Review by Fiona Duncan, published 13th January 2011.
Too often, the cost of hotel bedrooms in this country makes me wince at their audacity and only very occasionally do they make me gasp at their generosity. The latter, I am happy to report, is the case at Headlam Hall where, especially in these sticky times, their seasonal packages represent stunningly good value.
But it wasn't love at first sight and I nearly didn't see the place at all. If you think I have a cushy job, think again. On this trip, I've had to be more Ranulph Fiennes than hotel guru, bravely battling my way through snow and ice.
It would be pointless to deny that there are parts of Headlam Hall that are best suited to my dad's stolid Aunt Amy, a miserable old bat who was convinced that anyone who died had done so "because of drink". The traditional bedrooms in the main house have a drab feel about them and need updating. Ours had a four-poster that creaked, and the deep, ancient bath in the ancient bathroom looked and felt more like a cattle trough.
Those were our first impressions. But not the only ones. Even in the short space of time between arriving and sleeping we were certain of one thing: the young staff, almost all from surrounding villages, were magic.
In the morning, and a world of white, we discovered that the hotel has much to offer and that the dowdy decoration in much of the main house was one half of a confusingly split look: the dining room, drawing room, spa and many of the bedrooms are newly done.
The story of Headlam Hall is one that I find in so many reliable hotels: family-owned and personally run. Robinson, a farmer, bought the small arable estate 30 years ago and decided that the best use for the big old house (they had their own home nearby) was to turn it into a "glorified b & b", with Mrs Robinson doing the cooking.
Over the years it has greatly expanded, but never lost its heart. There are now 40 bedrooms, an appealing, well-designed four-year-old spa with outdoor hydrotherapy pool and a testing nine-hole golf course, all included in the incredibly reasonable room rate.
For example, the Winter Warmer package includes a deluxe room, dinner, breakfast, lunch or tea, for £79 per person; two people staying two nights pay £316.
Nowadays John's son, Thomas, runs the hotel, his daughter the spa and his other son the farm (is this The Archers?), while John ("I'm head of interference") pops in and out and rescues people from Darlington station.
- Headlam Hall, near Gainford, Darlington (01325 730238;www.headlamhall.co.uk). Doubles from £115 per night, including breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities. Trains to Darlington: East Coast (08457 225225; www.eastcoast.co.uk).
- Further information on the region at www.thisisdurham.com.
- FIONA'S CHOICE
WHERE TO EAT
The Raby Hunt Inn (01325 374237; www.rabyhuntrestaurant.co.uk) is a good gastropub in nearby Summerhouse.
The hotel has put together a booklet of walks you can do from its front door. I’d recommend the circular one to Gainford (4.5 miles), where there is a nice coffee shop at the top of the village green (16 High Green) called The Laurels (01325 730000;www.thelaurelsgainford.co.uk) where you can break your walk. A historic building, it occupies the site of the village’s old “Academy”, where Stan Laurel was a pupil.
WHAT TO SEE
The Bowes Museum (01833 690606; www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk; £8) in Barnard deserves more recognition. It contains the greatest collection of European fine and decorative arts outside London. Among the region’s many natural attractions, High Force is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in England. It’s located nearby on the Raby Castle estate at Forest-in-Teesdale. Raby Castle (01833 660202; www.rabycastle.com; £9.50; closed until Easter) itself is 20 miles farther east at Staindrop.