THE Valley of Desolation sounds like a stop-off on Pilgrim’s Progress. Straight after the Slough of Despond but turn left before you reach the Footpath Deep in Cowpats. In reality, it’s a picturesque and not very desolate valley on the Duke of Devonshire’s well-trodden Wharfedale estate.
'In the graveyard you’ll find the resting place of one Frederick Sewards Trueman – Fiery Fred, Yorkshire and England’s finest fast bowler. Freddie Flintoff’s a pussy cat in comparison'
Its dramatic name comes from the devastation wreaked on its tree population by a terrible storm in 1826. These days it’s well-wooded again, especially around the mossy cleft where Posforth Gill unleashes a spectacular waterfall.
On a glorious day we were four miles into a 13 mile walk, our destination Simon’s Seat, one of Yorkshire’s most spectacular vantage points, yet only six miles from our luxurious base, The Devonshire Arms, owned by the Duke.
The Devonshires have always been pioneers in allowing public access to their land. One August bank holiday 100 years ago, the railway brought 40,000 people to the Bolton Abbey estate. The 11th Duke extended the access to more than 80 miles of footpaths on the 30,000 acre estate.
Soon my wife and I were on open grouse moors (30 days of the year they are shut – please check) on a gruelling incline, but our destination made the toil worthwhile. The gaunt stone outcrop of of Simon’s Seat rears 385m above the valley floor. Cresting it, you gasp at the view of stone-hemmed fields, tidy hamlets and, of course, the Wharfe itself, meandering sluggishly far below.
The name comes from the devotion of ancient Druidic magicians, followers of Simon Magus, who claimed to be one of the Three Wise Men. A friend, who climbed it in fog one New Year’s Day, found it spectacularly eerie.
We descended rapidly towards Barden and, half an hour along the river, came upon the the other highlight of this classic walk – the Strid. This ids a deceptively deep, water-filled chasm, where the Wharfe suddenly seethes through a narrow boulder-lined channel. on the surface, it seems eminently leapable, but miss your step and you are sucked into underwater potholes.
The first victim was the noble-born Boy of Egremond, son of Alice de Romilly. He used to jump over the Strid on his pony with a greyhound on a lead. One day the dog tugged back and all three were drowned. That was in the 12th century, but the Strid has claimed lives in recent years, too.
Further along towards the Abbey, the Cavendish Pavilion offers refreshments, much as it did for all those Victorian and Edwardian day-trippers. The cakes are Great British Bake Off finalist class. The wooden pavilion has the feel of a huge railway halt and that was the original intention, but the service never got extended from Bolton Abbey Station.
To get to the Abbey itself it’s best to hop across the stepping stones, where the river curves to reveal one of England’s most beautiful settings. Cows stood motionless in the river, alongside children paddling with tiddler nets. Idyllic.
Evidence of the huge monastic estate dissolved in 1539, is everywhere. By then the Augustinian Black Canons had been following their austere code of poverty, chastity and obedience on the site for 400 years.
The Abbey’s West Tower was never finished and much of the rest is in ruins, but the 13th century nave, with marvellous 19th century stained glass windows by Augustus Pugin, serves as the parish church. In the graveyard you’ll find the resting place of one Frederick Sewards Trueman – Fiery Fred, Yorkshire and England’s finest fast bowler. Freddie Flintoff’s a pussy cat in comparison.
The monks’ mantle of hospitality was taken over by the Devonshire Arms, which has metamorphosed from traditional coaching inn to today’s chi-chi country house hotel. Austerity is not it’s thing. Alongside traditional furnishings, including four-poster beds, are works of art on loan from the Devonshires’ stately home, Chatsworth in Derbyshire.
The Duchess has a big say in the decor, which is slyly subversive. My room, the Shepherd, contained a large wooden relief of a sheep and instead of family prints, numerous water colour lambs gazed down at me in my four-poster. They go one step further at the Devonshire Arm’s little sister hotel up the valley, the Devonshire Fell, with its current Room With A Ewe promotion.
The designer Duchess’s unexpected quirkiness carries over in to the Mediterranean kaleidoscope of colours in the casual dining Devonshire Brasserie. Altogether more restrained and what you’d expect is the hotel’s Michelin-starred Burlington Restaurant, which is all polished oak, silver service and superb food.
The wine list, the size of a telephone book, is among the best in the country, with stupendous Burgundies and Clarets, but the mark-ups are not greedy, there are 18 affordable house selections and expert guidance from long-time sommelier Nigel Fairclough.
There is a new head chef in situ after the excellent Steve Smith decamped to Jersey. Adam Smith, recruited from The Ritz and a former Roux scholar, is just 25. I returned to the hotel recently on their kind invitation to check out Adam's Surprise Tasting Menu. On the evidence of this he is a star not just in the making but now.
The menu benefited from a main of grouse, shot shortly after the Glorious Twelfth up on the estate’s Barden Moor (the Duke himself was out there with his ghillies on the day of our recent visit), but other dishes featuring smoked sweetbreads or sauteed langoustines with lemon verbena were exquisite in their own right. The expertly chosen matching wines, mostly white, confirmed a kitchen, sommelier and dining room on top of their game in what might have been a period of transition. There’s a new hotel manager on board, too.
The Devonshire Arms, despite the studied affability of it staff, may seem a little daunting, especially if you have a young family in tow, but there is a stylish, more contemporary alternative down the road – the aforementioned Devonshire Fell, just outside Burnsall.
Outside it is still the sturdy fellside lodging house of yore. Inside it has been given a vibrant, almost Californian-style makeover. The bedrooms are painted in bright primary colours, yellows and greens. The valley views from the front rooms are terrific. The dining room is relaxed with blackboard specials and a good choice of wines by the glass, the bar a place to chill and play board games.
Beyond Burnsall, with its pretty arched bridge, is Upper Wharfedale. Unless out of season, I’d avoid the daytripper honeypot that is Grassington and continue to Kettlewell on the way over to Wensleydale. A pretty alternative is to stray up Littondale to Arncliffe, which has a great green and village pub.
For wonderful walking country you can’t go wrong around here. Climb up the road to Hebden and look down on Burnsall Bridge or turn right earlier to Appletreewick with its two splendid ridge pubs. I like the New Inn, but these days it is eclipsed by the Craven Arms, a quite perfect unspoilt-feeling country pub (even the cruck barn annexe at the back has been done sensitively.
The Craven is a great place to hole up in after a winter walk up the Wharfe, but then so are the two ultra-welcoming Devonshires with their roaring log fires, afternoon teas, local Copper Dragon Ales and cosseting service. As Fiery Fred might have said: “They’re joost champion”.
Below, three dishes on the Tasting Menu I forgot to mention!
The Devonshire Arms Country House Hotel, Bolton Abbey, Skipton, North Yorks, BD23 6AJ. 01756 710441; www.thedevonshirearms.co.uk.
40 individually designed bedrooms, 4 AA Rosette restaurant, contemporary brasserie and bar, Devonshire Health Barn, conference and banqueting Facilities, Helipad. Dog-friendly, free wifi, free car parking at Bolton Abbey (usually £7). Rooms from £195 B&B.
The normal a la carte menu is £65 per person; Adam Smith’s Surprise Menu, £75. Matching wines available with the Tasting Menus for the whole table are £50 a head.
The Devonshire Fell Hotel, Burnsall North Yorks, BD23 6BT. 01756 729000; www.devonshirefell.co.uk.
12 individually designed bedrooms, 2AA Rosette restaurant, conservatory bar, confererence and banqueting Facilities, Complimentary access to Devonshire Health Barn.
Dog-friendly, free car parking at Bolton Abbey (usually £7), free wifi, and the hotel is available for exclusive use. Rooms from £120 B&B.
Weddings available at both hotels.
Bolton Abbey is 50 miles by road from Manchester.
The annual Devonshire Arms Food Festival 2013 takes place from November 18-24. It will include a variety of live chef demos, light-hearted lunches, afternoon teas and Chef vs. Chef Events – where two chefs compete to win diners' votes. Appearing alongside the hotel’s own Adam Smith will be local patissier Thierry Dumouchel, Simon Crannage of Swinton Park and Great British Menu contestant Stephanie Moon. Dinners will comprise of a six-course tasting menu each night in the Burlington from a different Michelin-starred chef, including Cinnamon Club’s Rakesh Ravindran, Anthony Flinn, and Matthew Tomkinson from the Montagu Arms. For more information and to book a place at this year's Food Festival, call 01756 710441.
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