The last time I was in this part of the country history was a running theme. Antiquated dining rooms lined with centuries-old portraits of former university deans, towering religious edifices and quaint terraced pubs were all on the menu.
Stopping to take in the atmosphere of the stone-clad, 13th Century medieval structure that forms the core of Durham’s Crook Hall, it seems we’re already on a similar tip. But this is no staid museum.
The address is also used for art exhibitions and workshops on top of casual visits, and the owners— Keith James Bell and his wife— both live here, so it’s a case of stepping into someone’s home. And one where you struggle to fight back the jealously. Having said that, they’re not the only residents; a ghostly apparition, the White Lady, is said to walk the halls, leading some kids (and probably big kids) to leave her notes of thanks.
Outside those aeon-spanning timber door frames stunning gardens add to the appeal of this hugely residence. Home-made cream teas are served in the courtyard when the weather permits (or by the log fire in an equally memorable Georgian room), and there’s a small cafe in the grounds, which sells exceptionally more-ish cakes.
Sticking with the great outdoors (’tis the season, after all), and while Durham City’s reputation as a tourist destination is relatively well-established amongst those with a penchant for the past, the countryside beyond is less widely-explored by people coming from outside the region. And by that I mean me, and the Finest team.
Cue a huge fanfare as we arrive at Hamsterley Forest, around one hour from the not-so-big smoke. Spanning almost 5,000 acres, it’s the largest in the county, and in recent years has become one of the premiere mountain biking destinations in the North.
Three official route types are available to try, depending on experience (blue— moderate; red— difficult; and black— expert), with a skill development track, known as The Loop, also on the map, including features from all three.
Just as forests should be, Hamsterley is home to a few of its own secrets, too. Its WWII use as a prisoner of war camp is relatively well-documented, but items found in and amongst the scrub date back well before that. Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age flint tools have all been discovered, setting the tone for The Green Man.
Nestled in its own field, this detailed carving consists of six Grand Firs, and six columns of roughly cut wood representing three faces of man— Greenfather, Greenson and Greenman. A more earthen and pagan alternative to the characters from the popular children’s book The Gruffalo, who can be found on their own trail around these parts, keeping kids entertained as parents take in the gorgeous surrounds.
Those looking for truly breathtaking landscapes could do far worse than heading to High Force, mind, where water from the River Tees plunges 71feet from the cliff edge. A spectacular sight, the logically named (smaller) Low Force is also worth a look further downstream.
The Pennine Way connects the two, with little over 1.5miles to cover if you’re looking for a walk. It’s certainly an idea, with this area home to some of the best examples of rugged English countryside you’re likely to find. There are plenty of charming villages en route, too, and the Bowlees Visitors Centre for a quick refill or information on specific spots.
Romaldkirk is just one, but a good one at that. This is where you’ll find a Grade 1 listed church complete with 12th Century font and pulpit from the 1700s, not to mention the exceptionally welcoming Rose & Crown.
A traditional 18th Century coaching inn, you can still bed down for the night in the lovingly-restored bedrooms of the main building, or modern but no-less-inviting extension out back. Before that, though, it’s probably an idea to check the bar and restaurant, where Head Chef Dave Hunter is renowned for local delicacies and modern flavours.
Understandably, then, the steak was perfect and came in the kind of proportions you’d expect from an establishment that wears ‘hearty’ on its sleeve.
Sitting down to eat in the oak-panelled dining room— a more atmospheric option compared with the pub room, nice as that is— you’re transported to the days when weary travellers would break long journeys here; an oasis of beer and grub in the midst of wild countryside.
Bringing things up to date, in 2018 guests are more likely to base themselves at the inn while hiking the picturesque landscapes outside, making the most of the cosy ambience after dark before retiring to those elegant rooms, and the ridiculously comfy beds within.
Waking here is a treat, not least because of the made-to-order breakfasts and picnic packs that can be pre-ordered; perfect fodder to fuel more activities. Which could include heading to Derwent Reservoir, some 40-minutes to the north.
Teeming with potential catch, fly-fishing is both taught and practiced here, and the water is also home to its own sailing club that caters to all experience levels. Not to be confused with the other Derwent, down in the Peak District, while this is a little further from Manchester as we have hopefully already proven those extra miles are worth it for such a serene escape from the city.
Need to know
Direct rail services to Durham are available from Manchester Victoria and Piccadilly. Average journey time is 2hrs 15mins.
Rose and Crown
Prices start from £115.00 per room (including breakfast)