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This has to be one of the best kept secrets I’ve come across. If you like spas, and you like good food, read on…
As the flat race season is under way at Doncaster, and the sun is starting to show itself a bit, let me tell you about a secret place I have discovered. Ladies and gents, my review of the olde worlde/modern fusion luxury venue that is Ye Olde Bell in Retford. Where modern spa meets historical venue.
If (like me) you have no clue where Retford is, it’s in the middle of the UK, halfway between London and Edinburgh. It’s perfectly positioned for Doncaster, for those of you who love the gee-gees. And it’s also close to Lincoln, Nottingham, and Sheffield.
All photos: Sam Harrington-Lowe
It’s a bit of a mad place
Ye Olde Bell is one of those wonderful dichotomies that on paper shouldn’t work. At its heart, it’s an old, historical venue, as the name suggests, dating back to the 17th century. It rose to prominence because of its situation between north and south, and the growth of the postal service, whose horses needed a break halfway.
From the outside you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a steak house or similar. But it’s much more than that. It’s now also home to a very modern, beautifully-equipped state-of-the-art modern spa, with some new lodges as part of the accommodation offering, as well as the historical venue. It’s a mad mash-up, I’ll grant you. But it works.
So what did I do when I was there?
I travelled up from London on an Azuma LNER train on a Sunday, which was great. No messing about – on to the train, plenty of space, power sockets, decent seats. When it’s done right, trains are the nuts.
Arriving on a Sunday at Retford, which is a dinky little station, there were no taxis, so that’s something to be aware of. If you want a taxi, plan ahead. There is a helpful list of taxi numbers at the bottom of this article.
The Olde Bell was absolutely heaving when I got there, with a Rolls Royce luncheon bunfight, and a wedding, I think, all going on at the same time. I had thought I might have a roast, but no chance, absolutely booked solid.
I asked my smooth-talking bar steward for help, who recommended a local pub called the White Horse. “Tell them Billy sent you,” he said, “and you’ll be fine.”
Found the pub fine, they all had a chuckle about Billy. Some shenanigans there, I think. And I sat down and had an utterly stonking plate of pie and mash, which was heavenly. Not for the first time I observed how different it is ‘up north’. Everyone so friendly and chatty – it sounds like a cliché but as with most clichés, it’s rooted in truth. Even the cabbie was nice.
And that was about my lot for Sunday. After the travelling, and enough carbs to sink a ship, I was done for. So I went to my room, in a beautiful, self-contained modern two-floor lodge, lay down and fell into a food coma. I’d been due to have dinner that night but I moved it to the following evening. It was a sensible move.
Heading to the modern spa
God I love a spa. Having had a very relaxed evening and a very good breakfast at the Olde Bell’s 1650 restaurant, I couldn’t wait to get into the relaxation vibe. They have spa butlers! How cool? I wandered into the large, airy reception, through the sparkly hallway, and into the land of lounging.
I had treatments, of course. A massage at 11:15, which knocked me on my back. Or front, really. I love a good working over, and having settled into relaxation mode, the massage just about finished me off. I got up from the massage table in a very relaxed state, trying not to dribble and desperately hoping my legs would still carry me. And then I entered the ‘Sabbia Med’.
Now, I’ve had a few spa treatments in my life, but this is a first for me. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it – they have a room that is filled with sand, which plays gentle beachy sounds. Waves, bird noises etc. It’s low-lit, and warm, and has deck chairs.
Did I like it?
Honestly, I don’t know. I was in there on my own, my feet in the sand, listening to the waves. I think for some people it might work. Me, I kinda sat there looking around a bit like a bored child, giggling to myself a bit.
I didn’t hate it, but found myself wondering if there was a camera watching the room and it became a bit Portmerion-like. I don’t want to say Prisoner-like, because obviously the door wasn’t locked. But I wouldn’t book it again. Some people might really like it though – it’s very ‘ambient’. Maybe another day I might be able to relax into the seaside noises. But anyway. Let’s move on.
The ‘real’ outside is a relaxing joy
…it puts Champneys to shame, to be honest. Much cleaner and newer too.
Having left the surreal beach room, I made my way for a good nose round the rest of the modern spa. Look at the lovely outside pool thing with all its bubbles and water features! It’s one of those inside/outside pools with jacuzzi features all round it, and the outside area is filled with gorgeous huts and fire pits. This is my happy place. I spent a fair bit of time just hanging out here, going in and out of the water, reading a book, and generally being incredibly indolent.
One should also point out that there are a ton of other facilities, such as the steam room, snow storm walk, sauna, mineral mud rasul – there really is something for everyone here. I had a go in the steam room, and wish now that I’d tried the snow walk. But there is a lot of exceptional options here – it puts Champneys to shame, to be honest. Much cleaner and newer too.
I completely ate my own head off
Lunch at the spa was a stormer, courtesy of an unexpectedly sumptuous set menu – I had tandoori spiced fishcakes with pickles to start, followed by pork fillet wrapped in Pancetta with all sorts of rooty vegetable stuff.
I am ashamed to say I couldn’t manage pudding, but I did have the recommended vino, a very decent Gavi. Make a note – if you’re planning lunch at the spa, maybe go easy on the breakfast. And definitely do any kind of exercise before eating!
Back to historical venue for food
It seems astonishing I had room for food after lunch, but I gamely soldiered on in the name of research. Ever the professional.
Organic beetroot and juniper-cured salmon with wasabi mayo, followed by (off the specials board) calves’ liver with black pudding terrine and greens all found their way in. And it was as good as it looks in the photos. The food here is exemplary.
Did I have pudding? Well yes, behold your heroic reviewer! Bow down to my extraordinary ability to eat myself stupid. I picked another special, the warm blackberry bakewell tart with clotted cream ice cream.
Friends, I was unable to manage much at breakfast the next day. I didn’t want to have a coronary on the train home. I left the Olde Bell feeling very happy, very relaxed, and very reluctant to go.
Rooms starting from £120 for one person per night in a small single. Expect to pay considerably more for a lodge or Superior Room, with suites and lodges hitting the £300-400 mark. Still good value, if you ask me.
The London North Easterly Railway service London Kings Cross to Retford prices vary massively.
Taxi rank at Retford
Taxi rank is immediately opposite station entrance. Advance booking is advisable. Local operators: Earlybird 01777 700678 (wheelchair accessible taxi available), Hinchcliffe’s 01777 702049, Shelley’s 01777 700108, Target Taxis 01777 248948 (wheelchair accessible taxi available).
Sam is Silver’s founder and editor-in-chief. She’s largely responsible for organising all the things, but still finds time to do the odd bit of writing. Not enough though. Send help.
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