Discover Christmas in the delicious Dales
With scintillating scenery, breathtaking winter walks, friendly villages and irresistible food, the Yorkshire Dales are a joyful place to explore on a festive break, says Rachael Oakden.
Bill Bryson called it his favourite view in the world: the panorama of Malhamdale, seen from the road that comes off the wind-bitten tops of Kirkby Fell into the hamlet of Kirkby Malham. From beside a rusty field gate you can take in the entire dale, a smooth jigsaw of sloping fields, drystone walls and cottages overlooked by the crescent-shaped cliffs of Malham Cove. It’s a vista that stops drivers in their tracks.
If you happen to gaze across a certain field towards that famous scar, carved into the limestone cliffs by ice-age waterfalls, you might find yourself eyeballing another Yorkshire icon – the longhorn cow. A small herd of longhorns grazes these Malhamdale pastures, their warm brown-and-white brindle coats standing out against the winter-bleached landscape. They belong to Chris Wildman, a fifth-generation Yorkshire butcher, farmer and champion of this once-endangered breed, which originated in this part of northern England and is now revered by beef connoisseurs everywhere.
He’ll tell you all about his cows if you continue along the road to Town End Farm Shop at Airton. In fact, he’ll happily chat through the provenance of all the Yorkshire meats, cheeses, chocolates, gins, beers, preserves, pickles, biscuits and brandy snaps that fill the shelves of his barn-conversion turned food hall. A charismatic food obsessive, Chris is one of a growing band of chefs and producers whose enthusiasm for their local larder is attracting food lovers to a part of the world already cherished by walkers and real-ale drinkers. His farm shop and cafe is incredibly well-stocked, a place to lunch on platters of hand-cured charcuterie and potted meats and order the Christmas joint in one go (and, yes, they can do a longhorn rib via mail order). You can also tick off your pressie list – the first floor is a treasure trove of local ceramics, gifts and knits.
Get talking to Chris about cheeseboards, and he’ll send you back over Kirkby Fell to see his fellow food champions Andy and Kathy Swinscoe at Settle. These specialists in unpasteurised and farmhouse cheeses work with more than 30 artisan cheese-makers. Their award-winning Courtyard Dairy on the edge of the national park is so compact that, without stepping over the threshold, you can almost reach the counter. Here Andy stands, cheerfully handing out samples to every person who pops a head in.
Pascal Watkins and Bruce Elsworth turn to the Swinscoes to help them source artisan goat, sheep and cows’ milk cheeses for The Angel Inn at Hetton. This village pub lies a short drive from Malhamdale into Wharfedale along a narrow road that’s so scenic you’ll wish it lasted longer. With its low, beamed ceilings, cosy snugs and crackling fires, it has been on the food-lover’s must-do list since its days under the ownership of Pascal’s father, Denis Watkins. He and chef-director Bruce Elsworth are credited with revolutionising local pub grub: Pascal recounts how his father ‘invented’ the Yorkshire gastropub by banning chips in a spontaneous huff after the darts and dominos team complained he’d forgotten to send out their regular bowls of free fries.
Classic yet unpretentious French-inspired food (try the signature ‘Little Moneybag’ starter, a crispy fine pastry parcel filled with seafood in a butterscotchy lobster sauce) is dished up with friendly informality in portions generous enough to satisfy a Yorkshire walker. It’s a winning recipe that has inspired many who have cooked and eaten here.
Skipton-born chef Michael Pighills trained under Bruce Elsworth and is now the owner of The King’s Head in Kettlewell, Upper Wharfedale. Here, the modish, bare-bones interior is dominated by a vast inglenook fireplace and chalkboard menu. This is written daily according to the produce that comes Michael’s way: the King’s Head is the type of local where gamekeepers bring in bagfuls of pheasants and neighbours hand over prize marrows in exchange for a couple of pints.
Michael loves winter and the comfort food it inspires: hungry hikers coming in off the Dales Way will catch scent of dishes such as nine-hour-braised featherblade of beef, or steak-and-ale pie. His pies are renowned for their pastry lids, which balance crunch and softness, their generous fillings of slow-cooked beef and tart baby onions bathed in a full-flavoured, fruity gravy. He’s only too happy to reveal his secret ingredients: half-suet-half-shortcrust pastry mix and a local microbrew called Hetton Pale Ale.
Ales in the Dales
The Yorkshire Dales could have been designed by a beer drinker, so liberally dotted are they with traditional, fire-warmed pubs linked by easy-to-follow footpaths just challenging enough to work up a thirst. Here, you don’t just eat the view, you drink it. The Dark Horse Brewery’s Hetton Pale Ale is brewed at Hetton; the Settle Brewery’s Main Line Bitter is crafted next to the sidings of the Settle to Carlisle Railway; the Wensleydale-based Yorkshire Dales Brewing Co names its beers after nearby landmarks, hence Butter Tubs ale and Buckden Pike.
You can drink Buckden Pike while gazing up toward it at the White Lion Inn in Cray. This dinky pub has been given a minimalist makeover by its young owners, and its bistro-style menu is the talk of Upper Wharfedale. It is the northernmost stop on the Alesway, a trail of 17 real-ale pubs that follows the Wharf upriver from near Ilkley, through honeypot settlements such as Burnsall, Grassington and Kettlewell. And as one of three pubs at the corners of the so-called Buckden triangle, it’s the perfect spot to fuel up for – and recover from – a seven-mile circular walk that showcases the dramatic limestone geology of this U-shaped glacial valley.
The first two-mile stretch is an easy stroll across elevated field edges, which look across to the characteristic stepped slopes above the village of Buckden, so smoothly carved by sheep and weather that they resemble a frosty version of a bumpy fairground slide. Laid out below is the classic Wharfedale patchwork of emerald fields, 18th-century drystone walls and field barns, towards which the path descends to reach Hubberholme, home of the convivial George Inn.
You join the Dales Way here, which could take you upstream along the boulder-strewn river as it tumbles off Langstrothdale Chase. But Buckden beckons, a flat stroll along the valley bottom. Here, the Buck Inn and West Winds Tea Room offer refreshment, before the more strenous ramble up the Roman road of Buckden Rake and back down into Cray. Ascent of Buckden Pike is an ambitious optional extra, but on a clear, crisp day it promises views over the snow-capped summits of Great Whernside to the east and the Yorkshire Three Peaks to the west.
From Cray the road climbs out of Upper Wharfedale and over the Kidstones pass, presenting a jaw-dropping panorama as it crests into softer, greener Bishopdale. When visitors Neil and Jane McNair first encountered this view while driving north towards Wensleydale (they’d been staying at The Angel, Hetton), their first stop on reaching the market town of Hawes was an estate agent’s window. Less than three months later they were the owners of a disused water mill, Low Mill in Bainbridge, which is now an upmarket guest house that blends modern-rustic luxury (antique furnishings, sumptuous woollens) with urban eclecticism (ceramic dogs, vintage leather sofas). It’s not just the warm welcome and peaceful setting that keep guests coming again. Jane is an accomplished cook and her three-course evening meals offer the best dining in the area. A typical winter menu might feature locally smoked salmon with yellow beetroot fritters, clove-perfumed spiced lamb rump with sweet potato chips and salted caramel chocolate mousse. It’s like a supper club with rooms.
From Bainbridge, stroll along the river Bain (England’s shortest named river, at two and a half miles) to tranquil Semer Water, or continue on a six-mile circular round the lake, over neighbouring Raydale. A short drive east brings you to Aysgarth Falls, the magnificent series of three stepped waterfalls celebrated by Wordsworth and Turner on their 19th-century tours. Here a sheltered path through woodlands leads to viewing platforms overlooking the wide, terraced cascades and continues to the 14th-century Bolton Castle.
The doorstop-sized chewy flapjacks on offer at the Aysgarth Falls National Park Centre’s tea room are highly tempting, but be sure to leave room in your belly to enjoy the cheese shop at the Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, where you can nibble on free samples of Yorkshire’s most famous export while muttering “Cracking cheese, Gromit”. Rescued from closure by a management buyout in 1992, this 19th-century creamery is the custodian of a cheese-making tradition begun by 12th-century Cistercian monks.
Over time, this local process was perfected and the name Yorkshire Wensleydale is now secured by European Protected Names status. All sorts of variations on the original recipe are made here using milk sourced directly from local farmers, including ginger, cranberry, blue and special reserve. But the tangy, crumbly original is still the best. No self-respecting Yorkshire lass would dream of eating Christmas cake without it.
Born and bred in Yorkshire and now living in Cumbria’s Eden Valley, travel and food writer Rachael Oakden has eaten her way round most of northern England.