By Michelle Chaplow

Think about the north-east of England and what comes to mind? Its industrial heritage in coal and shipbuilding? Premier league and Championship football teams? The Geordie and Mackem accents? Newkie Brown?

Did five-star luxury hotels come to mind at all?

The old stereotype of the north-east has changed. Although Spain has been my home for over 20 years, I was born in Durham University Hospital, and on a recent trip back to visit my family, my father and I enjoyed a luxury hotel and spa break in one of England’s premium five-star resort destinations, with a championship golf course, croquet lawns and much more – all set on the banks of the River Tees, County Durham.

Rockliffe Hall Hotel

Rockliffe Hall´s history dates back to the 18th century

Rockliffe Hall´s history dates back to the 18th century, and was originally known as Pilmore House. It was the home of County Durham historian and writer Robert Smith Surtees of Redworth during the 19th century and in 1836 his cousin, the landscape painter Thomas Surtees Raine, resided there. In 1851 Alfred Backhouse bought the estate and changed the name to Rockliffe Hall. In 1918 the home passed to Lord Southampton, who formed the Rockliffe cricket club; the pitch remains today in the grounds. In 1950 the estate was bought by the Brothers of St John of God and converted into a hospital.


In 1950 the estate was bought by the Brothers of St John of God

Eighteen years later, in 1968, it came under a compulsory purchase order by Durham County Council. In 1991 the Order moved to nearby Scorton, its headquarters since 1880 and eventually in 1996 it was purchased by self-made millionaire Steve Gibson, chairman of Middleborough Football Club. While many could see the logic of using the estate as the training grounds for his team, few could share in his dream of establishing a luxury resort on this 365-acre site, let alone converting the magnificent 18th century hall into a five-star hotel, with championship golf course, two restaurants and a world-class spa.

Nick Holmes, the MD of Rockliffe from 2008 to 2014, called this a “dream project”. The hotel opened in 2009 and in 2010, one year after opening, they achieved AA five-star status. Now Rockliffe has a new Chief Exec at the helm Eamonn Elliott, who is full of enthusiasm for the project. With 61 rooms and 320 staff, the ratio of staff to guests is more on a par with the super-attentive service of hotels in the Far East. Over 80% of employees come from the local area, so you get the true north-east experience.

The north-east of England is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites
-Hadrian’s Wall, and Durham Castle and Cathedral; Northumberland’s national parks; a rich religious history with works by St Cuthbert (634-687 AD), St Bede (673-735) and Hilda of Whitby (614-680); outstanding museums such the magnificent Bowes Museum, a purpose-built public art gallery in the town of Barnard Castle, designed with the collaboration of two architects, the French architect Jules Pellechet and John Edward Watson of Newcastle.

Bowes Museum

Bowes Museum. A French chateau-style building opened in 1893

This French chateau-style building was opened in 1893, the exhibits having been collected by John Bowes and his French wife Josephine Chevalier, the countess of Montablo; it houses nationally and internationally important collections including paintings by El Greco, Francisco Goya, Canaletto, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher.

At the other end of the spectrum the Baltic contemporary art museum in Newcastle has fabulous exhibits and A-list patrons such as Sting, Bryan Ferry, Mario Testino and Yoko Ono.

The old stereotype of the north-east has certainly changed

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, so here you have it, in photos, our five-star hotel mini-break at Rockliffe Hall Hotel & Spa, Country Durham.

Rockliffe Hall

Rockliffe Hall with its quintessential British doorman & concierge

Rockliffe Hall with its quintessential British doorman & concierge, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area, dressed in grey morning suits
and bowler hats

The Orangery restaurant and conservatory, a great way to start the day.
The Quaker landscape architect Alfred Waterhouse was commissioned by Alfred Backhouse to landscape the estate – many of the trees still remain to this day.

There are so many elements of a “secret garden” here.

There are so many elements of a “secret garden” here.

The elaborate wrought-iron garden gates

The elaborate sun-drenched garden gates

Anyone for croquet? On the hotel’s lush croquet lawns, irresistible

Anyone for croquet?

Anyone for croquet?

Yes – believe it or not, the sun does shine in the north-east of England, and we enjoyed four days of non-stop sunshine!
British flowers from daffodils to perfect pansies

Afternoon tea in the morning room. I had totally forgotten that very English term, the morning room – here the morning sunlight floods in and in the afternoon, it’s the perfect venue for afternoon tea.

Afternoon tea in the morning room.

Afternoon tea in the morning room.

As a photographer I am fascinated by reflections and the spa pool area windows were designed using glass from the former chapel on the estate. The turquoise waters change constantly with the sun throughout the day. My father and I both love to swim, so this became our centre of operations – with great juices and spa butler service, why not?

Rockliffe Hall Spa

As a photographer I am fascinated by reflections

The spa is addictive and as well as swimming each day, I indulged in their signature spa treatment, Relax and Renew, which sums up the effect perfectly. I loved the circular relaxation room, with heated beds and meditation music, a sublime end to each day at Rockliffe Hall.

As a fan of stained glass the circular glass ceiling was just perfect.

As a fan of stained glass the circular glass ceiling was just perfect.

My final morning……..

Warming early morning drinks

Warming early morning drinks

The bar with its comfy seats and warming early morning drinks.

Many thanks to Anton, who drove me to the airport at six in the morning to catch my BA flight to Heathrow and on Spain.

Many thanks to Anton

Many thanks to Anton

It’s the personal touches and the warm smiles that make all the difference in any hotel and Rockliffe is no exception.

My father and I felt very well looked after and without a doubt will make a return visit to Rockliffe Hall.


(Click on photos to view slide show)