So this is it, the Staycation Summer. The hordes that are usually drinking and vomiting by the Mediterranean are not risking quarantine and so are having their holidays in Cornwall and the Lake District instead (following their much publicised visits to Brighton and Bournemouth beaches, with associated anti-social behaviour and total absence of social distancing). I’m in Cornwall now and I was in Cumbria last week, and it is definitely not what local residents want or are used to.
My first real trip after the Covid-19 lockdown was with my bike to Yorkshire and Cumbria – I’ve written about them before , and definitely plan to focus on York itself before too long. It was fun, but fundamentally I miss my old life. It’s all very well cycling from town to town, but I want to see something interesting when I get there. A few churches at least are now open around Cambridge, but not so many up here, and there are very few museums or stately homes open. How am I meant to gather information with which to confuse or amaze you? So when I do find something open, I don’t care how pricey it is, I’m in, even though in fact various parts are closed because they don’t fit in to a socially distanced one-way system or pandemic staffing levels. And I can’t breathe in my mask and my glasses are steamed up. And don’t get me started on pubs which insist on ordering via a QR reader rather than just saying ‘Two pints, please’ and waving a card at a contactless reader.
One surprise was how few establishments are taking Track and Trace details – I know the whole system is discredited, but still, it’s hardly a big deal to give a name and phone number. Another oddity of the lockdown has been its environmental impact – it seemed great at first, as skies and rivers cleared and cars vanished from the roads to be replaced by hordes of cyclists, joggers and walkers (those poor dogs, dragged out three or four times a day). But then it became clear that throwaway culture was the big winner, with deliveries and takeaways leaving huge amounts of waste, not to mention the mind-boggling amounts of single-use plastic PPE being dumped by the NHS and care homes. But I hadn’t realised until I went on this trip how hard it has become to recycle waste when you’re out and about – home collections still work, but in many towns the street bins seem to have gone.
Doncaster to Tadcaster and Lancaster
Anyway, I took a train to Doncaster and then cycled a branch of the Trans-Pennine Trail (a typical Sustrans route – going great distances on poor surfaces (former railway lines, even a former airfield) to avoid traffic, although in this case without the unnecessary hills they sometimes give us as well) to Snaith, where there’s an attractive priory that I’d never heard of, and Selby, where I knew there was an attractive abbey, and then the Solar System Greenway. On the original Selby-York alignment of the London-Edinburgh railway (where Mallard and the Deltics may have got up to a dizzying 100mph), this is indeed a scale model of the solar system, starting with the Voyager probe and the outer planets, about 2.5km apart, and ending up with the inner planets, about 250m apart, and the sun by the York ring-road. I’ve seen a few of these in my time, including on an alp above St Luc in Switzerland, and in Barrow, Alaska, but they’re always good, illustrating how very lonely the outer reaches of the solar system are.
From the edge of York I turned west through quiet lanes to Tadcaster, a Roman town near the crossing of the Great North Road (Ermine Street, now the A1) and the Leeds to York road (the Roman road from Chester to Bridlington, now the A64), that is now known as home to the Sam Smith’s and John Smith’s breweries.
Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery claims to be Yorkshire’s Oldest Brewery, Established 1758, but the truth is slightly more tangled – in 1847 John Smith bought an existing brewery, founded in 1758, but then moved to new premises next door and left the old brewery to his nephew Samuel, who founded Samuel Smith’s Brewery in 1886. Sam’s is still independent and is known in Britain for selling decent beers in its own pubs at a remarkably low price (about double what it used to be, but still good value) and in the USA as the inspiration for early craft brewers such as Brooklyn Brewery and Goose Island. Unusually, they produce only one real or cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, as well as a range of keg and bottled beers, and all their beers are vegan except for OBB and Yorkshire Stingo, a rich treacly beer matured for at least a year in oak casks and then bottled. I was intrigued by the name because the Blue Anchor in my home town of Helston in Cornwall, a pub-brewery which has been active continuously since the fifteenth century, calls its beer Spingo. This is a traditionally sweet Cornish bitter, while it turns out that Yorkshire Stingo refers to a stronger ale.
You can enjoy a good pint of OBB at the Angel and White Horse in the centre of Tadcaster, which is not only the brewery tap but also home to their fine grey shire horses, who deliver beer to local pubs five days a week – you can look in to the stables across the courtyard.
On the western edge of town, the much larger John Smith’s Brewery (now owned by Heineken UK) mass-produces a gassy bitter, as well as Amstel and Kronenbourg lagers. Enough said.
From Taddie I cycled on quiet lanes to the edge of Leeds (a great city which I’ve written about before) then followed their new Cycle Superhighway 2 to the city centre and switched to the Aire Valley Greenway, ie the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. In the western outskirts I stopped at Kirkstall Abbey – founded in 1152, this was one of the great Cistercian abbeys that became rich on the wool trade (see the Suffolk wool churches in my last post, and indeed Kendal in my next post), along with Jervaulx (which I visited a week later – see below), Rievaulx and Fountains. Kirkstall is now ruined and there’s not much to see, but it’s at the heart of a popular park. I’d have revisited the David Hockney Gallery in Salt’s Mill in Saltaire if it had been open, but alas no; so I cycled past Bingley’s Two-Rise and Five-Rise Locks to Keighley and then struggled (it was the UK’s hottest August day for 17 years) up the hill to Haworth.
Usually Haworth is swamped by Brönte fans and purveyors of romantic Brönte souvenirs, but the Parsonage Museum is closed, so they’re all staying away. In their absence, I could see that it’s quite attractive and not really that different from Hebden Bridge, with its Haworth Wholefoods, its Haworth Steam Brewery, its book and vinyl shops – but because it’s not on a main-line railway it doesn’t have the same potential for commuting into Leeds and Manchester. It has some decent pubs too, and as I cycled on I saw some more that looked pretty decent on the wuthering heights to the west.
I spent the next six nights in Lancaster and Cumbria – see my next post – and then returned to Yorkshire, taking the wonderfully scenic Settle and Carlisle railway line to Ribblehead. It’s known for the 24-arch viaduct, opened in 1874 as part of the last major railway to be built in Britain, but this wild and remote moorland was crossed long ago by Roman roads, some of which my friend Rob (with whom I cycled in Belgium, Taiwan and other places) is very keen on as cycle routes. His account of this Wensleydale ride is here. I was due to meet him in Hawes, down at the head of Wensleydale, which I thought would be a swift belt downhill but turned out to be quite a slog. I have visited the Wensleydale Creamery, famed for the eponymous cheese, but not this time. Eventually we got going, through Askrigg (where the pub apparently played a rôle in the James Herriott TV programmes) to Aysgarth, where Rob was amazed that as a proud Yorkshireman he’d had no idea the falls were so spectacular (we caught them after a reasonable amount of rain) – the River Ure drops over three separate sets of limestone slabs over almost a mile and the tea-coloured water puts on a pretty lively show.
Our next stop was Wensley, after which the dale of the Ure is named, although no-one really knows why – see below. It’s a tiny village, with an impressive little Grade-1 listed church that’s usually open – it’s not used for worship but is maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. Built circa 1240, it’s as notable for its furnishings as for its architecture, notably the Scrope family pew, a grand piece of seventeenth-century woodwork with at the back a sixteenth-century carved screen brought from Easby Abbey when it was dissolved by Henry VIII. In 1927 whitewash was removed from the walls, revealing fourteenth-century paintings of Jacob and Esau. Nice wildlife churchyard, too.
I knew Middleham Castle as Richard III’s base, but I have no idea why the village would now be twinned with Agincourt. In fact Middleham was a bit of a surprise – not only is it ‘the Newmarket of the North’, with lots of racehorse trainers here, but it also seems to be evolving into a bit of a foodie/boutique hotel destination, with various pubs serving good food (including the Blue Lion in East Witton, the next village we passed), one of which, the White Swan, transformed itself into The Wensleydale Hotel in 2019. Just to the east we were able to divert onto the footpath through Jervaulx Abbey, the only one of Yorkshire’s great Cistercian abbeys that is privately owned, with an honesty box to pay for admission (Paypal also welcome). It seems like an attractive garden (and tearooms) with an ace abbey attached, as there are few of the detailed information panels you might be looking for.
The next stop was Masham, which shares a similar brewing history to Tadcaster, with a well-known brewery, Theakston’s, founded in 1827, and the breakaway Black Sheep Brewery, founded in 1991 by Paul Theakston, who left the family firm in 1988 after its takeover by Scottish & Newcastle. In fact the four other Theakston brothers bought back control of the business in 2004, and its website proudly proclaims it as an independent brewery, although in fact Heineken UK (successor to S&N) still owns 28% of the shares. Their Old Peculier is a really special beer, a strong old ale that’s dark, rich and smooth. Black Sheep Best Bitter, meanwhile, has been a huge success, spreading across Britain and indeed usually on tap in my local in Cambridge. I enjoyed visiting the Black Sheep Brewery over two decades ago and hoped to repeat the experience, but paying with a contactless card was far too simple for them – so we ended up getting our pints of Black Sheep at a pub-hotel on the town’s square, which rather bizarrely turned out to be owned by Greene King, the East Anglian regional brewers that I’ve moaned about before.
Then we passed through West Tanfield, where the fifteenth-century Marmion Tower (Grade I-listed and managed by English Heritage) stands almost up against the thirteenth-century church (which houses some fine old tombs) – the tower is just a shell, but you can still go up to the first floor for views through the oriel window.
Virtually traffic-free lanes took us via Wath to Ripon for our overnight stop – it’s a small historic market town, whoops sorry, city, where the main sight is the cathedral. Built in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, it only became a cathedral in 1836 when the Diocese of Ripon was created, and Ripon therefore became a city – but in 2014 the diocese became part of the new Diocese of Leeds, with three co-cathedrals, here, in Wakefield and in Bradford (but not Leeds). The ways of the Church of England are indeed mysterious. The Early English west front, raised in 1220, is a highlight, but overall I found the furnishings more interesting than the architecture, notably the misericords in the choir, carved between 1489 and 1494, and the wooden hand sticking out above them from the base of the organ, used to beat time for the choir. This summer there are also some 10,000 paper angels hanging in a net high in the nave, in the very striking A Wing and a Prayer installation.
Ripon’s Market Square is spacious and attractive, with an eighteenth-century obelisk, perhaps by Nicholas Hawksmoor, in the centre, and some fine buildings such as the Town Hall, built in 1799 by James Wyatt, and the half-timbered Wakeman’s House, built by about 1600. The Wakeman was (until 1604) the predecessor of the mayor, and can be confused with the Hornblower, who traditionally blows a blast on a horn at 9pm every night at each corner of the obelisk. There are in fact currently three hornblowers (one female) with four historic horns to choose from, and during the pandemic the tradition has been maintained by one of them at home – there’s no public notification of who or where to avoid public gatherings, of course. Otherwise, Ripon has a three-fold museum complex that might be interesting, but as it was just an overnight stop we couldn’t visit; but we did enjoy good Italian food (and wine) at Prima as well as grabbing breakfast pastries at Thomas the Baker.
From Ripon it’s not far to Boroughbridge, an historic coaching stop on the Great North Road, which shows signs of possibly rediscovering its foodie vocation with attractive shops and cafés. First we saw the Devil’s Arrows, three large standing stones that are part of a ritual landscape that stretches to the three Thornborough Henges, back near Masham, sometimes referred to as the Stonehenge of the North. In the almost conjoined village of Aldborough we visited the few paltry remains of a Romano-British township where a couple of mosaics are preserved in their original locations, but they are unimpressive compared to ones I’ve seen in the last few years in places like Trier, Istanbul, Plovdiv , Butrint and even St Albans.
From here there was nothing much to detain us on our ride to York – we were still following the Ure, but it’s rich farming country rather than a dale. But Rob needed to show me the Ousegill Burn, a very minor stream about 2km long, and vent his disgust at the geographical quirk that means that the Ure (having absorbed the Swale, though both are in fact pretty equal-sized rivers) suddenly becomes known as the Ouse after the confluence with this little stream. Ouse was the Celtic word for ‘water’ (just as Avon was the Celtic word for ‘river’), so there are various rivers called Ouse (and Avon) across Britain – but it seems obvious to Rob, and I can’t disagree, that Jorvik, the Viking name for York, derives from the Ure (never mind the orthodoxy that it derives from the Saxon Eoforwic, thought to mean wild boar settlement, or Eofer’s trading place). And Jervaulx is an old French form of Ure Valley. So there are in fact two mysteries, why the dale is named after Wensley rather than the Ure, and why the river through York is called the Ouse rather the Ure. The Ure can definitely feel hard done by.
After crossing the Aldwark toll bridge (free for bikes, and busy with cyclists on the coast-to-coast Way of the Roses) it was nice to pass through the grounds of the National Trust’s Beningbrough Hall (still closed, though the gardens, café and restaurant are open) before the pleasant riverside ride into York, for a refreshing pint and a train home.
As a Rough Guides author, I was of course carrying the Yorkshire guide – which turned out to have no coverage of Selby, Tadcaster or indeed Ilkley, but eight pages on Rotherham and seven on Doncaster – is this because the author perhaps lives between them on the southernmost edge of Yorkshire (ie almost in London), or is it a metropolitan obsession with post-industrial re-invention?