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Stay the Night: Lendal Tower, York

Once part of the city walls, then a water tower, this medieval building now accepts guests. Holly Williams takes a step back

It's easy to spend a whole weekend in York in a fug of historic wistfulness: sigh at the grandeur of the Minster, coo at the higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets, stomp around the defensive walls, imagining you're a Viking. And with a stay at Lendal Tower, you can continue the romance: a medieval structure, it was built as part of the city's original walls in 1299. Now, it's a Grade I-listed building that's been carefully restored, a creaky spiral staircase taking you up four floors with three double bedrooms, views down the River Ouse, and – from a roof terrace at the top – sightings of the Minster and the ruined St Mary's Abbey. Perfect for keeping an eye out for marauders – or just for toasting the sunset with a glass of wine.

Restoring the structure was a pet project for owner Ian Berg. A historic landmark, Lendal Tower had housed a horse-powered pump in the early 17th century, supplying the city's water. It later became the home of the York Waterworks Company. After the pump moved downstream in 1846, the tower became the company's headquarters, fitted out rather grandly with wood panelling – still a feature today.

But the 700-year-old structure had fallen into serious disrepair before Mr Berg bought it in 2010.

Refurbishment involved protracted dealings, balancing the need for sensitive reconstruction – for the heritage bods – with health-and-safety-friendly additions. The result is a happy compromise, comfortable and cosy, but still deeply atmospheric. The thick stone walls are decorated with old photographs, drawings and documents to remind you of the tower's illustrious past.

The rooms

A master bedroom on the top floor is vast, with deep windowsills in the wood-panelled walls inviting you to curl up and peer out at tiny figures scurrying across the bridge – at the end of which Lendal Tower stands proudly. The four-poster bed is squidgy; a free-standing whirlpool bath deliciously deep – although it and the loo are only separated from the room by a screen, so it's not for the very shy.

The second bedroom is smaller, decked out in heavy wood and has an en-suite bathroom. A third room, as an added mezzanine, hovers halfway up the main room in the circular stone tower, looking down on to a living area with comfy sofas and a large dining table. The ground floor has another powerful shower and loo (toiletries throughout are Molton Brown). Thanks to underfloor heating, it's all warm and snug, which is welcome in such a huge and ancient, riverside structure.

Decor is deep red and regal (as are the coat of arms and the rooftop flagpole), and although some materials are slightly shiny, the dark wood furnishings and leather chairs pull it all together nicely. Less explicable are the pieces of cheap Eastern art – stone Buddhas are from the wrong era and continent, surely?

Out and about

You're well placed to explore the city by foot. Admire the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in the neighbouring Museum Gardens (yorkshire museum.org.uk), then walk the city's walls to steep yourself further in medieval history. A trip into the nearby Minster is a must. For views, climb the tower (york minster.org). Or cross Lendal Bridge to visit the National Railway Museum, a free, engaging attraction – even if you think you've little interest in steam, diesel or electric locomotives (nrm.org.uk).

The river Ouse runs through York and is crossed by a number of bridges

Food and drink

The cheerful, large kitchen has all mod cons – dishwasher, wine fridge, five-ring gas hob – so cooking at the tower is easy; stock up en route or there's an M&S 10 minutes' walk away in the city centre. Also a short walk away is the welcoming bistro, Café No 8. It offers flavourful, modern British cooking, using Yorkshire cheeses and meats. It's all prettily presented. We enjoyed the autumnal flavours of spiced figs, pears and plums with polenta, hake with Whitby crab, and a stunning selection of home-made ice creams. It is bustling at weekends, so booking is advisable (01904 653 074; cafeno8.co.uk).

No trip to Yorkshire would be complete without an afternoon tea at Betty's. The ornate teashop in the city centre delivers a charmingly genteel sense of ceremony (01904 659 142; bettys.co.uk).

The essentials

Lendal Tower, Lendal Bridge, York, YO1 7DP (07770 644 693; lendaltower.com). Three nights' rental starts at £855; sleeps six.