REVIEW: A night away in a far-flung corner of Northumberland
On the outskirts of the North Pennines AONB, about as far south as it is possible to go and still be in Northumberland, lies Slaley Hall, set in 1,000 acres of moorland and forest.
But while the hotel, spa and golf resort is in one of the furthest-flung reaches of the county, it is still very accessible from north Northumberland given that almost all of the route is on the A1, A69 and A68.
From Alnwick, it is only about an hour’s drive, which means you are far enough away from home to feel like you are getting away, but not so far for the travelling to be a hassle. Perfect for a night’s getaway, which is exactly what we did during the half-term holiday week.
The four-star hotel has 141 rooms, 37 lodges, three restaurants, a bar, gardens, two 18-hole, PGA Championship-standard golf courses, a leisure pool, gym and spa, so there’s plenty for everyone to do.
Unfortunately, upon arrival at the main car park, while you can see the extent of the landscape, you are met with what is probably the most uninspiring view of the hotel itself – one side of the modern additions from the 1995 refurbishment to create the hotel.
First impressions do count, so it was more reassuring when we headed up through the arch into the main courtyard and entrance, which gives you a first glance of the original hall, which was built in 1912.
The extension is 12 times the size of the Edwardian house, created as a residence for the Hunting family, but the likes of the reception area and other lounges which are contained within the original building retain a sense of history. The Priestman suite and seven bedrooms are also located in the old hall.
Arriving early on a Thursday afternoon, first up for us was a trip to the spa – something which I have never done before and about which I was slightly apprehensive.
We both opted for a treatment package which featured a back massage and facial and I must say I rather enjoyed it once I got over the initial awkwardness (solely on my part). I thought I would like the massage, but wasn’t sure about the facial, but both were extremely relaxing.
After all that lying around, we were feeling peckish so our next appointment – champagne afternoon tea – didn’t sound too shabby as a subsequent port of call.
But first, it was back to the room to get changed. By this point, our room was ready and our luggage was already there waiting for us.
And what a lovely room it was; we had been upgraded to aVIQ room – the name a nod to QHotels, the group which took over Slaley Hall in 2014 and invested £1million refurbishing it this summer – and our large room was therefore equipped with plenty of space, an extremely large and comfortable bed, a complimentary mini bar and a magnificent view of the golf course.
You can make up your own minds as to which of those benefits was the most attractive to me, it probably wasn’t the same as for Mrs O!
Afternoon tea is served in the Duke’s Grill, which is also an option for evening dining but only at weekends, and as with the spa, it’s not something I have had very much before, if at all.
But again, it proved to be well worth my time. A glass of champagne was followed by a selection of sandwiches, scones and cakes, all washed down with a pot of tea.
The tea tower starts with savouries – or sandwiches to the layman – and you can either select certain of those on offer or just take the whole selection. There is also a vegetarian choice.
We took them as they came – roast beef with celeriac and horseradish remoulade; smoked, orange-scented carrot and micro salad; Cheshire cheese and heritage tomato; smoked salmon, caviar crème fraîche and picked cucumber – and they were all delicious.
Then there’s the home-baked scones, served with clotted cream and preserve, of which you are advised to choose two from the selection – warm vanilla; pumpkin and pumpkin seed; cinnamon; white chocolate and banana; milk chocolate – although we had one of each minus the cinammon.
And if that wasn’t enough, there are also desserts, featuring the likes of dark chocolate cream; peach and strawberry Charlotte; lemon tart with lemon meringue cream; and macaroons. Phew!
Having earlier left the spa straight after our treatments so we could get to tea in time, after letting the food go down a bit, we decided to head back to enjoy the pool.
It’s as nice a pool area as I have seen in a hotel of this type, with various different areas set out in a rocky grotto theme; the usual Jacuzzi, steam room and sauna; and even a slide for the children – or the adults’ inner children and, no, I wasn’t the only over-18 to use it by any means.
Being half-term, there were quite a few families at Slaley Hall – and why not? – but it was only really at this point, in the pool in the late afternoon, that it was noticeable.
One of the advantages of having different places to eat is that I imagine many families with kids opted for the gastro pub-style Claret Jug for dinner.
Whatever the reason, by the time we went to eat at 8.45pm, following some well-earned(!) rest and a drink in our room, Hadrian’s Brasserie was mainly filled with other couples.
We were warned on arrival that the restaurant was getting busy, but given the hefty afternoon tea, it suited us to eat a little later in the evening than we might otherwise, so we moved our reservation back from 8pm.
Many of the packages and offers at Slaley include dinner, which is a £28-per-person allowance towards food, but not drinks.
I can’t speak for all three eating options, but certainly at the brasserie, which offers a British à la carte menu, you can easily have two courses for less than £28 and three would only take you a couple of quid over in many cases.
We both opted for lamb for starter; I had the hill lamb broth with pearl barley (£6.50), while across the table was the pressed, slow-cooked shoulder of lamb (£7.50).
Both were good, but my broth was a touch underpowered until I gave it a good crack of pepper.
I had no such complaints about my main. The pan-seared breast of pheasant, with bubble and squeak, blackberry and kale (£15.50) was excellent and went down very nicely indeed.
The grilled catch of the day (£18) – which turned out to be coley – served with Grenobloise parsley velouté and Swiss chard, was equally good.
The afternoon tea and the fact we also had a side of triple-cooked chips meant that dessert was a step too far, despite the temptation of bitter chocolate delice (£7.50) or sticky toffee pudding (£6).
The only other minor complaint was that the food service was very quick, to the extent that we were halfway through our starters before our drinks arrived.
We awoke refreshed the next day and headed down to breakfast, which is also included for most guests, but which was the least impressive of the food that we had. As with many places like this, something you can understand because of the numbers of guests, it was a buffet. There was a wide array of items on offer from fruit, yoghurt and cereal to your standard full English options, but pre-cooked breakfast is never as tasty, although there are a few items which you can order separately, such as eggs Benedict or kippers.
Overall, it was perfectly acceptable and we felt set up for the day, but it wasn’t up to the standard of the afternoon tea or our evening meal.
Slightly weighed down by all the food we had consumed in the past 24 hours, we decided to make the most of at least a tiny part of the hotel’s 1,000-acre grounds and take a walk before leaving.
Five way-marked routes have been set up to help guests explore the estate and maps are available, detailing walks ranging from one-and-a-quarter-miles to three-and-a-quarter-miles.
We just went for a brief circular around the hotel itself, taking in the Japanese Gardens, which were peaceful but impressive with their violent burst of red leaves.
It was a tranquil end to a relaxing break and I will certainly keep an eye out for opportunities to return in the future.
AT A GLANCE
Current offers include a one-night dine and wine package from £142 per room or a two-night break with added extras from £198 per couple. Upgrading to a VIQ room costs from £45.
Contact 01434 676790 or visit www.qhotels.co.uk/our-locations/slaley-hallThe spa and health club are both available for use for non-hotel guests. Standard prices start from £35 a day for access to the pool, health club and a light lunch or from £70 to include a treatment.
Current offers include a one-night spa break with dinner and breakfast from £80 per person, while a free one-day gym pass for two, worth £30, is also available. Contact 01434 676795.
Standard afternoon tea costs £20 and it goes up to £25 with prosecco or £27 with champagne/cocktail of the week.