room. But who comes somewhere like this to check their emails?
No, the bigger problem, for me, was that, at these prices, in a purportedly boutique venue, such slick luxury needs a dash of personality. Instead, my room felt staged, formal, restrained. Rather than endearing quirks and artisan products, elements, such as the tea tray (Midland Chilled Foods milk pods) or the Clarins toiletries sat on a little branded plinth, felt like corporate hotel staples. With its Kellogg’s cereals and yoghurt pots, breakfast felt similarly perfunctory. My fry-up was a distinctly mixed-bag but, overall, it ate like the kitchen could spend more on its sausage and (overdone) bacon. Had I paid ?14.95 as a tearoom customer, I would not have been happy.
This is a special venue, which people adore. The guestbook gushes. But a little love needs lavishing on the close detail if Grays is to become a genuinely outstanding destination.
• Transport from Manchester to York was provided by First TransPennine Express (tpexpress.co.uk). For tourist information, see visityork.org