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England's Coal Coast
Visit England for a World-Class Spa Experience

by Amanda Castleman

Say hello to the oak," a lady advises in the changing room. "The big tree - arching over the outdoor jacuzzi - it'll give you a cuddle, if you let it."

Seaham Hall Exterior

I frown. Woo-woo whooshes right past me. But I'm curious why patrons frequent Seaham Hall. The 37-acre retreat overlooks wild forests and the wind-whipped North Sea, a three-hour train journey north of London. Not the most obvious location for a bling-bling boutique hotel and spa, in other words.

This local businesswoman, Amanda Morpeth, paused here to recharge between meetings. "It's a bit of soft, green space," she explains, "totally safe and connected. Some spas try to wow with the head, not the heart. Seaham gets the balance just right."

That last bit we agree upon, at least. So do others: Conde Nast Traveller voted it 2004's Best United Kingdom Spa Destination, while the capital's distinguished Sunday Times declared it the "Best Spa for Style."

Such superlatives are unusual on England's "coal coast", riddled with defunct mining pits and dreary, depressed villages. The swashbuckling poet Lord Byron - who wed the local it-girl Annabella Milbanke in this Georgian manor house - complained that "we have nothing but county meetings and shipwrecks … and the glories of surf and foam."

Nevertheless, visionaries Tom and Joyce Maxfield opened an elite hotel here in March 2001. Twenty-one months later, The Serenity Spa debuted in all its Feng-Shui-infused, Asian-fusion splendor.


Spa Manager Mark Flannery admits the setting is unusual, even improbable. The United Kingdom, after all, isn't exactly a pampering epicenter. Nor is the Northeast high on travelers' itineraries … And Seaham's just a speck on the map, 15 minutes from the cameo castle-town of Durham and 20 from up-and-coming Newcastle, famous for its hardy beauties who bare their midriffs even in snow drifts.

"So why build a world-class spa here?" he grins. "To prove we can."

Also because Tom Maxfield was once a working-class kid in nearby Sunderland, a hardscrabble city of 281,000. He helped ignite the Sage Group, an accounting and business management software firm. Now worth around £40-50m, Maxfield's returned to his roots - and hopes to revitalize the region.

"People who come here don't regard Seaham as a run-down coal mining town past its sell-by date," he told the BBC News. "There are lots more industries springing up. I think we lit a spark."

As the brand proves successful, the Maxfields dream of more day- and destination-spas. The logic is simple: if the Serenity formula works in the back-of-beyond, it'll sizzle in the cities and tourist hotspots.

Yet great charm lies in the remoteness: the ancient hedgerows, broad meadows, tangled woodlands, crumbling churches of grey stone and storm-lashed shores of the neglected Northeast. Seaham Hall and The Serenity Spa seem to have stepped outside time's bustle.


Serenity Spa at Seaham H all

The manor, expanded by pagodas, greets guests with a William Pye water-vortex. Inside are Indian antiques, paintings by Dale Atkinson, contemporary Norwegian art and a stained-glass ceiling, which Bridget Jones based on Byron's poetry. Floors gleam with a parquet of merbau, a Malaysian timber with reddish highlights.

Naturally, its crowning glory is The Serenity Spa, especially the sublime tunnel entrance. A glass and wood ramp winds over cobblestones and cascading rivulets. A huge bronze elephant statue trumpets at the end of the hall.

An ozone-cleaned pool anchors the spa suite. Other baths include a Turkish hammam, sauna of Canadian redwood, black-granite steam room with a fiber-optic ceiling and a hydrotherapy bath (the floor jet is especially popular with professional athletes - only the most fit can stay upright over this powerful geyser).

Sated from soaking, Chardonnay and a spice massage, I finally face the locker-room challenge: the oak encounter. Shivering, I slip into the patio hot tub and focus on the trunk sweeping above. Clouds slap across the sky. Two locals gossip about their husbands. I grow cold, concentrating on the stark fractals of bare branches.

Nothing. The scion of Serenity Hall is silent. I am neither a tree-hugger, nor, it seems, tree-hugged.

But I do take away something deeper from the coal coast, so stripped by the sea and corroded by commerce: a harsh and haunting landscape that somehow preserves the calm after the storm. And - fittingly - Byron's words sum it up best:

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods;
There is a rapture on the lonely shore;
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.

If You Go:

The Serenity Spa at Seaham Hall is open 6.30am-10pm. A day in the pools costs £75 Mon-Thur and £85 Fri-Sun. Book the more unusual treatments - like Hopi ear candles (£45) or Balinese spice massage (£125) - well in advance (Lord Byron's Walk, Seaham, County Durham; Tel: 0191.516.1550;

Seaham Hall's 19 suites have vast windows, Kenzo furnishings, Bang & Olufsen TVs and bathroom speakerphones with echo-filters. The Internet connection is cumbersome old broadband, but otherwise the boutique hotel rivals any for elegance, both in technology and aesthetics. Prices range from £195-575 (Tel: 0191.516.1400;

Soaked diners leave damp blotches on the Ozone's suede, rose-colored chairs. No one even flinches. The spa restaurant - specializing in Thai-style tapas - is genuinely that casual. Seaham Hall Hotel serves light snacks in the bar-lounge, as well as haute cuisine in the gourmet restaurant, routinely voted among rural Britain's best.

The nearest airports are Durham's Teeside and Newcastle, both served by no-frill lines like EasyJet, BMI and Ryanair, as well as august carriers like British Airways. Or take the train three hours from London, changing at Newcastle for the Seaham spur. The newsagent at the small station can order a taxi for the five-minute ride to the spa. Book train tickets several weeks in advance for the best discounts (

The Rough Guide to England by Jules Brown is a good general guidebook. The Michael Cain classic Get Carter captures Newcastle's gritty edge (watch the 1971 version, directed by Mike Hodges, not the dreadful Sly Stallone flop set in Vegas). The Full Monty sheds some light on coal-town conditions (not to mention choice bits of Robert Carlyle and his stripping co-stars…). Finally, contact Visit NE England for further information (

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