SMALL country house hotels in the Dales have had bad press of late – especially if the guests have been Jeremy Clarkson.

The now infamous incident involving the former Top Gear presenter and Simonstone Hall near Hawes has fuelled all kinds of jokes in the London-based media about the standards of provincial hospitality. It is a fact, unquestionably, that the ability to a find a well cooked steak after 9pm in the more isolated parts of the UK decreases proportionately with the increase in distance from a major population centre.

But that’s not because of some lack of sophistication or professionalism. It’s because that 24/7 availability isn’t a practical proposition when running a business without thousands of people on your doorstep.

We were reminded of this simple fact of rural business life after our visit to Horsley Hall in deepest Weardale. A couple of miles from Eastgate, it is just about as remote as Simonstone Hall, being on the back road from Westgate to Stanhope – the only passing trade round here are sheep on the way to market.

Booking a table for lunch or dinner is a must; there’s no guarantee if you turned up unannounced that you would be served. That’s not because they don’t want customers, it’s just a family business run to cater for demand when it is there - like the shooting season. They also do a good number of weddings.

Our booking for the Thursday before Easter might have alarmed some. We were asked if we minded dining alone. Not at all but a relevant question because splendid isolation is not some people’s idea of good night out. We loved it 100 per cent.

To be fair, as we pulled up outside the three-storey, grey stone-built 17th century manor house after a winding drive through the gathering gloom of the evening it all seemed a bit spooky. The sense of mild foreboding wasn’t helped by the locked front door, but ringing the doorbell brought forth owner (and chief cook, bottle washer and goodness knows what else) Liz Curry who welcomed us with the warmest of smiles and showed us through to the baronial-style hall where a wood-burning stove was just getting going at one end and the dinner table was set for two at the other end.

As baronial halls go this is pretty bijou but still mightily impressive with a massive stone fireplace, sweeping staircase, wood panelling, ornate plasterwork etc. Some might find it a bit intimidating but we just enjoyed playing lord and lady of the manor, being served on discreetly and diligently by Liz and her husband, Derek (the real lord and lady of the house).

We studied menus while seated near the wood-burning stove (there was a bit of a chill initially) and enjoyed some cream cheese and smoked salmon or Parma ham canapés with our pre-dinner glasses of Sancerre.

Drinks were served by Derek who, when prompted, was happy to give a quick rundown on the history of the hall and their 18-year involvement with it while Liz got to work in the kitchen.

In keeping with the grand surroundings, I’d rather hoped a big gong would summon us to the dining table but Derek quietly invited us to dine and Liz arrived with our starters shortly afterwards.

Sylvia’s warm salad was on the face of it rather ordinary – bacon lardons, chorizo, rocket, tomato and spring onion. What transformed into something on an entirely different was a perfectly cooked poached egg and a superbly smooth olive oil dressing.

I hadn’t seen fried halloumi cheese on a restaurant menu since about 1986 so my choice, inspired by nostalgic curiousity, was perhaps a bit risky. Not a bit of it. I’d forgotten how that that rubbery, chewy quality is perversely brilliant and again the making of this dish was the dressing with the rocket and capers – olive oil based again but zipped up with orange.

My main course - lamb shank - is also one of those restaurant staples from an earlier time but here it was presented in Moroccan tagine style, slow cooked in an Aga with vegetables, including sweet potato, harissa seasoning and mint. The richly-flavoured lamb just fell off the bone.

Sylvia’s 8oz sirloin steak was a fine slab of beef, nicely marbled with fat, juicy, tender and cooked spot-on medium. The fat chips were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The side salad from more of that lovely dressing served with her starter.

We shared a dessert – a thoroughly modern lemon meringue semi-freddo – lemon curd and crushed meringue folded into whipped cream and frozen. I say shared but in truth it became a bit of a competition as the creamily smooth but slightly sharp confection slipped down. The woman who “doesn’t do puddings” was tucking in.

With a long journey home, we skipped coffee and asked for the bill - a very reasonable £85.50 Considering it included a pricey bottle of sharp and flinty Sancerre (£26.50), that represented superb value for the standard of cooking, the personal service and the splendid surrounding. Which is why it collects a set of top scores. The first time we’ve bestowed that accolade since 2013. Thoroughly deserved too.

Horsley Hall

Eastgate

Bishop Auckland

Co Durham DL13 2LJ

01388 517239

Email: info@horsleyhall.co.uk

Web: www.horsleyhall.co.uk/

Open: dinner served 7-9pm but booking in advance is essential

Vegetarian options available. Easy disabled access.

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 10 Service 10 Surroundings 10 Value 10