A trip to Northumberland evokes old memories and makes new ones, writes Catriona Thomson.
One of the many reasons that I love this destination is the warmth and friendliness of the locals. “Eeeh’ come in pet” or “canny like” are phrases which spring instantly to mind. Spring is an ideal time to visit, as you can nab great accommodation bargains, and it is not overcrowded. My advice is to wrap up warmly, pack your Thermos and head to the hills, beaches, castles or wherever else takes your fancy – there are no shortages of places to go here.
We decide to swing by Alnwick Gardens on our mini-tour. We’ve visited before but can’t resist its show-stopping water features. Amongst the first blooms to burst through the winter gloom are snowdrops, crocuses and Tête-à-tête daffodils, all popping their heads through the soil. Clever architectural planting and hedging ensure that there is structure no matter the time of year. I can vouch for the glorious displays of tulips which follow later on in the season after the camellias and cherry blossoms have had their moment in the sun. After this, the gardens truly burst into colour, marching their way through the months with confidence, looking more impressive as each year passes. We lunch at the Pavilion Cafe, an ideal location if the weather is inclement or you are exhausted by your perambulations, and my what a treat. The new caterers, Searcys, have an interesting north-east connection. The company was founded in 1847 by John Searcy. He worked for ten years for the then Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, as a confectioner and pastry chef, catering for them and their high society friends. His cakes must have impressed as the duke and duchess helped set up this business, and 172 years on, it seems a fitting and proper homecoming as the company returns to Alnwick.
Our billet for the night is St Mary’s Inn near Morpeth in Stannington. The impressive red brick building boasts 11 comfortable bedrooms, named Airy Holm, Bakethin, Catcleugh, Derwent, Fontburn, Greenlee Lough, Hallington, Kielder, Little Swinburne, Sweethope Loughs and Whittle Dene. A warm welcome is guaranteed, no matter whether you are popping in for something to eat, having a quick drink or staying overnight. The Inn does have an eerie historic past; it was the administration block of St Mary’s Hospital, a mental health facility which opened in 1910 but closed permanently in 1995. Initial impressions are thankfully of a stylish hostelry, with des res curb appeal. Inside we discover quirky interiors with inglenook fires, local ales, with several cosy snug bars. Our vast and attractive room was tucked up in the eaves. The bar/restaurant walls are covered with rag rug work known locally as proggy art, and an exhibition of bold monochrome photographs of northern folks. There is also some work by local miner turned artist, Norman Cornish MBE and there are even lifesized wire dog sculptures created by Gary Tiplady, who is a dead ringer for Jaws, the James Bond baddie. A quirky but relaxed north-east destination pub, it’s ideal as a base to explore the area.
The pub’s new head chef, Chris Cheek, joined in October and has worked in Michelin-starred Northcote Manor as well as the sister property to the pub, Jesmond Dene House. He tries to source local produce wherever possible. We sampled a beetroot goat’s cheese and walnut tart, served with watercress and balsamic dressing, a beautifully presented starter. Next a Thai green curry accompanied by smooth lemongrass-infused sauce, covering roasted sweet potato chunks, sesame seeds and charred spring onion – yet another elegant plateful. We admitted pudding defeat and couldn’t demolish our chocolate delice, with cherry sauce and ice cream, but nibbled a selection of cheeses from Morpeth’s nearby cheese shop, served with celery and sweet fig and liquorice preserve.
After a great night’s sleep and a tasty breakfast, we headed out to explore Belsay Hall and Gardens. We enjoyed taking a turn about the formal gardens and the stunning romantic quarry gardens after exploring the shell of the intriguing Greek revival-style hall. It was designed by the then owner Sir Charles Monck, and he and his family moved the short distance from their existing castle home into their newly finished hall on Christmas Day, 1817. After mooching about the remains of their 14th-century medieval castle, we succeeded in crossing off yet another attraction from my Northumberland to do list. n
One night’s B&B at St Mary’s Inn, Morpeth NE61 6BL (tel: 01670 293293, www.stmarysinn.co.uk) costs £98 per room; www.alnwickgarden.com; www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/belsay-hall-castle-and-gardens/