A fun game to play with the metropolitan elite, or indeed anyone south of Watford, is to ask them to locate Hexham on a map. Or Northumberland, for that matter. Many patches of the north, with the rural north-east being a particularly good example, feel like the Bermuda Triangle to southerners: mysterious, loosely defined and quite feasibly patrolled by monsters. To me, however, Hexham was subject of many a “nice drive out” from Carlisle in the 1980s, bumbling along B-roads towards this sedate market town with a grade I-listed abbey dating from AD674, several art galleries, plenty of places to eat stottie cake and a chance to learn about the Vindolanda fort on Hadrian’s Wall.
As a child, I did not appreciate Hexham’s beauty, and longed instead to be taken to the Gateshead MetroCentre to eat at Spud-U-Like and peruse Athena for sepia posters of hunks shifting tyres. But recently I returned and stayed at The Beaumont hotel and ate in its very fine restaurant. If I’m very honest, not a single local will thank me for alerting you to this chic, recently renovated, 33-room, townhouse-style hotel with a bar that will serve you a decent apricot bellini or a cold bottle of petit chablis to enjoy on tables close to the abbey’s grounds, because, until now, The Beaumont has been largely Hexham’s secret.
Perhaps I liked my Saturday night alone in Hexham so much because The Beaumont still retains an air of chipper, diligent, business-as-usual hospitality. It’s a mood that so many larger outfits have given up on right now, due to staff shortages, to can’t-be-arsedness and especially to irrational new post-Covid company policies that seem to be nothing more than budget-slashing masquerading as “keeping you safe”.
A recent short stay in a Malmaison, for instance, felt much like being in a community-theatre Franz Kafka production, and explored similar themes of existential angst and alienation. Pull up a chair, friend, and let me bore you with observations about nice things we have lost in the plague that will never return. Will “freedom day” herald my own freedom from hotel receptionists demanding, at a 3pm check-in, that I order my exact breakfast for the following day, “because Covid” means chef cannot possibly stick on a round of toast without 18 hours’ written notice? The more I travel the new world in 2021, the more like Victoria Wood’s Kitty I become, trippy-trapping off the train from Cheadle with a list of petty grievances about scant supplies of UHT pots and missing custard creams.
So I checked into The Beaumont, and they wondered if I’d like to book to eat, which I eschewed, because I rarely eat in any hotel I’m staying in. The food is always blah, isn’t it? Bored chefs serving club sandwiches with ready-salted crisp garnishes or a signature burger topped with pulled pork. No, I’d make other plans.
Two hours later, I sheepishly walked into The Beaumont’s dining room with a pillow-creased face and asked if they could fit me in. Thank God they said yes. A menu appeared filled with surprising, imaginative, delicious-sounding things; a touch finickity, perhaps, but definitely on the right side of accessible. Starters included beetroot-cured salmon with sourdough and an apple and cucumber slaw, as well as a beef tartare with beef fat and an egg yolk. I’ll just have a starter, I told myself, being a small, fey woman who eats like a bird, so I ordered the mackerel with gooseberry and samphire – three of my favourite things on one plate. Never, in the roughly 347 times I’ve been served mackerel on MasterChef, has anyone done it so well: the skin was beautifully charred, the flesh moist and salty, all littered with tiny sweet halves of gooseberry and sat atop a generous mound of buttered samphire. “This is incredible,” I said to myself, and promptly asked for the menu back. Well, it felt only sane to order a main course now. A deceptively simple-sounding plate of chicken stuffed with artichoke came with yet more artichoke of the Jerusalem variety, a scattering of hazelnuts and nasturtium flowers, and some delightfully rich pommes puree.
I used to fear eating alone, but I have of late realised that it can provide the greatest, most life-affirming of times: a good menu, a large glass of cold viognier and, if need be, some flickering, low-level gossip on the family WhatsApp by way of entertainment. There’s a unique joy in ordering plates of lovely things all for yourself while other tables come and go and provide constant earwigging material. Staff always seem a little warmer when I’m alone, usually staying a fraction longer for a wee chat. Solo dinners always linger longer in my mind, possibly because I was absolutely present.
For research purposes, I finished with a black sesame peach frangipane, which was more unusual and delicate than rib-stickingly moreish, but I’ve not seen its like anywhere before. And that is the point: there is a hotel dining room up in Hexham that’s producing intriguing, well-judged, wholly devourable food for which I’d happily travel from London again. I cherish every moment right now when the combination of good food, cold wine and warm hospitality makes me forget the endless moments of “because Covid”. So far in 2021, The Beaumont is in my top three.
The Beaumont Beaumont Street, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 3LT, 01434 602331. Open all week, lunch noon-3pm, dinner 5-8.30pm (last orders). About £30 a head for three courses, plus drinks and service.