Last year in the picturesque Northumbrian town of Alnwick a small hotel quietly opened its doors. I say quietly because one may have expected a bigger splash about a hotel belonging to the man who had been so instrumental in the expansion of the well-known Malmaison and Hotel du Vin chains. Strictly speaking, though, The Cookie Jar isn’t really Robert Cooke’s project – it’s his wife’s, and Debbie Cooke, on a day to day basis, is the force behind the hotel’s instant success.
Alnwick is one of those towns which oozes such an immense degree of history and grandeur that everyone who hasn’t been should have it on their wish list. The castle (country seat of the Dukes of Northumberland and the second largest inhabited castle in the UK after Windsor) is, of course, primarily what makes the town famous. Then there are the castle gardens, refashioned in the last 20 years by the current Duchess, to enormous – and rightful – acclaim; and then juxtaposed to this, or perhaps complementing it, is Barter Books, one of the largest second-hand bookstores in the world. This may sound random but, in truth, people have been known to travel from all corners of the globe to visit this literary treasure trove, which occupies Alnwick’s former Victorian train station. The waiting rooms have been converted to a quirky café where visitors can eat bacon butties in front of an open log fire (there are three in total) and read.
Hard by the entrance to the castle, on an attractive street known as Bailiffgate, the former Convent of Mercy was snapped up by the Cookes about two years ago and turned, in the space of a lightning four months, into The Cookie Jar (so-called as a play on their surname, in case you’re wondering). The overriding theme is blue – used to smart, easy-on-the-eye effect in most of the bedrooms and public areas. Top-notch fabrics, furniture and wallpaper, shelves of books, assorted antiques and some interesting framed photographs all contribute to the feeling of a chic, comfortable bolthole. The Chapel (still with stained glass and wooden hymn boards) is the premier suite but I preferred some of the smaller rooms – St Cuthbert’s Cave with its view of the castle, or Bamburgh with three sunny sash windows onto the street.
There’s a small bistro-style restaurant overlooking the garden at the back where breakfast is served each morning and, on Fridays and Saturdays, a fixed-price dinner. Mid-week in winter the hotel is often taken exclusively for shooting parties, hence the kennels and gun room (this is, after all, prime shooting terrain), but the rest of the year guests are mostly those on quiet weekend escapes who have come to enjoy a ravishing part of England. If you don’t come just for Alnwick itself, then come for the nearby coast (protected as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), several other distinguished castles and mile upon mile of perfect walking countryside.
If anything, The Cookie Jar is short on space, but there are plans afoot to rectify this. I, for one, will be keeping a keen eye on what happens next.
The Cookie Jar (www.cookiejaralnwick.com; 01665 510 465). Double rooms from about £150 B&B.