Lord By­ron wed here

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - NEWS - ALEXAN­DER LARMAN

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.

THE SPEC­TA­TOR

Alexan­der Larman is the author of By­ron’s Women (Harper Collins, 2016).

Sea­ham Hall in County Durham, Eng­land

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