Yes, there are tearooms — but lonely stone villages, battered bracken moors and designer digs, too. Anthony Peregrine gets a shock in England’s Yorkshire Dales
Great heavens, but Yorkshire is a grand place. There. It’s said, and it was less painful than anticipated. I’m a Lancastrian. Not ‘proud’ or ‘dyed in the wool’— just a normal Lancastrian routinely exasperated by Yorkshiremen’s claim to special status among English-speaking peoples. You know the sort of thing: they’re strong, blunt and taciturn; they ‘speak as they find’, inhabit ‘God’s Own County’ and score runs at the rate of one an hour, fuelled on Yorkshire pudding and Yorkshire Tea from the great plantations of somewhere like Dewsbury. Hell’s teeth, they’re also ‘gradely (decent) folk’. As if an independent nation, they have a Yorkshire Day on August 1. This is irritating in a way unmatched in, say, Wiltshire.
But then I went to the Yorkshire Dales and started to make allowances. By the end of day one, I’d forgiven Yorkshire people much. This was magnificent country. It’s conceivable that England holds none better. OK, so they’re immodest about it. I would be, too.
Let us be clear. The word ‘dales’ sounds sweet, quaint, even comforting — and slivers of the region are just that, where streams burble through wildflower meadows, and lend sparkle to stone villages. Within the turn of a wheel, though, the landscape switches from Postman Pat to Wuthering Heights, with power and challenging space to spare. Pastures roll up to battered bracken moors disciplined, but not much, by dry-stone walls. Clouds sweep across at speed, obviously booked elsewhere. If it’s sunny now, it will be raining shortly. Mist will likely enhance the force of upland emptiness, at once mesmerising and intimidating.
I was overwhelmed. Every prospect pleased. Across the entire Dales, there was nowhere – literally, nowhere – one could look without being smitten by a glorious, wild-country England many doubtless thought was lost.
The only trouble is the hiking. It’s very much what you do in the Dales, apparently; exhortations to do it are relentless from visitor centres, several thousand guidebooks, and red-faced people in boots and weatherproofs whose efforts are a reproach to the idle. Fortunately, I’m tough-minded, so resisted all that, apart from an opening romp around Bolton Abbey.
What a place to start. Here, the southern Dales had been (slightly) tamed for family-day-out purposes. Both abbey and eponymous village were on the Yorkshire estate of the Dukes of Devonshire, who have long held that getting the populace into wide-open spaces was a jolly good idea. As the dukes owned more wide-open space than most – the Bolton Abbey estate alone covers some 12,000 hectares – there was plenty of room.
We joined them, rocking along the River Wharfe, in and out of greensward, woodland and tea shops and into the 12th-century abbey, wrecked after the dissolution of the monasteries.
We could have roamed over 130km of increasingly wild footpaths – but there are limits. We drove on up Wharfedale. A universe of sheep dotted the fells, like Braille on a deep-green background. ‘I’ve never seen better-fed sheep,’ said my wife, a French farmer’s daughter. ‘Chunky,’ agreed a nearby Yorkshirewoman whose authority on chunkiness was unquestionable.
The road unravelled up and down and round and round, each undulating aspect as satisfactory to the senses as Tuscany. Here were hills, dipping dales and remote farms, walls, distant barns, and tough grey villages – Burnsall, Grassington – to provide the punctuation.
Thus to Hawes, at the Dales’ heart, then out again to the Simonstone Hall Hotel. With noble views across the sweep of Upper Wensleydale, the manor house co-opted us into the Yorkshire squirearchy – terraces, peacocks, deep sofas, wood-panelling, four-posters and all. Granted, it hadn’t worked so well for Jeremy Clarkson. His BBC career crashed right here in March 2015, after alleged fisticuffs over hot-dinner-related issues. But that was a no-go subject.
Subsequently, Simonstone changed hands. It is now run by co-owner (and ex-architect) Jake Dinsdale who is very tall, very bright and not yet out of his 20s. He’s both sharpening and loosening the place up – the conservatory had recently hosted its own opera evening.
‘We can do it all in Yorkshire,’ said Jake, as one rather thought he might. Any road, if you’ve the cash, this is your Dales base. It served us splendidly.
As did Hawes itself. By ’eck, but these villages were rooted – in time and space. They had to be. They’d forever been far from anywhere, not so much off the beaten track as off the one after that. Thus, Brexit broke out often. (‘I’ve no real affinity wi’ Leeds, never mind Warsaw,’ said a bloke in the Board Inn.) So did a wraparound sense of community. In Hawes, a local association had just taken over the petrol station. It already ran the library, shuttle buses and much else besides. The old station was now the Dales Countryside Museum, with cracking coverage of farming (obviously), but also of lead-mining. Who knew that mining fuelled 18th- and 19th-century Dales prosperity, paying for the terrific Georgian houses that dignified towns and villages? The whole museum was captivating.
So was the Outhwaite craft ropeworks opposite. Ropeworks, eh? Queue right here, then? Certainly. There was enormous satisfaction in the rope- and braid-making processes. Big bobbins span like an Eightsome Reel at full speed. Later, across town, at the Wensleydale Creamery, cheeseman Chris Cannon gave the most accomplished demo of cheese production I’ve ever witnessed. And, Lord help me, I’ve witnessed a few.
If short of rennet, Dales farmers’ wives would, back in the day, use crushed slugs. ‘By the time I’ve finished, you’ll not be as keen on cheese as you thought you were,’ said Chris. Rennet, though, is mainly vegetarian these days, including in the amazingly popular Wensleydale-and-cranberry confection. (‘We buy cranberries from the US cheap, mix them with cheese and sell it back to them at extortionate prices,’ explained Chris.) The visit ended with a tasting of the creamery’s 28 different products. Best of all was ‘Kit Calvert’, named after the ’30s saviour of Wensleydale cheese (it’s a long story…).
The road unravelled up and down and round and round, each undulating aspect as satisfactory to the senses as Tuscany
From Hawes, a rock’n’roll drive across the moors took us to the barely visible Garsdale station, remote on the Carlisle-Settle line. If not the bleakest station in England, Garsdale was certainly in the top three. ‘Draughty, eh?’ said the sole fellow passenger as we were hurled across the platform by driving rain and wind howling down from the hills. Thus were we blown into a two-carriage diesel, a welcome banality amid angry elements and a wild landscape fashioned in their image. ‘England’s Empty Quarter,’ she said. ‘Apart from the sheep,’ I said. ‘Apart from the sheep,’ she agreed.
Just south of Garsdale, the line’s star attraction was the Ribblehead Viaduct, which (whisper this) wasn’t that impressive — compared with some of Europe’s really startling viaducts (see ‘M’ for ‘Millau’). It was even less impressive when crossed on the train. This was actually the worst place from which to see it (apart, obviously, from Croydon. Or Shanghai). In truth, we didn’t see it at all, because it was underneath us. No matter. Fine viaduct photos stared from every postcard and brochure in the Dales. One got the idea, and chuffed into Settle, of which Edward Elgar was a fervent fan. Today was market day, which didn’t detain us long (I’ve a feeling that England has lost the hang of markets). Instead, we ambled along shambles and ginnels (as the laneways here are known), thought about clambering up Castlebergh Crag rearing directly above, thought again, then hummed old Elgar’s Enigma Variations before spending agreeable minutes at the 17th-century Quakers’ Meeting House talking fair trade (George Fox had been, and remained, big round here). Then we went for lunch in nearby tearooms.
My, but the Dales likes tearooms. There was an epidemic of them in every village. In other wild spots of the world (the Himalayas, etc), one retreats from soaring splendour to a tent for fermented yak’s milk and something unspeakable to eat – bowels of tiger, or lung of yeti. In the Dales, one strides off the moors for… a cup of tea and cake. This is as it should be, the English way of keeping the elements at bay and under control. But might there be an oversupply? And might their pricing have been overambitious? Answer: at $25 for two sandwiches and two coffees, damned right it was.
Ah well. Upwards and onwards along Wensleydale, and over to Swaledale. Here were yet more glorious pastures and ruffled hills swelling to unlikely heights. ‘Wild,’ my wife said. ‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘And no.’ The raw material was terrific, but farming and sheep have shaped the Dales for centuries. Left alone – as a stretch had been at Bolton Abbey – they’d turn unsightly in short order. On the River Ure, the Aysgarth Falls were not as astonishing as the 19th-century attentions of JMW Turner had led us to expect: the Aysgarth Stumbles, perhaps.
But Richmond. Ah, Richmond. Yorkshire’s Richmond, the original of 57 worldwide Richmonds. We’d been there on our honeymoon decades before, but all I could remember was the sloping, cobbled Market Place.
Back then, my attention had doubtless been elsewhere. Anyway. Prince Charles had likened the square to the Campo at Siena and, as so often, he’d been spot on. We went up to England’s greatest 11th-century castle, the remains of which dominate the town and River Swale. The castle’s strongest memory was much more recent – as jail to the Richmond 16 of ‘absolutist’ conscientious objectors to the Great War. Their preserved graffiti includes: ‘We will not murder, or help to murder.’
We wandered, delighted, along the river, back up to the town’s enormously satisfying Georgian heart, and everywhere else. This was our kind of town, big enough (pop: 8,500) to have most things you needed, small enough that you might know the people with whom you were sharing them. Prime among the sites was the world’s only functioning Georgian theatre in its original form. The original form was titchy, half the space taken by the stage, with room for an audience of 200 in the stalls, tiny circle and boxes right onto the stage. From most of the seats, were you a surgeon, you could have leaned over and taken out the performers’ tonsils. Yet they welcomed opera, ballet and the Globe Theatre companies. Plus an annual panto during which, at a specified moment, spectators hurl knitted items at the stage. ‘It’s a tradition. We started with woollen bananas,’ said theatre volunteer Gerry Broadbent. Last year, 2017, The Wizard of Oz was inundated nightly with woollen doughnuts knitted for months in advance by local knitters.
Across the entire Dales, there was nowhere one could look without being smitten by a glorious, wild-country England
One champion lady had knitted 310. (I have one such doughnut before me as I write. For most people, 310 would have been a life’s work.) Given such statistics, one cannot but forgive Yorkshire completely. ‘I’d forgotten how beautiful it was,’ said my other half. She was right. England is damned lucky to have it. I’ll maybe mention this from time to time, until everybody’s been.
Credit: Anthony Peregrine / The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing