We were recently lured up North to Durham’s most haunted castle-cum-hotel – the 4* Lumley Castle Hotel – to trial its newly refurbished wonders. This included the latest dining experience at the resident The Knights Restaurant from Chef Jim Hall (ex-Ramside Hall Hotel) as well as trying our hand at freeing ourselves from the ghost-themed Escape Room!
Ghosts aren’t really our thing. We’re not amongst those who seek out paranormal experiences or attribute bumps in the night with restless spirits. However, we’re also not the types to pass up an opportunity to stay in a castle reportedly haunted by the ghost of Lily Lumley – a woman pushed down a well by priests for refusing to convert to their religion – especially when a new Escape Room experience has been created around said legend, with the mission to free poor Lily’s ghost. After all, who wouldn’t want to solve puzzles and mysteries in a haunted castle?!
Location & Arrival
So, it’s with titillated senses that we make our way up the tree-lined drive to Lumley Castle Hotel. Located atop a verdant hill overlooking the River Wear, the 14th-century castle is a sight to behold on a cold, crisp Winter’s night. Ancient stone battlements with towering turrets glow in the warm yellow light cast on them from below, and fireworks from the nearby town of Chester-le-Street seem perfectly timed to welcome us to this atmospheric spot.
Whilst arriving at Lumley Castle Hotel may feel as though you’re entering another world, it is in fact supremely well-situated. Just off the A1(M) and A167, Durham and Newcastle are both a 20-minute drive, with dramatic coastlines less than half an hour away. For those not driving, the nearest railway station sits in the handsome town of Chester-le-Street, a mere five-minute taxi-ride away.
We park up and walk through an open courtyard to the Reception – an amazing cave-like room festooned with antique mahogany furnishings and low-handling candelabras. The friendly Andrew checks us in from behind an ornately carved desk whilst an affectionate cat – who has apparently chosen the castle as its home away from home – welcomes us by demanding chin scratches, before settling back into its bed by the radiator.
The hotel’s 73 rooms and suites are sprawled throughout the castle, its adjoining courtyard, and courtyard mews. Each is unique with architectural quirks of the original buildings and rich, dramatic decors befitting the historic setting. Romantic, dark wooden four-poster and canopied beds lie in the larger rooms, with every room draped with thick theatrical curtains, and boasting opulent wallpapers and fabrics, substantial armchairs, en-suite bathrooms, and all the usual amenities.
Our room (No29 – a Courtyard State; £160 room only, £181 bed & breakfast) across the way from the castle building is no different. With a rust-red, burnt orange, and ochre palette, and a mélange of darkly varnished and naturally treated wooden furniture, it succeeds in being simultaneously cosy and impressive. The stunning and firmly comfortable four-poster bed rightly takes centre-stage, guarded by a Lumley teddy bear and dressed in a wonderfully tactile quilt. The raised platform opposite the bed houses a shower room with a corner bath, shielded from view by an elegant, heavy curtain, and a separate WC.
We throw our bags down and make our way back through the castle courtyard to the Escape Rooms!
Escape Rooms Durham – Lumley Castle Hotel
Now, we’re not going to spoil the experience for those who’ve yet to visit by spilling the secrets of Escape Rooms Durham. However, we will reveal that it takes place in a set of rooms in the castle itself that have been fantastically kitted out in Medieval finery to create a fun and immersive experience. Our mission within the Escape Rooms is to investigate the haunting by resident ghost Lily, and release her from the curse which binds her by solving a mystery. Thankfully, a previous investigator – who has sadly since gone missing – left behind a series of clues for us to follow. With the help of these, and the whisperings of a very astute crow, we manage to solve the case and escape just in the nick of time (with 1 minute 29 seconds of the hour session to spare)!
As scaredy-cats ourselves who can’t watch horror films or deal with thriller suspense, we can confirm that this is great fun for adults and children alike, with a few ghostly effects but nothing very scary. The game is a thrilling race against time and a fantastic way to get the brain pumping whilst working together within your party to release poor Lily (and yourselves) from the ancient rooms.
Once we’ve broken free, we are released out into the castle courtyard where the very well Lily was pushed down sits – a pretty epic ending to an immersive experience!
Prices for the Escape Rooms Durham vary depending on party size, with 2 players priced at £50 (£25 per person), up to 7 players at £105 (£15 per person). A full set of prices can be found here.
The Library Bar
Buzzing from our encounter with the ghoulish mysteries of the castle, we decide it’s high time for a quick pre-dinner drink in The Library Bar across the courtyard!
The bar is warm and inviting with huge roaring fireplaces, mid-century-style upholstered seating, and floor-to-ceiling bookcases, which double as room dividers, creating pockets of intimacy within the open space. A back-bar featuring mid-range spirits is somewhat unattractively lit with white leds, but provides a bit of theatre for those lounging around, awaiting their drinks.
Classic cocktails (some with smoky twists) and mocktails feature alongside an array of gins and a good range of whiskies from Scotland and Japan (perhaps alluding to a key demographic of the castle’s overseas guests). The drinks list isn’t overly ambitious, nor does it need to be, with the choices on offer feeling appropriate for this traditional, relaxing setting.
We select a classically peaty Laphroaig 10 (£5, 25ml) and the deliciously honeyed Macallan 12 Double Cask (£8.50, 25ml) to sip neat by the fire, sinking into our chairs and letting our feverish excitement from the Escape Rooms mellow into evening enjoyment.
Dinner at Knights Restaurant
With our whiskies safely housed in our bellies, we make our way from The Library Bar, down a passageway lined with busts, to the Knights Restaurant. We’ve been particularly intrigued by this part of the hotel’s offering, since the kitchen got a new head chef in the form of Jim Hall earlier this year in July 2021.
A native of the North East, Jim has come to Lumley after stints in kitchens around London, Oxfordshire, Jersey, and Newcastle. Having previously worked in big corporate operations, Jim states that Lumley now “presents [him] with the chance to craft a much more intimate experience. The Knights Restaurant is incredibly unique, and the blend of fine dining with brasserie style dishes ensures that guests won’t ever be spoilt for choice.”
The venue itself – like all of Lumley Castle Hotel – is beautiful. Groin vault ceilings are plastered white to prevent the space feeling too dark and enclosed. Pillars add drama and the sense of a journey, whilst floor and wall lamps bring warmth and a touch of romance to the room.
We’re directed to our table at the back of the restaurant on a slightly raised level overlooking the other diners. Whilst this at first feels like a great nook for privacy and people-watching, it is sadly soon revealed to be a spot where we are easily forgotten about, making any attempts to get attention from the staff akin to trying to solve clues in the Escape Rooms. After four such attempts and 45 minutes of waiting, we finally have wine – a rich and vibrant Boschendal Sommelier Selection Pinotage (£36) from South Africa with lovely dry tannins, good body, and a tight arrangement of dark berries and spice.
Not wishing to pass up the opportunity to order from a present member of staff, we order, and are thankfully quickly in possession of our starters of Beetroot Cured Gravadlax with Pickled Cucumber, Creme Fraiche, Keta Caviar & Dill (£7.50) and Chicken Liver Parfait with Onion Marmalade & Toasted Brioche (£7.50). The Gravadlax is beautifully presented but too salty and with little added dynamism from its accompanying flavours. The parfait however proves to be scrumptious – not too heavy, with a pleasing texture. Warm brioche and a lovely onion marmalade combine perfectly to produce a divine (and sizeable) starter that had us lick the plate clean!
The mixed reception of the starters continues through to the mains, where our high hopes around the King Oyster Mushroom Wellington with Truffle Ketchup, Roast Roots, and Autumn Greens (£17) are brought down to earth. The King Oyster at the heart of the dish is pleasant, flavourful, and moist (as King Oysters naturally are) however the rest of the dish isn’t quite pulled off. There was no flavour or seasoning to the rest of the Wellington, the pastry is dry and a bit floury, and the ketchup very vinegary like a bottle of Heinz with some added acid and touch of truffle essence flavouring. The side of root vegetables and cavelo nero are also supremely salty to the point of being inedible. All-in-all a bit of a sad dish that sounded so exciting but didn’t quite make it.
Our other main – Morteau Sausage and Confit Pheasant Leg & Leek Pie, Jerusalem Artichoke Puree, Braised Red Cabbage & Game Jus (£18) – was another that jumped off the menu at us in terms of complexity and intrigue, and arrives at the table looking impressive. This proves to be well-cooked, pleasing, and something we’d be happy to receive in a good country gastropub. After a little while however, the super salty sausage becomes overpowering and hard-going, making us wonder if the ratio of game could’ve been slightly different.
Service drops off once more but we finally manage to grab someone’s attention long enough to order the Sticky Toffee Pudding, Toffee Sauce & Caramel Ice Cream (£8) and The Great British Cheese Board (£10.95). The cheese board is well-appointed with a lovely selection of British cheese, accompanied by honeycomb, celery, grapes and crisp Lavosh. The pudding is unfortunately less of a success story, featuring a dry sponge and a far to sweet pairing of sweet caramel ice cream.
With dinner proving to be a mixed bag, with an appealing atmosphere, delicious wine, average to disappointing food, and friendly but absentee service, we trundle off to bed, swaddling ourselves in our welcomingly thick duvet, and settling into a blissful slumber.
After wrestling ourselves awake and indulging in the wonderful water pressure our shower has to offer, we make our way to a little buffet room next to the Knights Restaurant. The expected Continental fare of cured meats, salmon, cheese, cereals, fruit, pastries and bread are laid out, with an added option of a hot Full English breakfast – which we opt to try, only to be underwhelmed by the dry plating. We instead return to the buffet for a delightful selection of croissants, smoked salmon, and juice, before packing our bags and bidding the welcoming front desk staff (and cat) farewell.
Lumley Castle Hotel is a unique stay in a vibrant part of the UK. The hotel itself with its opulent guestrooms, rolling grounds, and warm staff makes for a wonderful place to lay your head after exploring what the region has to offer. The Escape Rooms are fantastic fun and certainly worth a visit!
Sadly, the dining offering has some way to come to bring it up to par with the rest of the experience, although the restaurant’s fair pricing means that diners who aren’t overly wow-ed by the delivery won’t feel too put out. However, we would recommend venturing into the nearby town or taking a short drive to explore what other food offerings the area has to offer.
Double rooms are available from £79, year-round, with the prixed King James Suite priced at around £270.