On reflection, setting off to drive across the wet, wild and perilously steep and winding roads of the Pennines in the pitch darkness of a wintry late Friday night, was not our wisest move
Just two days later we would reverse this journey in daylight, to be treated to staggeringly beautiful panoramic views and rays of cold sunshine across northern hillsides in shades of green, brown and grey.
But that night our decision to take the trickier of two route options from Lancashire to Northumberland resulted in a few heart-in-mouth moments as we negotiated twists and turns in pitch darkness as the rain poured down, out of WiFi range, inches from the plummeting mountainsides.
Safe to say we were pretty pleased to arrive at St Mary’s Inn, to the sight of welcoming light spilling out of the windows and the sounds of live music and conversation from a well-stocked looking bar and a roaring real fire.
Shuffling in with our soggy clothes and bags that evening, we must have seemed a sorry sight as we walked in post-10pm past the well-oiled Friday night customers in the bar but we didn’t care - it was like being plunged from icy rain into a warm bath and it was just what we needed.
St Mary’s Inn is a traditionally-styled pub with on-site restaurant, situated on a private estate three miles from Stannington Village near Morpeth and set in acres of countryside just 10 minutes from the A1 and 20 minutes north of Newcastle upon Tyne.
Anticipating a country pub in the wilds of nowhere, we were quite surprised to find , after a rural approach, to find the ‘private estate’ incorporated a new and expensive looking housing development of which St Mary’s Inn is the focal point - but nonetheless was very welcoming. We entered through the bar to smiles ( there is another entrance for hotel guests , if needed) and were soon ushered to our room.
Expecting something small and cute we were delighted to be treated to a spacious room (I could have done a cartwheel if inclined - I wasn’t), complete with enormous bed, dressing table and a huge original church-like stone window which the next morning would spill light generously into the room.
But with bags duly dumped, we were soon downstairs again, eyeing up the wines and beers on offer and bagging seats near to the fire in a cosy nook boasting shelves spilling with books, toys and games.
My other half was soon at the bar, ordering me wine off a generous menu and -experimenting with a beer he’d never seen before -the spicy malt and wheaty Inedit Damm.
We were quite happy and relaxed after our adventures across the hills.
Just a note to say the staff couldn’t help enough - even bringing us takeaway menus as the restaurant was closed due to the late hours and saying they were happy for us to order to a table.
The next day, refreshed, we tucked into a delicious and locally-sourced full English breakfast in the St Mary’s restaurant ( I was charmed by the teapot with knitted warmer) and plotted our day's adventures.
Admittedly it was tempting to spend our one full day in beautiful Northumberland ensconced by the fire at St Mary’s (they do a mouth-watering looking sweet and savoury rustic afternoon tea menu for £15 person, £5 extra for prosecco)
Instead, upon a recommendation from a friend, we headed across to beautiful Alnwick (pronounced 'Annick'), to check out the imposing Norman castle and gardens famed for their role in history, as the second-largest inhabited castle in the UK and indeed, star turn on-screen as Hogwarts in two Harry Potter films and as fictional Brancaster Castle in the 2014 Downton Abbey Christmas special.
Fully bobble-hatted up we walked up an appetite for a coffee and cake around inventive gardens, designed to entertain families for hours, before heading to the castle itself - where we watched would-be witches and wizards taking part in broomstick flying lessons in the exact spot Harry Potter himself first shot in the air.
I’m pretty sure all the participants were Muggles though, judging by their altitude.
You can easily spend a day at the castle, but Alnwick itself is well worth a wander with its quaint building and quirky secondhand bookstore - Barter Books -at the railway station.
But by tea-time, with a wave of the wand (gift shop) we had magicked ourselves across calming countryside, home to St Mary’s where we had a table booked in the restaurant for our evening meal.
By now we had fully embraced the low-key, informal, vibe and took a nap before vaguely sprucing ourselves up for a pre-prandial G&T in the bar with its quirky knick-knacks - then heading into the restaurant for a meal any top restaurant would have been proud of.
Thoughtful and sources sustainably and locally as possible, the meal left me sleepy and ready for my final night in the comfy confines of my giant, soft, bed.
After a final drink by the ‘our’ open fire, of course..