A leaflet handed to you when you enter Lord Crewe Arms warns you about not bumping your head on the low doorways or tripping on the stone-flagged floors as you navigate this ancient building, but you’re more likely to fall head over heels for its charm.
Set amid the rolling hills of the North Pennine Moors and a skimming stone’s throw away from Derwent Reservoir on the County Durham/Northumberland border, this hotel, pub and restaurant are around an hour’s drive from Sunderland.
And there’s plenty to lure you for a drive out along the long and winding roads to this countryside escape. A former 12th-century abbot’s guest house and one of the oldest hotels in the country, The Lord Crewe Arms is at the heart of village life in Blanchland, so called because of the distinctive white habits of the French canons who lived and worked at the abbey.
It’s a place steeped in history, from the atmospheric medieval Crypt bar, to the fireplace complete with priest’s hiding hole and the ghost of Dorothy Forster said to haunt the upper floors. If that isn’t enough to capture your imagination then the picture postcard views, which once inspired celebrated poet W H Auden no less, probably will.
Then, of course, there’s the bait to reel you in. In keeping with its rural location, the food and drink on offer here is laid-back and hearty, from the Northumberland ales on tap and local gins, best supped in the beer garden with its spectacular rose arch, to the regularly-changing menu featuring ingredients from the on-site vegetable garden and smoke house and, in winter, a suckling pig feast on the medieval fireplace.
At the helm is head chef Simon Hicks whose worked in the hullabaloo of some of London’s top kitchens and is now bringing his passion for honest fare to the wilds of Northumberland following a £1.5million refurbishment of the hotel.
We ate here during the heat wave when there was plenty of lighter choices on the menu in the upstairs Bishop’s Dining Room to reflect the weather, such as my starter of Portland crab with tomato and chive salad, which was a refreshing precursor to the mains, loaded with natural flavour. At £9 it was one of the pricier starters on the menu, but prices start from around £6 and are more than fair for the setting. There’s also a cheaper bar bait menu served downstairs.
The upstairs restaurant, with its antlers on the walls, checked cushions and period charm, feels special but still has that unstuffy air that runs through the honey-coloured stone site, one that encourages you to kick off your muddy wellies and relax.
For mains I got stuck into a beautifully moist and rosy rump steak (£17), served with grilled asparagus that had just the right amount of bite.
I’d eaten too much of the utterly moreish sourdough, with lashings of salted butter, to shoehorn in a pudding. But the mere look of the baked custard and Yorkshire rhubarb is a reason to return – as if I needed another one.