Tales of smugglers and Byron at Seaham Hall

Seaham Hall Hotel, Durham
Seaham Hall Hotel, Durham

With links to the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who married here in 1815, and with a host of notable past guests, this five-star Georgian hotel on the northeast coast of England makes for a relaxing getaway.

Seaham Hall Hotel, Durham
Seaham Hall hotel, Durham

It was in the drawing room of the white Georgian manor house of Seaham Hall that the Romantic poet Lord Byron married Anne Isabella. Byron’s wife was the daughter of an influential landowner, who had decided to build a new house upon existing medieval foundations in a splendid windswept setting, with sea views: Seaham Hall.

Today, Seaham Hall hotel welcomes guests to its opulent courtyard, which is a stunning atrium with a vaulted glass ceiling; the Ballroom, with its view of the coast and gardens; and the Byron Room, the private drawing room where the poet married, which has recently been refurbished, yet retains the antique furnishings and original Georgian windows that were there on Lord Byron’s wedding day.

The marriage, however, was short-lived; indeed many say it was doomed from the start. A strictly religious woman, Anne clashed with the debauched agnostic poet Lord Byron who was also struggling financially. Nevertheless Anne remained known as Lady Byron for the rest of her life, and inherited the title Lady Wentworth in 1856. The couple had one daughter, Ada Lovelace, who would go on to become a distinguished mathematician.

Seaham Hall Spa, Durham
Serenity Spa, Seaham Hall

Considering the ostentatious surroundings and fresh sea breeze, it seems inconceivable that any couple could ever have a cross word to say to one another or feel anything but total wellbeing, particularly when within the confines of the Serenity Spa.

Situated in a modern oval building next to Seaham Hall, with balconies overlooking the 37-acre grounds, the spa offers a 20-metre pool, gym, outdoor hot tubs, a hydrotherapy pool, Hammam, steam room and a myriad of treatments.

I’d highly recommend the 90-minute Ishga Ritual, which combines a sea salt and oil scrub, followed by a full body massage and the application of a detoxing seaweed body oil. The pièce de la resistance is a head massage that leaves me believing I’ve floated out of my body; a ceremonial bell then signals the end of my treatment brings me back down to earth feeling utterly refreshed.

Resisting the urge to collapse onto one of the poolside loungers I head to the sauna and steam room. Davina, the manager of the spa, had earlier challenged me to sample the steam room, and then dip immediately into the cold baths, but I confess to being as brave as a field mouse and opted for the Jacuzzi instead, before kicking back in my robe and slippers (all provided of course) with fruit on a stick served by a helpful staff member.

The real quirk of the Serenity Spa, is that you can get to it without having to step foot outside the hotel building through a short tunnel. So relaxed is the vibe here that patrons of the spa are entitled to enter in their bath robes, fresh from a treatment or massage.

Byrons Bar, Seaham Hall, Durham
Byrons Bar & Grill, Seaham Hall, Durham

For dinner, Bryons Bar & Grill, is an Art Deco affair with glitzy chandeliers that serves locally sourced and hearty steaks: try the Chateaubriand with a side of the freshest vegetables, intended for two people, although it could easily feed twice that amount. The wine list is separated into flavours and textures; the ‘buttery’ Chardonnay at £50 per bottle really is creamy on the palate – I confess I enjoyed it so much that it may have impacted on my pool-playing in the adjacent games room after dinner.

Seaham Hall is proud to say it has no rooms; only suites, 20 of them no less. Mine was the Executive Suite, with dark purple hues and cream carpets, a sofa, dining table for enjoying breakfast, two TVs (one next to the bed), a music player and a sought-after sea view. I love the reassuring vibe that a boutique hotel creates, and of course there is the customary technical wizardry too – seemingly complicated light switches for every mood in the lounge area and a modern en-suite bathroom.

Seaham Hall Suite, Durham
Seaham Hall Suite

In the 1820s ownership of the house passed to the Marquess of Londonderry, Charles Vane, and his heiress wife, Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, who, through her daughter’s marriage to John Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, is Winston Churchill’s great-grandmother.

Staying here I am therefore following in the footsteps of society’s best and brightest; the Duke of Wellington once spent a night here in 1827 and former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was a frequent patron.

Perhaps the hotel’s most arresting anecdote however, and one I can’t resist exploring before I leave, is the story of the smugglers’ caves. During a period when Seaham Hall was uninhabited in the 1920s, it became a distribution centre for Scottish whisky with local man Alex Harvey exploiting the underground network of cellars for exporting Spey whisky. In the dead of night, barrels of the stuff would be taken down to Seaham Harbour where it would be shipped off, bound for the Bahamas before reaching Prohibition-era New York and Chicago. It is said Harvey’s most famous customer was Al Capone and I do feel like a bootlegger nosing around what is today the hotel’s wine cellar.

To celebrate his wedding to Anne in 1815, Lord Byron sent a bottle of the rare single malt Spey whisky to his friend King George III and a stone plaque pays tribute to this at the entrance to the tunnels. Today, distilled under licence of Historic Royal Palaces at Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands, Spey is only available at six places in the UK: the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and… Seaham Hall. After such a memorable stay, I for one will be raising a glass to that.

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