Ah Newcastle! With a reputation as one of northern England’s more riotous party towns the city has earned itself a particular reputation among the hen night and stag party hordes that head out to celebrate on the banks of the River Tyne every weekend.
And, as a member of that particular tribe on a previous visit to ‘The Toon’ I can vouch that yes, if you haven’t been there before, then Newcastle is all that and more.
There are the loud bars and flashy clubs, the hardy locals dressed in not much at all on the bitterest of January nights and the raucous aftermath outside the city’s chippers and fast food joints.
But to assume that Newcastle is just one big version of our own Temple Bar would be to do it a grave disservice because, as is the case with many places that have become famous for one particular attraction, when you scratch just beneath the surface there is a whole lot more to discover.
On a more recent visit to the city, we found we didn’t need to stray too far from where we stayed, in a magnificent four-star gem of a find located right beside the middle of the city centre.
The 19th Century Jesmond Dene House
It was night-time when we arrived at the 19th Century Jesmond Dene House so we couldn’t properly appreciate its unique setting until the following morning. Yet being vaguely aware that we were close to the city centre it was something of a surprise then to find that when we opened the bedroom windows it was to the sounds of birds, gently swaying trees and a babbling brook.
The house is hidden away in a ‘dene’, an old English word for a steep-sided wooded valley, and it is this unique location that not only gives the hotel its name but also allows for the sensation of being in the middle of the country while only a few minutes’ walk from bustling city streets.
When the Victorian industrialist Lord Armstrong moved out of the city to his rural retreat in Northumberland, he donated the gardens that he had created within the dene with their native and exotic trees, waterfalls, rustic bridges, stepping stones and paths, vegetable gardens and myriad flower beds to the estate.
Not even the rumble of traffic along the busy routes surrounding the house invade the peace of this oasis of calm, and a stroll along its twisting forest paths is an added bonus for a hotel located so close to a city.
One of the bedrooms that overlook the gardens
The owners of this grand old house are rightly proud of the gardens but they are simply a stunning setting for the converted old country mansion itself that comes with a colourful history.
Designed for a local doctor in 1822 by John Dobson, the man whose vison gave Newcastle its grander streets, the house was extended in the 1870s to accommodate the growing family of Lord Andrew Noble, who was a partner in Armstrong’s ship-building and armaments business.
The Lord added a suite of bedrooms, a drawing room and a library to which were later added a billiards room, and a dining room before the addition of a whole new wing comprising a Great Hall and Minstrel’s gallery.
After years as a much loved family home the house was variously used as a college, a seminary and a residential school before it was bought and converted after 18 months hard work into Newcastle’s first luxury boutique hotel, which won the AA Hotel of the Year award for 2008-09, three years after opening.
Roaring fires are a feature of the house
The result is a magnificent grand old stone building that could have sprung from the pages of a Harry Potter novel. Even though the work required to convert the old house into the high standard hotel of today involved serious restoration, many of the original features such as the massive firesides and deep windowsills remain. We were told that every single one of the bedrooms is unique in that they were formed around the original structure of the house and no two are the same.
All this exquisite beauty set us up for a great night’s rest as we fell asleep listening to the trees rustling outside before breakfast the following morning.
A full English breakfast as they call it in this part of the world was on the cards for myself while Lizzie enjoyed an amazing continental spread that included honeycomb taken straight from the bees’ hive.
Even though the city centre was just a tantalisingly few minutes’ walk away we headed instead to St Marys Inn, a bar and bed and breakfast which is connected with the hotel’s owners but located a few miles away in the small hamlet of Morpeth.
We came here for lunch in the former mental hospital that lies hidden along quiet English country lanes.
Run by the affable Phil Beatty, St Marys Inn is a relatively newcomer to the bed and breakfast scene in this part of the north east as it only opened in 2014.
However, the olde world charm of its wooden-panelled dining rooms and cosy bar, all located in the former administrative area of the hospital gives off a genteel charm and a warm welcome on a cold November evening.
St Mary’s Inn near Morpeth
We dined on a traditional ploughman’s lunch of cheese and cold meat pie with the pickle and relish grown in the Inn’s own gardens and the best battered cod and chips fresh from the cold waters of the North Sea.
It was all washed down with a cold Newcastle Brown Ale before Phil convinced me to try the exquisite locally brewed ales that are specially created for St Mary’s.
On a quick tour of the establishment we were impressed by the incredibly sensitive coming together of old and new with the lavish new bed and breakfast constructed behind parts of the original building with its ornate clock tower. We were admiring the paintings along the walls of the corridors, all created by local artists, before Phil opened the door to reveal he had kept the best secret till last.
For a bed and breakfast hostelry the bedrooms at St Mary’s Inn are of a standard not seen in many highly rated hotels and all are finished to an extraordinarily high standard. They come at a reasonable price and we were tempted to spend the night but dinner back at Jesmond Dene beckoned.
When in Rome..
Before we set off on the return journey we took a short detour to see the Angel of the North, the massive iron construction that dominates the countryside for miles around. Seen by a passing motorist every second apparently, its impressive hillside location was an epic base for its massive 200 tonnes but the biting cold Northumberland wind ensured we didn’t stay for too long to admire the view.
If we had more time when we arrived back to the welcoming corridors of Jesmond Dene we would have been tempted to enjoy Afternoon Tea, a once popular tradition that has made a welcome return to hotels of a certain class and it comes highly recommended.
But we were keeping our appetites for dinner where the hospitality of the staff really came into its own and a special word of appreciation and thanks must go out to both Dale and Danny, the head waiter and sommelier, who really brought a new standard in terms of friendliness and professionalism to the table.
I enjoyed the Himalayan Salt Aged Fillet of Beef while Lizzie went for the Wild Turbot, Wild Mushroom, Mayan Gold Potato Gnocchi + Sea Plants dish.
The food was as you would expect from a hotel of this class and after few nice glasses of wine recommended by Danny, that we took with us to enjoy in a big comfy sofa beside a roaring fire in the wood panelled bar, we were set up for another night’s deep slumber accompanied by the sounds of the gently swaying trees out in the garden.