A surprisingly peaceful break from the rush and bustle of London at any time of year
Durham is just three hours from London on the train. There for the first time in September we were due to specifically experience some of the events arranged for Peace and Tranquillity Week and we were seduced by the city’s atmosphere and eclectic architecture. Small but perfectly formed was a description that sprang to mind.
We were bowled over by the centuries old city centre with its cobbled streets, mysterious alleys – referred to as vennels – home to quirky shops and off beat craftspeople. Beautiful bridges, the reflections of the cathedral in the river, a castle that has been in continuous use for 900 years.
One architectural gem we discovered in Durham was Crook Hall. A few minutes walk from the city centre this medieval building with eleven themed gardens in four acres, is perched on a hill overlooking the cathedral.
A popular venue for keen gardeners, the gardens are a joy. 300 year old pear trees grow on the southern walls of the oldest buildings, they were originally planted to ward off disease and have fruited for all that time. An ongoing programme of events at the Hall for all ages is listed on their website.
We wanted to see more of Durham but ran out of time and instead went onto Teesdale about 25 miles south west from Durham.
We stayed in Northside Farm Retreat near Barnard Castle. Northside Farm is in the process of developing as a centre for visitors to chill out and participate in courses such as tai chi, meditation, yoga. Access to a 14 metre swimming pool with sauna and steam room offers a relaxing environment.
There is a self-contained cottage that sleeps 6. Very well appointed, it had everything needed to make our stay very comfortable indeed, that included the dishwasher, which gave my husband a welcome rest from sink duty!
Gail and her husband Adrian have achieved a huge amount in the short time they have lived there and Gail’s ambition now is to grow lavender on the 100 acre farm.
Nearby was Barnard Castle once the ancient capital of Teesdale. Now a lively market town with a very long high street it has a weekly Wednesday market and the occasional farmers market on Saturdays.
Last inhabited in 1630 and much raided for materials to build in the area, Barnard Castle itself is now a beautiful ruin with wonderful views of the countryside and the river Tees. Turner was inspired to paint it.
On the edge of the town a most beautiful building in the style of a French chateau is Bowes Museum. Famous for one of the finest art collections in the country, it opened to the public in 1892 and has the most comprehensive collection of historic clothing and decorative arts in the UK.
One of the eighteen events in the Peace and Tranquility week on offer was Tai Chi tuition at Bowes Museum. Two groups worked in unison in front of the museum, a memorable experience in such beautiful surroundings. A couple of beginners were surprised and pleased to find they experienced a sense of wellbeing during the session. Our roast beef Sunday lunch at the restaurant was absolutely excellent with an excellent red wine. Followed by an absolutely fab creme brulee … we couldn’t ask for a better finish to our visit.
Another group activity we joined was a two hour painting tuition session with Brian Brown who with a wry humour steered the event along with consummate ease and was able to coax interesting creative results from the group, each with different levels of expertise. He runs similar courses in Durham and France.
By sheer chance we came across an agricultural show in Stanhope. It was outstanding in what it offered in two days, from dog obedience, welsh ponies, donkeys and hunters, open sulky racing, cossack trick riding and much more on Saturday. Sunday included Clydesdale horses, side saddle, bale pulling competition, wife carrying competition … and on it went. Astoundingly these shows are held all over Teesdale and are enormously popular. We loved it, a very friendly and happy event.
About 15 miles north east of Durham we made a visit to Seaham Hall, the leading luxury hotel and spa resort in Northern England which culminated in a wonderful massage in its Serenity Spa. Linked to the hotel by an intriguing underground walkway, The Serenity Spa, designed by Jocelyn Maxfield, has won a string of international awards and has become one of the UK’s top destination spas as voted by Best Spa for Style by The Sunday Times and Best UK Spa Destination by Conde Nast Traveller.
The decor of the four star Michelin Hotel is a fusion of East and West and takes most visitors by surprise. We were quite taken with the airiness and space given to the whole property and the signature pieces of antique and artisan decorative art. In fact a very similar feel and style to the world famous Saxon Hotel in Johannesberg.
Afternoon tea was a magnificent end to our visit, finger sandwiches, good strong coffee, delicious tea, sausage rolls to die for and we won’t go on about the cakes except they were plentiful and delightful!
You can join the Durham Heritage Coastal Walk at Seaham where the beach is sandy, great for kids. The Coastal Walk goes from Sunderland to Hartlepool but you can leave your car in the car park at the end of Lord Byron’s Walk and meander south as far as you desire. The coast has had a lot of investment to restore its natural beauty from the devastation of industrial use throughout the twentieth century.
We seized the opportunity to join an hour of photographic tuition on Seaham beach with Graeme Peacock a well known photographer in the North, who was absolutely excellent – he runs similar courses throughout the year, full details are on his website.
Raby Castle was open free of charge on the Sunday we visited, as part of Heritage Open Day. The grounds were dotted with herds of deer, cattle and sheep and we were able to wander down the paths at will. The gardens were beautiful particularly the ponds and some ancient yew hedges. There is a splendid tearoom and shop. Events are arranged through the year, details on their website,
Our last evening was spent at Headlam Hall, a rather beautiful 17th century country house with beautiful gardens surrounded by rolling farmland. We crammed in a lot in the time we had and we really wanted to stay longer.
With substantial financial investment in the spa it attracts members both locally and further afield. Opened three years ago they have five full time therapists and one student trainee offer an impressive range of treatments. Membership includes access to the gym and swimming pool.
We loved the warm welcome and friendly atmosphere of the staff and stayed for dinner in the Orangery. The food was absolutely excellent, from the tiny appetizer cup of leek and potato soup, through to the chocolate creme brulee. Restraint flew out of the window and we toasted the meal with a glass of champagne! Very highly rated, it was a wonderful end to an excellent five day stay in County Durham.
There is so much to see and explore in County Durham but we particularly wanted to see much more of Teesdale. High Force, a waterfall with the highest unbroken fall of water, 21 metres, in England. Great practice for photographers! It’s the beginning of the wilder area of the Pennines and one we want to see on our next visit.
Of course events don’t just happen in the Peace and Tranquillity week, have look at the Visit County Durham website for programme details. Why not visit next year? Or before that if you can’t wait for a real treat – we can’t!
Visit County Durham www.visitcountydurham.com
Crook Hall www.crookhall.co.uk
Northside Farm Retreat www.northsidefarmretreat.co.uk
Raby Castle www.rabycastle.com/HOD.htm
Graeme Peacock www.graeme-peacock.com
Seaham Hall and Spa www.seaham-hall.co.uk
Durham Heritage Coast www.durhamheritagecoast.org
Headlam Hall www.headlamhall.co.uk
Stanhope Agricultural Show www.stanhopeshow.com
All photography copyright © Pintail Media