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April 18, 2014 6:40 pm
There are plenty of eye-catching paintings, photographs and pieces of art lining the walls and halls at Jesmond Dene House – you can even buy them if you like. But the most spectacular sight when we visited was the blazing orange-pink sun that rose outside our window on Sunday morning and the peaceful, bucolic scene it illuminated.
It was a view befitting any country house hotel and yet we weren’t in the country. These were the suburbs of Newcastle and the hotel, an arts and crafts mansion designed by the influential Victorian architect Norman Shaw, was a 10-minute cab ride from the city centre.
The Baltic art gallery and the Norman Foster-designed concert hall were within easy reach, but so too was the enchanting, and lesser- known, Jesmond Dene. Part of the view from our hotel window, this wooded valley was carved out in the ice age, and later populated by bears and wild boar. By the late 19th century it had become the back garden of Britain’s most powerful industrialist, the Tyneside shipbuilder and arms manufacturer William Armstrong. As he amassed his fortune, he proceeded to acquire the valley and replant bits of it.
When he sold up in 1883, Armstrong gifted Jesmond Dene – complete with the remains of the city’s oldest religious building, the 12th-century St Mary’s Chapel – to the people of Newcastle as a public park. Today, instead of wild boar there are potbellied pigs in the petting zoo. There are also miles of footpaths, bridges, tunnels, a waterfall and the remains of a watermill that was powered by the river Ouseburn. Somehow the occasional glimpse of rooftops beyond the wood only intensifies the feeling of being away from it all.
On returning from the parkland, we tried both of the house’s large panelled sitting rooms – one for cream teas, one with a bar. Once home to a Victorian businessman, the 19th-century house saw service as a seminary and a school before it was converted to a hotel in 2005.
It now has 40 guest rooms across the original building and a smaller house in a modern approximation of arts and crafts architecture. It remains a characterful place, with striking original features including the huge inglenook fireplaces downstairs and in the Great Hall, and William de Morgan tiling in what is now the cocktail bar.
Dinner, in what used to be a music room, offers the choice of a three-course house menu or a 10-course tasting menu; the Northumberland game terrine was particularly good.
Before retiring I walked outside. The car park was packed and there was a wedding reception in full swing in the Great Hall. From a distance the exterior was at once an imposing piece of architecture and an unassuming part of the suburban landscape, set back from the main drag as the traffic swishes by. On a spring evening it is a semi-detached location that seems to offer the best of both worlds.
Jesmond Dene Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE2 2EY. 0191 212 3000. The writer stayed as a guest of the hotel; doubles cost from £120
The hotel is 2.5 miles north of Newcastle’s main station, on the outskirts of the city. Trains from London to Newcastle take two hours 50 minutes
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