I confess. Like many people I spend more time travelling overseas than exploring what’s right on my doorstep. I am Australian, but I haven’t seen Uluru. I didn’t visit Tasmania till I was in my 30s. I have however trudged around much of Yorkshire’s moors and dales, sat on Brighton beach while it was snowing and spent 48 hours taking more buses than I care to remember and one very slow boat to Ireland. Yep, while living in the UK we do our darnedest to explore as many nooks and crannies as possible. And a couple of weeks back we did that in style – escaping the office on a Friday afternoon for two days up north, before returning to London on Sunday via the Virgin Trains East Coast service.
Our train to Newcastle departed King’s Cross on time at 4pm, and before you could say ‘Angel of the North’ the afternoon tea service had swung into action. Sandwiches, cakes, hot drinks and, to get the holiday started – as if sitting in the super-comfy first class seats wasn’t enough, we sipped wine and beer and settled in to enjoy the three-hour journey.
Arriving in Newcastle at 7pm we hopped on the Metro and made our way to Jesmond Dene House. This country manor meets boutique hotel is surrounded by gorgeous gardens and it’s possible to pick up a map at reception to guide you around the surrounding area – it’s crazy to think this little slice of rural life is just minute’s from the bustling city centre.
Old meets new is such a cliché, but the wood-panels, sweeping staircase and ornately tiled fireplaces that welcome guests in the ground-floor common space are perfectly complemented by more up to date touches. Just like in the rooms, where an old-school wardrobe snuggled next to the iPod dock radio alarm clock and understated soft furnishings didn’t distract from the gloriously big bed that screamed to be sunk into thanks to the lovely Egyptian cotton linen. I think there might be a #lifehack happening when I get back to London. We had a booking in the award-winning restaurant (three AA Rosettes don’t you know, plus a commendation for its wine menu that has been compiled by the incredibly knowledgeable – and super friendly – sommelier) at 8:30pm, so instead of lying down we hot footed it to the bar to grab a drink while perusing the menu.
Luckily, we weren’t too late to opt for the 10-course tasting menu (there is a meaty and a veggie option to please all punters) and, once we wandered through to the dining room and were shown to our table, eagerly got stuck into variety of fresh bread (sun-blushed tomato sourdough anyone) and three different butters on offer – seaweed, salted and unsalted.
Canapés arrived rather quirkily presented on a large wooden box, but I have to say I found the mix of dishes a little disjointed and almost like a standalone starter as opposed to a little taster to whet the appetite and get the juices flowing.
But that was just a brief stumble before the main events started coming out at perfectly timed regularity from the kitchen brigade. Highlights included the confit cauliflower and Tunworth Cheese served with coriander, red onion gel and vadouvan onions. A smart dish that had cauliflower in various forms- baked, roasted, pickled and pureed before being caramelised. I really noticed how well the chefs could juggle the sweet and savoury with each plate of food that arrived.
Have a look at this jaw dropping hand-dived scallop served with confit chicken wing, Jerusalem artichoke and apple. This was one of the best things that has ever found it’s way onto a plate in front of me.
The Northumberland wood pigeon with beetroot, pickled walnut and compressed pear worked incredibly well. The beetroot and walnuts add that little hit of sourness needed to cut through the beautifully rich pigeon.
Being decadent until the last – imagine my joy when the dark chocolate sphere landed in front of me as the last of the ten courses. Rich but not too sweet, soft but still able to not collapse in on itself – I would happy end any meal on this kind of high. The Tasting Menu at Desmond Dene House is great value and it’s worth splurging a little to try this very local menu for yourself.
The team there is fantastic too and if you’re into your wines then hand the keys over to Danny their fantastic sommelier with his weird and wonderful wine list featuring some stunning biodynamic and organic wines you won’t find anywhere else.
Dale the master and commander of his very own cheese trolley was in his element and we were gutted to be too full to partake in his offerings, which left our fantastic waitress Jodie to deliver a delicious selection of petit fours to go – ideal with morning coffee the next day.
Up early there was continental and cooked breakfast served in the conservatory at Jesmond Dene House before packing our things and hitting the coast road for a to visit Bamburgh Castle – a huge sandstone edifice that towers over the quaint village and cricket pitch, and overlooks windswept beach and the Farne Islands.
It was a bit of an overcast day, but that added to the moody appeal of the place. The landscape was what I would have imagined England looked like during Game of Thrones times.
In fact, Michael Fassbender did just finish filming his take on Macbeth here recently so I will have to console myself with that tidbit.
Peckish after exploring the entire castle it was time to head to Seahouses, the most blatantly obvious town name in Northumberland. It is here that every single person we met told us to stop for fish and chips. Of the chippies, we decided on Lewis’s Fish Restaurant as they cooked everything from scratch rather than have battered fish waiting on a hot plate. I’m an Aussie so I will always pick the option to go crumbed over battered – suggest you do too, this was deliciously fresh fish and charming down-to-earth service.
Continuing further down the coast our next stop was Craster, which is famous for kippers from L. Robson & Sons, the world-famous traditional fish smokers. They’re a unique family business producing some of the world’s finest smoked salmon and kippers, and they have been in operation for almost 100 years. Should you want to dine at the source, don’t go any further than the Craster Seafood Restaurant, where you can get your kipper fix in comfortable surroundings with stunning views over Craster Harbour – though you will have to wait until March 2016 when they open again for the season.
It’s a very picturesque little fishing village, where the harbour is home to moored boats and piles of crab baskets and, if you are into your photography like I am, you’ll be sure to chew through a fair bit of your memory card like I did.
Next stop: Alnwick and a pitstop at Barter Books after getting a heads up from Lady Alexander of County Steyning that it was a worthwhile ‘place of interest’. Barter Books opened in Alnwick’s former railway station in 1991 and among the 350,000 books are hundreds of antiquarian editions priced £1,000-plus, including a £17,000 Italian volume from the 17th century on inventions. There are thousands of books for a few quid too, and this place is well worth a rummage – there’s also a cosy on-site café and a stunning mural of literary figures – how many can you identify?
Having picked up more books than we could fit in our luggage, we headed to our resting stop for the night – a posh pub called St Mary’s Inn on the outskirts of Morpeth. This former asylum/hospital building has been cleverly subdivided into 11 rooms, which in their simplicity feel genuinely pub-like. Plus there is definitely a hint of Australia in some of the décor – there was a lovely dot painting hanging in our incredibly spacious room, while otherwise it was a clean, neutral palette throughout the upstairs – very calming. The big bathroom demanded a I took a long bath, while the armchair and foot rest in the room was great for kicking back and reading the papers before venturing down to the very varied drinking and eating spaces blow. By the way, there’s even a dog friendly room available for your furry friend.
The pub downstairs is well stocked with local craft beers mixed in with the usual crowd pleasers. I liked that they worked with a local brewery five minutes down the road to produce their very own beer, which is very session-able.
A completely different meal to the previous night, we were pleased with our choices from a team handpicked by the executive chef from Jesmond Dene House. Particularly memorable was the smoked haddock and clam chowder and the Northumberland venison haunch served with beetroots, redcurrants and kale. To finish me off the chocolate truffle with mint chocolate chip ice-cream went down a treat.
After a quick breakfast the next day we returned to Alnwick to check out the castle, but to our dismay we found the grounds open but the rest of the sights were closed until March 2016 – so we made the most of what we could access before hot-stepping it around the town. But Sundays. Sundays in the countryside, places just don’t really open. Then mix in the untouristy weather and we were a little stuck.
I wasn’t complaining, however, as I had scheduled in a booking for The Rat Inn in the small hamlet of Annick after getting a tipoff from a chef in London. A tiny village (ok, a few houses and some fields) with no one around, we knew we had picked well once we saw the 20-30 cars double parked around a steep incline in front of the pub. It’s worth it the jam-packed craziness though. The Rat Inn is a long, low, sandstone building reliably dated to an 1188 monks’ settlement.
We were perched right next to the roaring fire in front of the bar. Again a strong bunch of beers being their forte, but the shock came from them having a great selection of wines on offer by the glass. There was no way I was going to look past the Sunday roast on offer, while my partner in crime decided to follow the risotto trail to the vegetarian side of the menu. Both were utterly fantastic and set us up for the return journey home.
It’s been a lovely trip to Northumberland and a relaxing break in the countryside, and all the better for the unexpected treasures we’ve found along the way.