HELEN MEAD enjoys a day out at Beningbrough Hall

A MAGNIFICENT house, beautiful gardens, a stirring contemporary art exhibition, and cream teas. Who could want for more on a day out?

Historic Beningbrough Hall, which has stood in a picturesque spot near York for more than 300 years, is a sight to behold as you approach through leafy avenues and lush parkland.

As you enter along gravel paths, beside heavily-scented flower borders, it’s hard to decide where to go first, house or gardens.

Wishing to escape the fierce sun, we chose the house, which has been in the care of the National Trust since 1958.

Accessed via a magnificent, double-height Great Hall, visitors can stroll at leisure through a series of exquisitely furnished rooms, with helpful staff on hand to answer questions.

From the panelled dining room to the elegant drawing room and richly decorated state apartment, it is easy to imagine the aristocratic inhabitants swanning from room to room dressed in their finery.

On the walls, there are portraits of previous owners, important visitors to the house and other prominent gentry, including members of the influential 17th century Kit-Kat Club. Nothing to do with Nestle’s famous chocolate bar, it was a London-based, men-only organisation with strong political and literary links.

In contrast to the classical works of art, a contemporary exhibition - the latest in an ongoing series - brings a different dimension.

For many years Beningbrough has worked in partnership with London’s National Portrait Gallery in displaying artwork in the historic house. This year, Making Her Mark celebrates creative women with a series of portraits, including paintings and photography, of women such as Dame Judi Dench, Dame Darcey Bussell, Amy Winehouse, Dame Helen Mirren and Tracey Emin.

From wide window seats, the views across the grounds toward the surrounding countryside, with cattle gathering under trees to escape the sun, are spectacular.

The house is the second hall to be built on the site. Back in 1716, wealthy landowner John Bouchier masterminded the plan to replace his family’s modest Elizabethan manor. Its style reflects his love of Italian architecture, picked up as he toured Europe.

After more than 100 years in the Bouchier family, Beningbrough passed to a distant relative, the Reverend William Henry Dawnay. His family settled there, but as circumstances changed, the house became neglected.

It was bought in early 1916 by the Countess of Chesterfield, a wealthy heiress, who set about restoring it. She died at the hall aged 79. The cost of its upkeep was enormous, and the house was subsequently offered to the Treasury, later coming to the National Trust.

During the Second World War the house was occupied by the Royal Air Force, and later the Royal Canadian Air Force. A bedroom on the top floor - the former servants’ quarters - evokes the atmosphere of that time, with memorabilia of wartime including letters and medals. A list of aircrew who flew on bombing missions from nearby RAF Linton-on-Ouse, never to return, hangs on the wall.

There is more art to enjoy up here, with an interactive portrait display, and there’s a great soft play room for pre-school children.

Throughout the centuries, the gardens have undergone many changes. This year, more are being implemented, with ten areas re-modelled by multi-award-winning garden designer Andy Sturgeon.

We walked beneath a sturdy wooden pergola over which wisteria has begun to climb.

There are other new additions this year, one which will thrill younger visitors. As the school holidays begin an exciting new piece of play equipment will be unveiled. A seven-metre-tall pyramid tower offers two slides, a swing bridge and climbing wall.

There are plenty of wild areas too, for children and adults to explore, including an orchard and woodland. But the parts of the garden I like best are the quiet, tucked away spots in the flower gardens, where you can sit and while away half an hour or so.

Strolling around the Victorian walled kitchen garden, we came across stands of familiar names - raspberries, loganberries, gooseberries and others, such as Japanese winberries, that we had never heard of. Grape vines heavy with fruit fill the greenhouse.

I love the Victorian laundry, with its dolly tubs, washboards and old-fashioned irons. It transports you to a time long ago, before the days of automatic washers and twin-tubs.

Across the cobbled courtyard sits a smart new café, Brew House, which is open on weekends and during school holidays.

And not forgetting Beningbrough’s Walled Garden Restaurant, with outside tables under shady trees, set around a grassed area where children can safely play.

We sampled some delicious scones, with a pot of tea. My friend Betty was much taken with a sculpture of a giant tea pot that stands beside the tea room.

A former stable block houses a well-stocked gift shop, for anyone starting to think about Christmas.

*Beningbrough Hall, Beningbrough, York YO30 1DD. The hall is open Tuesday to Sunday until October 31, and then on weekends. For times check the website: nationaltrust.org.uk/beningbrough-hall