Review by Fiona Duncan, published 20th July 2008.
Hotels that stand out are ones that alter moods, create changes, set up surprises. If you walk in and feel the same as you did five minutes earlier, then the hotel has lost an opportunity.
Jesmond Dene House grabs its opportunity with both hands. Originally built in 1822, it was considerably enlarged in the 1870s for Andrew Noble, a partner in the company of armaments and shipping magnate Lord Armstrong. Its architect was Arts and Crafts exponent Richard Norman Shaw and today its blackened stone exterior presents a forbidding, almost grimy appearance. At first sight, I didn’t much want to haul myself out of the car, let alone go in.
The enlarged mansion was designed for entertaining. A billiard room and dining room were added, as well as Jacobean-style panelling and plasterwork, vast inglenook fireplaces, stained-glass windows and oak flooring. The crowning glory was the Great Hall, complete with minstrels’ gallery, now used for private functions. But as so often was the case, the house that had grown and prospered later withered and expired with its owners. It became a college, seminary, residential school and, most recently, derelict.
No longer. From the reception lobby, we were ushered into the hotel’s long, dramatic central hallway, with spacious sitting rooms leading off to right and left. “Masculine, but not too masculine,” said my friend Robin, who tipped me off about this place. The effect is of class, warmth and solidity.
Jesmond Dene, just five minutes from the city centre, is the deep wooded valley that Lord Armstrong bought, landscaped and then gave to the city as a place of recreation. A small part of it is the shaded, secret garden of the hotel; the rest lies beyond, waiting to be explored. The hotel’s design unites the Dene with the house by employing earthy tones and warm colours – burnt orange, mushroom brown, charcoal, turquoise – along with Italian furniture and modern art. Hallway and corridors are enlivened by oriental tables and chests of drawers teemed with charming objects: a Japanese print, a pair of porcelain slippers, an orchid. The dining room is the old music room, where Lady Noble daily played hymns to her servants; a brilliant Garden Room leads to a terrace for summer dining.
Owner Terry Laybourne is the Gordon Ramsay of the North East (minus the swearing), a Michelin-starred chef with a string of restaurants to his name. He no longer cooks at this, his first hotel, but has chosen his head chef well. Pierre Rigothier’s dinner, on our visit, was sublime: light and elegant, with great attention to detail. An amuse bouche of cumin, carrot and apple was particularly intense, and my plump Scottish scallops with cauliflower purée and wild garlic from the garden was superb. Breakfast, too, with a beautifully presented array, including freshly baked breads and even a side of smoked salmon, could only have come from a chef who cares passionately about his food.
Excellent; charming and knowledgeable sommelier
Jesmond Dene Road (0191 212 3000; www.jesmonddenehouse.co.uk). Doubles from £170 per night; breakfast £16.50. Adapted rooms available for guests with disabilities.