COUNTRY house hotels are not the place one can normally expect to pick up a bargain. Some of course are excellent and charge accordingly. Many, however, are tired, short of customers and have a touch of the Fawlty Towers about them.

I can painfully recall one occasion in a most handsome establishment in the South of England which featured an evening meal in a splendidly empty dining room the size of Kent. We were served by a woman who must have been the model for the elderly waitress created by the actress Julie Walters in one of Victoria Wood's television sketch shows who never managed to get the two soups to the table intact. This venerable lady was visibly out of breath by the time she reached our table. The temperature of the food suggested the kitchens were somewhere in Sussex.

So we approached Solberge Hall at Newby Wiske, near Northallerton, with a certain degree of trepidation. Solberge doesn't especially set its stall out as a place to go for a meal. Its staple fare is weddings, balls (we had attended a very good one there in the last year) and accommodation for the better class of business folk. What could it do for a couple who had plucked it almost at random out of the Yellow Pages?

Rather well, as it happens, despite the rather discouraging welcome at the start of the hotel's sweeping drive. The sign revealing Solberge Hall's presence was unlit. Had we not known where it was we would have sailed past to Newby Wiske and probably ended up at police headquarters (a similar, if larger, stately pile - and no doubt with an excellent canteen).

The welcome at the reception was rather brighter. The hotel receptionist was definitely the right side of 70 (actually, she might not have been 20) and she directed us to the adjacent bar where we were presented with menus, drinks and canapes. There were another four dining couples that evening, some of them clearly residents, so the atmosphere was of the hushed tones variety but by no means glacial. The staff were universally young, bright and agile on their feet.

We ate in the hotel's Garden Room, a delightful area which, as its name implies, has views over the grounds and adjacent countryside. As it was dark we could only imagine these but nevertheless it made for a beautiful dining room, its high corniced ceiling providing grandeur but not so large and intimidating as to strip it of its intimacy.

Our starters - a Greek salad for Sylvia and mussels in a white wine, cream and garlic sauce for me - arrived promptly and both were faithful, simple but well executed versions of these classic dishes. My mussels were particularly plump and juicy, and I ate far too much bread trying not to let the sauce go to waste. Sylvia's salad featured plenty of olives and a feta cheese which was not too salty.

The standard was maintained for the main courses. Sylvia's rack of lamb with an apricot and walnut stuffing was served on a very good rosemary mash surrounded by a thyme jus - all the flavours that lamb just loves.

My breast of duck was also well received although the plum and orange sauce, clearly designed to cut through the richness of the meat was just a tad too sharp for my liking. It came with baby vegetables and saffron potatoes.

Both main courses were served piping hot so the kitchens were clearly in the same county.

We had chosen from the hotel's standard a la carte evening menu which featured five starters and five main courses for £19. Other choices which caught our eye were a salad of charred squid with kidney beans, rocket and chilli and red mullet marinated in sweet chilli sauce and served with sesame noodles.

For just another £2.50 more a dessert could be had so I enjoyed a traditional yet light apple crumble with crme anglais while Sylvia succeeded in securing a large bowl of strawberries and cream which were not on the menu but were readily provided.

Coffee (rather weak) was served in the hotel's lounge and the bill, which included one glass of house wine, two pre-dinner drinks and mineral water came to just a tiddle over fifty quid. Taking into account the elegant English country house surroundings and the high standard of service and cooking, it was a bargain. And not a Basil Fawlty in sight.