Sometimes life can be tough, especially when your roving Radicals sacrifice their bank balances for a gastronomic trip to the North. To hark on about it via Twitter and the ‘blog is an act of self-indulgence so please bear with us…
Taking inspiration from the Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon series ‘The Trip’ the Revolt packed up the mini-metro and headed north at the start of July. It started with the Blackwall tunnel, M11, M25 (mercifully clear), M1, M6. Then off at junction 31 and in to the magnificently titled Trough of Bowland (yes, we were in a trough).
And you will no doubt be assured that the Revolt always carefully plan routes in advance using a map and so on this trip, as with others, had no need to fall back on a ‘satnav’. For those contemplating travelling north west the M6 Toll is worth the £5.50. It is a wonderful stretch of asphalt free from HGVs blocking two lanes and light on traffic – must have been what motoring was like back in the day.
The first stop, making it with fifteen minutes to spare (carefully planned route undone by a flood-damaged bridge and diversion just outside Whitewell), was lunch at the Inn at Whitewell. A fine pub with a church attached, the sort of random spot for fine meals that mixes locals and weary travellers. Including some with a distinctly far-flung twang to their accents when we were there (Americans) as well as a bunch of people there for a wedding. Hamlet would probably be to over-state the size of Whitewell and the Inn itself is part of what was Whitewell Manor and made its name as an Inn during the trial of the Lancashire witches in 1612.
There was no sorcery when it came to the food. A decent pub menu from which we ordered
goat cheese in filo pastry (surprisingly light) and a fennel soup (refreshing) to start before moving on to slow roast pork belly and bangers and champ. The food was simple, effective, and fantastically cooked. No pretentions but high quality (the pork just melted in the mouth) and service was excellent and was only improved by the traditional panelling and décor of the room. None of your gastropub pastel shades or unnecessary mismatched furniture. The Inn oozed character and with the exceptional quality of the food did not need to try to impress. It really did put gastropubs to shame on the food and décor fronts. More so when the bill, including a couple of local pints, a large glass of red, and coffee, came to £66 for two.
Talking of coffee, a recurring theme of the trip was the different policies places offer to the stuff, with some offering a cafetiere and that’s it and others having a somewhat wider range (including your fancy espressos, machiatios, double espressos, etc…). Anticipating which policy which establishment would adopt at the end of the meal added a frisson to proceedings (yes, it was a long trip…).
Suitably content we took the short drive to Slaidburn and our overnight accommodation. The drive took us through the centre of the United Kingdom at Dunsop Bridge (so it claimed so all correspondence to them please) and a bit of ‘air’ when your driver misjudged a small humped bridge.
The Hark to Bounty, an historic coaching inn, was cosy and comfortable albeit rather basic (twin room, B&B, £70). Still, a pub with rooms (en-suite) is just that and there was a good selection of local ale and wi-fi. After that lunch the Hark’s ‘Fish Friday’ seemed a bit much and so a wander around the village (Youth Hostel, shop, church, tea room, village hall) was called for. Largely uneventful although an angry cow trapping us by a locked gate did shake off the post-lunch stupor…
Day two was the day off from lunching and certainly any heavy meals. Nipping down the A65 (and passing from Lancashire to Yorkshire) we headed for Bolton Abbey at the bottom of the Yorkshire Dales. Aside from a few spots of rain the weather held and we embarked on a c.7 mile wander around the estate. Slightly unnerving and perhaps an omen to our attempts to do four lunches in five days we came across a signpost to ‘The Valley of Desolation’. With that in mind, and with a rather high and fast flowing river, the famous stepping stones were out. A few hours later, duck race raffle ticket in hand (where to start?), it was back to the mini metro just as the heavens opened and the next leg of the trip.
At this point we were off piste and decided on a meander through the Dales towards the Ribblehead viaduct. Heavy showers came and went, merely improving the countryside we passed through by giving it a rather moody atmosphere. A quick stop in Litton at the Queen’s Arms for refreshment (excellent pub, could have spent the afternoon there) before Ribblehead and the Station Inn. Good local ales (shan’t tire of writing that) imbibed and we sat there a little smug – the weather had turned somewhat and the pub had filled with rather sodden walkers. The pub also had the disturbingly titled ‘Loo with a View’. Thankfully just a urinal with a window overlooking the viaduct. Moving on…
The Pheasant Inn at Casterton, just outside Kirkby Lonsdale (for some reason no-one pronounces the second ‘k’, so it is ‘Kirby’), was the overnight stop. A random selection as all (reasonably priced) rooms in KL were taken. But it turned out to be a fine choice. Large, well-appointed rooms (twin room, B&B, £110), pleasant bar with local ales, nice garden, and although not originally planned as part of the trip, a fantastic restaurant. After the compulsory wander around the village it was decided on dinner at the Pheasant rather than heading in to KL. Whatever we may have missed out on (there was no plan for eating in KL), we were certainly not disappointed by The Pheasant. A fine panelled dining room greeted us and the plans for a meal ‘lite’ day went by the wayside. Local smoked salmon and crab whetted appetites. Beautifully cooked local beef medallions (washed down with a Pinotage) left us rather satisfied. Being our day off we skipped dessert – well, one of us had a rather good panna cotta – and moved on to coffee (yes, an espresso!). £90 for two, including booze.
Feeling a little guilty, and with an early lunch planned, breakfast was light. A brief tour of Kirkby Lonsdale – pleasant enough but mostly tea rooms and pubs – introduced us to what Ruskin declared to be “The greatest view in England and therefore the world”. Jolly pleasant view of the River Lune and hills but we’ll reserve our judgement.
Hipping Hall, just south of Kirkby Lonsdale on the A65, was the lunch venue. As we took in the discreet but rather fine building with a tastefully modernised entrance extension, it belatedly occurred that this one could be a bit expensive. Drinks in the very comfortable lounge and a complementary venison pasty with cranberry ketchup (rather tasty) only notched up the tension. A copy of The Observer Magazine (who, sadly, unlike Coogan and Brydon on their trip had not been picking up the tab for ours) provided distraction until the menu arrived. Three course a la carte menu for… £29.50. We decided to stay.
And what a choice. Dining is in the old hall, dominated by a huge fireplace. The surroundings were forgotten as the food arrived. The first amuse bouche of the trip (cue comments about bouche’s being amused) was a refreshing, with a hint of spice,
horseradish panna cotta with fresh peas and pea puree. This was also our first experience of having the dishes described to us – given this Radical tends to forget the order immediately after placing it this is quite helpful. The staff were excellent – a quietly confident air and no nerves about remembering the composition of the dishes. The poached egg and smoked eel was a pleasant surprise and your other Radical almost converted to vegetarianism after a very nice tomato and green pepper dish. Ling (a bit like cod) with a lobster bisque was very well done although the bisque a little rich for this Radical’s palate. Continuing the veg theme on the other side of the table a filling gnocchi and cheese dish was consumed. Languedoc white was an excellently recommended accompaniment to the meal. Cheese – a selection of six laid out based on strength and expertly remembered by our waitress but not by your Radical – and port finished things off (£5 supplement to the set price). On to the terrace for sunshine and coffee which was accompanied by fudge and fruit jelly cubes, and the conclusion that we’d expect to pay three times more for the food and service down in London. We were then hit by the realisation that at some point we’d have to leave and head on to our next destination.
Ambleside (A65, A590, A592, and then up through Windermere) was the staging post for the next lunch. The Unicorn Inn provided beds for the night. Again a basic pub with rooms but it suited us – especially as Ambleside is quite pricey. We quickly discovered why as although a small town it was busy with tourists and walkers. The latter are a strange breed. Rather like golfists they have a uniform of sorts. Brightly coloured clothing, always waterproof, and regardless of the conditions we saw a lot of people sporting shorts. They seem to exist to talk about past walking glories (yes, we got caught by some in the pub) that ultimately boil down to “We went for a walk and it was a bit hilly and the weather did/nearly came in”. By far the best pubs in the place are the Unicorn Inn itself and, one minute round the corner, the Golden Rule. Both authentic choices for a comfortable evening.
The following day and a short bus journey (or, as two old dears said as the tickets were bought, a short walk for two strapping lads) away was Holbeck Ghyll. Suitable chastened we attempted to walk at pace up the drive. The hotel (as with Whitewell and Hipping Hall rooms were available but very pricey), sits atop a hill on the road to Troutbeck with views back down to Windermere. The terrace was a very pleasant place to take in the view and a G&T (gin from the local Langton’s distillery). Macadams and bread enveloped cheese truffle came with the menu. Two courses £33, three for £43.
With the traditional building, all oak panelled rooms and comfortable seating, one might
expect hearty and traditional meat and two veg options with lashings of gravy. That would be a mistake. The amuse bouche was a parmesan panna cotta with onion veloute. Then on to the mackerel teriyaki (slightly odd texture combinations but tasted excellent) and chicken terrine with a variety of beetroot styles. Local lamb had all the classic elements, was presented well, and tasted fantastic. The salted cod with shrimp and lemon emulsion (the only foam of the trip) was refreshing to taste although the red onion bhaji added a different and rather heavier twist to the plate. Cheese followed (English and French). Half bottle of pinot noir (with the largest wine glasses known to man) for the lamb and a bottle of the picpoul de pinet for the starter and fish. As the rain came in we retired to the lounge for coffee – initial excitement at what looked like a carafe of brandy dissipated when it turned out to be the vessel for the coffee. All in, £149.80.
Taking advantage of a break in the weather we dragged ourselves out of the comfy chairs and back down the hill for a bus journey to Grasmere and a bit of culture at the home of Wordsworth: Dove Cottage. Our luck with the rain ran out and we dripped our way around the cottage (wonderfully droll tour guide), skipped the gift shop and went to the pub. Unlike Ambleside, Grasmere is almost devoid of pubs. We got rather soaked travelling between the one in the village and one on the outside of it. Giving up on public transport we got a taxi back to Ambleside (and the more closely packed pubs).
By this point we’d managed two exceptional meals in pubs and fine dining for reasonable prices at two restaurants. The next morning was the trip to Cartmel (travelling west of Windermere, via Hawkshead). Cartmel is an exquisite little village with a fine priory and a race course. There is a small central square that hosted two pubs and a hotel, with another pub about 20 yards away up another road. Add to this a renovated yard that hosted a cheese monger, micro-brewery, and wine shop and you’d forgive the Radicals for wanting to heap praise on the place. We stayed at the Royal Oak. The rooms were modern, comfortable and nicely furnished (twin room, B&B, £75). With the mini metro parked up we had a quick pint at the Cavendish Arms and contemplated lunch. This was unknown territory. L’Enclume offers 2 Michelin starred Simon Rogan dining and we were not sure what to expect. Refreshingly the venues so far had been down-to-earth and in no way intimidating despite the excellent food on offer (maybe we’re just used to too many places in London being a bit up themselves).
L’Enclume is very discreet and you could easily walk past it’s simple entrance. Situated on a corner by the river it inhabits the old forge (taking its name from the French for anvil). The friendly welcome immediately put us at ease as did the understated and simple interior – the impression was that the staff wanted us to be relaxed and enjoy the food and not that we should be grateful for them letting us dine there. A good example is a menu the diner can take away – they know for many it will be something special, may be a one-off, and want it to feel special and for diners to enjoy it. As we were seated in the conservatory overlooking the garden at last a justification, however tenuous, was found for a south-east London ‘blog doing a post about a gastro-tour of the north of England. The waiter knew Blackheath and had worked for a couple of years at Chapters sister restaurant in Bromley. Hurrah! With the sparkling English white (might as well push the boat out) and the six course taster menu (£49) – 14 courses was the alternative but was too
much to contemplate – ordered we settled in. Despite the length of stay the chairs remained comfortable and the atmosphere was relaxed. We opted for the wine selection to go with the taster menu so had a sherry, two whites, a red, and a dessert wine. This felt like a bit of an extravagance but at £40 was not much more than would have been spent on selecting several glasses and with the variety of food we could not have picked one bottle to go with everything.
And it was worth it. The selections accompanied each course wonderfully – always good to taste the wine on its own and then experience the difference when having it with the food. Getting on to the food, it was exceptional. Unfussy, which was another concern, and fantastic tastes. In short the six courses were made up of: cod ‘yolk’ with pea, salt and vinegar; turnip broth; grilled onions with goats curd, chicken and yeast; guinea hen; gooseberry and buttermilk; and yoghurt with strawberry. Sounds simple, was very effective and frankly words can’t quite do it justice. Followed up with a selection of cheese – five from an overwhelming selection, but the cheese waiter (that might not be the official title) was able to describe each one to help with the decision.
A fine end to the trip, we concluded, as we sat in the garden having coffee prepared. For it was indeed prepared, being filtered and stirred very slowly in front of us and this may have been the one slightly unnecessary nod to the Michelin stars. The coffee was good, but probably not worth the process it went through. But we and the waitress saw humour in this (again, that unpretentious and relaxed atmosphere) and it did not blemish our 3hrs or so of lunch.
It would be foolish to pick a favourite restaurant or meal. Each does its own thing and does it very well. This little cluster of restaurants was certainly worth the trip and we end it rather satisfied. Alongside the food, and in homage to the original Trip, were, as you might imagine, a series of rather painful impressions of such celebrities as Michael Caine (‘she was only 16!’), Roger Moore (‘Belt and braces, belt and braces’), Al Pacino (‘Hello!!!!!!’ / ‘Whaddya got?!’), and many others from Alan Bennet to Ken Bruce. You had to be there. The Revolt is now taking time to detox.