In many places, Headlam Hall’s website tagline would come off as a little trite but, actually, you rapidly realise why they think that. And it’s almost certainly more compelling than their web description as of “a four-star luxury north east hotel close to Scotch Corner, Durham and Darlington.” “Close to Scotch Corner AND Darlington? Where do I book?” Said nobody. Ever.
Back to the tagline though and some of the following is going to sound cynical and negative but: a) that’s not the intention; and b) stick with me. Basically, you will have stayed at more luxurious places. You will have stayed in more stylish places. You will have stayed in places with more modern amenities and more recent redecoration. Chances are though, you won’t have stayed in many friendlier. From the moment we pull in to the moment we leave, there’s a warmth and welcome that always feels genuine, not forced or insincere. Staff are thoughtful, friendly, efficient and helpful, and quick to smile. It’s not quite home but, you know, it kind of feels that way…
The hotel itself delivers another great surprise but we’ll come to that in due course. First, let’s take a look at the hotel itself. It’s not that the place looks run down – and I apologise if earlier comments perhaps gave that impression – it just feels happily lived in. Yes, it’s a little chintzy, and as mentioned above, there are bits that could do with a little freshen up but the challenges of the property – it’s a 17th century house and estate, after all – do restrict what you can, and, indeed, what you want to do. As they say, the interior design is authentic to the building in which the room is located, be it in the main house, The Coach House (originally the stables and barns), a ground floor Mews or in the more modern spa building. For us, it’s a room on the top floor of the old house. There’s no air conditioning – 17th century houses don’t typically come with it – so even with the windows open it’s a little warm, as we visit on one of those many random hot, airless days we’ve had this year. But that’s hardly their fault, is it? The bits they can control, however, are rather good, from the Molton Brown toiletries to the very decent WiFi connection and speed.
Given the heat, we decide to take advantage of the grounds and the spa. As well as the neighbouring/surrounding golf course, the gardens are very pretty, and prove a charming place for a shaded stroll. The spa, too, is very welcome. Yes, it could possibly do with a little refresh – the drench shower, for example, is anything but – but the sauna and steam room are efficient and always welcome after a long car journey, the pool is a decent size, the sun terrace and hot tub are very pleasant and, once again, the staff on hand couldn’t be more helpful, happier or friendlier.
And so to the great surprise. The food is flipping amazing. The website credits a “dedicated team” rather than a named chef, which bodes well for the consistency of the offering, but I can’t help but feel there’s a singular cheffy vision driving this on – and whoever you are, I salute you.
There’s a clue to the quality of what’s to follow from the list of local suppliers at the back of the menu to the genuine enthusiasm and knowledge of the staff: when they recommend something, there’s a look in their eye that suggests this is not a bit of marketing spiel, but that they’ve eaten and really enjoyed it. There’s considerable cleverness here too. As you can perhaps imagine from some of the comments above, and judging from the conversation of the neighbouring table, much of the standard Headlam Hall audience is of a particular type; successful, well-heeled but, perhaps, not with the most adventurous of palates. Accordingly, the menu – while creative – stays within the realms of recognisable flavours and produce, and certainly comes in proper “Northern portions.” Caramelised peach and walnut salad, with Wensleydale, is terrific, ditto the generous slab of chicken liver parfait. The latter is, on the face of it, simple, recognisable and won’t scare the horses. The fact that it comes with truffle butter, crisp chicken skin, burnt apple puree and watercress – to quite dazzling effect – shows how capable the kitchen is. The similarly elaborate tandoori monkfish, peashoots, potatoes, tarragon cream and peas follows a similar path. There’s enough familiarity to appease those who fear, to quote the neighbouring table, “poncey stuff” in a combination that shows there’s some skill in the kitchen.
As good as those dishes are, it’s dessert that really impresses. Having written a (very funny) book about chocolate (which makes a wonderful Christmas present, cough), I’m a complete snob when it comes to chocolate desserts and, thus, disappointed about 95% of the time. This one falls very comfortably into the 5% and is hoovered up before photos and even notes can be taken. A cheese course lasts longer, however, and meets similar nods of appreciation. Keeping cheese at the right temperature is not rocket science yet it’s amazing how many get it wrong. Headlam’s selection – all British, several local – is a platter of oozing, unctuous, coming-up-to-room-temperature delights.
There is one small gripe regarding the food, and it’s a common one: why can’t people make decent scrambled eggs? I guess an overcooked slab of protein might be what the regulars want, rather than the soft and creamy but it’s a shame given the quality of the previous evening’s dishes. Still, the sourcing can’t be questioned – the bacon is epically good – making this a small grumble rather than a dealbreaker.
Should you find yourself near Scotch Corner, Durham or, yes, Darlington, Headlam Hall should, at the very least, be on your radar for dinner.
Headlam Hall Country Hotel & Spa