Lord Crewe Arms is a cut above
If you chance to take a trip to the tiny conservation village of Blanchland in the Derwent Valley the odds are you will fall in love at first sight. You’ll be in good company: WH Auden, Philip Larkin and Benjamin Britten have all visited and been enchanted. And if it feels familiar it’s probably because it’s the backdrop to a host of period films and TV shows, not least those based on the novels of Catherine Cookson.
Given the roll call of fans (illustrious or not) that Blanchland (population around 150) enjoys, it’s clear this special spot punches way above its weight. And a lot of that has to do with the jewel in its crown – The Lord Crewe Arms Hotel.
You can’t miss it: it takes pride of place on the village’s through road. Lying just over the Northumberland side of the border with County Durham beside a river and close by Derwent reservoir, it’s surrounded on all sides by woodland, moorland and farmland. Yes, it’s isolated, but that is a key part of its charm.
Once the guest house for the12th century Blanchland Abbey – the village was formed from the stones of the abbey’s remains after the dissolution of the English monasteries – the building has adopted various guises down the centuries, passing through different families’ hands.
Following a major refurb in 2014 by the Calcot Collection it has kept its old bones and features and is now a charming, welcoming hotel, bar and restaurant, popular with locals and visitors alike.
Pop into the Crypt Bar and you’ll likely be surrounded by local landworkers enjoying an after-work pint or two alongside hotel guests. It’s casual, fun and totally unstuffy.
You can get bar snacks but food is a big deal here and not to be missed. Guests can choose between eating in the The Hilyard on the ground floor or the grander, spacious Bishop’s dining room up a flight of stairs. The Hilyard is a cosy, stone-flagged room with a huge fireplace (in which a famous Jacobite ‘General’ Tom Forster is said to have hidden from his enemies). This is good area for those with dogs – I took my standard poodle Webster last time and he was very much at home.
Food comes from the talented hands of North East chef Paul Johnson. He has worked extensively outside the region alongside Michelin-starred chefs and has run his own pub in Wylam, Northumberland. Now in charge of the kitchen here, he and his team use as much local produce as possible – some of it (such as vegetables and herbs) from the hotel’s own garden.
It’s British to the core, with starters such as crab on toast, scallops and soup. Mains cost from about £20 to £40 and range from humble cottage pie to chargrilled cote du boeuf for two. Fish (such as cod loin) is always on offer and the vegetarian options include celeriac, truffle and wild mushroom pithivier. The pudding menu – if you have the space – include crumble, custard tart and sticky toffee pudding. I recommend you find the space. I’ve eaten here many times and have never once been disappointed. Or left wanting.
Paul has his own top picks, including the haggis scotch egg. He said: “I have always had these on and they come with a home-made ‘broon sauce’.
“Another popular lunchtime dish is our Northumbrian black Angus burger, with caramelised red onions, shepherd’s purse blue cheese, truffle mayo and rocket in a toasted brioche bun. A posh twist on a classic burger.
“One of my favourites on the dinner menu is roasted Northumbrian hogget rump, served with roasted Jerusalem artichokes, artichoke puree, black cabbage, pressed potato terrine and green sauce.”
It’s open for lunch, afternoon tea and dinner – and breakfast for guests staying overnight.
Rooms are dotted around in cottages and in the main building. They’re categorised according to size as cosy, canny and champion, depending on your budget, and there are also suites at the top of the range. I’ve stayed in ‘cosy’ and ‘canny’ – both with ample space for two humans plus Webster and lots of treats thrown in including home-made fudge.
Activities nearby include stargazing, shooting, fishing and walking, and there’s a boot room to boot! You’ll need it if you take advantage of the countryside on the doorstep.
On my most recent visit I walked round nearby Derwent reservoir, took out the Merlin app to identify birds in the area (which included siskin and goldcrest) and saw my first ever red squirrel in the wild. Bliss.
How many times have you heard people say their favourite place feels like a home from home? Hackneyed maybe – but it does, it really does. With stratospherically better food.
With thanks to Anne Graham