APRES Le Tour – le deluge of interest and hopefully a flood of visitors that Yorkshire thoroughly deserves.
The Grand Depart of the Tour de France cycle race was grand to put it mildly; and the two stages in the White Rose county made a stunning and lasting impression both here and abroad.
Race organisers and millions of TV viewers were amazed at just how the event captured everyone's imagination and how much enthusiasm was generated along the entire route, whether in picturesque towns and villages or glorious countryside, from manicured meadow to great swathes of moorland, taking in atmospheric Brontë country and seemingly desolate high limestone plateaux – where spectators still turned out in their hundreds.
Roads were closed and the route was effectively sealed off for a day as the race and its high-speed, high-decibel entourage hurtled past vantage points – preferably near a village and/or pub – had to be secured nice and early.
My family base was in arty Hebden Bridge, before the race feeding station at Mytholmroyd and the start of the longest continuous incline in Britain through Cragg Vale, and the atmosphere, with a huge TV screen and gala in the nearby village park was noisy, infectious and tremendous fun.
It was a great day – but what next?
Stretches of Stage I and II were familiar to me from many routine trips and days out over the years and you do tend to get blasé about your own surroundings, however striking – until you see it on screen and appreciate the jaw-dropping scenery and distinct lack of dark satanic mills through the eyes of other people, especially from the South of England.
So we set out to rediscover parts of a sun-drenched God's Own County we've travelled before and to find others that were just lines on a map, a journey not undertaken lightly by a Lancastrian.
The Yorkshire Dales, celebrating 60 years of well-deserved National Park status this year, sit between two straightforward means of access from the South, reached via the M6 or M1/A1 and then cutting across, but we chose to head the 'old' way, via Ingleton and its famous White Scar Cave and follow Le Tour past the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct and through Wallace and Grommet's Wensleydale cheese capital of Hawes to reach our base for a couple of days in Swaledale, the next glacial valley north.
It's a place I've never visited before – and I'm all the poorer for it, because it is achingly beautiful and archetypical village England, with scenery shaped by long-gone industries and centuries of farming, stretching from the Dale's wide floor along the banks of the River Swale – one of the fastest-rising spate rivers in England – to the high pasture and exposed moors beloved by shooters.
Le Tour zoomed along the Dale between ancient hedges and drystone walls towards the historic town of Richmond and it's a good bet that many wished they could have stopped, and may well return to one of the clusters of stone-built farms and homes making up villages like Muker and Low Row, where we stayed in a gem of a one-time gentleman's turreted residence called Hazel Brow House.
Catherine Calvert has lovingly refurbished her former family home, exposing lots of quirky features along the way and it would be hard to imagine a better place for a full-family country holiday retreat – the house sleeps 13 and you simply take over the entire place, complete with Aga-equipped kitchen (there's a modern oven, microwave and induction hob, too!), numerous bath and shower rooms and even a large utility/wet room where you can hose off the dogs, kids and wellies.
Just look at the website gallery and imagine yourself in the huge double bath with south-facing view across the Dale (no need to pull the blind!) before retiring to the four-poster next door, sharing the same view, while the rest of your tribe of all generations have their own rooms scattered all across the landing(s) or the servants' rooms under the roof. I don't know if Hazel Brow was trying to tell me something, but I kept using the stone servants' stairs instead of the rather grand main staircase, which befitted the status of a certain John Clarkson Birkbeck, solicitor if this parish, who had the imposing edifice built.
He'd still recognise the place, with it's high-ceilinged hall, impressive dining room (yes, a full complement of 13-plus can sit down to eat!) and huge drawing room-with-a-view, although a 40-inch flat-screen TV and free Wi-Fi might be a bit too much HG Wells for him to take in.
All mod cons there may be, but there's no need to take self-catering to extremes. There's lots of fridge and freezer space, but if you don't fancy spending half a day in M&S or Booths buying ready meals or tons of groceries, call in your own personal cook Sandie Bond, who can drop by with superb family dishes ready to pop in the oven and finish off, so all you need to do is put your plates in the dishwasher. Cath told us that Sandie's steak pie was 'awesome', so it would have been churlish not to indulge, and Cath wasn't wrong. A sample menu from Sandie is online at the Hazel Brow website and she can also talk over special menus if you have a celebration in mind or if you want to entertain. She can cater for one person or a couple of dozen, and her fruit cakes and scones were then order of the day as Cath declared an open house on the day of Le Tour, when there were hundreds of campers in the nearby fields. And ask Sandie about her lemon and elderflower roulade.
You can always walk off the excess by walking across the pasture to the Dale bottom and take a tour of the organic Hazel Brow Farm Visitor Centre run by Steve and Angela Blazey, or even by taking Cath's three alpacas for a turn round the village. Still resplendent in Tour colours – yellow, green and red spots – the charming animals enjoy the trip, and a stroll also takes you round by the 17th century Punch Bowl Inn, a 'foodie' village pub, which still happily caters for cyclists, walkers locals and dogs, and boasts a solid oak bar designed and crafted by 'Mouseman' Robert Thompson, complete with his familiar carved mouse signature.
The daily menu based on fresh, locally-sourced produce is written on a large wall mirror and a fashionable wine list goes alongside a line-up of local and guest beers in excellent nick. The food was excellent, too, the dieter of the party finishing off with sticky toffee pudding with Dale-made ice cream, while I had a selection of local cheeses, including a very more-ish artisan Swaledale with a mental note to take some back home. The cheese with PDA status, made to a secret recipe handed down from a family near the Tour-bedecked village of Reeth (you MUST try the Cuckoo Hill View ice cream parlour there!) is now produced in nearby Richmond, also home to a great accompaniment from the Richmond Brewing Company a six-barrel micro-brewery producing ales by the side of the Swale in the town's old Grade II Victorian railway station. Golden-coloured Station Ale is a refreshing tipple, or if you like a darker brew, swill a Swale Ale and then try saying it after one or two.
Another heady experience is English Heritage's Richmond Castle, one of the oldest Norman stone fortresses in Britain, with a precipitous drop to the Swale and breathtaking views to the Dales and beyond. There's also a great view of the massive keep from the sun-trap beer garden of the Bishop Blaize only yards from the castle walls, notable as a Camra-friendly Yorkshire pub serving an excellent Lancashire beer – a crisp, satisfying half of Thwaites' Wainwright to go with a Wensleydale and chutney sandwich. Cheers, chuck!
The racers in Le Tour headed off via Leyburn, so that was my route back home (taking a quick detour to the hugely-enjoyable as-seen-on-TV Bolton Castle and the amazing Teapottery) via Aysgarth, Buckden, Kilnsey, Kettlewell, Grassington and Skipton, through more glorious scenery, taking in a slice of the race-inspired Tour de Dales, a home-grown, 78-mile circular ride following quiet roads and including classic climbs, with some testing enough in a car – especially when you breast one particular steep moorland rise to be met with the sound of machine-gun fire from the nearby military firing ranges and a large yellow arrow on the road signposting 'PARIS.'
Allez, allez oop!