When I first got offered the chance to sample a hotel in Alston I have to admit I had to look the place up on Google Maps.
It sounded familiar but I could not quite place it. When I saw where it was I knew where I had seen it, it is the place that is always on the weather map on Look North.
It is right at the top of the Pennines roughly in between Hexham and Penrith, just inside Cumbria on the border with Northumberland. It is on the Pennine Way and one of the coast-to-coast routes.
Its location means it misses out on the huge tourist trade the Lake District gets, as well as perhaps not having the draw of the Northumberland countryside and coast.
In 2005 national newspapers picked up on the fact the town had one of the greatest imbalances of sexes in the country, about 10 men to every woman, after a group of men in the town set up the Alston Moor Regeneration Society.
Its claim to fame is that it is the highest town in England at about 300m above sea level and with that has the highest nine-hole golf course in the country.
The town is also close to Yad Moss, which has the longest single button ski lift in England and arguably the best skiing.
Despite the golf and the skiing it is somewhat neglected by tourists. Alston very much has the feeling of a proper, working farming town, although it does have a couple of art galleries, a nice little tea shop, a good health food shop and a quirky antique shop with vintage clothes. It reminded me a little bit of Masham.
After leaving the A1, it was a beautiful drive over the rugged Pennines from Bishop Auckland. We arrived at our destination after driving through the cobbled Alston market square to the west side of town.
On entering the imposing 17th century former coaching inn we were welcomed by Catherine Allchorne, who has owned the hotel with her husband Mike for the last seven years. They previously worked at Bishop Burton College in East Yorkshire but say they had always dreamed of owning a hotel and when Alston House came up for sale they went for it.
We were shown up to our room, which was large and decorated in sumptuous reds creating a sense of warmth. The high, king-sized bed was very comfortable. On the tea tray there was a big cafetière with a pack of real coffee, which I thought was very civilised. The room also had a large, flatscreen TV you could pull out from the wall so you could watch it in bed.
The en-suite was modern and faultless with a free-standing bath and separate shower, which had LED mood lighting in the actual shower head. Not something I’d seen before. There were plenty of decent quality toileteries and towels were excellent quality with a massive fluff-factor.
I remember Alex James of the band Blur once saying that you could judge the quality of a hotel on the model of Corby trouser press it had. I think times have changed. Alston House thankfully did not have a trouser press looking defunct on a wall. I don’t imagine there’s much demand for trouser presses in Alston, it would not do waterproof trousers much good and I don’t imagine the town has a high volume of travelling businessmen, apart from maybe the odd tractor salesman.
After making use of the spacious bath, I went down to the restaurant. It had a great atmosphere and was fairly full, with a beautiful, large alcove full of a family and friends celebrating an 18th birthday. I got the impression it was something of a community hub for some locals.
The restaurant area had big candle lit oak tables and chairs with some large, old leather chesterfield sofas for postprandial relaxing, in which I indulged with a good single malt.
First off a delicious half cob loaf was brought over on a breadboard with butter, as opposed to the increasingly popular miniature bowl of oil and balsamic vinegar. There was a good wine list. We went for the Chamuyo Malbec 2009 at £18.
Owner Michael is a chef by trade and he takes charge of the kitchen, whereas Catherine tends to be front of house. He says: “I’m passionate about producing the very best local food, that is why we only use local, certified, Lakeland beef and lamb, local eggs and why we make all the cakes and treats served in the house café from scratch in our kitchens.”
To start my partner had the chicken liver paté. It was a huge portion and very rich. I had the salmon, prawn and haddock fishcakes. They had a lovely smoked haddock taste but there was a lot of potato.
For my main course I had the shoulder of Lake District lamb, which was sublime. It was the most flavoursome lamb I have tasted for years. It was in a thick, almost black gravy that must’ve been reduced for hours. It had a bitter beer taste to it with a hint of black treacle.
The next morning the breakfast was very tasty, with the locally made Lakeland sausages being the stand-out item.
After breakfast Catherine gave us a lovely little walk to do along the River Nent, before coming back over the hills.
On the journey home we took in the breathtaking views along the A686 to Penrith, which goes over the top of Hartside Summit at 1,903ft above sea level. The route is described by the AA as one of the top ten outstanding drives in the world.
We stopped off at a wonderful café called The Village Bakery in Melmerby, near Penrith, which is well worth a visit.
Alston House is quite rightly reviewed favourably on TripAdvisor, which can make or break a hotel, particularly in a place like Alston which does not have the draw of somewhere like Ambleside. All the of the comments echo my view that the attention to detail and friendliness of staff made it a very pleasant stay.
A couple of nights at Alston House was a nice break away from the office. It is a nice drive up, not too far away, and is a relaxing, warm and cosy hotel.
Rooms start at £45. For more details see www.alstonhouse.co.uk