One day last month I woke up in an asylum.
OK, it was a former asylum. St Mary’s Inn is a pub-cum-B&B near Morpeth in Northumberland. It calls itself a place with ‘tradition at its heart’ which is certainly true if you forget that, strictly speaking, its ‘tradition’ should include Victorian Nurse Ratcheds turning down your bed and scary staff brandishing strait-jackets instead of custom-made St Mary’s Ale from Tyne valley’s Wylam Brewer.
In truth, it’s an odd sort of place. But that doesn’t detract from its warmth and friendliness. Sat within a new-build housing estate (but quiet nonetheless) in what feels like the middle of nowhere (its closest centre of activity is the small village of Stannington), St Mary’s Inn itself is housed within what was once the administrative building for St Mary’s Hospital. It’s a striking edifice, what with its clock tower and arched doorway. Built at the beginning of the last century as the county asylum for Gateshead – it housed 2,000 patients at its peak – the hospital closed in 1996. The towering remnants of the asylum itself overshadow the pub. They are magnificent; all red-brick and glowering majesty. I learn during the course of my stay that they’re about to be demolished to make way for brand, spanking new apartments. Is that what progress is all about? Later on, I am somewhat mollified to discover that safety concerns mean the asylum has come down – but the replacement has to replicate the outline of its predecessor.
Anyway, there’s lots to like about St Mary’s Inn, not least the slew of specially-commissioned illustrations on the walls by local cartoonist David Haldane. Even the beermats have been designed by him (the owners must have to replenish these squares of delight regularly; they are eminently nickable). It’s a strange coincidence to find Haldane’s work adorning St Mary’s Inn. He is best known for his work for The Times and, as a former employee of said paper, I have one of his original creations on my wall at home. Not only that, as I arrived at the inn, Northern Soul‘s North East Correspondent Lyndsey Skinner was interviewing him in a Newcastle café for our website.
In addition to Haldane’s familiar ink strokes, both the bar and restaurant are peppered by Norman Cornish canvases. Original canvases on loan from Northumbria University. Man, I love Cornish. After working down the pit for more than 30 years, this celebrated artist then turned his hand to painting the life of his small community in Spennymoor, County Durham. The last of the ‘Pitman Painters‘, during his lifetime he amassed a body of work that celebrated the life of the working man and the working-class village.
It all augured well.
Having said that, driving to St Mary Inn’s along the A1, I was already optimistic about my stay thanks to the venue’s pedigree: it is run by the owners of Jesmond Dene House. Less than half an hour’s drive away in Newcastle, Jesmond Dene House has three AA rosettes and is a superlative example of what a sympathetic renovation to an old building can achieve. Then there was the declaration on the St Mary’s Inn website: its general manager, Victor Castro, is the fastest Chilean to have completed the Blaydon Race six-mile run. I mean, what’s not to love? And don’t get me started on the picture of Grace Darling in the toilets.
Over the 24 hours I spent at St Mary’s Inn, everything went smoothly. Check-in? Check. Accommodation? A beautifully-scented room, a skylight in the Villeroy & Boch bathroom (how unusual to have natural light in a B&B loo), a mixture of minimalist fittings and dark, attractive Victorian furniture, and a heavenly king-sized wrought-iron bed…and relax.
While the bar and restaurant area was pleasant, it needed a little roughing-up around the edges and less matching fabric. St Mary’s Inn has been open for a year now and while the original features of the building were clearly in evidence, the décor felt, well, a bit organised.
Tuesdays are pie and a pint nights (£10.50 all in) and, judging by the number of busy tables, this is popular with the local populace. Now, I love a good pie but I eschewed this tempting option for a starter of Kohlrabi soup (comprising Indian spices and spinach – I’d never heard of it before but it was unforgettably moreish) followed by an Aberdeen Angus burger with, among other delectable toppings, Ogleshield cheese). The soup’s mouth-watering fragrance wafted across to me before the waiter had chance to put it on the table while the burger was so jam-packed I was thankful there was no one near enough to see me attempt to eat it.
Sides included bone marrow and parsley fries (more! more!) and red cabbage and coriander coleslaw (I’m a coleslaw connoisseur but this had me speechless). And the portions, the portions. PROPER Northern slabs of food, even down to the coleslaw. No teaspoons of condiments placed grudgingly next to the main event here. I realised early on in the meal that it was a marathon, not a sprint. Needless to say, I crossed the finishing line (eventually).
The accompanying wines were equally pleasing, and it was to St Mary’s Inn’s credit that more than 15 were available by the glass.
I have just one food-related grievance: what was with the pre-buttered bread? I’ve never ever seen this before and I was, for some inexplicable reason, immediately suspicious. Nay, downright distrustful. I may not know which is the salad fork but I can butter me own bread.
So, were there any other negatives to St Mary’s Inn? Mmm, yes there were. Dirty marks on the duvet cover were a definite downside as was the inability to enjoy a lie-in thanks to an inexplicable banging noise pervading my room (the staff were unable to shed any further light on this). And, I know this is a first-world problem, but where was the Sky TV? I ended up watching Turner & Hooch. I was still at school when that film came out.
Breakfast went some way to placate me – Craster smoked salmon and scrambled egg – but then I needed the protein to wake me up after an early, uninvited wake-up call.
After my stay at St Mary’s Inn, I suppose the most important question is this: would I go back? Yes I would. I really, really would.