Neil Sowerby and his chihuahua, Captain Smidge, go Bowland-ing
As I sit sipping my Four Mice "Goldie" ale on the beckside terrace of the Coach and Horses, Bolton-by-Bowland, my mind strays back to the Wars of the Roses.
In 1464 poor, doomed Henry VI, defeated in battle, pursued by the Yorkists and close to losing both his kingdom and his mind, sought sanctuary at nearby Bolton Hall, home to one of his few remaining champions, Sir Ralph Pudsey.
Our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, loved the whole place as much as we did
Miracles were attributed to Henry, both in his lifetime and after. One of his more attributable skills was dowsing. And here’s the link to the rapidly disappearing pint in my hand. The Coach’s in-house micro-brewery uses water from King Henry’s Well, based on a natural spring discovered by the King on the old Bolton estate.
It’s a gorgeous parkland walk there, but you can’t get up close as the well is now inside a private development, King Henry’s Mews. The Pudsey (or Pudsay) line became extinct in 1771 when the last of the family, Bridget, died without heirs. Bolton Hall itself was demolished in the 1950s.
King Henry’s name lives on too in one of the seven guest rooms at the Coach and Horses. It’s perhaps the most visually striking with a view out onto one of the two village greens and its stocks. We stayed in the other dog-designated room, Swallow, appropriately up in the eaves. Without a dog in tow, Rose might tempt me with its high ceiling and standalone copper tub.
Our chihuahua, Captain Smidge, loved the whole place as much as we did. It was hard to stop him parading around the original flagstone floors or cuddling up on a sturdy chair to share our dinner. It helped that posh inns don’t come much more dog-friendly than this. Such is the laidback vibe that both dogs and owners were remarkably well-behaved. Perhaps there are too many equestrian pictures, but quirkiness edges it beyond country pub stereotypes.
We can’t understand how under the radar it is in a Ribble Valley showered with national plaudits for the quality of its inns and restaurants. Surely that will change now that the lockdown shackles have been lifted and we’re all seeking fresh horizons? The Coach had been left abandoned for several years before new owners Ko Labeji and Susan Lord rescued it in 2017 and restored it to its place at the centre of arguably the Valley’s most beautiful village.
Perhaps Downham pips it thanks to its stupendous backdrop of Pendle Hill, but it can’t match the historic resonance of Bolton, already touched upon. We couldn’t resist spending three quid in the village shop on a ‘Heritage Trail’ booklet – inspiration for a very local mooch before planning scenic forays in the car. It helped us feel at home instantly.
The hamlet, of course, makes a perfect base for exploring Pendle Witch Country, the Trough of Bowland and even the Yorkshire Dales. Just drive the four winding miles to Gisburn and the A59 will whisk you within minutes to handsome market towns Clitheroe or Skipton. A fast cross country link to the A65 puts you within easy reach of Malham Cove, Ingleton or Settle.
Village first. Inevitably we kicked off at the parish church, St Peter & St Paul (1190), rebuilt and restored by Sir Ralph in the late 15th century. For all his Lancastrian allegiances, he still found time to sire 25 children by three wives. With a total of 17, his third wife Edwina bore the brunt of his fecundity, which is commemorated in the arch between chapel and chancel. The monument is carved with the figures of Sir Ralph wearing full armour, along with his wives and brood complete with their names.
The church sits between two greens, the lower of which contains the remains of a 13th century stone "headless" cross and those stocks. We explored every limestone nook and shady lane. The temptation was to take the path up along Skirden Beck towards Sawley’s ruined abbey and the River Ribble itself, but the six-mile round trip with a small dog given to sniffing every clump would have had us late for dinner. And head chef Ian Moss’s small but attractive menu looked irresistible.
The kitchen brigade’s CVs include Michelin-starred Northcote along the road and London’s legendary The Ledbury, but the Coach plan is not for fine dining or molecular gastronomy, just accomplished use of local raw materials wherever possible. With village born and bred James Bishop (ex-Inn at Whitewell, Assheton Arms) as general manager there’s a wealth of supplier contacts across Ribble, Bowland and beyond to count on.
That was evident at dinner with mains of immaculately sourced venison for my wife and my sirloin steak, rare as I asked for. I liked the "nothing wasted" ethos shown by my venison faggots starter, using the "other bits" of the deer. On a rich butternut squash puree, they were glorious and a big hit with Captain Smidge. It made up to him for suffering a photo opportunity with a stuffed fox in the bar.
This bar, all deep blues and copper, has a sophisticated sheen. Very tempting for a nightcap, but we’d shared a bottle of benchmark Montecalvi Chianti Classico over dinner and we needed sleep before tackling the kind of breakfast that is obligatory for a stay in the country. Captain Smidge ordered the Pugh’s Piglets sausages.
Coach and Horses Main St, Bolton-by-Bowland, Clitheroe BB7 4NW
It’s just an hour’s drive from Manchester or you take a direct train to Clitheroe and get a cab. Rooms from £100. For more on the village and its history including further Pudsay family derring do visit the Bolton By Bowland website.
Out and about from the Coach and Horses
If you are unencumbered by a dawdling small dog, do make the lush green ramble to Sawley for a pint by the riverside at the 16th century Spread Eagle. The Cistercian Abbey is four centuries older but post-Dissolution there’s not a lot of it left to look around. Still English Heritage let you in for free.
By car, there is one self-indulgent trip, 13 miles north via Forest Becks Brow and the A65 to The Courtyard Dairy, at Austwick, the UK’s finest cheese shop. They’ll let you taste the range before you buy, so almost no need for a picnic.
Just eight miles west there’s Clitheroe, dominated by its castle on a limestone mound. It boasts plenty of interesting independent shops. I err towards the foodie side, so would recommend Cowman’s Famous Sausage Shop on Castle Street, Wellgate Fisheries for restaurant-quality fish to buy and nearby D Byrne and Co’s amazing wine store, now inside the Victoria Mill, Shawbridge, and Corto, a brilliant new craft beer bar on King Street, run by writer Kate Mather with her partner Tom. For something more mega visit Holmes Mill, which now incorporates a food hall, hotel, cinema, gelateria, the Bowland Brewery and a powerhouse (literally) of a Beer Hall with arguably the UK’s biggest bar.
For a very different shopping experience visit Gazegill, just six miles from Bolton-by-Bowland. It is signposted off the A682 Gisburn to Nelson road. The lanes are narrow but the destination is well worth it, offering a counter full of the UK’s best finest organic meat. Their animals are reared on grasslands that contain over 60 species of grasses, herbs, flowers and plants and support over 30 species of wildlife. It’s an antidote to the intensive farming systems and you can taste the difference.
Gazegill is in the final stages of construction of a fully sustainable, farm-to-table restaurant – an oak structure surrounded by wild hay meadows and with a stunning view of Pendle Hill.
Ah, the mighty Pendle. There’s a tourism industry built around the early 17th-century Witch Trials, but the Pendle Witch Trail from Barrowford to place of trial and execution Lancaster does not pass through Bolton. I’d recommend climbing the Hill itself, at 1,827ft just 173ft short of officially counting as a mountain. My favourite walking route is up from Barley village, a few miles further on from Gazegill. The Hill does cast its own special spell.
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