ON ARRIVAL at Rockliffe Hall, I was curious - and rapidly became curiouser. Why were there sculptures of white rabbits and march hares in the reception area? Why was a Mad Hatter’s afternoon tea being planned in the orangery restaurant? And what on earth was Mischmasch?

It soon became clear: Rockliffe - an AA-rated 5-star hotel, spa and golf course in County Durham - is just down the road from Croft, the village where Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, spent his childhood. A carving in the parish church, where his father was Rector, bears a remarkable resemblance to - and may have been the inspiration for - Carroll’s grinning Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Mischmasch was a periodical written and illustrated by Carroll for his family and now Rockliffe Hall is developing a £750,000 parkland for guests in the hotel grounds called Mischmasch, featuring Carroll-themed activities including an Alice in Wonderland Nature Trail and Sculptures - some of which are residing temporarily in the hotel reception area until Mischmasch opens in September - as well as a walled kitchen garden where the hotel’s chefs will grow their own produce.

The hotel itself, set in 375 acres of grounds, has an immaculate pedigree. It was named hotel of the year in the 2016 North East Tourism Awards and is apparently the only hotel in the North to hold 5 AA red stars.

The building was developed by Quaker Alfred Backhouse in the mid-1850s and was then owned in the 20th century by Lord Southampton, followed by the Brothers of St John of God, who converted it into a hospital, then by Durham County Council, which used it as a community centre, and finally by Middlesbrough Football Club, which launched a major redevelopment to turn it into the top-of-the-range resort of today.

I had been invited to stay for a night with my wife and it only took us just over an hour to drive the 55 miles up the A59 and A1 from York to the hall, situated just south of Darlington.

We were staying in one of the 61 spacious guestrooms and suites: a ‘superior double’ in the new extension to the old hall. It was luxurious, with a super king-size bed, lounge area and seating and views across the golf course and woodland, and there was even a ‘tile TV’ at the end of the Villeroy and Boch bathtub - a first for me which meant I could watch a film while enjoying a soak.

But talking of water, I couldn’t wait to sample the delights of the spa, one of the largest in the country and the perfect place to relax and unwind. The warm sunshine of a July Sunday meant we could take full advantage of the spa garden, which includes decking and lounging areas with views across the grounds, a small infinity pool and a warm Jacuzzi. Indoors there was a hydro pool, a swimming pool, and various saunas and steam rooms such as a ‘Roman sauna’ and a ‘Caldarium,’ and there was also an ‘igloo’, a freezing cold room intended to ‘stimulate lymphatic systems and circulation whilst cooling and refreshing’. I gave that room five seconds….

Then it was time for a spa treatment; my wife chose a relaxing reflexology session while I decided to defy gender stereotyping and undergo my first ever pedicure, albeit without any nail varnish for my toes. It certainly revived and smoothed my tired feet, which were soaked in a bath of Dead Sea salts, exfoliated and massaged. Lovely.

Later, we moved on to dinner in the Brasserie restaurant, run by chef Aaron Craig, who has worked all over the UK and Europe including Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck, which was voted second best restaurant in the world. My slow cooked pork fillet, with sage pearl barley risotto, apple puree and port sauce was simply delicious.

The following day, after a hearty full English breakfast delivered to our table in the ornate Orangery restaurant, we just had time for a quick visit to the church before our return to York. A lady arranging flowers showed us the carving and it does indeed resemble a smiling cat: it’s intriguing to think the whole Alice phenomenon may have started here.

* Mike Laycock was the guest of Rockliffe Hall, a member of Pride of Britain Hotels’ collection. An overnight stay costs from £220 per room (two sharing), including full English breakfast and use of the indoor spa. Spa Garden access costs £30pp for a two-hour session. To book call Pride of Britain Hotels (0800 089 3929, http://www.prideofbritainhotels.com..