Andy Mossack discovers this proper country house hotel tucked away in the Durham dales in northern England.
You know you’re coming to a proper country house, with a back story as long as a yardarm, when it’s got a village named after it. Granted, Headlam village might be a little on the small side, but a village it most definitely is. That said, it shares some noble neighbours with the now infamous Barnard Castle, Raby Castle and Teesdale with its High Force waterfall.
Once through the village, you’ll find Headlam Hall discreetly tucked away within rolling countryside, much of it, its own farming land. Because, beyond its non-descript exterior walls, lies a vast estate that includes some quite beautifully manicured walled gardens, a nine-hole golf course, a spa and wellness centre, a working farm and, at its beating heart, a magnificent 17th-century Jacobean mansion. And perhaps best of all, it’s been family-owned for four generations.
What originally began in 1977 as a simple expansion project by the Robinson family, who owned farmland adjacent to the estate, turned in no time at all, into something quite different. They soon realised the long-neglected hall and gardens had as much potential as the the farmable land around the estate, but it required some serious investment. So, after a few repairs and plenty of grass cutting, they opened the house as a posh B&B for corporate guests and shooting parties to help raise income. It was this inspired move that ultimately gave Headlam Hall back her mojo.
Now the old lady is positively radiant, her ivy-clad walls magnificent in the sun. Quite clearly a labour of love, the house is a magnificent example of a golden age of prosperity and well-heeled gentry. The public rooms are stately home rather than hotel, with plenty of dark wood and overstuffed couches and grand fireplaces. But it’s all been beautifully done with added contemporary touches that hold hands with her past perfectly.
The beauty of converting a historic old manor is that many of the guestrooms have space, a virtue sadly lacking in new builds, and our Primrose room had plenty of it. Big as a junior suite with high ceilings, soft tones, a fabulous king bed and luxurious linens. With the tea and coffee was, wait for it, proper milk and some home-baked biscuits.
But Headlam Hall is not just about restoring historic architecture. The Robinsons have made genius decisions in building and extending the estate’s full potential. Additional accommodation has been added in the Coach House (the former stables), Mews and the impressive Spa and Wellness centre. This is a full state of the art wellness club with therapists directly employed by the hotel. The 9 hole golf course is built to USGA standards and is not without some challenging holes through the undulating hills of the Dales. Particularly the 7th a tricky par 3 over water and the 4th a 523-yard par 5.
For me though, Headlam’s jewels in the crown are her magnificent four acres of walled gardens. It’s gardening heaven for any green-fingered guest; from the stunning manicured front lawn running out from the house to the roses, the ancient hedges and the very impressive ornamental canal. It’s a lovingly crafted fest of flora and fauna which also serves as an ingredient breeding ground for the kitchen.
Speaking of which, the restaurant is contained within another addition to the main house, a roomy glass conservatory that leads out onto the patio for an after-dinner glass or two on warm evenings. With the Robinsons having farming in their DNA, fresh ingredients and local supply are front and centre in the restaurant’s food offering.
I have to confess; I felt I was in an episode of Downton Abbey as we swept down the Hall stairs to the restaurant bar, it was that authentic.
Nothing old fashioned about the menu though.
My starter of Cotherstone cheese and English mustard twice-baked souffle (£9), crumbly on the outside and warm and gooey on the inside, was a total joy as was my wife’s assiette of seafood; smoked salmon parfait, cured and torched mackerel and crayfish cocktail (£10.50). We were off to a good start, and the place was buzzing. Good attentive service and some very tasty wine later our mains materialised. For her, a baked lemon sole stuffed with a prawn mousse with new potatoes, artichoke and green beans (£19.50). Her total silence maintained throughout the course while she just ate, was high praise indeed. I on the other hand was torn between a roast loin of lamb (£23.50) or a butterbean and vegetable cassoulet (£14.50). Surprisingly for me, the cassoulet won as I am somewhat obsessed with butterbeans. It really was delicious; the almond and herb crust a crunchy stand out.
Rather than admit defeat, we shared a gloriously tart rhubarb and custard cheesecake with rhubarb compote (£7.50) which was a well-deserved finale to a memorable dinner.
Headlam Hall really is an extraordinary achievement. The Robinson family should be applauded for giving a forgotten and forlorn grand dame a new lease of life. I swear, I can almost feel the old girl beaming from one corner to the other.
Food images (C) Andy Mossack
Tell Me More about Headlam Hall
Headlam Hall, Headlam, Near Gainford, Darlington DL2 3HA
T: (01325) 730238 E: email@example.com
Rooms from £135 including breakfast. Check the website for special package offers.