British Isles Slow Travel

The best hotels in Durham

From romantic spa hotels to converted Georgian mansions.

Durham City

Hotel Indigo

9 Old Elvet

You can’t miss this imposing red-brick mansion hotel on Old Elvet dating to the late Victorian period. With its many bays and copper dome, its proportions are fitting for an important civic building, and indeed this was once the headquarters of Durham County Council and later the administrative centre for Durham University. In 2018, the Old Shire Hall, as it was formerly known, was skilfully renovated by the Intercontinental Hotel Group to become a boutique hotel, part of the Hotel Indigo chain. I leaned towards independent hotels while researching places to stay in Durham, but I made an exception for this building that holds a huge amount of historical and design interest – and demonstrates a high level of service and standard of accommodation.

Externally, the austere Baroque style and red brick is all rather muscular but inside the mosaic floorings, ornate plasterwork, stained glass and sumptuous glazed tiles are altogether more refined. They come together strikingly in the curved old council chamber building, now a Marco Pierre White’s Steakhouse Bar & Grill (see the print edition of this guide for the restaurant review).

As for the rooms, it’s a case of out with the old and in with the new and so you’ll find the décor and furnishings contemporary with a repetition of a small number of colours in each suite, and only the occasional reference to anything of any age: a token vintage railway poster here, an old-framed map there. Cathedral View rooms have a direct view of Durham’s most famous landmark. This is clearly a premium hotel and you will sleep soundly on a heavy mattress and bathe luxuriously in a roll top bath. Expect to pay upwards of £140 for doubles with Cathedral View rooms costing considerably more.

Vale of Durham

Blackwell Grange Hotel

Darlington fringes

The Tees valley between Barnard Castle and Darlington boasts a number of Georgian mansions converted into hotels. Blackwell Grange – one of the largest hotels in the region – is not as refined as the likes of Headlam Hall (see review under Chapter 6,Teesdale), but it is a reliably good place to stay with good facilities and boutique touches that justify its four-star rating including a landscaped parkland, swimming pool and gym, grand central staircase, chandeliers, leather armchairs, upscale restaurant and many individually styled rooms embellished with smart furnishings. Some rooms are decidedly average, however, with a mix of old, modern and reproduction furniture. The ten Carriage House rooms adjacent to the main hotel (housed in the old stables) are quieter and more private with parking directly outside. Overnight stays are reasonable at upwards of £100 depending on the class of room. Be wary of wedding parties in the main building especially over weekends in spring and summer.

Lumley Castle


Well known throughout Durham, this prominent medieval fortress crowns parkland above the work-a-day town of Chester-le-Street, seven miles north of Durham city. Visible for miles around, Lumley Castle is impressive from every angle with its terrific four turrets on each corner of what was originally a 14th-century manor house.

Inside, it’s warren-like with a fairy-tale-like inner courtyard and oozing in character with hugely thick walls and plenty of nooks, antiques, oil paintings and deep red furnishings in keeping with the medieval theme. And it is themed – a lot of it ­– including the special Elizabethan banquet nights in the Knights Restaurant and the furnishings in rooms (some of which are a little tired and small with mainly reproduction furniture) but the more exclusive suites have sumptuous, genuinely old four-poster beds and feel wonderfully decadent with richly patterned fabrics, mahogany furniture and original artworks. Expect to pay between £165 and £255 a night but the most exclusive rooms like the King James Suite are close to £400. Courtyard rooms lack the grandeur of those in the castle and are mostly quite compact in size, hence the lower £125 a night charge. The intimate main restaurant will appeal to couples on a romantic break.

Park Head

Bishop Auckland, DL14 8QB

Situated on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland on a main road is this large, newly refurbished hotel (undergoing renovations at the time of researching) run by the same management as many of the attractions in the centre of Bishop Auckland. Expect contemporary, minimalist rooms and an upmarket on-site restaurant.

Thomas Wright House

Byers Green

This is a well-run small hotel in a plain and unassuming old village surrounded by colliery-country paddocks and farmland four miles north of Bishop Auckland. The eight good-value rooms (from £75 a night) and two cottages are fresh, modern and very clean; two are markedly more fancy (Aquila and Phoenix) with either a hot tub or spa bath and boutique styling for which you will pay double the rate of a standard room. The on-site restaurant (with a rear garden and countryside views) serves a range of pub classics as well as Sunday lunch. Decent food and very friendly and helpful staff. Two hide-away, 500-year-old self-catering cottages along a secluded lane are a delightful find for walkers looking for an inexpensive base on the edge of the Dales. 

Durham Heritage Coast



The lively sea-facing town of Seaham is lacking in decent places to stay, unless you can afford a room in the Seaham Hall spa hotel. Otherwise, you may like to try this modern, impersonal hotel (key code entry system; unstaffed) with clean, modern rooms a few hundred yards from the seafront. Breakfast is not included; room-only prices start from £80 (£120 for a family room with a lounge and kitchen area), and so you’ll need to take a morning stroll to one of the cafés along the promenade or harbour area, of which there are a number to choose from serving good breakfasts (try the Lamp Room, Clean Bean Restaurant or Flamingo Café).

Seaham Hall


The one-time home of poet Lord Byron, Seaham Hall is well regarded across the North East as a premier hotel for romantic stays and pamper weekends. It’s clear from the grand façade of the Georgian mansion that this is indeed a very fine place to stay. The splendour continues inside – all high ceilings, huge windows, chandeliers and opulent furnishings but despite the five stars, outstanding spa and £300 a night rooms (some cost less and others considerably more), Seaham Hall is not pretentious. I found the ambience and welcome throughout to be warm and relaxed – from the greeting at reception through to the spa, restaurants and bar areas.

Rooms are bright and contemporary with smart furniture and splashes of colour: fuchsia scatter cushions, a teal sofa or perhaps a patterned feature wall; and all the luxury extras you’d expect of a top-end hotel: bathrobes and slippers, fine toiletries, a Nespresso coffee machine and freestanding bath. Standard junior suites are luxurious and spacious but for an extra few hundred pounds a night, you could opt for a garden suite with a private outdoor space and hot tub. Swanky bungalows offer yet more floor and garden space as well as sea views. 

Reached by a walkway with water channels to either side, the spa at Seaham Hall occupies a large wing of the hotel and offers the very best skin treatments in tranquil surroundings complete with a pool and all the usual heated rooms and relaxation areas. This is a hotel for couples, anniversary celebrations and girlfriends on spa breaks. While children are permitted, it’s not especially child friendly.

The Derwent Valley

Derwent Manor Boutique Hotel

Allensford, near Shotley Bridge

In an area with few hotels of note, this large mid-range (rates upwards of £100 for doubles) complex with some 60 rooms and four cottages set in open countryside is worth considering as a base from which to explore the Derwent Valley. The décor is modern and smart though some may think bland (all grey, brown and white tones) and there are moorland views from many windows. The on-site restaurant serves popular Italian and classic British dishes. Derwent Reservoir and walks into the hills are all easily accessible from Allensford which sits on the edge of old Shotley Bridge, a pleasant town in the valley. Book your stay carefully to avoid weekend wedding parties.

Lord Crewe Arms


One of the premier places to stay in the region and one of the most historically interesting. Hunkered beneath swelling Pennine hills in the centre of the old sandstone village of Blanchland, the Lord Crewe hides a number of exclusive rooms (most are around £200 a night) in the main inn as well as over the road in former miners’ cottages. They are all decorated to a high standard: think country elegance with tartan bed throws, thick, weighted curtains, fabrics, antique furniture and artwork depicting rural scenes.

The Lord Crewe began life in the 12th century as a guesthouse associated with the abbey, for which the village is famed. Masonry several centuries old survives in many corners and includes a medieval vaulted crypt, which now functions as the hotel’s bar but you may also like to take your drink outside into the rear, enclosed garden – once the abbey’s cloisters. Dining at the Lord Crewe is a treat – both for the setting and quality of the food. You’ll be pushed to find finer British-French cooking in the valley, but your bill will be surprisingly lower than you might expect (see the print edition of this book for the restaurant review).

Rooms inside the main building are not accessible to those in wheelchairs or those who find uneven floors and stairs difficult. For anyone with mobility issues, there is an accessible room in the courtyard. Some rooms are dog friendly.


Headlam Hall

Headlam, near Gainford

Acres of immaculate lawns, flower borders and water features enclose this 17th-century country mansion with a spa and golf course. It’s one of the finest and most appealingly located hotels in Durham with gentle green countryside all around and close to a number of old stone villages. Barnard Castle is a 15-minute car journey away; to Durham city takes half an hour.

Internally, the main house is elegant with chandeliers, wood panelling, oil paintings depicting country scenes and plenty of brown leather and wool soft furnishings. The same modern country styling continues in the main house bedrooms (doubles for one night start at around £300) which are sophisticated throughout with solid wood furniture, deep armchairs, cast iron fireplaces, full length quilted curtains and contemporary bathrooms and all the swanky extras you’d expect (bath robes, fancy toiletries, freestanding baths). Top-end suites have private sitting rooms while those in the wider grounds of the Hall are lower in price and have a more contemporary, neutral décor including the coach house and mews rooms (some of which are wheelchair accessible and dog friendly) and the self-catering apartment (sleeps two). Spa rooms (not in the main house but above the spa) come with easy access to the pool and treatment rooms and some have private balconies. They are similarly priced to those in the main Hall.

Fine dining in the Orangery is a treat with garden views, a glazed ceiling, candle-lit tables and a select number of British dishes made with some produce grown in the on-site kitchen garden.

High Force Hotel

Near Bowlees

Facing the main road through Teesdale and opposite the gateway to England’s biggest waterfall, the High Force Hotel and inn is popular with visitors to Teesdale for its convenience, elegant interior and very good restaurant. It’s also dog friendly.

The décor is harmonious throughout and in keeping with the Victorian surroundings with earthy wall colours – all creams, moss green, browns and mushroom – and luxurious heritage upholstery and curtain fabrics. Unfussy and decorated with select pieces of original artwork, the rooms (most of which are charged at between £175 and £225 a night) are subtly scented with diffusers and furnished with top-end beds (oh so thick mattresses), armchairs, baths and fixtures. Curtains – in sophisticated country patterns – are heavy, quilted and reach the floor guaranteeing you a pitch-black room. I found suites five and nine particularly spacious and plush.

Lord and Lady Barnard own the hotel and pretty much everything you can see for miles around including the walkway to the waterfall. Lady Barnard styled many of the rooms and is also the artist responsible for the painted designs in the dining room – another refined space with dark-panelled walls and wooden furniture. On the evening menu is beef, lamb and venison from the estate’s moors and farms and other locally supplied produce including Dales’ cheeses.

More information

For more information, see Gemma Hall’s guide to Durham: