Seaham, County Durham – Byron, the Beach, a Spa and Sea Glass.
Arrive at Seaham Hall at dusk to a stunning classic mansion fronted by a striking contemporary water feature. First impressions count – mine was one of fascination. I’m used to the juxtaposition of old and new, but the water feature at the approach to Seaham Hall is provocative for no obvious reason.
Called ‘Charybdis’ after the sea monster in Greek mythology, it is perhaps just the placing of something contemporary where you’d expect to see a prettily laid out flower bed or an ancestral statue. Or is it Charybdis herself? We are, after all, within sight of the coast.
Inside, Seaham Hall is warm and welcoming, with a stunning sweeping staircase.
A few minutes walk from Seaham beach, the Hotel has a place in history as home to Annabella Milbanke and the location of her ill-fated marriage to Lord Byron which lasted just a year and resulted in a scandal that forced Byron to flee the country. The affair of Lord Byron with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh together with accusations of homosexuality and sodomy were all cited in Annabella’s divorce petition. Scandal indeed at the time. After that, Seaham Hall was sold to Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. He and his wife, Lady Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, helped to develop the County Durham estates into what is now Seaham town. After a chequered history including periods as a hospital, Seaham Hall is now a stunning Spa Hotel, complete with treatment rooms, swimming pool and extensive spa facilities.
A Suite Hotel, even the standard rooms at Seaham Hall are spacious, with luxurious bathrooms and the kind of comforts that mean you’ll be tempted never to leave ‘home’. The larger suites are incredible, particularly Ada Lovelace, which comes with twin slipper baths and a mezzanine bedroom.
I do wonder what the infamous daughter of Lord and Lady Byron would have made of it. Her own claim to fame is as a renown mathematical genius who worked with Charles Babbage developing early computer systems. Seaham Hall today might just have appealed to this very unconventional lady.
My own suite had a lovely view of Seaham Beach which I only noticed the next morning.
Beautifully furnished with a large, comfortable bed, a luxurious sofa and a bathroom complete with ”take me home” purple Seaham Hall duck and bespoke toiletries, it wasn’t until I had a chance to explore the rest of the hotel that I realised how special Seaham Hall is.
Walk from the main hotel to the spa through an underground passage, along a winding water-lined, dark wood pathway and emerge in a tranquil restroom.
As previously mentioned, the spa is vast, peaceful and well equipped. I didn’t really have time to do more than mess around with the hydrotherapy facilities, sauna and steam rooms, it was clearly somewhere you need to spend at least an afternoon, not the hour before breakfast! I learnt that the hotel helps cater for that by allowing access to guests who arrive before their room is ready. Next time! I have to confess, the blazing sunshine on that December morning lured me to the beach cutting short my spa time. But, for those rainy days, the spa would be more than enough to compensate.
True to form though, I did manage to spend enough time in the bar and restaurant to get the full experience. And, was genuinely impressed by the attention to detail, careful sourcing, excellent cooking and immaculate presentation throughout.
First, a Champagne cocktail in the bar, with wasabi popcorn and crisps to nibble on.
Then, a three-course meal with each course served with paired wines for me.
I started with bread. I know I shouldn’t have done, but wouldn’t you? It was delicious, homemade and served with lightly salted butter.
‘Crab’ to start could have been painted by Miro – a stunning colourful plateful that looked as if it was bursting with flavour. It didn’t disappoint – Whitby Crab piled up and ‘dressed’ with tiny nutty brown shrimp, radish, yoghurt and salty samphire. Served with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, this was an excellent, light and fresh starter.
I was intrigued by the ‘Venison’ dish on the menu, served with chervil roots. I am not sure I’ve ever tried them before – I’ve certainly never cooked with them. Chestnuts and trompette mushrooms sounded seasonally appropriate for a dish I was eating just before Christmas. The dish was a real star for me, slices of beautifully pink loin of venison sat on a slow-cooked venison ragu, with a liberal serving of jus, mushrooms and sweet, nutty chervil root. Oh, and a couple of Brussel Sprouts somehow snuck onto the plate. Personally, I love them, especially when they are served al-dente and they complemented the gamey, rich venison perfectly. A bowlful of nutty heritage potatoes made a delicious side dish and a glass of Malbec to wash it all down worked beautifully.
For dessert a picture perfect dish called ‘Quince’ – a delicate mille-feuille of puff pastry with poached quince, mascarpone and a light, fragrant bay leaf ice cream. I promise it tasted as good as it looks, light and piquant with crisp pastry contrasting with the mascarpone cream.
The restaurant has two AA rosettes – but honestly punches well above that and I was very impressed with the food produced by Head Chef, Damien Broom, even if he did try to sneak in the odd Brussel sprout in disguise.
And so to bed – but not before a late night look at the spa, just a little incentive for the early start I’d promised myself so I could spend some time there.
It was still open at 9.30pm when I wandered along there and I have to confess I yearned a little for my own Lord Byron to escape with to one of the outside hot tubs. I’m sure he’d have approved – perhaps his marriage might have lasted more than a year?
I woke to blue skies with fleeting pink-tinged clouds. Breakfast back in the dining room was table service rather than buffet style – a very restful way to start the day which avoided that queuing for the toast machine you sometimes find. I rather enjoyed my eggless (nearly) full English with tea and toast too, though I should probably have just had a yoghurt!
After such a feast, I yearned for a bracing walk along Seaham Beach. Bitterly cold, but with startling blue skies, it was the perfect winter’s day to wrap up and get some exercise.
The hotel is just 5 minutes from the sea and it’s about a 25-minute walk from there to Seaham Harbour and the town. But, most people who end up on Seaham Beach stroll at leisure for a very particular reason. Seaham itself, from 1829 to 1928, was home to the Londonderry Bottleworks, glass-bottle works which grew to become the largest in Britain. Making up to 20,000 hand-blown bottles each day, by 1872 there were six glasshouses in Seaham – and at the end of each day, discarded and waste glass was dumped into the North Sea.
The Durham Coast is a peaceful yet turbulent shoreline; bracing winds whip the salty waters into a white foam. The natural churning action of the sea, ‘surf-tumbling’ over the years has polished the glass waste to create pretty translucent glass pebbles, sea glass which is now collected by enthusiastic crafters to use for mosaic picture frames, jewellery and more. That’s what makes Seaham Beach into one of the best glass beaches in the UK
Alas, I didn’t find any sea glass – but that may have been down to my lack of focus. I spent more time watching the waves and following the tumbling seahorses. Having grown up on the North Norfolk coast, it felt like a home from home for me.
Seaham itself is a small town with a population of around 20,000. Used in location shots for Billy Elliot and Alien 3, it has a rugged charm aligned with its industrial heritage.
Once you get to the harbour, there’s a pretty marina, the remains of the coal mine and some shops and restaurants looking out over the sea. The mining heritage of this area is a tragic one, a major disaster at the Colliery in 1880 not only resulted in 164 deaths but ultimately undermined the mining economy of the area.
The town you see today and the heritage coastline itself is the result of major investment in the area from a whole range of sources. The result is a quirky town which hasn’t lost its industrial identity but which has charm and allure.
And, the coastline itself has been restored. In 2002 the Turning the Tide project shared the top prize with the Eden project for Outstanding Achievement in Regeneration at the annual RIBA awards. With just an hour or so to explore, I didn’t get the chance to see much of the place, but enough to make me want to return – perhaps in the summer.
I walked back checking out more of the promenade and making a slight detour to see (from a distance) St Mary the Virgin Church, which is a few hundred yards from the sea. It’s an Anglo Saxon church which is one of only 20 surviving pre-Viking churches in the country. Open from June to Mid-September, my luck wasn’t in but I hope I will get a chance to visit again.
Meanwhile, it was back to Seaham Hall Hotel and Spa to pack up, thank the hotel for their hospitality and wait for transport back to Durham City, just half an hour away.
Useful information about visiting Durham County
I travelled to Durham with This is Durham, the County’s official tourism centre.
For more information please call the Visitor Information Centre on 0300 0262626 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
I stayed at Seaham Hall Hotel and Spa. Room rates at Seaham Hall start from £285 per night.
For more about Durham City, the Cathedral and Castle please see my previous feature.
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