YOU know you’re heading into the wilds of the British countryside when you see a handwritten sign by the side of the road offering help with “mole clearing”.
It’s not the kind of problem you’re likely to encounter in the concrete jungles of, say, Leeds, or Sheffield. But then in our snarling city centres the car is king, whereas here you get the feeling that traffic is somewhat further down the pecking order – a point proved when a gaggle of geese decide to waddle ponderously across the country lane in front of our car, forcing us to wait until they’ve reached the other side.
If the past, as LP Hartley once observed, is like a foreign country where they do things “differently”, then the same could be said of our rural heartlands.
But that’s no bad thing. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the daily grind of urban life, which is why it’s good to get away and experience a change of pace as well as scenery.
This particular trip has taken us to Blanchland, a pretty County Durham village that is, quite literally, a stone’s throw from the border with Northumberland.
It’s fair to say that this Northern enclave sometimes gets overlooked on the well-beaten tourist trail to the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and even the North York Moors. But it’s no less a jewel in our countryside’s crown.
Blanchland sits within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty surrounded by the open moors of the North Pennines and the woodland trails of the Upper Derwent Valley. Heading here from the A19, the views on the drive over (yes, you do need a car to get around) become increasingly impressive the closer you get to the village. Blanchland has a rich history that dates back to medieval times. At its heart is the impressive abbey while the village, physically at least, has changed little over the past 300 years.
As well as being utterly enchanting, Blanchland also makes a good base from which to explore the area. You’re within a 20 minute drive of Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman town of Corbridge, while you can reach Durham and Newcastle in about half an hour or so. Another very good reason to stay here is the Lord Crewe Arms.
If the abbey’s footprint has shaped the village, then this Grade II* manor house is its beating heart. It has been operating as an inn since the 18th century, although it dates back even further.
When the Northumbrian landowner Walter de Bolbec granted the “white monks” of Premontre in Normandy a plot of land back in 1165 they established their new abbey at the spot now called Blanchland. The abbey was later dissolved following the Reformation and the abbot’s residence, guest house and kitchens became the manor – what is now the Lord Crewe Arms.
Today, it’s a 21-bedroom country hotel and self-styled “posh pub” that reopened last April following an extensive makeover. It’s hard not to be impressed by the end result which marries the building’s history with a smart touch of modern comfort. The renovation makes the most of the little nooks and crannies that at one time were no doubt privy to all kinds of Machiavellian goings on.
The bedrooms are in the main house and in an adjoining row of cottages overlooking a three-sided courtyard, as well as across the road in what used to be the village’s temperance hotel. They have been furnished to create a feeling of understated luxury and the attention to detail, from the feather pillows to the plush bathrobes, is very impressive.
This attention to detail applies to the food, too. The head chef is Simon Hicks, former head chef at Soho Hix, who has created bold, seasonal menus. This is proper food that blends old favourites with a dash of culinary adventure. There is a nod to seasonal, and certainly British, ingredients, with local partridge, Weardale grouse and Shetland halibut, among the kind of dishes you might find. It’s the best kind of food – generous and cooked with aplomb – that makes you want to come back for more.
You can wash it all down in one of the bar areas, our favourite was the Crypt – a medieval vaulted room with stone walls where back in the day the abbots doubtless enjoyed the odd tipple.
The hotel is geared towards those who like outdoor pursuits, so there’s a boot room for walkers and a gun room for those who like grouse shooting. Not that this is a fussy, old-school kind of hotel. There is a warm, relaxed atmosphere. It’s an ideal winter retreat after a day spent exploring the local countryside, but equally the garden – once the abbey’s cloisters – would be a perfect place to sit.
When people head to the North East they usually make a beeline for the coastline. But, if you head inland you can find a landscape no less beguiling and villages no less welcoming.
So if you’re ever in this neck of the woods then it’s worth making a detour to Blanchland. I, for one, certainly will.
• Winter Escapes start from just £105 per room per night including breakfast, staying two nights until the end of March, and from £135 from April to June. For other offers, including a Sunday Night Special and Easter breaks, visit www.lordcrewearmsblanchland.co.uk or call 01434 675 469.