Lord Byron wed here
I’m standing in milady’s boudoir, a room that would have delighted Liberace. Here, nothing is de trop and everything is geared towards lavish indulgence. Two enormous freestanding baths face the window, giving exhibitionists a heaven-sent opportunity to disport in the altogether. The upstairs bed could comfortably accommodate four adults. Portraits of Ada Lovelace — who has given her name to the suite — festoon the staircase, and a half bottle of Taittinger champagne begs “Drink me!” in an ice bucket. It’s somewhat strange to think that amid this bling lies a sad and brutal history.
The coastal town of Seaham, in County Durham in England’s northeast, contains the house in which Lord Byron contracted the 19th century’s most bizarre marriage. Seaham Hall was the home of Annabella Milbanke, an heiress, whom Byron proposed to almost on a whim; he saw her as the answer to his financial woes. He was also having an affair with his half-sister Augusta.
After he was accepted, Byron immediately regretted it. They eschewed a grand society wedding, instead marrying quietly at Seaham Hall. Byron’s friend, the politician and writer John Cam Hobhouse, accompanied him there and said of the poet’s progress that “never was lover less in haste”. The wedding itself, on January 2, 1815, was a miserable occasion, and the marriage did not last. The socalled “romantic poet” proved to be the least loving of husbands, and the scandal and horror that ensued when some of his behaviour became public drove him into exile the following year.
Two centuries later, Seaham Hall is one of the northeast’s most beloved hotels. It has a flamboyance and cheerily overstated attitude that Byron, himself a sartorial peacock, would undoubtedly have loved. The entrance hall is sober enough, if you ignore the enormous stained-glass ceiling. But elsewhere are delights designed to both startle and stimulate. Enormous champagne bottles festoon the place, and a games room (the Taittinger Sports Lounge) has vast pool tables and table football, although the omnipresent booze might impair even the best sportsman’s prowess.
The Serenity Spa is reached via an underground passage that could have come from a James Bond film, and one trots out feeling sleek and shiny. There is a bewildering assortment of places to relax, including the Zen Lounge and, indeed, those enormous beds.
The main restaurant — called Byron’s, of course — is very good in a Michelin–baiting way. The head chef, Ross Stovold, knows what he’s doing, and all the dishes in the seven-course tasting menu are matched with decentsized glasses of fine wine. I had heard the hotel was haunted, and half-hoped to be visited by a Byronic ghost — a biographer’s dream, or perhaps nightmare — but the only spirit I was visited by was a postprandial cognac in the bar.
Seaham Hall might not be to everyone’s taste. It’s brash and it’s big. But, just like Byron, it’s enormous fun, and a stay here feels like a brief diversion into another world. Mad? Undoubtedly. Bad? Anything but. And dangerous to know? Never.
Alexander Larman is the author of Byron’s Women (Harper Collins, 2016).
Seaham Hall in County Durham, England