I have a really lovely little find to share with you today. I haven’t added to my Great British Boltholes series of good places to escape to since before lockdown but now I want to tell you about a bijou hotel in North Yorkshire. It’s the one we stayed in last weekend and when I say bijou, I mean it’s small and personal and family run. So, I’m going to talk a little bit about it and its surroundings but then I want to tell you the very personal story behind it in the hope that you might help me to support a fellow midlife woman who is building a business in very challenging circumstances – and there will be an exclusive weekend break offer for Midlifechic readers at the end.
A bijou hotel in North Yorkshire
It was back in early spring that an invitation arrived to review The Wensleydale Hotel in Middleham and it’s a sign of how packed our diary was that I couldn’t give them a date until October. I put it in the calendar and didn’t have a chance to think anything more about it until last Friday when we left home in the dark at the end of a busy week. I’d hoped to research it as we drove but as I so often say, there are no easy roads from Lancashire to Yorkshire and as we travelled along twisty country lanes in the dark, I had to give up. Eventually though we arrived in a quaint little country town where the lights were twinkling and our hotel was waiting for us in the market square.
Here’s our room, compact as very old hotels often are – but cosy. The bed was a kingsize, the mattress was comfortable and the pillows were great.
The bathroom was simple but good and the toiletries were Temple Spa – these are the things that matter.
We had that sinking Friday night weariness and it was tempting just to stay and eat at The Wensleydale but we had a table booked there for the following night.
As we stepped out into the square we realised that there was not just one but three country pubs to choose from, only a minute’s walk away. We opted for the one that looked the cosiest, went to the bar and asked for the menu only to be told rather firmly, “it’s ten past eight you know.” And we were confused because yes we did know but hadn’t imagined that they’d have already ‘wiped down’ as they told us. In the end they took pity on us and gave us a choice of lasagne or scampi. It was all very Yorkshire and to the point but we weren’t going to argue and quickly opted for lasagne. To be fair, when it came it was home-made and I think it was the most delicious lasagne I’ve ever eaten.
Here’s a picture where I’m still looking a bit taken aback, I was talking to the boys on WhatsApp as I ate. Oh and we were seated next to a roaring fire so I’d had to quickly strip off the warm cashmere cardigan I was wearing – hence the tee. Apparently that’s AP McCoy peering over my shoulder and if you’re wondering why, it’s because for hundreds of years Middleham has been one of the biggest centres for racehorse training in the UK. There are fifteen training yards producing more than 400 winners every year so everything is very racing focused.
Hush lace vest (circa 2016)
After we’d eaten, we popped into one of the other pubs for a drink and then returned to The Wensleydale, planning to have one last drink before bed. And then we got chatting to Monty who is the son of the family and manager of the hotel. He’s a consummate host and, as the other guests had retired for the night, was able to give us his full attention.
I’ll tell you more about the family’s story at the end of this post but even though Monty is only 24 years old, he’s lived with his family in so many different countries that he’s a real polymath and we spent a happy couple of hours talking about all kinds of things. When he isn’t running the business one of his current hobbies is making cider which he’s also hoping to distill into calvados. He brought us one of the bottles to try which probably wasn’t a good idea because it was strong stuff. We shared it between the three of us while he and I had a great conversation about languages – he’s proficiently multi-lingual so we got into the nitty gritty of particular words. And he has a brilliant leg too which you’ll see further down, it only seemed to add to the speed at which he kept everything running while we chatted.
So we stumbled off to bed later than intended… and woke earlier than we’d imagined too – the racehorses start to trot past at 6.15 am and so there was a constant equine percussion outside our window.
However, a hearty breakfast was waiting downstairs, freshly cooked to order and in the days of the ubiquitous congealing hotel buffet, it was such a treat.
M&S cable knit AW21 (this year’s version)
In the daylight we noticed the little interior touches around the place…
… the digestifs looked tempting for later on…
… and who remembers the Yellow Pages ad? There are lots of activities that The Wensleydale can arrange for you including guided fly fishing, the hire of e-bikes, self guided walking routes, wild swimming and behind the scenes tours of the racing stables
As we stepped outside we were able to see Middleham in daylight for the first time…
… the pubs are arranged around the square; here’s the ‘lasagne or scampi’ one…
… we didn’t visit this one because it was closed for a week’s holiday…
… but we did go into this one which was full of stable lads and lasses, some of whom we saw on horseback early the next morning, looking very bleary eyed.
Middleham has a few well regarded antiques shops…
… and being an ancient town of royal bearing, the architecture is something else.
There’s so much history as you wander around and it may feel familiar because the original BBC adaptation of James Herriot’s ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ was filmed in Middleham and the surrounding area.
But it’s very much a lived in town too, the coal merchant was making his winter deliveries…
… and the locals were some of the friendliest we’d ever met. We stopped on a few occasions and had really good conversations with people – and their dogs.
The jewel in the crown is Middleham castle. I knew nothing about it until we went in and it turned out that it was the Yorkist HQ during the Wars of the Roses which required the summoning of a certain sangfroid for somebody born in the shadow of Lancaster castle! It was the birthplace of Richard III – he who was recently found under a car park in Leicester – and the story is brought to life in The Lost King which is cinemas now. I’m really looking forward to seeing it – Sally Hawkins is one of my favourite actors.
Anyway it’s what I’d call a semi-ruin, run by English Heritage with lots to explore and useful information boards around the place…
… and stunning views for miles around from the top of the tower.
And here’s one of those moments where we’d been watching the half term families dragging reluctant teens around and glorying in the empty nest when a text arrived from a boy with a cashflow issue and a rent bill looming, interrupting the bucolic photo that Mal had imagined.
M&S cable knit AW21 (this year’s version); cord skirt (gifted AW22); Boden parka (AW21); Boots
Moving on to Masham
Nearly New Cashmere
Even though it was a glorious day, we were keener to explore the surrounding towns than go for a walk. And having looked at the map I had one stop in mind – Nearly New Cashmere, the brand that I talked about a couple of weeks ago. I’d noticed that their shop was in Masham (pronounced Massam) near to Middleham so we popped in.
M&S cable knit AW21 (this year’s version); cord skirt (gifted AW22)
It’s just lovely. Everything is arranged by colour and then by size so it’s easy to browse. I’ll tell you what I found particularly interesting though – the difference in quality between the high street brands when they’re arranged side by side. Just by touch I’d put M&S at the bottom, Boden in the middle and J Crew at the upper end. There were lots of other brands too, some I knew, some I didn’t but everything was in great condition so I’d say you’re getting a bargain by shopping there.
A local lady was running the shop that day; she does a lot of the restoration and mending so it was fascinating to talk to her. She showed us how they can repair pieces almost invisibly if they have small holes and if there’s a bigger problem they can do something creative such as adding a star like this.
Absolutely nothing is wasted, if something is beyond repair it’s made into hats, snoods or gloves…
… and even the scraps are kept to be recycled into repairs such as the star above.
Here are all of the colours in the workroom, ready to be used on the pieces that arrive every day. It’s great to see a business that’s working so sustainably not only in terms of product but also by providing work for lots of different age groups in the local area. It felt so much more honest than a lot of the sustainability gesturing that’s going on. By the way, she told me that they’d be uploading a lot of new stock onto the website this week, you can find it here.
Black Sheep Brewery
Just down the road is the Black Sheep Brewery – so called because there was a fall-out in the Theakston family (they own the much older brewery nearby) causing one of the brothers to branch out alone as the black sheep, hence the name. Mal likes their chocolate orange stout so after an hour of cashmere, it seemed only fair to stop off.
There was all sorts going on. We didn’t have time for the brewery tour but we did manage a pint for one in the disco tent…
… this is the closest I get to drinking beer…
And for a while we stood and watched the teens trying to stay on the ‘bucking ram’ – of course Mal was convinced he could do better. This was the result!
After that we thought we’d compare the Theakston’s experience but there was only a bar and brewery tour so we didn’t go in.
And then we spent a while wandering around Masham itself which must be one of the prettiest and most thriving market towns I’ve come across in the UK. I didn’t spot a single high street retailer, not even the pharmacy and yet every shop looked busy and well cared for. There were greengrocers and food stores…
… home shops and galleries…
M&S cable knit AW21 (this year’s version); cord skirt (gifted AW22); Boden parka (AW21); Boots
… I was especially pleased to find one owned by Ian Scott Massie who’s an artist we both really like. He creates beautiful screen prints of Newcastle that we often stop and admire. It turns out that he lives in Masham and he was there, in his shop.
I don’t know whether it was a local initiative but every storefront was beautifully decorated for Hallowe’en…
… even the butcher had joined in – look to the bottom of the photo!
Masham is an incredible example of the way that independent retailers can thrive in a bustling and supportive community. Because this isn’t a tourist honeypot it hasn’t turned to the overpriced tat that’s invading most of the shops in places like the Lake District. We both fell utterly in love with the place.
Dinner at The Wensleydale Hotel
Back at the hotel we changed for dinner and I wore my new dress. The stables-themed restaurant, The Tack Room, is open to non-residents too, it’s small and personal so we chatted briefly to people at other tables. Lots of them were guests who return regularly because the hotel makes a central base for visiting the Dales, Northumbria, Newcastle, York, Leeds, Harrogate, even The Lakes – in fact one American couple had come for five nights and stayed for a month, just for that reason.
Midi-dress (gifted AW22)