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From the Northumberland coast to the Durham Dales, Anna Longmore finds plenty of space to stretch both mind and legs in the North East
Two hours and 50 minutes to Newcastle.
That’s what it said, the train timetable on the screen in front of me. Given that my last trip to Yorkshire had taken nearly two and a half hours, it didn’t seem possible; unless the train crossed
a time zone between York and Darlington. But at 10am we pulled out of King’s Cross and at 12.50, to my excitement, the train doors opened at Newcastle Central – all with only 170 Nescafé-drenched
minutes in between.
I’m not the only visitor to have been impressed by the proximity of this ‘far-flung’ part of the country. ‘It’s the first thing people realise,’ says Jessica Roberts, head of business tourism for NewcastleGateshead. ‘Newcastle is two and three quarter hours from London, Darlington is two and a half hours away and you’re at the gateway to spectacular countryside and cities.’
At the heart of the region is Newcastle. Much has been made of the city’s party-loving spirit and Geordies are justifiably proud of their heritage, but there’s also a sense that the Toon is moving on. New venues have been instrumental in this upward curve. If you need any proof of this, look across the Tyne from the north bank. To the east, squaring up to the iconic Tyne Bridge is the gleaming shell-like exterior of The Sage Gateshead, the Foster-designed concert and conference venue. To the west, by the sweeping arch of the Millennium Bridge, you can’t ignore the red brick towers of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, a converted grain warehouse that is now the biggest contemporary art gallery of its kind in the world. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 1998, only the Tyne Bridge darkened this stretch of the river.
The story of urban regeneration – however exciting – is a familiar one. But the real surprise up here lies beyond the city limits. Drive 20 minutes north, west or south from the Tyne quayside and
you’ll find yourself in spectacular countryside: rolling hills, rugged moorland, crumbling castles and miles and miles of, well, not a lot and no one. To the south, there’s the historic city of
Durham, the Durham Dales and the gentle Tees Valley countryside. To the north east, the sandy beaches of the North Sea coast and to the north and west, the wide open spaces of Northumberland
National Park, the Cheviot Hills, and Kielder Water and Forest Park.
‘Space to think is what sets North East England apart,’ says Roberts. ‘Northumberland is NewcastleGateshead’s back garden.’ It is home to England’s least visited national park and two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: the Northumberland Coast and North Pennines.
‘Whether you’re teambuilding, brainstorming or just straight-up conferencing, it’s crucial to get away from your day-to-day business environment to inspire creativity and encourage bonding on a personal as well as a professional level,’ says Stuart Duff, a partner at business psychologists Pearn Kandola. ‘We always recommend taking teams out of the city – it’s not a myth that green spaces and fresh air get the brain working. It’s great for both mental and physical well-being.’
The Bottom Line
In terms of bang for buck, there’s no doubt that the cost of holding an event in the North East stacks up favourably against alternatives closer to home, even factoring in the transport. The 24-hour day-delegate rates in the North East hover around £135 for a smart country house hotel like Headlam Hall, and around £195 for a top-notch five-star establishment such as Rockliffe Hall. The equivalent five-star residential conference in the South East would set you back around £400 per head.
If you are offering incentives, it’s worth comparing prices. A box at the Riverside for a summer test match last year was £4,800, and for the equivalent at a London cricket ground in 2010 you’re looking at anything up to £8,000. Similarly, hospitality packages at Newcastle Racecourse start at £25 per person, compared with around £80 for options that are closer to the capital.
If you buy train tickets early enough, you’ll be able to take advantage of early booking discounts, with prices as low as £12 one way. NewcastleGateshead Convention Bureau has recently launched a 20% discount for corporate travellers on first and standard class tickets on the East Coast mainline, including a delegate booking website for your event, which opens three months beforehand. Finally, don’t forget that taking delegates away offers dividends in terms of both the productivity of the event and the contribution to internal marketing. And the tax breaks are not to be sniffed at either.
But the North East is not all endless sky and miles of wilderness. Scattered throughout the belt around Newcastle and Durham is a vast array of venues, from roman forts and medieval castles to
five-star hotels. ‘The area is so undiscovered yet dotted with real gems,’ Roberts says. ‘We’ve got all the top brands alongside some really unique venues with local character, most of which you
can get to in 15 minutes from major train stations. People are used to London, to travelling an hour to get everywhere – it’s a real release for people who are used to a city environment.’
Event organisers can take advantage of historical treasures like South Shields’ Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum for evening entertainment in a courtyard setting. Alnwick Castle, and the adjacent Alnwick Garden, is the seat of the Duke of Northumberland and its portrait-lined Guest Hall makes a spectacular garden backdrop for an alfresco reception or a formal dinner. Crucially, these quirky venues are all supported by a raft of hotels, from straight-up three- and four-star chains to spectacular five-star properties – with luxury spas and high-end restaurants – that make destinations in their own right. For large-scale conferencing, look no further than The Sage (tel: 0191 443 4640, squaremeal.co.uk/sage), a world-class 1,640-capacity venue that goes to show there’s plenty of space to think in the city centre too.
For more information about holding events in the North East, contact the NewcastleGateshead convention bureau on 0191 440 5757, squaremeal.co.uk/ngi.
By train: East Coast trains runs a half-hourly service between King’s Cross and Newcastle, with plenty of direct trains and journey times hovering around the three hour mark. You can get to Darlington, in the south of the region, in just two and a half hours.
By plane: The North East is served by two airports. There’s Durham Tees Valley, from which Eastern Airways runs a twice-daily service from Southampton, while Newcastle International, eight miles from Newcastle city centre, is on the London route. Operators are Flybe (from Gatwick, around four a day, 1hr 25), Easyjet (from Stansted, two flights a day, 1h 5) and British Airways (from Heathrow, around five flights a day, 1h 10). Avis and Hertz both have offices in the city centre and at the airport.
By car: The A1(M) is the backbone of the region, making getting around very straightforward once you’ve arrived. London-Newcastle by car is a five-hour schlep, so just take the train.
The Incentive Trip
You could fill many weeks with all the gems the region has to offer and because of the ease of moving around, you can pack twice as much into the itinerary – no London traffic to contend with.
No trip to the Geordie motherland would be complete without a bit of sport. In the winter season, hospitality at Newcastle United FC (tel: 0844 372 1892) could include some Premiership action in the 2010/11 season. In summer, there’s test or country cricket at Chester-le-Street Riverside (tel: 01913 872818) with an overnight stay and dinner in a magnificent private room at the neighbouring Lumley Castle (tel: 01913 891111, squaremeal.co.uk/lumley). Racing at Newcastle Racecourse (tel: 01912 362020) continues throughout the year, the highlight being the Northumberland Plate Festival (24-26 June 2010).
The region now has two high-end hotels: Rockliffe Hall (tel: 01325 729977, squaremeal.co.uk/rockliffe) and Seaham Hall (tel: 01915 161400, squaremeal.co.uk/seaham) with De Vere Slaley Hall (tel: 01434 673 350) not far behind. For golf, Rockliffe and Slaley are the frontrunners. The former offers all the mod cons of a brand new club, including a swish clubhouse and practice academy, with a course that looks surprisingly mature for its years. At Slaley, there are two immaculate championship courses, The Hunting and The Priestman, which host major Seniors events.
For a blow-out dinner on the last night, the White Room at Seaham and Kenny Atkinson’s restaurant in The Orangery at Rockliffe are both pushing for Michelin stars this year and have private dining facilities. Jesmond Dene House Hotel (tel: 01912 123000) also has a high-end destination restaurant with three private dining rooms for up to 22.
To soak up the local colour and culture, you can navigate the stunning city of Durham on foot. Alternatively, head into Newcastle for a concert at The Sage (tel: 0191 443 4661,
squaremeal.co.uk/sage), a visit to The Laing Art Gallery (tel: 0844 856 1074) or a whirl round the contemporary art at BALTIC (tel: 01914 781810). You can dine at the rooftop restaurant, Six, or
enjoy sunset drinks overlooking the river. Contact Gateshead Council (tel: 01914 775380) direct to find out if the Millennium Bridge is being lifted while your event is on – it makes for a
spectacular view. On the way out of the city, don’t miss Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North, gracefully looming over the A1.
Visit between April and October and you can fully explore the North Pennines or Northumberland coast on foot, and even tackle more high-octane outdoor pursuits. Venues like Alnwick Castle and Garden (tel: 01665 510777) – Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films – come into their own in the summer. A stroll around the gardens can be followed by lunch in the giant Treehouse, a magical chalet-style restaurant with a log fire centrepiece for winter entertaining.
For residential off-sites with a dual focus – classroom sessions interspersed with teambuilding activities – it’s vital that venues have the space to fulfil both programmes. In this part of the
world, delegates can really stretch their legs. There are a raft of mid-range hotels perfectly set up for this combination, with plenty of indoor and outdoor space so that the two elements can be
kept apart. Hotels like Longhirst (teambuilding and cricket), Beamish (high ropes and Birds of Prey Centre), Matfen (Go Ape and golf) and Slaley (off-road driving, Segways, lasers, football, golf
and more) are ideally set up for combining boardroom sessions with team bonding activities (see overleaf for contact details).
Evening activities for larger groups can cross over into incentive territory (see previous page), with block or private box bookings for sports matches or racing, art exhibitions or concerts. It’s also worth considering the area’s museums, where larger groups (even hundreds) can enjoy after-hours dining and entertainment as well as private viewings. Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum (tel: 0844 856 1074), with its reconstructed garrison buildings, has a splendid courtyard for evening receptions, while the stunning 1,300-capacity Great North Museum Hancock (tel: 0844 856 1074) has just emerged from a £26m redevelopment project. Award ceremonies and dinners can also be held in the Guest Hall and The Sanctuary restaurant at Alnwick Castle (tel: 01665 510 777), or in the fairy light-speckled splendour of its gardens.
Barceló Redworth Hall
Taken over by international group Barceló two years ago, Redworth Hall is a handsome 17th-century hall with a modern conference centre attached, meaning daytime meetings can be followed by dinner and dancing in the baronial Great Hall. There are 143 bedrooms (45 added in 2007) and a leisure club. The hotel is set in tranquil woodland, with North Yorkshire, Newcastle, Cumbria and the coast all less than an hour away.
Off Main Road, Redworth, County Durham, DL5 6NL, tel: 01388 770 600, squaremeal.co.uk/redworth
BR:50 FR:13 M:300 D:220 R:280
The handsome façade of this family-run country house hotel belies a tardis-like interior, where rooms, including the elegant Winter Garden and imposing Shafto Hall, have retained their original character. Capacities run up to 500, while 36 bedrooms offer modern bathrooms and WiFi throughout. Recent renovations include the Stables Pub & Brewery, an informal restaurant and bar with its own microbrewery. The surrounding 24 acres features a Birds of Prey centre.
Beamish, Stanley, County Durham, DH9 0YB, tel: 01207 233 733
BR:50 FR:6 M:400 D:280 R:500
De Vere Slaley Hall
Owned by the same company as Malmaison and Hotel du Vin, the 142-room Slaley has begun a refurb that should be completed by the end of 2010. Meeting capacities run to 350 and there’s a health club on site and teambuilding opportunities abound. The 1,000 acres take in two golf courses, paintballing and ‘zorbing’ (rolling down a hill in a gigantic ball) as well as Segways, archery, falconry and off-road driving. Meetings can be held in the private lodges.
Slaley Park, Slaley Hall, Slaley, Hexham, Northumberland, NE47 0BG, tel: 01434 673 350, squaremeal.co.uk/slaley
BR:20 FR:9 M:390 D:288 R:450
This charming 39-bedroom family-owned property in the Durham Dales was built in the 17th century and has four event spaces – two regular meeting rooms and two larger spaces, ideal for receptions and dinners for 150. In addition: a neat little bar, fire-lit lounge, airy Orangery restaurant with private dining and a compact, modern spa next door. Activities include clay pigeon shooting and nine-hole golf. Darlington station is nearby.
Headlam, Darlington, County Durham,
DL2 3HA, tel: 01325 730 238
BR:30 FR:5 M:120 D:100 R:100
A buzzy 40-bedroom property on the outskirts of Newcastle, Jesmond Dene is a great house for entertaining. The contemporary look conceals the hotel’s 18th-century origins. The restaurant is a destination in its own right (the conservatory-style Garden Suite makes a lovely PDR for 20) and the wood-paneled Great Hall, a 100-capacity space with a minstrel’s gallery, is popular with the city’s corporates. There are three smaller meeting rooms.
Jesmond Dene Rd, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, NE2 2EY, tel: 0191 212 3000
BR:20 FR:4 M:600 D:100 R:120
With 23 meeting spaces for up to 250, business is a focus at this hotel and conference centre 15 miles north of Newcastle. The 77 bedrooms can accommodate residential groups, and 75 acres of grounds can be used for teambuilding exercises with on-site experts. Two professionally tended football pitches are available for hire.
Longhirst, Morpeth, Northumberland, NE61 3LL, tel: 01670 791348, squaremeal.co.uk/longhirst
BR:34 FR:22 M:180 D:150 R:200
The baronial interior of this medieval castle is a warren of spaces, from its fire-lit Library bar to atmospheric private dining rooms and high-ceilinged suites. Highlights are the 156-capacity Baron’s Hall and the magical courtyard space. Of the 73 bedrooms, the castle rooms continue the full medieval experience with steps up to the bed and, in some, a bathroom through the wardrobe door. The Riverside cricket ground is at the bottom of the drive.
Chester-le-Street, County Durham, DH3 4NX, tel: 0191 389 1111
BR:50 FR:10 M:150 D:144 R:200
Macdonald Linden Hall
An attractive Georgian manor house, Macdonald Linden Hall Hotel, Golf & Country Club sits in 450 acres of private grounds in the Northumberland countryside, housing 50 bedrooms and event spaces for up to 300 delegates. Activities include golf on a championship course or driving range, with tuition from the resident pro. Well placed for Newcastle city centre (30 minutes by car) and exploring the Northumberland coast.
Longhorsley, Morpeth, Northumberland, NE65 8XF, tel: 01670 500000, squaremeal.co.uk/linden
BR:30 FR:6 M:300 D:240 R:240
Straight out of the Mal mould, this 122-room quayside property is more a stylish city-centre stopover than a corporate destination. Nonetheless, it’s handily placed for both The Sage and BALTIC and good for group private dining or small meetings for up to 35. The view from the bar makes it a pleasant spot. Stand-out bedrooms include the 14 suites on the seventh floor – a range of features include table football and double baths.
104 Quayside, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 3DX, tel: 0191 245 5000
BR:20 FR:3 M:30 D:28 R:40
A privately owned 19th-century mansion 20 miles from Newcastle city centre, Matfen Hall houses 53 bedrooms. The gothic Great Hall, popular for weddings, has a stunning stained-glass window and sweeping staircase; the six-year-old modern wing has purpose-built conference suites and a leisure area. The site offers Go Ape high ropes, 27 holes of golf and the Keeper’s Lodge for barbecues and golf days.
Matfen, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, NE20 0RH, tel: 01661 886500
BR:44 FR:8 M:120 D:120 R:150
Opened in November 2009, the five-star Rockliffe is a landmark addition to the area. A careful extension of the 19th-century hall has kept things looking fresh. There’s a superb spa and great golf facilities – including a brand new golf course and clubhouse with event space. Aside from 43 rooms in the hotel, there are four self-catering apartments, four detached houses and a separate 12-room block.
Hurworth-on-Tees, Darlington, County Durham, DL2 2DU, tel: 01325 729999, squaremeal.co.uk/rockliffe
BR:40 FR:5 M:160 D:130 R:180
On a windswept cliff-top looking out across the North Sea, five-star Seaham is a luxurious venue with a handful of well-appointed conference rooms. The real selling points are the sublime Serenity Spa – accessed through an underground tunnel from the hotel – and The White Room for fine dining. Bedrooms are stylish and understated, and Newcastle city centre is 20 minutes away.
Seaham Hall, Lord Byron’s Walk, Seaham, County Durham, SR7 7AG, tel: 01915 161400, squaremeal.co.uk/seaham
BR:40 FR:4 M:120 D:100 R:150 V&E