I defy even the biggest of Scrooges not to feel festive after a trip to Crook Hall.
From the crackle of its open fires to its Georgian dining room that looks like its sprung from the pages of a Dickens novel, this is as traditional a Christmas you’ll find in the North East.
Like many of the buildings in Durham City, Crook Hall has a rich history. It began life in the 13th century as a Medieval hall - currently home to a spectacular Christmas tree - and was added to over the years with a Jacobean Manor house which merges into a Georgian Town house.
It’s a patchwork of period architecture which gives Crook Hall a romantic charm, peppered with nooks and crannies - ones you’re encouraged to explore. Unlike the ropes and regulations of a National Trust property, Crook Hall is privately owned by Keith and Maggie Bell, who also live on site, and visitors are encouraged to climb the creaky staircases, take a pew at the roaring fire and duck through the low doorways of the public areas at their leisure.
It was the perfect place for a mother / daughter day out and we booked ahead for one of the festive afternoon teas, which are served Monday to Friday in December from noon until 3pm (weekends are reserved for Christmas events). Payment of £24.95 each is taken on booking so you’ll need your card handy.
The cost is good value, considering it includes your entry to the hall and gardens saving you £8 per adult, but you’ll still need to pay for parking which is pay and display of £3.10 a day or 60p an hour.
Afternoon teas are popular throughout the year here, but they’re sprinkled with some festive magic in December.
We took our seats in the charming Georgian dining room, with its log fire, display cabinets filled with bone china tea sets and picture postcard views of the hall’s gardens and Durham Cathedral in the distance. For those with mobility issues, the meal, which comes with unlimited tea and coffee, can also be served in the ground floor dining room.
Proceedings got off to a merry start with a glass of mulled wine, although it was no problem swapping mine for a Prosecco, before moreish canapés of smoked salmon blini with horseradish cream cheese and miniature toad in the hole with gravy, which were also good added value for the price of the tea.
The tea arrived lovingly-presented on a tiered china stand. The base layer of sandwiches were versions loaded with flavour - none of your bland cucumber sarnies here. We wolfed down Red Leicester with horseradish cream cheese; seasonal turkey with cranberry; chicken with sage and onion stuffing and a pretty amazing roasted sweet potato with goats cheese - a mixture I’ll be trying at home after that.
Middle layer came with the obligatory fruit scones with lashings of fresh cream and plum jam before the pièce de résistance: the cake tier.
Like everything here, there’s been plenty of attention to detail paid to the cakes, which are home-made.
I particularly enjoyed the beautifully-moist chocolate orange brownie with gold dusting and gingerbread with caramel biscuit icing topped with a teeny tiny gingerbread man.
We struggled to finish the sherry trifle Victoria sponge, chocolate and chestnut tart and spice and cranberry cake but it wasn’t a problem to have them boxed up so we could take a slice of the festivities home.
Five other afternoon teas to try
•The Palm, Hylton Riverside, Sunderland
For a boozy afternoon tea try the new Palm venue at Hylton Riverside.
They’re serving cocktail afternoon tea at its Pineapple Cove Cafe priced £19 per person throughout December.
To book message The Palm’s Facebook page.
•Love Lily, Pier Point, Roker, Sunderland
This charming tearoom in Roker are selling festive afternoon teas until December 23, which are homemade and baked to order, priced £18.95.
You’ll need to book ahead, with 24hours notice.
•Pimm’s afternoon tea, Lumley Castle, Chester-le-Street
Lumley Castle’s library bar and Black Knight restaurant offer a regal setting for afternoon tea. The basic version is £15.95, rising to £19.95 for Pimms and £27.95 for a gin version.
•Crook Hall, Sidegate, Durham City
If you’re after a different afternoon tea, Crook Hall also offers a Ploughman’s Tea, priced £24.50 per person.
The bottom plate features a ploughman’s platter while drinks include a Durham Brewery Ale, lager and wine.
•Serendipity Tea & Trinkets, Frederick Street, Sunderland
For a quirky, vintage afternoon tea head to Serendipity Tea and Trinkets.
Expect delightful kitsch surroundings and friendly service at this independent business.