07 June 2015

Tan Hill Inn: Drink up

Yorkshire reckons it's got the best of everything. All the stuff that counts anyway. France may do better philosophy, Germany engineering, and the Philippines know how to do nail bars. But for the best cricket, the best beer, the best scenery, the best people... well, it's got to be the broad acres. (There are famously more acres in Yorkshire than words in the Bible, but not as many square miles as there are words in PayPal's T&C agreement.)

As proof of Yorkshire's primacy in all things significant, such as licensed premises, we have officially got the UK's top pub. The Tan Hill Inn, up in the county's mountainous northwestern fringes, is 1732ft (528m) above sea level. I cycled there today with several friends (pic) as part of a camping weekend. We'd gone for some fresh air, and certainly got it, mostly as a Gale Force 7. Fortunately it didn't take long to retrieve our tents from the neighbouring farmer's field.

We were based in Swaledale (pic), probably the best Yorkshire Dale, and therefore the world's. Who needs philosophically engineered nail bars anyway, when you can have a pint of Black Sheep in a pub that can legitimately feature in one of its own quizzes?

This is what you see (pic) as you cycle away from the pub eastwards towards Reeth. The Tan Hill Inn is remote: it's the only inhabited building for miles, up on a bleak moortop on the edge of the historic Yorkshire boundary, and getting stranded here is a real possibility in winter.

Whether this counts as a strength, weakness, opportunity or threat, in the words of the old marketing-brainstorm SWOT analysis, depends on your character type. Presumability the revellers seeing in New Year 2009/2010 who were stuck for three days by heavy snow saw it as an opportunity.

No bad weather for us, sadly. Though the previous day, the high winds had persuaded us to forgo a cycle ride and go walking along the fjordlike valleys instead, dotted with farm buildings that estate agents would describe as 'having bags of character and lots of potential', ie derelict (pic).

Such wild weather is a matter of pride for Yorkshire folk. Unreliability, especially, is revered. 'Round here,' they'll tell you, 'the weather can change just... (click of fingers)... like that.' Then they'll tell you that there are microclimates, and that it can be raining in the next valley but 'bright sunshine' here.

We drank responsibly. (I had half a Black Sheep.) It was, after all, a long fast descent (pic) from the Inn down to Reeth, and while we all wanted to encounter the scenery, we didn't want to encounter it head-first. And we had a campfire barbecue to look forward to that evening, at which we may not have drunk quite as responsibly.

After our very convivial weekend, I cycled to the nearest train station – Garsdale – via Buttertubs Pass (pic), one of the Dales' iconic climbs. It's a long way up - indeed, it featured in Stage 1 of the 2014 Tour de France, which, having set off in Yorkshire for its first two days, was by definition the best Tour de France ever. And yet, even with a summit at 1726 ft (526m), Buttertubs doesn't reach quite as high as Tan Hill Inn.

The nearest challenger to the Tan Hill Inn's vertical supremacy, the Cat and Fiddle Inn on the Derbyshire-Cheshire border, is at 1690ft – definitely second place, despite a former CaF landlord trying to fiddle the figures to make it higher. [The CaF closed in December 2015, and as at Jun 2017 had not yet reopened.]

There are other pub record breakers of course, and I've cycled to many of them. Britain's smallest, The Signal Box Inn in Cleethorpes; Britain's oldest, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham; and Britain's longest bar, the 198-foot counter at the French Bar, Butlin's, Filey – though this was in 1968 (the resort was demolished in the 1980s), and I was on a bike with stabilisers, not because I was wobbling home but because I was too young to drink.

But these clearly aren't quite as significant. Because when it comes to pubs, Yorkshire is the top.

19 May 2015

Beverley: Wolds apart

Beverley (picture), at the edge of the gentle Wolds, is one of our great secrets: a fine, characterful Georgian market town with its own brand of Yorkshireness.

While it has plenty in common with the county's other market towns such as Richmond – a fondness for turning potentially pedestrianised-showcase market squares into car parks, for instance – it's also distinct, very much East Riding rather than North or West.

So, brick houses, not stone; lumbering cattle, not windblown sheep; the flat vowels of the eastern plains, not the vocal hills and valleys of the moors or dales. And white, not red, phone boxes (picture): a reminder of Hull's unique independent local phone system in pre-privatisation days.

The cycle from Market Weighton was a pleasant trundle along the Hudson Way railtrail (picture) – another legacy of the evil Doktor Beeching, Bond-villain of the train world.

Kiplingcotes Racecourse, just by the station here, is the home of Britain's oldest horse race: its Derby has been run every year since 1519. Astoundingly, every single race has been won by the bookies.

Railtrails in Britain are often something of a punt, too. While the Hudson Way is no problem for a mountain bike, I usually felt the parallel country lanes (picture) were a better bet.

With a tailwind on a cool, tranquil May evening, almost totally devoid of traffic and embellished by birdsong, cycling through this gently rolling, reassuring rural landscape was a lovely little experience.

I've been to Beverley many times. I grew up (though my friends might dispute that term) a dozen miles away. But this was the first time I'd visited by bike, as a tourist.

And what a beautiful approach it was, into the town from the north, along grand early-19th century terraces that spoke of a wealthy mercantile past. Beverley had somehow got grander from when I last visited, two days before by car. The drizzly snap of the market square (picture) doesn't do it justice.

I passed through the famous old red-brick gate, the North Bar. (It was built in 1409; clearly not by the firm that did my extension in 2011, because it's still standing firm and solid today.) Remember that here in East Yorkshire, a street is a 'gate', a gate is a 'bar', and a bar is a 'pub'.

And the quintessential Beverley pub is the wonderful White Horse Inn (picture), aka 'Nellie's'. So I relaxed with a couple of pints of Sam Smith's bitter, £1.80 a pint. That's not a misprint, special offer or journalistic device (aka 'lie'): that's the regular price.

Nellie's hasn't been redecorated for about two hundred years, and its colour scheme has something of a brown theme: chestnut-brown, nicotine-stain-brown, soil-brown, and, er, other types of brown, the sources of which the traditionally agricultural clientele would have been odorously familiar with.

It was friendly, good-humoured and full of locals discussing their latest Premier Inn deal or Skyscanner bargain. Sociable, a little damp-smelling, discoloured and dim, I felt right at home.

I also had a quick cycle round Beverley Westwood, which sounds like an American golfer but is in fact a tract of countryside perfect for picnics, when it's not actually raining. It's right on the edge of the town centre (picture), characteristically East Riding and pastoral.

The racecourse is here too, and every year since 1519, bleary men in suits and tipsy women in frocks have staggered back to the town to miss their coach home.

Beverley has a nice line in silly street names: Toll Gavel, Old Waste, Narrow Racket (picture).

It also does a very nice line in walks round the centre (tourist info is available from Tourist Info) that invite you to spot subtly hidden statues, plaques and artworks: particular fun for naive young minds, such as those inside the head of cycle bloggers forced off their bikes by the drizzle.

Curiously obscure in the town – though it dominates the skyline if you're outside in the country – is the awesome, and deservedly celebrated, Minster (picture) – conveniently, right on several long-distance Sustrans bike routes.

But being Beverley, there's much more, unsung, stuff where that came from. St Mary's, at the opposite end of the centre, is a superb church that would be a famous market-town gem by itself if not for the Minster, perhaps the country's most splendid 'parish church'.

(Lewis Carroll got his White Rabbit character in the Alice books from a strange lagomorphic carving inside St Mary's.)

I liked Beverley a lot, despite the grey weather, surfeit of mid-market Italian restaurants, and mystifying shortage of central chip shops. The surrounding countryside is pleasant, though you wouldn't come here to develop your career as a landscape painter. (The town's favourite native artist, Fred Elwell, specialised in comfy Edwardian middle-class indoor scenes; pictures of his adorn many town walls and of course there's a 'Paint the Town Fred' walk.)

But it has that elusive balance of East Riding and mainstream-Yorkshire, of market-town compactness and service-town facilities. Beverley's economy is developing steadily too: a Carluccio's is arriving, and a Wetherspoon's. (Though even they will struggle to match Nellie's on price, as well as on worn-out dark-wood furnishings.)

I'll be back soon. And by bike.

18 May 2015

Market Weighton: Tall stories

A key to understanding Yorkshire is that nothing else, anywhere, will ever be as good as it is in God's Own Country. (That's what Yorkshire people call Yorkshire. It's not what God calls it, but obviously His opinion doesn't count as much as, say, Fred Trueman's.)

Think, for example, of the farmer whose land straddled the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. After years of dispute, it was finally settled that his farm lay in Lancashire. Thank goodness, he said. I couldn't stand another Yorkshire winter.

Because Yorkshire cold is colder than any other cold, you see. Other counties' 'cold' may be, technically, of a 'lower temperature'. But Yorkshire cold is colder, because it's Yorkshire cold.

Anyway, Market Weighton (picture) put me in mind of this effect. I cycled through the small market town on my way from York to Beverley today. It was the birthplace of William Bradley (1787–1820), the tallest man ever in Britain at 7'9" (236cm). Never mind that Frederick Kempster apparently, technically, measured 1cm more: Bradley was from Yorkshire, which makes his 7'9" actually taller than that. He was Yorkshire tall.

The twenty or so miles between York and Market Weighton is as flat as a pint of non-Yorkshire beer, so Bill must have had a good view of all the intervening pig farms from up there.

His home town celebrates him well, with a life-size statue of Giant Bradley (picture). With good Yorkshire image management, this plays down the outsize features seen in contemporary illustrations of him which suggest acromegaly – the symptoms of an overactive pituitary, the developmental equivalent of a jammed accelerator that swells forehead, cheekbones, jaw, hands and feet to monster proportions.

Bradley weighed 27 stone (171kg) and could apparently wolf a whole leg of mutton for tea, though of course he'd've struggled to finish one of my mum's dinners. He exhibited himself with the travelling show Barnum's, along with a dwarf called Edward Calvet from Shiptonthorpe. Once they went out for a night on the town and Barnum's looked high and low for them. (See Ronnies, The Two: BBC1, 1976.)

Bill's giant-sized house is marked: it's now a gift shop, whose lofty ceilings must present quite a decorating challenge. Also visible is his jumbo grave inside the town's church, where he was buried (to deter trophy-hunting grave-robbers) following his death from tuberculosis at 33.

And then there's this rock (picture). According to local legend, the big guy carried it for a bet all the way from Goodmanham, three miles away, to here. Now this is a newsagent's, though then it was probably a farrier's or a charnel-house or soothsayer's or something.

I don't know how much it weighs, but given the choice between the rock and my panniers, jam-packed as usual with sandwiches, tools, electrical goods, emergency bottles of wine, Argos catalogues etc, the Yorkshire Giant would have asked for the rock back.

But Bradley would've appreciated some of the contents of my excess baggage. Such as the Yorkshire Tea (picture) that provided my evening refreshment. Other teas are, of course, all very well. But they're not Yorkshire Tea.

11 March 2015

Haworth: Novel experiences

The most literary place in the world is an old vicarage in Haworth.

Many countries in the world are proud enough to boast one major author. Well, this West Yorkshire village boasts three: in the 1840s, the parsonage was home to Emily, Anne and Charlotte Brontë. Which means this one building (pop. 6) has produced more renowned authors, according to Wikipedia's List of Novelists by Nationality, than Armenia (pop. 3m) Greece (pop. 11m) or Indonesia (pop. 250m).

Haworth is roughly an hour's cycle west of Bradford, and you will feel roughly if you tackle its raw, hilly landscape in bleak weather. I had a sunny, crisp March day though, and enjoyed the surprise view of the magnificent Hewenden Viaduct (pic), a long disused railway now part of a Sustrans bike route.

Several friendly dog walkers were out in the fresh air. The lingering aroma of last night's curry in Bradford was clearly evident to the dogs, and they clearly have a good taste in curry, because they all scarpered whenever they got a whiff of me.

Approaching Haworth village, you see its main street climbing its way up the hillside (pic). The parsonage is at the top, conveniently (for the girls' remarkable father-priest, Patrick Brontë) next to the church. And equally conveniently (for the girls' wayward brother, Branwell) the Black Bull pub.

The parsonage (pic) is now a museum, and well worth the visit. Though it's been bashed about and some bits are much larger than they used to be – I know the feeling – it's full of atmosphere, the displays are very well done, and it gives a superb insight into the internal and external world of the authors of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

My favourite bit was the drawing room table on which these works were written, in particular the letter 'E' carved out of its surface. Wonder which of the daughters did that...

The landscape round here is inseparable from the sisters' turbulent stories. It's also inseparable from your tyres if you try mountain biking round here on a rainy day. But to experience the moors, villages and lanes round here is to experience the atmosphere of the books: West Yorkshire in all its confrontational, harsh intensity.

In the interests of research I visited the Black Bull (pic), the pub where Branwell misspent his youth, and all his money. And other people's. They still have 'Branwell's Chair', where he presumably sat and railed drunkenly against the unfairness of being compared to not one but three over-achieving siblings.

It was chucking it down. After my pints in tribute to Branwell, I took my bike on the Worth Valley Heritage Railway (a one-carriage tram, in fact) from Haworth's oldë worldë stationë to Keighley, and then trained it back to Bradford. Where I had another curry. Great for keeping dogs away.