Neil Sowerby relishes this ancient hostelry and the Ribble Valley food riches
THERE was I thinking that the Lancashire culinary scene was impervious to the fickleness of fate; the Ribble Valley Food Trail dotted with reassuring milestones – akin to Bilbo Baggins’ The Road Goes Ever On song (inspired by Tolkien’s Hobbit-forming walks around Stonyhurst College).
The solid bedroom keys attached to cricket balls are a quirky tribute to Dad. There’s a lot of quirky about in a welcoming way
And yet as winter snow settles on Whalley, Clitheroe and the great grouse moors of Bowland, change is afoot. Nigel Haworth, chef patron of Michelin stalwart Northcote and creator of the groundbreaking Ribble Valley Inns, is taking a backseat in an ambassadorial role, while the Booths supermarket chain, champion of regional produce, has hit hard times and is up for sale.
En route for an overnight stay at The Inn at Whitewell we almost felt the need to reassure ourselves the old order standeth firm by dropping in on the Freemasons at Wiswell, near Whalley, arguably the UK’s best gastropub, or Clitheroe’s unique treasure house of wine, D.Byrne & Co.
But we forged on northwards into the Forest of Bowland, described by one over-excitable national reviewer as “England’s answer to Tuscany”. He obviously hadn’t been around in a raw high winter with the River Hodder threatening to burst its banks.
Still there’s no denying the magnificence of this designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which falls under the radar compared with the Lakes and The Dales.
For a start most of its 300 acres isn’t remotely ‘forest’, as in an abundance of trees. They’ve been scarce hereabouts since the Bronze Age – the name refers to ancient Royal hunting rights and grouse and pheasant shoots dot the area owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (ie The Queen). An apocryphal story in Bowland has an elderly woman in outdoor gear missing a pheasant by yards in the bracken and being told by a passer-by “that were a rubbish shot.” “Oh, but one tries one’s best,” came the riposte.
Game is regularly on the menu at our destination, the Inn at Whitewell, and Royal visitors are no strangers to this hostelry that was converted from a 14th century hunting lodge in the 18th century. Set in the deep wooded valley known as the Trough of Bowland, it was an obvious staging post on the switchback route over the gritstone fells to Lancaster.
Nowadays, given a savvily smart makeover while retaining traditional character, it’s a perfect laid-back base for walking, fishing and shooting. And, if the weather closes in (as they say) there’s no shortage of outdoor-centric mags to read by the log fires in the public rooms. Probably with a pint of draught Hen Harrier, the local Bowland Brewery’s hoppy homage to a rare bird the Forest is famous for, or better still, a glass of wine sourced by the Inn’s in-house merchants, Bowland Forest Vintners (but if you want to drink a bottle bought in the shop rather than off the bar list, there is a corkage fee).
On arrival, we settled for a pot of tea and a plate of shortbread in our hugely comfortable corner room overlooking that turbulent river. If you do visit the Inn, insist on river-facing – it’s worth the premium.
All bedrooms and public rooms, restaurant apart, are dog-friendly and our chihuahua companion, captain Smidge curled up on a dog-bed provided by staff, wolfing our shortbread rather than his proffered doggy treats. We’d brought our own towels to mop the mud off him after an ill-fated attempt to walk to the famous stepping-stones near the Inn. They were underwater, so the pre-prandial circular stroll was off. Below are ‘before and after’ pictures.
Fortunately the Inn itself is perched high above the Hodder. The restaurant we were booked into for dinner has the best vantage point of distant fells, but it was dark outside and Captain Smidge was obviously enjoying his cushion on the settle in one of the posh pubby rooms, so we diverted our dinner order.
It featured pancetta wrapped scallops, venison carpaccio, chargrilled local beef fillet and roast rack of Burholme Lonk lamb and all three of us dined royally. The consummate winter berry crumble to close I kept for myself. So good to eat dishes so assured in their own skin – reflecting the whole establishment.
When a head chef as good as Jamie Cadman stays 17 years in one job it may smack of lack of ambition, but it is also a tribute to the Bowman family who’ve run the Inn for three generations now. Recent imaginative renovations by Charles Bowman have completed the transformation begun by his father Richard, the Lancashire cricketer. The solid bedroom keys attached to cricket balls are a quirky tribute to Dad. There’s a lot of quirky about in a welcoming way.
You may remember the Inn featured seven years ago from the opening episode of BBC’s The Trip, where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, on a food critic mission, stayed and ate at six country boltholes across the North. Episode 4 was at Hipping Hall on the Cumbria/Lancashire border. When I reviewed Hipping’s own new look recently I was told they still got fans of the show booking specifically to stay in Steve Coogan’s room.
I presume the same applies at Whitewell, though a place famous, over a decade ago, for cooking Her Majesty’s first ever pub lunch, isn’t one for being smitten by mere telly celebs. Good to see some places are still standing the test of time.
The Inn at Whitewell, Forest of Bowland, near Clitheroe, Lancashire, BB7 3AT. 01200 448222. 23 bedrooms, doubles from £134 to £237 a night. Open for food noon to 2pm and 7.30 to 9.30pm, seven days a week.
Eight foodie finds in the area
By all means click on the Ribble Valley Food Trail’s interactive map, but here are my personal recommendations, all within easy reach of the Inn at Whitewell, which along with the three pub smentioned below is in the Estrella Damm top 50 Gastropubs list.
Assheton Arms, Downham Perhaps the prettiest of the Seafood Pub Company’s 12 venues in a contender for the Ribble Valley’s prettiest village. Enjoy a fish special sourced from legendary fishmonger Chris Neve then feed the ducks in the stream down the hill. The Assheton also has rooms to stay in.
Bowland Food Hall, Clitheroe The car park was still a work in progress when I last visited this monumental conversion of Holmes Mill on the way into Clitheroe, a town not unblessed with food and drink destinations (Cowman’s Sausages, Wellgate Fisheries, Exchange Coffee, Booths and an annual summer food festival). This is something else, a £10m project boasting in-house butchery, seafood bar and specialist fruit, veg, cheese, charcuterie and drinks counters. There’s also a gelateria inext door, using local milk and eggs as the basis for its ice creams. A bistro and hotel are on the way. For the moment, the most fully formed part of the complex, a ten minute walk from the town centre, is its beer hall, utilising the original features of the Boiler Room it’s housed in. The 107 ft oval bar vies with the one in Glasgow’s Horseshoe Bar for the title of Britain’s longest and you can watch Bowland beer being brewed.
Breda Murphy, Whalley This daytime eatery next to Whalley Station calls itself a British and Irish restaurant and deli. The name of its chef owner gives the game away but she has strong Lancashire roots a former chef at the Inn at Whitewell. Open since 2006, it has recently undergone a major refurb creating more dining space, a private dining area and Reilly’s Gin Bar. It’s open for dinner Fridays and Saturdays when head chef Gareth Bevan’s cooking spreads its wings, while and afternoon tea is quietly spectacular. The deli offers a range of in-house prepared meals to take out.
D Byrne & Co, Clitheroe Explore an amazing warren of cellars packed with the best selection of wines in the North and then head back to the determinedly old-fashioned front shop where the whiskies, the sherries and all manner of treasures line shelves reaching to the ceiling.
Freemasons, Wiswell This multi-award winning food pub, tucked away in a dormitory village, is expanding next door to add accommodation. When I reviewed it for Confidential three years ago I said it had “the look of a film set for some Hollywood-imagined country inn with more stag’s heads than you can shake a fox’s brush at and innumerable Dick Turpin meets Jorrocks country prints.” Chef/patron Steve Smith’s cooking is much more contemporary with global influences, well deserving its place as the only pub in the Waitrose Good Food Guide Top 50 Restaurants.
Gazegill Organics, near Rimington This lovely picture from this family farm’s website shows the dairy side of the business, which offers raw milk, rarely encountered these days. The Robinsons have been farming in the shadow of Pendle Hill for 500 years and see no reason to change the formula – “A farm with no GMO’s, no antibiotic residues, no pesticides or herbicides just natural grass leys and great habitat.” Worth navigating muddy, narrow lanes to reach their farm shop. You can also book a farm tour.
The Parkers Arms, Newton-in-Bowland There are pies you never forget and this game-filled example was one, a perfect example of chef-patron Stosie Madi’s artful use of locally-sourced materials in a beautiful pastoral location. Alongside the roster of rustic pub favourites you’ll find eclectic Middle Eastern and African influences. Accommodation is available.
Whalley Wine Shop On the village’s High Street, it’s more bijou than Byrne's but with a fine range of quality wines, at good prices. Each time I pass I’m tempted inside or into the outside terrace to sample one of their by the glass selection from the machine. Large range of beers often includes our own Cloudwater.