TRAVEL REVIEW: St Mary's Inn & Jesmond Dene House
They say the North East is famous for its warm welcomes.
Mostly, they mean that special natural benevolence of Geordies and their ability to make outsiders at ease.
Rarely do they literally refer to the temperatures, which, apart from rare summer days, range from nippy to 'frozzen' and sometimes, if lips are too cold to form a fricative, 'bitta'.
That didn't put us off the idea of heading to the North East, though.
Not only are crisp walks in the Northumberland countryside one of life's great secret joys, as a former native I know how they like to make up for the outdoor climate by making indoors extra cosy.
This was definitely the case at our hotel near the village of Stannington, St Mary's Inn.
Although in gorgeous, sprawling countryside, it's just 20 minutes outside of bustling Newcastle.
St mary's Inn is known in the area as a straightforward destination pub, both the standard of food and accommodation actually deserve wider renown.
Our large bedroom was uncluttered, light and airy with a homely, throwback style (all wrought iron beds and Edwardian and Victorian wooden furniture with modern touches in the throws and curtains) that made you feel instantly comfortable. Thick curtains, chunky carpets and no skimping on the heating meant we were certain we'd be more than happy to return later.
Downstairs, it was no surprise to feel the glow of the open log fire as we walked in for pre-dinner drinks with not only the human customers looking snug. The pub is upfront with its welcome for pet owners and it was gratifying to see couple of canine companions lying on their sides near the hearth, legs straight, in that seemingly post-faint pose only the truly satisfied dog can attain. Apparently, it is possible to order for them dog popcorn and dog beer, which sort of explained things.
A whisky later, we headed to the restaurant for a superb meal.
A starter of crispy pork belly, black pudding and duck egg salad was very nearly an entire meal in itself. The ultra-generous, belly-busting venison pie and veg that followed was delicious home-style cooking at it best.
It is clear - not just from the dishes themselves, but the scope of the menu - that St Mary's Inn prides itself on its cooking as much as its beers.
But, after a couple of rich courses in the exposed-beam snug, even a birthday meal in full swing - accompanied by that reassuring Northumbrian lilt - couldn't keep us from our cosy bed, from which we watched the stars as slumber took us over.
Morning light allowed us to see the rest of the grounds of the pub which, somewhat unwontedly, are in the midst of a developing housing estate. Not that there isn't plenty of history to St Mary's Inn amid this nascent community forging.
The pub is part of the former St Mary's Hospital complex and locals were justifiably keen to see the handsome red brick building preserved.
Arriving, as we had, after dark it is impossible to appreciate all this on your approach, but it did make for a pleasant surprise as we left, following a completely indulgent breakfast of eggs benedict on muffins.
Just down the road (well, the A1) in Jesmond, at the edge of Newcastle city centre, is the well-established opulent sister to St Mary's Inn, Jesmond Dene House.
We have stayed there once before several years ago and it has lost nothing of its boutique grandeur, which makes it an extremely popular venue for happy occasions from birthdays to nuptials.
At the time, I described our room as the best I'd ever stayed in, and although I've done quite a bit of travelling since then, have seen no evidence to make me change that position.
However, we were only passing through and had time only for an afternoon tea in the conservatory-like area looking onto a huge garden. The multi-layered fancy-laden plates were a delight to behold even without tasting them, which we did without delay, tucking into lovely crustless delicate sandwich fingers and jam and cream-filled scones.
A newly-married couple and their guests were posing for photos, the groom carrying his bride - at the behest of the videographer - so far across the vast lawn he was getting a very unromantic bad back. But everyone was happy and it made a great backdrop for a bite to eat.
After washing it all down with a couple of teas from the epic selection on offer, we retired to the living room and its cosy armchairs and another log fire for a pint. Only when we felt a snooze coming on did we decide to reluctantly leave another cosy retreat.
We'll definitely go back to both venues. Although the Danish word hygge seems to be in vogue at the moment as an apparently untranslatable evocation of utter cosiness, the concept is far from foreign to the North East.
Indulging in the simplest pleasures of sleep, food and warmth is second nature when winter arrives. Let them spoil you.