Wensleydale is a haven for walkers and foodies alike. Here's where to eat, drink and sleep in this most pleasant valley.
The rolling, luscious green hills of the Yorkshire Dales, roughly split into patches by wiggly dry stone walls and decorated with chocolate box villages throughout, is one of the most endearing places to holiday in Britain. The air is fresh, the countryside thoroughly unspoilt, and the food excellent. Plus Wensleydale is set within the confines of a National Park, making it refreshingly free of gaudy restaurant chains, and instead liberally dotted with two staples: tea shops and cosy pubs.
The best tea shops
Chances are you’ll be based in or around Hawes, Leyburn, Aysgarth or Middleham (Wensleydale’s principal settlements), all of which are within half an hour's drive of each other. And in Wensleydale, even a car ride equals spectacular views – so don’t be shy of driving to your destination.
The day starts with a cup of tea and a slab of cake. I say ‘slab’ – the portions here are wickedly large, and one wedge of flapjack could keep a small family going all day. One of the friendliest tea shops is at Jervaulx Abbey (pictured left), just outside the borders of the National Park, near Middleham. It’s a privately owned old Cistercian monastery, founded in 1156, that’s now an enchanting ruin lined with wild flowers. The tearoom only uses Yorkshire ingredients and together sisters Anna (baker) and Gayle (cake decorator), daughters of Jervaulx Abbey owners Ian and Carol Burdon, make a wide selection of towering cakes. Wensleydale cheesecake features among them.
Askrigg Village Kitchen (pictured left) in Askrigg, just outside Leyburn, is another gem. It looks like the tearoom that time forgot with its stone walls, creaky floorboards and slanting beams. Owned by the very hospitable Jo Benbow, it sells ‘honest, fresh and satisfying fare’ and ranks Askrigg Ale fruit loaf among its most popular cakes. This fat-free loaf is made by soaking fruit overnight in ale produced by the Yorkshire Dales Brewing company, which is based a stone’s throw away. There are also main meals on offer, from luxury fish pie to Askrigg Ale beef casserole, and you can buy your daily bread from its bakery too.
It would be impossible to highlight all the worthy Wensleydale tearooms here. But two others I couldn’t possibly forget are Bolton Castle tearooms (most enjoyably accessed via the Wensleydale Heritage Railway, alighting at Redmire and walking a short way up to the castle); and Herriot’s Kitchen in Hawes for its generous Yorkshire cream teas, complete with Wensleydale cream.
A pint of local ale will cut through all that sugar. Pubs of the homely, open fire kind are two a penny in the Dales, and you’ll pass a pleasant hour in almost all of them. Yorkshire.com suggests its own ‘Delicious Ale Trail’, highlighting 30 different pubs well worth a visit. One nearby pub mentioned is The Fountaine Inn in Grassington (a market town in Wharfedale, as opposed to Wensleydale). It's a lovely stone building with ‘perhaps the most beautiful setting in the Yorkshire Dales’. There are rooms upstairs and the pub is often used as a base by keen walkers (there are several spectacular walks around the Grassington area), who huddle together in front of the roaring log fire after a long day on the Dales. They serve a varying menu, from ‘nibbles and natters’ to ‘A Dales Hand Full’ – basically, your choice of meat served on toasted ciabatta bread with chips.
The foodie pubs
The Sandpiper in Leyburn is superb. This cottage-style free house dates back to the 17th century and has been owned by wife and husband Janine and Jonathan Harrison since 1999. Everything is in place for the perfect country pub experience: excellent food (it may be too fancy for those who prefer Fountaine Inn-style fare), friendly landlord, cosy bar, log fire, black beams, cushioned built-in wall seats, and a little snug at the back for privacy. All the ale is local – Black Sheep Best is the standard. You’ll also find a good selection of whiskies and a decent wine list.
The Wyvill Arms is a nice choice for holidaymakers either arriving into Wensleydale, or heading home. It’s just outside the Dales, to the east of Leyburn in Constable Burton, and like all the other pubs mentioned here it offers comfortable bedrooms to weary travellers. There are two bars, one decorated with the Wyvill family’s coat of arms and an elaborate stone fireplace, the other with old oak tables and a delightful model train running around the room. Pictures of local scenes decorate the whole pub, and the three real ales on handpump are Rudgate Ruby Mild, Theakstons Best, and Wensleydale Coverdale Gamekeeper.
My favourite: The Blue Lion
Finally, you must give The Blue Lion (one of the Great Inns of Britain) in the village of East Witton a go. It won The Good Pub Guide’s Inn of the Year 2014 award, and in previous years secured the Dining Pub of the Year gong too. Helen and Paul Klein have run the 18th-century inn for 20 years now and, other than the conversion of a meat-hanging room into a cosy informal bar (you can still see the rusty hooks on the ceiling), not much has changed here since times of old. The low ceilings, chunky oak tables, huge stone fireplaces, and well-trodden flagstone floors are a constant reminder of the inn’s history.
It’s a pub to suit everyone’s needs. Enjoy a local ale (although there’s far more wine to choose from than beer) with your dog by your side and eat at the bustling bar, people watching as guests come and go. Or dine by candlelight in the beautiful – and rather romantic – dining room at the other end of the building (pictured left). Heated by two log fires, with tables tucked into discreet corners, it’s an intimate eating experience that is complimented by well-dressed waiters, a landlord who knows the wine list back-to-front, and a sophisticated leather-bound a la carte menu. The latter is in stark contrast to the bar, where the same options are quirkily chalked on available wall surfaces.
Surprisingly for any eaterie (especially one which currently has slow roasted honey duckling as a special), The Blue Lion also has a separate, ever-changing vegetarian menu. And not just same-old stuffed peppers, but innovative, well thought-out dishes such as rosemary polenta with foraged mushrooms, or goats’ cheese beignets with beetroot and parsnip textures. It’s the locally-bred meat and just-shot game that most come here for, though. Expect everything from whole roast partridge with game chips to twice cooked belly of pork and pan-roasted monkfish tail with coconut chowder. Food is well cooked, seasoned and presented, and reviews are almost always highly flattering.
If you don’t fancy the pub, what about fish and chips? Most of the Dales’ fish comes from the east coast (Whitby or Hartlepool) and their chunky chips are best eaten the local way – with gravy. The Devonshire Hotel in Grassington beer-batters its fish and serves it with chunky chips, homemade tartar sauce and proper mushy peas, as opposed to the luminous green stuff. Best eaten as a reward for a long walk in the Dales – a lot of the routes start and end in the heart of Grassington.
Delis and cheese
What if you’re self-catering? Independent and family-owned ‘supermarket’ Campbells of Leyburn is a treasure trove. They’ve been supplying local folk since 1868 and there’s not a thing Campbells doesn’t sell. As well as an impressive cheese and meat counter (selling home-roasted meats), there’s also an upstairs level entirely devoted to booze of all shapes, sizes and colours. You’ll find everything from the best Champagne to local ales, vintage bottles of Madeira wine, fine wines (the biggest selection in Wensleydale) and spirits – well worth an explore, even if you don't intend to spend any money.
Also in Leyburn is the Dales Deli and Pie Company, which cooks the obvious (and very well too), plus cakes and sandwiches on a daily basis. The Gluten Free Kitchen, again in Leyburn, is the place to go for all your gluten-free needs, including breads, pies and even celebration cakes. And finally, in Leyburn Business Park you’ll find The Little Chocolate Shop, which first made chocolates in the mill buildings at the beautiful Aysgarth Falls just down the road. Look out for the ‘posh pick & mix’ and chocolate shoes.
And don’t worry – I haven’t forgotten the cheese. Wallace and Gromit would never forgive me if I left out crumbly Wensleydale! It’s all over The Dales, in delis and supermarkets, but the best place to get it is right from source at The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, the original cheese-making town. You can read all about the heritage and provenance of Wensleydale cheese on their website, but it’s best explored at the creamery itself, where visitors can watch the cheese being made, explore its history in the visitor centre, and try (very generous) samples of every cheese made by The Wensleydale Creamery. In my humble opinion, their original Wensleydale and the blue variety are the best.
A bed for the night
Unless you live nearby, chances are you’ll be staying over in Wensleydale for at least a night. There’s no end to the number of B&Bs and inns to stay in, many of which come highly recommended online. The Wensleydale Heifer in West Witton is described as the ‘Yorkshire Dales’ first boutique hotel’ and with four poster beds, a ‘Whisky Club’ room, themed bedrooms and roll-top baths, it’s certainly a luxurious option. If there are just two of you, and you’re staying for a wee while, Mill Fosse Cottage in Hawes (pictured left) is a lovely option. A flagstoned hallway, vintage pottery, handmade kitchen, beamed sitting room and log fire make your stay an authentic one, and there are even views of nearby waterfalls from the bedroom.
But for the best experience, nothing can beat 2014’s ‘Inn of the Year’ – so it’s back to The Blue Lion for me. The atmosphere downstairs is matched by the 15 quirky bedrooms scattered around the main building and stable area outside. Each room sports homely country furnishings, some come with exposed beams too, and the pillows and bed are famously comfortable. Plus every day your personal biscuit tin is refreshed with something just-baked – a welcome treat when you’ve just come in from a hike. Breakfast is served until 10am (nice and late for the dreamers among us) and as well as a full English, options include piles of homemade croissants and smoked kippers. Just what you need before a full day tramping the magnificent countryside.
Do you holiday in Wensleydale? Can you recommend anywhere else to eat, drink or sleep there? We can’t possibly include everywhere here, so please don’t be shy with your suggestions.
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