Liz Connor

THE journey to Rockliffe Hall was an eventful one, that involved sprinting between trains, rail replacement buses and taxis – suitcase in one hand and half-drunk coffee sloshing down the sleeve of the other – but it was hard to stay mad about a bit of spilt milk when we finally pulled up to its gates.

Everything about the 18th-century country house is grand, from the gothic redbrick architecture to the acres of manicured lawns surrounding it. Set in the quiet village of Hurworth, in the green sticks of Darlington and County Durham, it's a private retreat that fringes a pretty stretch of the River Tees.

The fact that the main hotel has been closed for months due to government restrictions adds to its bygone feel. In line with the rules, I'm staying in a self-catered apartment set away from the main hotel (Rockliffe has four-bedroomed Woodland Mews homes, and Armstrong House, with six apartments featuring kitchenettes).

Steering away from the grandeur of the hotel lobby and towards the apartment blocks, it's hard not to feel a bit short changed. Built in a way that's sympathetic to the local landscape, the apartments are unimposing, but have an unmistakable 'new build' vibe in comparison to Rockliffe's striking Victorian beauty.

Once we'd de-masked, dumped our bags and clicked on the kettle to make a pot of coffee, though, we soon felt at home, and that's one of the major draws of the newer apartments: you can enjoy the freedom of an Airbnb-style staycation, padding over to make the most of the hotel's spa before enjoying a cosy, pyjama-clad board game night in your living room.

Just like the Grade-II listed house, the Armstrong House apartments are big and homely, and they're also dog-friendly, too. There are one and two-beds available – ours has a combined kitchen and living room, two bathrooms (one with a shower and a bath), and a bedroom with oodles of room to spread out. Everything you need is here, from flutes for celebratory fizz and pans for rustling up home-cooked grub, to umbrellas for braving any inclement weather.

Rockliffe is a three and half hour drive from the Central Belt or you can take the train to nearby Darlington. It is catnip to golfers and spa lovers alike, which makes it a front runner for a couples' weekend.

Two showers later, we crunch down the garden's gravel paths to the Clubhouse, a smart members' bar, for a beer in the late-afternoon sunshine. The 18-hole championship golf course is said to be one of the most challenging in Europe (prices start from £30 per day), and even if you couldn't care less about sport, it's almost medicinal to watch the golfers swing and putt from hole to hole, soundtracked by birdsong and the faint hum of lawnmowers.

One thing to know about Hurworth is that the people are very friendly, and we soon get chatting to a local called Francis, who gives us the lay of the land over another round. As our bellies rumble, we venture the 30-minute walk into town to a pub called The Bay Horse (; a local foodie tip from Francis. The hotel has a 4AA Rosette restaurant called The Orangery, as well as a Brasserie. The faint glow from the 15th century coaching inn's windows is all-too enticing, but we'd come layered up in thermals, jumpers and thick socks, to brave eating outdoors on one of their picnic tables.

It's hard to narrow down the everything-sounds-incredible menu, but eventually settle on roasted king scallops with a curried pear dressing, a rump of lamb with spiced Moroccan potato pave and summer squash, and a delicious bottle of red from Paso Robles, recommended by the friendly sommelier (starters from £7.95; mains from £12.50).

The next morning, we enjoy a homemade breakfast; our fridge is heartily stocked with locally sourced butter and yoghurts, eggs, porridge oats, milk, crusty bread and orange juice. Caffeinated, we robe up and make our way to the spa, which is open to hotel guests, as well as spa day visitors. For now, to enable social distancing, we book a two-hour session in the spa, floating between the swimming pool, outdoor Jacuzzi and a hydro pool with massage jets (all breaks include two hours' use of the spa and access to the gym).

Adjacent is a spa garden; a tiny hidden oasis with an infinity-edge pool that looks out across the grounds of the sprawling estate. This costs extra to book (£30 per person for two hours) but is well worth it if the weather's good. We had the tranquil garden all to ourselves, and with the sun beating its welcome heat on my shoulders, all but the spa concierge's rich County Durham accent made me feel like I could be in the south of France.

Next it was on to a massage. I was concerned about how relaxing a spa treatment would be with rigorous rules in place, but my treatment, called Himalayan Splendour (£150 for 120 minutes), was so relaxing, I almost forgot I was wearing a face covering throughout. My masseuse gloriously sloughed away dead skin cells using a salt scrub, before delicately rolling bamboo massage tools across the front and back of my body. She finished up with a relaxing facial, using goji berry and macadamia oil to soothe my skin.

Rockliffe Hall's location on the banks of the River Tees means there are some really pretty walks around the estate's grounds. We throw on our trainers (mine, regrettably white) and take a short woodland stroll through the hotel's Alice In Wonderland themed-children's play area – Lewis Carroll grew up in nearby Croft. We loop onto a longer riverside trail that follows the banks of the Tees, which really shows off the wild beauty of the area. There are 59 species of butterfly in Britain, and Rockliffe Hall is home to 20 of these, as well as over 90 different species of bird.

There are also lots of lovely day trips beyond the gates of Rockliffe Hall, and you're in a decent jumping off point to visit Durham, York, the dramatic North East coastline and the rugged North York Moors. We decide to make a final pitstop at Saltburn-on-Sea, which is 45 minutes by car from the hotel, or a 50-minute train journey from Darlington (a taxi from the hotel to the town costs around £8; the train costs £8.40).

The Ship Inn pub ( remains a focal point of the area, steeped in smuggling folklore, but it was closed because of the weather, so we ignore the spitting rain and settle on al fresco fish and chips. We stalk the seafront looking for an empty bench, finally resting our legs with the waves smashing against the shingle. Forking at a polystyrene tub of battered cod, we embrace the refreshingly bad weather, intermittently stopping to gulp mouthfuls of Coca Cola and scream at the wind blowing away our napkins.

Bellies full and souls fuller, we leave feeling content – high on lungs full of sea air and a weekend of locals and laughter. It's obvious Rockliffe Hall will take on a different kind of magic when it's able to open in all its glory, but for now, it's been bliss.

How to plan your trip

The Armstrong Apartments start from £275 per night including use of the spa. Visit Breakfast hampers cost £27.50.

Travel from Scotland to Darlington by train. Rockliffe Hall is a 10-minute taxi ride from Darlington railway station. Or drive to Hurworth via A1 or M74/A66.