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It's glam up North
On my first night at Rockliffe Hall I soon realised it was time to discard any grim-up-north images of grey slate roofs and chips 'n' gravy, and appreciate that a break in North East England can offer plenty of grandeur.
Set at the end of a long, tree-lined road in the village of Hurworth-on-Tees, near Darlington, the newly refurbished country house hotel is an impressive sight.
Smartly dressed staff awaited my arrival in a reception area complete with lavish chandeliers, before leading me into Kenny Atkinson's Michelin-starred restaurant, The Orangery - where I ate one of the best meals I've ever tasted.
This set the five-star tone for the rest of my stay.
My room was in the 'New Hall', and while it missed out on the sedate Regency glamour of the suites in the Old Hall, it compensated by offering a balcony overlooking the grounds, and some very modern touches - such as mood lighting and a plasma TV at the end of my incredibly deep bath.
But though the interior is lovely, it has nothing on the landscape. And there's a rather unique way to experience it - Rockliffe Hall is an excellent place to go Nordic walking (think hiking with big poles). So, I donned my less than glamorous boots and waterproof and went down to meet one of their on-site experts.
Rockliffe Hall is approved by Nordic Walking UK (www.nordicwalking.co.uk) as one of the first centres for excellence in this country, and even the rain couldn't dampen my spirits as I tried to master the opposite arm to leg technique. It's trickier than you expect. But with a professional putting you through your paces with practice 'drills', you soon pick it up.
The 375-acre grounds are surrounded by fields, rolling hills and grassland. We trekked along grassy, narrow lanes, fields and muddy tracks boarded by trees and hedgerows, as well as among the houses in the village itself.
Arriving back at the 18th century estate with a slightly heightened heart rate, it seemed the perfect time to test out the spa - which is enormous. It includes a 20-metre indoor pool, an ice fountain and hydrotherapy pool, a five-room thermal suite and a gym, all available to guests who book daily packages.
The spa decor blends the old with the new, a common theme throughout the Hall. Stained-glass windows that were saved and restored from a derelict chapel on the estate overlook the pool, making for a heavenly swim.
I had booked a back massage and facial, using the in-house organic ILA products. After an hour or so my therapist gave me a gentle nudge at the end of my treatment. It obviously wasn't the first time she'd had to wake a client from their relaxed slumber. If the urge to sleep really takes you, it's only a short step to a sound-wave therapy relaxation bed.
Even from this comfortable, tranquil estate, of course, you feel the occasional need to escape.
The city of Durham - a 40-minute drive away - is a delight. The castle and cathedral are enclosed within a World Heritage Site sitting high above the city's peninsula, looped by the River Wear.
We toured the cathedral and I would highly recommend it for a visit, in particular for its impressive vaulted ceiling and poignant artefacts, including the shrine to St Cuthbert and the resting place of St Bede.
Our blue badge tour guide described it as a "major engineering achievement", started in 1093 and largely completed within 40 years.
Fenwick Lawson's Pieta, a carved wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary, which survived a fire at York Minster, drew a crowd in the east end of the cathedral. As we gathered around to admire it, the mood did appear to change, suddenly becoming slightly more hushed. It is rather moving, even bringing one tourist to tears.
The newest piece of art, by Tom Denny, is a stained-glass window in dedication to the late Michael Ramsey, a former bishop of Durham and Archbishop of Canterbury. Try to spot him in the window, which is quite remarkable, casting an abundance of colour across the otherwise neutral tones of the cathedral.
As the locals like to explain, Durham feels more compact than some cities, but this isn't a negative thing - it's easily walkable and after a 10-minute stroll from the cathedral into the centre I felt like I was in a completely different city, buzzing with shops, coffee houses, theatres, street performers and bars.
It's worth making a trip to the beautiful Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle too, about 30 minutes from Rockliffe Hall.
This impressive building was built by John Bowes and his wife Josephine in the 19th century to house their vast and important collection of paintings, ceramics and other objet d'arts. Here you can see a 'priceless' 238-year-old Silver Swan automaton. However, it's only operated once a day at 2pm, lasting for barely 30 seconds, so you need to get your timings right.
Talking to the staff there it became quite clear that Rockliffe Hall has caused a buzz in the surrounding area.
Taxi drivers and local residents were also all asking what it's like to stay there. And as a treat to mark a special celebration, I can't think of anything finer.
With Darlington railway station a 10-minute drive away, and direct trains arriving regularly from London's King Cross, the hotel definitely merits a visit from even the most devoted southerners.
Key facts - Rockliffe Hall
:: Best for: Couples looking for relaxation who like to take in historical sights.
:: TIme to go: All year round - there's something to do come rain or shine.
:: Don't miss: Bowes Museum and Durham Cathedral.
:: Need to know: Pre-book your spa treatments.
:: Don't forget: Clothes for all occasions - day and evening wear - plus comfortable shoes and a waterproof for Nordic walking.
Charlotte Birch was a guest of Rockliffe Hall where B&B for two people in a standard double room starts at £275 per night. Reservations: 01325 729 999 and www.rockliffehall.com
For further information on attractions in Durham, visit www.thisisdurham.com