Review by Fiona Duncan, published 3rd August 2008.
If you’ve visited the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibition, you might want to make tracks for the Roman emperor’s wall. You could walk the whole 84 miles or, like us, confine yourself to visiting some of the best-preserved sections, notably Vindolanda and Housesteads Forts in Northumberland.
But where to stay? Having scoured England’s largest county, and one of its most rewarding, for decent hotels, the word “desert” springs to mind. A few sensitively modernised inns serving good food are beginning to make an appearance – I’ve already written about the Angel of Corbridge (just south of Hadrian’s Wall) – but hotels proper that I could recommend are still thin on the ground.
Indeed Matfen Hall, just north of the Wall, has a better known rival: Slaley Hall, also offering golf and spa. My strong preference is for Matfen. If truth be told, neither hotel is my preferred kind, but for a place that’s also a busy wedding and leisure venue, Matfen has a human heart, and does its job terrifically well.
Astonishingly, it’s only been a hotel for 10 years (it feels older), and its transformation, and the success of the operation, are a tribute to its owners. A grim, soulless, Victorian Gothic pile, it’s the family seat of Sir Hugh and Lady Blackett, but so grim, soulless and Victorian Gothic that, I suspect, they don’t fancy living in it. For 30 years it was leased to Cheshire Homes, but when they pulled out in 1998 the house was back on the Blacketts’ hands.
“We cast around for a tenant,” says Lady Blackett, “but nothing suitable came up. Then we sat up in bed one morning, and decided we must become hoteliers.”
The first few years were “a white-knuckle ride” but they plainly had an instinct for what they were doing, for the place now hums along, filled with people enjoying themselves. There are 16 traditional rooms in the house and 37 new ones adjoining. Wedding and hotel guests use different entrances; be sure to follow signs to the Great Hall, which wedding parties enter for civil ceremonies: once glimpsed, you’ll know why Matfen Hall was ill-suited as a family home – unless it were for the Addams Family.
Dinner is served in the library, from where, as from many of the bedrooms, there are glorious views of the park, now subtly changed into a parkland golf course (available to hotel guests – beginners’ lessons available). So natural is it, with its stands of old trees and original turf, that one has a jolt of surprise every time a golf buggy trundles into view.
Our friends Chris and Georgina joined us for the evening. “Oh look,” exclaimed Chris, a local farmer, “vermin on the menu.” Pressed confit of grey squirrel pâté, to be precise. Grey squirrels, Chris explained, have suddenly proliferated in Northumberland and begun to erode the beloved red squirrel population. The robust Northumbrian response? Shoot, then eat, which we duly did.
Matfen, Newcastle upon Tyne (01661 886500; www.matfenhall.com ). Doubles from £175 per night, including breakfast. Superb facilities for guests with disabilities. For information about Northumberland, visit www.visitnorthumberland.com .