Wednesday, 30 May 2018

No ordinary ghosts in sight

I make some some unexpected discoveries during a short stay at the Earl of Scarborough’s second seat – the four-star LumleyCastle hotel, above.

Lumley Castle must be one of the most familiar hotels in the UK. Thanks to magic powerful TV lenses it appears to tower over the Lumley End at the Emirates Durham County Cricket Ground, highly visible to international match viewers the cricketing world over.

In reality, its hilltop situation is probably half a mile away, even as the most enthusiastic crow flies.

Its vantage is on high ground between the River Wear and its tributary, the Lumley Park Burn and stands where Sir Ralph Lumley upgraded his manor to a castle in 1389, but was subsequently executed after seeking to overthrow Henry IV and the castle confiscated.

It was later returned to the Lumley family, ultimately passing to its present owner, the Eton-educated Viscount Lumley, Earl of Scarbrough [correct], whose “other” and principal seat is at Sandbeck Park, set amid Capability Brown gardens, in south Yorkshire.

Down the years it has been home to the bishops of Durham and students of Durham University but has been a hotel for the better part of half a century, most of those under the stewardship of the No Ordinary Hotels, alongside Coombe Abbey, in Warwickshire.

In that time it has become something of a regional institution, not least as one of the first venues in the country to stage Elizabethan banquets, which still remain a regular feature on its calendar.

It s a frequent venue for business events and business dinners, especially discreet ones and so, I might have ventured the few miles from my home in Durham City with the feeling I had little to discover about it.

In the interests of deeper investigation, therefore, I requested a room in the castle keep, rather than a courtyard room in the more recent Georgian extension, attributed to Vanbrugh, of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard fame.

Bedrooms in the castle transport you to a different world
 This, I judged, would significantly increase the possibility of brushing shoulders with one or more of the ghosts who reputedly haunt the gravity-challenging inclines of its higher corridors. There’s Lady Lily Lumley, allegedly murdered by Catholic priests in the 14th century for refusing to convert. She’s supposed to rise from the well down she was thrown and so terrified one of the Aussie team in 2005 that he ran to Reception in just his undies. The West Indian, even more perturbed, checked out early during their stay in 2000.

Or maybe we’d encounter the prankster ghost, Jack Black, who’s said to slide glasses off tables and hide guests’ belongings.
Our room overlooked the dene of Lumley Park Burn and so we took a walk in the parkland  – and what a treat: the largest expanse of wild garlic I have seen anywhere, and a tranquil haven in heart of the Durham Green Belt. Having supped gin and tonics in the beautiful castle garden until the sun dipped below the turrets, we returned to our room – probably higher than wide or long and yet as cosy as you could wish – before dining in the Black Knight restaurant.

This proved a quite exceptional treat, with near perfect starts of curried cauliflower soup and smoked goat’s cheese. I then chose a blackened salmon fillet and my wife the sirloin, both washed down by a very interesting French chardonnay-viognier.

The library bar is great little place to relax in the evening and it stocks the two best local gins: Durham and Poetic License (sic), from Sunderland, with its rich mix of botanicals.

Saddened at having failed to encounter either Lily or Jack, I paid a visit the following morning to Chester-le Street town centre and the parish church and former cathedral of St Mary and St Cuthbert and the small but fascinating Anker’s House museum next door dedicated to the sect of that name, next door.

The original church was established by the followers of St Cuthbert, who occupied the site of the former Roman fort, whose remains are confined today to a small piece of exposed archaeology between the Sally Army and the community centre.

The church, though, is magnificent and I struggled to work out why I had never been inside before: there’s a gospel window, a facsimile of the Lindisfarne Gospels and one wall is lined with huge effigies, known as the Lumley Warriors. One of them them, fittingly, is said to represent the builder of the Vanburgh castle extension, which seemed a fitting place to end.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Victor Hugo used to buy his bread at my hotel…

Paris attracts more tourists than any other city in mainland Europe – more than 16 million overseas visitors last year alone. But choosing where to stay can still be bewildering…

There must be thousands of hotels in Paris – a huge proportion of which remain independently owned and run.

With the big chains you do know what to expect, but for character and a closer feel for the city, I go independent every time.

My most recent was the Hôtel du Petit Moulin, in the increasingly popular district of Le Marais. It is distinguished by its officially protected 1900 baker’s shop façade but this does no more than hint at its quirky, yet opulent interior.

I’ve stayed in many small hotels across Paris but, for me, Le Marais – which has been slowly transforming itself in recent years – is the best choice if you want a characterful with plenty going on.
Don't let the sign confuse you – the quirky exterior of l'Hôtel du Petit Moulin
What sets Le Marais apart from much of central Paris is that it remains largely unchanged, having not been reshaped by Haussman and his grand boulevards. Once the playground of royalty and aristocracy, Le Marais fell on hard times for more than a century until it was designated a conservation area in 1965. Its subsequent renaissance has gathered pace more recently.

All of the Hôtel du Petit Moulin’s 16 rooms and one junior suite have been individually conceived by the fashion designer, Christian Lacroix, and while some are bright and super-brash, my own was almost monochrome: a wallpaper pattern featuring castles, galleons and mariners and covering even the doors (which can be a little confusing!).

Teh bedroosm are a riot of different patterns!
In marked contrast, above the bedhead was a stylised night sky, complete with shooting star and moonscape. The air con was discreet. The bathroom shabby chic, with a large and inviting tub.

The cosy bar runs with an honesty box if no-one is around, and breakfast features croissants worthy of the hotel’s origins.

Guests also enjoy use of the spa at sister hotel, Le Pavillon de la Reine, also in Le Marais. Indeed this hotel is one of a set of three created by the Chevalier family, the third being Le Pavillon des Lettres, which I enjoyed on a previous visit.

The immediate area is home to some of the capital’s most enticing museums and galleries, including the Picasso gallery, which is currently (to the end of July) hosting an excellent exhibition on the story behind the artist’s iconic work, Guernica. The hotel will sell you a ticket to save queuing.

Just around the corner is the Carnavalet museum, celebrating the history of Paris, while the Pompidou Centre and Victor Hugo's wonderfully eclectic house (he's said to have bought his bread here) are close by.
Overnight rates, including breakfast, from €215 per room represent good value for the location and the rather special experience.