‘The finest luxury hotel in the North East’ is housed in an impressive, sprawling Georgian mansion, all high ceilings, white Palladian pillars and vast stone terraces. There’s a slightly bizarre cylindrical water feature at the front entrance that looks spectacular lit up at night. Communal areas (two bars, dining room, reception) are furnished with striking modern art and upholstered in purply tweed, purple being something of a decorative theme.
Rich in history (Lord Byron married Anna Isabella Milbanke here in 1815), the hotel is modern in execution – ipads are used for bookings, garden suites all have outdoor hot tubs (a pleasing detail) and the long walkway to the spa (more of which later) over what can only be described as an underground indoor stream has an almost futuristic Bond quality to it.
Seaham Hall’s North Eastern location is evident in every detail – all the staff are local, young and charming – nothing is too much trouble and you get the impression they’re genuinely happy and proud in their work, wanting the best possible experience for each and every guest. Seaham Beach (voted 3rd Best British Beach in 2019 by the BBC’s Countryfile) and the tempestuous (in late November) North Sea are minutes walk away. The menu in the Dining Room is local, sustainable, seasonal and all things good (again more of which later). The hotel’s green initiative (detailed on its website) is committed to ‘contributing to our community’.
We visit the spa before dinner, and – well, wow. As we emerge from the long walkway over the underground, indoor stream (via a giant Buddha), I half expect a sinister bald man in mandarin jacket and monocle to swivel in his chair, stroking a fluffy white cat, murmuring ‘Ms Lord, I’ve been expecting you.’ Instead a smiley, friendly, beautifully-complexioned and extremely well-informed 20-something gives us a detailed tour of the spa’s myriad amenities, which include a fun-looking pan–Asian restaurant called Ozone – all red and black lacquer, hints of gold – where you can lunch, drink and dine in your bathrobe and slippers.
Sadly, we’ve arrived too late to take full advantage (it’s nearly four hours on the train from London), but the hydrotherapy pool is great – huge, circular and equipped with all manner of pounding jets and waterfalls. We huddle in towelling robes for the dash from indoor pool to outdoor (steam blissfully rising), then are put to shame by an incredibly glamorous and insouciant young couple sauntering out to join us in nothing but halterneck bikini and designer shorts, perfectly honed bodies on full display in the Arctic gale raging from the coast. Respect!
Our garden suite with hot tub is beyond comfortable: king-sized bed heaped with velvet cushions, velvet sofa, vast TV, huge terracotta bathroom with two freestanding baths and thundering power shower. There’s a fiendishly complicated remote control system for lighting (bedside lights, desk lights, uplighters, downlighters, you name it) and floor to high-ceilinged French windows lead onto a decent-sized lawn, with hot tub bubbling away up some wide marble steps at its centre.
The garden suites are cleverly positioned in a spacious, neighbourly row at the back of the original building, each decorated individually in the hotel’s signature colour scheme of purple, mustard and teal, their gardens divided by high box hedges. Robes are capacious and fluffy, toiletries: Temple Spa, customised with the hotel’s name in ornate purple font.
After cocktails (Hendrix Breezer for me, Cosmopolitan for Andy) in one of the two bar areas, we settle in the Dining Room, taking in our surroundings. Seating comprises semi-circular tweed and velvet banquettes around circular tables (laid for two, so you’re given plenty of space and privacy), or comfortable tweed and leather armchairs at bigger rectangular tables. (Low) lighting is interesting – several glittering 14-carat gold chandeliers hanging some way down from the high ceiling, juxtaposed with neon pink and purple uplighting around the classical cornicing. Combined with a jungle of tropical plants, I rather like this, finding it fun and relaxed; Andy thinks it’s garish. Each to their own. A handsome portrait of Byron, looking particularly mad, bad and dangerous to know in full Ottoman adventurer’s robes, glowers down at us from one of the walls.
Anyway, the menu is lovely, local, sustainable etc, making full use of the fantastic produce from both land and sea up here. Andy’s starter of game terrine is a very tasty condensed cylinder, with a row of ingenious garnish elements – tiny wild mushrooms, beautifully turned cones of pickled turnip, little dollops of richest bone marrow.
My crab comprises of spanking fresh white meat, with wafer-thin, mandolin slices of sea purslane, which turns out to be a shore vegetable with sweet, fresh crunch. Lovely, delicate flavours. Small quantities of very good caviar add a delicious savoury note while tiny blobs of ‘cultured cream’ are almost cheesy in their intensity.
Next Andy goes for the mallard, two thick slices of duck breast, ever so slightly tough, drizzled with a thick, glossy reduction, its accompaniments of beetroot and carrot with extra peas and greens are hearty and satisfying. My halibut again is super-fresh, its meaty flesh easily standing up to the rich, dark red wine sauce studded with tiny mushrooms, accompanying celeriac two ways (mash and steak). Delicious – all in all, a brilliant combination of late autumnal ingredients.
For pudding we share bergamot parfait, which comes sandwiched between two crisp discs of dark chocolate, topped with a thin layer of basil and orange jelly and served with a quenelle of rich chocolate ganache – clever flavour twists and absolutely bloody yummy.
My notes say that we accompanied this with a sparkling rose, but also a Banyuls, which doesn’t sound quite right, but we’d been fairly restrained (for us) up till then in the wine ordering, sticking to the one bottle of Pinot Grigio (and a large glass of Merlot for Andy with his duck – why break the habit of a lifetime?), so maybe we’d decided to submit to base gluttony by the end of the meal.
Breakfast, served in the same dining room, which looks very different in daylight without the neon lighting (Andy approves!), deserves a special mention. It’s frankly brilliant, cooked to order, warm homemade bread, tea in china pots, milk served in mini glass bottles like the ones we used to get at school in the pre-Thatcher-Thatcher-milk-snatcher days, very good butter in pretty little ceramic churning pots, freshly squeezed juices, eggs straight from the hen, meaty local sausages and bacon, not a detail amiss. Again all kudos to staff members for getting everything so spot on – and for really sounding as if they cared about the answer when asking if we’d had a good night’s sleep.
Out and about:
The following day we go for a bracing walk along the clifftop to blow away the cobwebs, and the view of Seaham Beach is stunning, though not quite inviting enough in November to warrant the steep climb down the cliff. The beautiful city of Durham, with its university and cathedral, is a half-hour drive away; further afield lie the great metropolis of Newcastle and the pretty market town of Darlington.
The distances involved up here are long though – you’ll need a car, and the drive will involve motorways rather than a gentle meander through cute little chocolate box villages (yes Cotswolds, I’m looking at you)…
We were trying to work this out over dinner and failed to come up with any particular demographic. The glamorous young swimwear couple from the pool was there – actress/model and footballer would have been an easy (cheap) guess. But they could equally have been newlyweds (bit unlikely on a Tuesday in November), wealthy students from nearby Durham University, newly qualified lawyers or indeed a forensic pathologist and aeronautical engineer.
It’s much less easy to stereotype when you’re away from your usual stomping ground. There was a group of businesspeople having a meeting over dinner, a few unlikely mother/son, uncle/niece (erm) combinations, several groups of female friends in the spa having a high old time.
The worst thing:
There were three tiny bits of shell in my white crab meat. I wasn’t going to mention it as it just seems so petty, but if I have to come up with a worst thing, let’s make it that.
The best thing:
Without a doubt, the staff – easily the warmest, most welcoming, efficient, accommodating and just downright hospitable I’ve met in a long time.