My Pub: St Mary’s Inn, Morpeth, Northumberland

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Hail Mary: St Mary's Inn has established itself as a little gem with its great food offer and accommodation
Hail Mary: St Mary's Inn has established itself as a little gem with its great food offer and accommodation

Related tags: Pub, Alcoholic beverage, Public house

St Mary’s Inn general manager Robin Freer tells us how this site that serves great food and offers overnight accommodation has quickly established itself as a mainstay despite only being open for 18 months.

The pub

St Mary’s Park is a new housing development on the site of what was St Mary’s Hospital – near Stannington Village, Morpeth. Integral to the development’s masterplan, St Mary’s Inn – a gastropub with bedrooms – is a conversion of the hospital’s old administration offices.

As the development neared completion, St Mary’s Inn resumed trading in June 2018 and is intended as the focal point for the new community. Not just your ‘average boozer’, as well as a pub serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We’ve got 11 bedrooms; serve afternoon tea; host weddings and private parties of all kinds; have a weekly quiz and live music nights; a venue to hold business meetings; and we’re a place to catch up with friends over coffee and cake.

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The publican

Our head chef is Chris Cheek. It was a chance work experience job in the kitchens of a Newcastle hotel that set Chris on a rapid career through fine dining restaurants and, in 2018, to become head chef at St Mary’s Inn.

It hadn’t been his career plan as a 16-year-old but, having discovered an unexpected talent for cooking and after completing his training, he set about gathering experience in as many kitchens as possible, including the three-AA rosette Fisherman’s Lodge in Newcastle and the Michelin-starred Northcote in Lancashire. In the latter, he was promoted to junior sous chef within a year; some days he had full responsibility for running the kitchen.

Returning to the north-east with his new wife, he helped set up a wedding venue, Healey Barn at Riding Mill. Once successful, he began looking for a new challenge just as St Mary’s Inn was looking for a head chef to oversee its reopening. Impressed by its modern kitchen, Chris aims to produce ‘honest pub food with style’ and run a kitchen where everyone is encouraged to contribute ideas.

In the rare hours when not working, Chris loves watching sport – from darts to golf – and, of course, eating out. A little-known fact is that Chris is a keen, and mean, poker player.

The general manager is myself – Robin Freer. I had a student bar job in Newcastle when I was studying architectural technology at Northumbria University, which kick-started an unplanned career in hospitality and led, 16 years later in 2018, to the general manager role at St Mary’s Inn.

The atmosphere, the buzz and the sociability of pubs and bars were a bigger attraction than technical drawing.

I developed my beer-keeping and managerial skills in pubs in Newcastle and Northumberland before becoming general manager of the newly refurbished Joiners Arms in High Newton, which had also added some  classy bedrooms.

From there, I helped with the refurbishment of another pub with rooms, the Lord Crewe Hotel at Bamburgh.

The reopening of St Mary’s Inn offered both another challenge and the chance to move my family nearer to Newcastle.

No matter the quality of the food or the beer, friendly service is the key to a successful inn; if you get that right, everything else falls into place.

When not at work, I’m likely to be rock-pooling or watching steam trains with my two young boys.

A little-known fact about me is I know how to herd cattle, and I’m pretty nifty with a quad bike.

The trade

We have a variety of groups that come into the inn. There’s our regulars, who reside in the estate near us, come in for drinks; our Friday night music crowd; our tapas nights guests; rustic afternoon tea groups (regulars or bridal/baby showers); Monday quiz teams; and, of course, our diners who are joining us in the restaurant for our à la carte menu.

We also have guests visit us to stay in one of our 11 bedrooms. These are guests who are mostly touring Northumberland and tourism has grown here.

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What’s on the menu?

Tapas

Chickpea jalfrezi, rice & naan bread; Black pudding scotch egg, tomato chutney; Spicy Cous Cous, cherry tomatoes & halloumi; Tomato & red pepper hummus, warm pitta bread; Rye & caraway sourdough & mixed olives; Spanish tortilla, pimento red pepper; Lamb meatballs, tomato ragu & yoghurt - £4.50 each or three for £12

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Starters

  • Crispy squid, Asian salad, peanut butter & sriracha dressing - £8.50
  • Crispy Duck Rillette with cherry, hazelnut, watercress & apple - £7.50
  • Halloumi fries - £6.50

Main meals

  • Pan-fried ChalkStream trout with crushed Pippa potatoes, caramelised cauliflower & girolles - £19
  • Bacon loin chop with hand-cut chips, poached egg, pineapple salsa - £13.50
  • Veggie burger served with sweet potato fries & house pickles - £10
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Desserts

  • Sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream - £7
  • Warm carrot cake, orange & cinnamon cream cheese with toffee popcorn & salted caramel ice cream - £6.50
  • Selection of cheeses with celery, grapes, crackers and fig & liquorice preserve - £8.50

Steak night special on first Wednesday of every month

16oz tomahawk served with fries, herb-crusted mushroom, semi-dried tomato & watercress and a choice of dessert - £40

The team

We have an amazing team of 20 at the inn and it really does feel like a family. Everyone works together to ensure the guests’ experience, from the moment they walk in the door until they depart, is memorable and genuine.

We do not have staff on accommodation and many of our staff members are locals to the area.

The drink

On tap we have St Mary’s Ale (it’s our most popular beer, which is brewed in Newcastle), Estrella Damm, Rivercatcher, Birra Moretti, Guinness, Amstel and Lagunitas DayTime.

The food

Head chef Chris Cheek is well known for his extensive menus, from classic favourites such as fish and chips, burgers and steaks to more than pub grub – dishes such as crispy squid Asian salad with peanut butter and sriracha dressing; mackerel pâté with pickled fennel; orange on toasted sourdough; or pan-fried ChalkStream trout with crushed Pippa potatoes, caramelised cauliflower and girolles.

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We also have rustic afternoon tea at the inn – hearty and generous food such as doorstop sandwiches with classic fillings on stottie or granary bread, chunky slices of savoury favourites, a delicious selection of cakes and scones with cream like clouds.

These menus, together with our newly added tapas menu, bring people to the pub. There doesn’t seem to be any one preference with our guests – we see all menus being enjoyed evenly.

The events

We host weddings too. We have two versatile, intimate spaces that seat around 25 people for dinner and 50 for an evening reception. We have 11 bedrooms for the guests staying over in this rustic and homely setting in the heart of Northumberland.

We host music nights most Fridays, which include everything from country to blues and on Mondays, we have our weekly quiz nights.

We hosted our second wine dinner with Richard Bouglet of L’Art du Vin, in November and plan to keep hosting these events, due to popular demand.

The future

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Training of staff will continue to expand. We have sent some on their WSET Level 2 and, of course, we regularly hold meetings to ensure that everyone is up to date on standards and expectations at our five-star inn.

We love adding specials to our weekly menus and hope to continue introducing creative dishes – when we know a dish is well received, we add it to the main menu.

We have a team on the bar that regularly experiments with cocktails so that we can keep up with new trends and change our offer – also ensuring flavours are kept seasonal.

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