York has no shortage of winding alleys, secret nooks, and hidden courtyards; today, they’re inviting curiosities for the nosey visitor, but it’s easy to let your imagination slip into the past, imagining ruffians dodging down cobbled side-streets to swerve the law.
Not that they would have got very far if they’d nipped into Judges Court. A small courtyard reached via a low alley, it’s dominated by a smart Georgian townhouse, which between 1720 and 1806 hosted Britain’s most senior judges before they set out to York Castle to pass sentence on serious criminal cases – including one Judge William Chapple, who in 1739 convicted the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin for horse-stealing.
But there’s no need to pack your wig – the Grade II-listed townhouse was recently turned into an elegant 15-room residence for law-abiding folk.
There are two twin rooms, eight kings, and five luxury rooms with four-poster beds; all are named after judges who once stayed here. Grand portraits of said figures adorn the corridors; pick up a postcard of the one whose room you slept in.
I sampled both a luxury and a king room. Room No 6 – named after William Murray, Lord Mansfield, a Lord Chief Justice who hastened the abolition of the slave trade – is on the ground floor. The large, wood-panelled room is painted in chalky shades, with one wall featuring a blown-up 18th-century satirical cartoon of a judge. I was a fan of this suitably eccentric slice of England, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
There’s a happy marriage of period features such as fireplaces, cast-iron baths and brass lamps with more modern design: dark wooden furniture, including a sleekly minimal four-poster. A gavel on the back of the door as a coat hook is a cute touch. There’s an inviting free-standing tub in the room, while an en suite bathroom – charmingly concealed behind a secret panelled door – comes with a monsoon shower and Cowshed products.
The second night was spent below stairs, in room No 1 (Sir James Reynolds, Chief Baron of the Exchequer). It has a different character entirely – a snug Hobbit-hole, with a low vaulted ceiling of exposed brick. Some guests find it claustrophobic, while others request it specially, I was told.
There’s no kitchen or dining room, so leave your order on your door the night before; breakfast will be brought to your room from a nearby café. Pastries, porridge (which regrettably turned out to be of the DIY instant variety), and breakfast baps are on offer, but many guests opt to take themselves out for something more substantial. There are tea- and coffee-making facilities in all rooms, including fresh milk in the mini-bar.
Judges Court is the little sister of the Churchill, a long-established hotel in York; both are owned and managed by Lee Robinson and Steven Gledden. I didn’t meet the pair, but the friendly staff ensured a warm welcome during my December visit – bolstered by the hot mulled wine on offer in the snug reception.
You couldn’t be more conveniently located: Betty’s tea room (01904 659142; bettys.co.uk) and the River Ouse are a stone’s throw away (happily Judges Court has not been hit by the recent flooding), and you could be in the Minster within five minutes (01904 557200, yorkminster.org; from £10).
There’s no parking at Judges Court, but you won’t miss the car; stroll through quaint higgledy-piggledy streets like the Shambles or round the city’s walls, then visit the revamped York Art Gallery (01904 687687; yorkartgallery.org.uk). Last year’s £8m refurb has proved money well spent, and it’s now home to the international-standard Centre of Ceramic Art.
The food and drink
Dewsnaps brasserie at the Churchill Hotel (01904 644 456; churchillhotel.com/dine) continues the Georgian theme in a high-ceilinged, circular dining room. Although offering British fare that the eponymous prime minister would approve of – roast mutton and venison, for example – there are modern flourishes (savoury muesli; artichoke velouté).
York is stuffed with cosy pubs, and I ate at old favourite The Maltings (01904 655387; maltings.co.uk), where the lasagne nearly killed me with cheese, as well as trying a new kid on the historic block, the Eagle & Child (01904 631 536; eagleandchildyork.co.uk), whose fish’n’chips are perfect for soaking up the local beers.
Judges Court, Coney Street, York, YO1 9ND (01904 676184, judgescourt.co.uk). Doubles from £90; breakfast £7pp.