BQ Newsletter
Rockliffe Hall

Cornering the market

Friday 18 November 2011 6:00

Rockliffe Hall just misses out on being officially based in Yorkshire. But, says Peter Baber, it is a fine luxury retreat those from the county would be unwise to miss.

You can always tell a true Yorkshireman, because he knows where the limits of God’s great county are. Contrary to what some might tell you, Yorkshire does not stop where an area currently known variously at Teesside or Cleveland begins.

That area was a totally new invention that came in as part of the Heath government’s local government reorganisation in 1974, and was duly abolished in 1996. No, all good men and women from Yorkshire know that Yorkshire begins on the south bank of the Tees, and just keeps going.

Which is a shame, because literally lying on the north bank of the Tees between the villages of Hurworth and Croft is a five-star hotel, golf club and spa resort, that, if it had any sense about it, would declare itself part of Yorkshire.

In fact it’s surprising that the Tees should ever have been a border, because at this point it has many meanders, and Rockliffe Hall, the hotel in question, sits at the southern end of one of them. In other words, it’s surrounded on three sides by Yorkshire.

The hotel has vistas within its grounds that stretch across to the North York Moors, so if you do come across the river you can still feel at home.

The building itself, and its impressive grounds, have a history going back several centuries (see panel), although the old part of the current building dates from the early part of the 19th century.

But in recent years it had fallen rather into disrepair, and its £60m transformation two years ago is largely thanks to the efforts of its current owner Steve Gibson, the owner of Middlesbrough Football Club.

The football connections are fairly obvious as you come onto the site, as Middlesbrough’s impressive training academy is housed on part of the original estate next door.

Gibson, who made it onto the Sunday Times Rich List through the success of his Bulkhaul transportation business which he founded in 1981, saved the club from bankruptcy when he took it over in 1985.

He has in the past said that he only came across the Rockliffe estate when he was looking for a somewhere to site a new training facility for the club in the 1990s.

At the time, practice sessions were being held in a prison in Yarm.

Even then, he and associate Warwick Brindle were unsure about what to do with the house itself.

Although market research established a need for such a luxury resort, and planning permission was granted in 2000, it would be nine long years before the hotel itself came to fruition.

Part of the reason for that is the sheer quality of what is on offer here.

For despite Gibson’s football connections, what strikes you immediately as you come onto the site is the superb golf course.

Covering 375 acres, it’s no surprise to hear it’s the longest in Europe, with an average hole length of 440 yards.

The course gently slopes down to the river’s edge – in fact, because the river is still very occasionally prone to flood its designer Marc Westenborg had to make sure there was no run-off from the course into the river.

But he’s cleverly overcome that problem by including ten holes with water features.

There’s a fine clubhouse too, although you wouldn’t notice it because its roof has been grassed over. Looking out over the course from the hotel’s balcony, Rockliffe Hall managing director Nick Holmes is clearly proud of what has been achieved in just two years.

“We are already talking to the PGA about bringing the European tour here,” he says. “We’ve already had a Sir Bobby Robson memorial which was played here.

And we had the Sky TV Trilby Tour here too.” Much of this has been down to the appointment of Graham Storm who plays on the European tour, as the course’s club professional. Storm, who was born in Hartlepool, came to Rockliffe from Wynyard Hall in County Durham. But what of the hotel itself? The five-star quality of the site hits you as soon as you arrive.

Doormen offered to valet park our car for us, even though the room we were staying in was only a short walk away.

Holmes himself is keen to show off the 61 bedrooms on offer here, each one at least 42 square metres in size and individually designed with full Sky TV, complimentary wi-fi access, Egyptian cotton bedding and Villeroy & Boch bathroom fittings. They all come with mood lighting adjustments too – quite a development, once you get used to it. The 61 figure actually includes around 18 “apartotel” rooms with more than one bedroom.

These were developed partly to accommodate the many visiting football players the hotel puts up. So, stay in them and you never know who you might bump into. There are also two, four-bedroom cottages within the grounds. Residents of all of these properties can benefit from the hotel’s facilities.

“We have just turned our gatehouse into a business suite that can fit 16 people – perfect for a short corporate break,” says Holmes. The hotel boasts three restaurants, and here too a certain amount of celebrity status has been brought in.

Its top-notch fine dining restaurant is situated in a former orangery – the hall’s Victorian owners were keen botanists – although by the time Steve Gibson acquired the property the plants had been allowed to grow through the roof. And it’s called Kenny Atkinson at the Orangery, because its head chef is indeed the former chef at Seaham Hall has who won the BBC’s Great British Menu show and has two Michelin stars behind him. While the Orangery itself is intimate, there’s a separate campanella area which you can hire for private dining.

And on some nights you can be entertained by a pianist who spends the rest of the week playing the piano in the Savoy in London. Nothing but the best here. Along with a restaurant in the clubhouse, the hotel’s other dining option, upstairs from the Spa, is currently going through a relaunch masterminded once again by Atkinson.

“We’re going to call it the Brasserie by Kenny Atkinson,” says Holmes.

“And unlike the Orangery, where an average main course is nearer £20, you will be able to bet more bistro-style meals here for around £10.” We can only wonder whether one of Atkinson’s changes will be simplicity, because when we dined there, while the food was excellent, we were slightly overwhelmed by the variety available, and the possibilities of having many dishes either as a starter or a main course. Something a little more straightforward might be in order, especially if you have just come up from the spa, because that is a relaxation treat not to be missed.

It has one of the country’s largest hydrotherapy pools, not to mention a 20-metre swimming pool and 18 treatment rooms covering everything from pilates and yoga to Rasul mud wraps. There is even a treatment room for couples.

Along with the treatment rooms are eight heat therapy rooms that run the whole gamut of temperatures. Next to the hydrotherapy pool there is a tropicarium, a tepidarium, and – much more of a rarity – an igloo, where you can rub ice over yourself after you have sweated elsewhere. This side of the spa is restricted for adults only – a restriction that is properly enforced.

But on the other side by the swimming pool there is a sauna and steam room as well as juice bar where you can sit and have endless complimentary cups of iced tea while sitting on a recliner enjoying the effect of the light streaming through the stained glass windows.

These windows – by renowned modern stain glass maker Alfred Fisher – were originally installed at the chapel that formed part of the monastery that used to own Rockliffe, and were preserved when the chapel itself, only built in 1971, was pulled down. Even after a relaxing time in the spa, there is much else to discover in the grounds. You can go for a walk by the river, or take part in a Nordic walking class if you prefer. And the ruins of the former stables have now been included in a delightful garden out front.

The architects of the old house who built it at the height of the interest in all things Gothic would surely have approved. If you think the whole area looks quintessentially Victorian, you wouldn’t be wrong. Lewis Carroll’s father was vicar of the nearby parish church at Croft where the young boy is said to have come across a gargoyle that inspired him to create the Cheshire Cat.

He also wrote an early version of the Jaberwocky there. One wonders whether he might have thought the Duchess lived at Rockliffe. If you are planning your special day, the hotel can cover that too. There is a wedding suite with its own private entrance and private balcony looking over this garden that can house 160 people for dinner, or 250 theatre-style.

Holmes says they will guarantee that your wedding does not clash with anyone else’s taking place elsewhere in the hotel – as a result, they are now taking wedding bookings for Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and even occasionally Mondays.

“We did about 70 weddings here last year,” he says. But what’s the real finishing touch to all this luxury is that it is not nearly as pricey as you might imagine. Holmes says weddings at Rockliffe can be as little as £115 a head, including food and the bar. Corporate day rates start at £45 a head for the guesthouse, or £65 in a suite in the hotel itself. And membership of the spa itself, which is open to non-residents, starts at £95 a month. There are gyms in Leeds that would charge more than that and still not have as impressive facilities. No wonder Holmes says they are already attracting day visitors from Leeds and Manchester. A current special offer this autumn of two nights at the hotel with dinner on the first night at the Brasserie or in the clubhouse is £185 per person. You would be foolish not to.