SO FAR as city breaks go, Newcastle is hard to beat. There’s culture, history and, in Jesmond Dene House, the perfect base for a relaxing weekend.
It’s only minutes from the busy, built-up city centre, but the leafy, genteel suburb of Jesmond could be a million miles away. And perched on a bank leading down to a wooded valley is the four-star Arts and Crafts hotel, formerly a private home that welcomed the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Baden-Powell.
Today the splendour is all yours to enjoy. Our tastefully decorated, yet all-mod conned, suite – one of 40 bedrooms – couldn’t have been more inviting.
And a good sleep is the perfect way to digest the hotel’s dinner offerings. Our sitting saw Steve start with North Sea fishcakes and parsley sauce, while I went for a twist on the traditional by plumping for ham hock terrine, pease pudding and sour dough … actually, that’s a lie, we began with a cracking haddock pâté amuse bouche.
Even the bread was special, served with three types of butter, including a splendidly salty seaweed version.
All delicious and served up by the restaurant’s warm waiting staff
Our mains were aged flat iron steak, heritage potato chips and bearnaise sauce, and steak and kidney pie, roast heritage potatoes and seasonal vegetables. Gorgeous.
And as for the desserts, picture a combo of rhubarb and vanilla pavlova, rhubarb sorbet and St Mary’s honey, and a sinful-seeming dark chocolate sphere with roasted peanuts and salted caramel. All delicious and served up by the restaurant’s warm waiting staff who, in case we were in danger of fading away, then brought us a selection of chocolates.
Somewhat stuffed, we had them boxed for later. Said “later” saw us wander around the hotel’s characterful spaces, which include the stunning wood-panelled Great Hall, the stylish cocktail bar and, our favourite, the Billiard Room. There are no balls and cues there these days, but there is an inviting fireplace, plenty of plush seats and an utterly adorable, very realistic wire-framed dog.
Similar pooches – including Monty, who guards reception – the odd cat and, I seem to recall, a chicken are dotted around the hotel.
There are original artworks commissioned from Gary Tiplady, the UK’s number one Jaws – Bond villain, not shark – impersonator. Obviously a man of many talents.
After a splendid night’s sleep and an even better breakfast – did I mention that the restaurant is award-winning, with a trio of AA rosettes? – in the Garden Room, it was on to the Metro and into Newcastle.
Once decidedly run-down, today the city’s Quayside is an inviting tourist quarter, with first-class bars, restaurants and entertainment.
Steve and I headed over the all-singing, all dancing and occasionally tilting Millennium Bridge to the Gateshead side of what the tourist folk are now, breathlessly, referring to as NewcastleGateshead, to sample the cultural hubs that are the Baltic Centre and the Sage.
The Baltic is a contemporary art gallery like no other
Formerly a Rank Hovis flour mill, the Baltic is a contemporary art gallery like no other, with floors jam-packed with intriguing exhibits.
And, on the day we visited, several hundred people abseiling over the legendary River Tyne for charity. If you want the panoramic views without the thrills, there is a viewing platform.
Next door, the Sage hosts every kind of music imaginable. We didn’t have time for a concert, but we were treated to local children showing off their School of Rock talents in the massive foyer.
Then it was back across the bridge for a bite to eat in the newly revamped Tyneside Cinema – a haven for fans of independent film – before catching the Metro once more for a trip down the coast.
We got off at the historic town of Tynemouth which, as well as having a marvellously picturesque beach, is home to a ruined priory and dozens of characterful shops.
Back in Newcastle city centre, we wandered around a few of the less characterful shops of Eldon Square – and while they’re not tourist pretty, there’s no denying this is one of Europe’s top shopping malls. And biggest – I was soon lost.
Eventually making it back on to the street, Steve and I wandered into the magnificent old Grainger Market, with its traditional stalls selling everything from cheese to chopsticks.
There really is so much to do, all easily accessible from Newcastle
With the afternoon coming to an end, and dinner calling, we just had time for a recce of the castle that gives Newcastle its name, before returning to our hotel.
With more time, we’d have checked out the likes of the Life Science Centre, the Hancock Museum, driven up the coast to Lindisfarne, cut across to Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall – there really is so much to do, all easily accessible from Newcastle. The only problem is finding the will to drag yourself away from the luxury of Jesmond Dene House.
Jesmond Dene House, Jesmond Dene Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne NE2 2EY, tel: 0191-212 3000, www.jesmonddenehouse.co.uk; double rooms start from around £110 per night including breakfast; three-course Foodie Special breaks start from £150.