IT'S the end of an era at one of North Yorkshire's best-known hotels as waitress Stella Dowkes hangs up her apron for the last time.

After 57 years of serving people at Helmsley's Black Swan, ranging from the King of Spain to actor Nigel Havers, the 71-year-old has retired.

Mrs Dowkes started on the hotel's reception desk in April, 1946, when she was 15 years old.

To help mark her retirement she had a surprise meeting with six of the managers she has worked for over the years.

Mrs Dowkes, who will be 72 in July, had plenty to reminisce about, including some high-profile clientele among the guests she has met.

The Duke of Marlborough, Lord Linley and his wife, Serena, and Lord Lichfield have all stayed at the Black Swan during her time.

"They all came with shooting parties," said Mrs Dowkes.

"Nigel Havers was very nice. Like it says on the television, he was a real charmer."

Mrs Dowkes married Cyril, who went on to become head barman at the hotel for almost 30 years.

"The hotel has, of course, got larger since I started and it all seems more relaxed now," she said. "We call the manager by his christian name, but I could never get used to that.

"The wages are very different. When I started, I worked six days a week for 19 shillings and sixpence, and it cost five guineas to stay there a week."