Neil Sowerby revisits old haunts and revels in a fresh culinary direction at a favourite lodging

6 minute read

WE can all be creatures of habit. Take the A65, that rollercoaster highway that links Skipton and Kendal, solid grey market towns both yet of little appeal to me, alas. I’ve driven it many times, often as an alternative to the M6 in the dash to the Lakes, but it is the Dales destinations en route that I go back to again and again. 

The first stop-off heading north is invariably the Courtyard Dairy, just celebrating its 10th birthday. Britain’s best cheese shop is symbiotically linked to natural wine pioneers Buon Vino

You can sense a meal is going to be a triumph when a major effort has obviously gone into the pre-dinner snacks

Both inspirational operations moved in 2017 from their original site on the outskirts of Settle up the road to Austwick and a former falconry centre. Unmissable. 

Seven miles further on is the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail, a spectacular four-and-a-half mile circular walk, but the scenic magnet for me in these parts has long been in Kirkby Lonsdale across the old Westmorland border – Ruskin’s View. 

Hipping Hall Courtyard Dairy
Cheese heaven at Courtyard Image: Neil Sowerby

The great Victorian art critic has been the object of sniggers for his wedding night debacle, allegedly traumatised at the surprise of pubic hair on his bride. His only knowledge of the female body was based on the smooth contours of Roman and Renaissance statuary.

His appreciation of landscape gave him more solace and after his friend JMW Turner painted a watercolour river view from St Mary The Virgin’s churchyard in 1818 Ruskin enthused: “I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine.”

Hipping Hall Ruskins View Kirkby Lonsdale
Ruskin's view – a virgin landscape Image: Neil Sowerby

So, parking by Devil’s Bridge we set off on the familiar River Lune path, then ascend the steep Radical Steps, on our umpteenth pilgrimage to that panoramic promenade. To our own trauma. Subsidence has made the viewing point dangerous, so it has been shut off until an engineering solution can be found. 

There must be an alternative glimpse but, time is short. Rain threatening, we trudge back to the car. Surely our favourite lodging along the A65 will be as delightful as ever? 

Hipping Hall, outside Cowan Bridge, is on an ancient site. It takes its name from the hipping, or stepping, stones that cross Broken Beck, the little stream that runs through the grounds. The current building dates back to the 18th century but only became a hotel in 2005. Since then its owner Andrew Wildsmith has launched Forest Side in Grasmere (2023 Country Hotel of the Year) while more recently renovating Hipping in a style that matches traditional with modern.

Hipping Hll Our Stables Lodging
Idyllic setting for the Old Stable Block Image: Neil Sowerby

The last time we stayed the Old Stable Block conversion was spanking new. We were billeted there because it was dog-friendly. No hardship. Five years on our chihuahua Captain Smidge is a veteran of luxury hotels but is still excited by his return, and so are we. Especially with the food on offer. The previous head chef, Oli Martin, was a hit on Great British Menu but has moved on. In his place there’s Peter Howarth – a real coup for Wildsmith, surely signalling his intention to add a Hipping Michelin star to the one held by Forest Side.

Howarth’s CV is scattered with stars. Head chef both at Latymer at Pennyhill Park and Gidleigh Park in Devon, achieving two Michelin stars and five AA Rosettes at both. Linconshire’s Winteringham Fields, The Samling on Windermere and the Devonshire Arms, Bolton Abbey are other stop-offs on his journey to Hipping Hall.

Hipping Hall Chef Peter Howarh
Chef Peter Howarth brings a delicate Asian touch Image: Neil Sowerby

A year on from taking over what strikes most during our eight course tasting menu is his subtle marriage of Asian flavours with top notch local ingredients. Not the ‘biff-bang, I’ve discovered lemongrass and galangal’ you get from certain MasterChef aspirants. Much more. His Thai wife Jeeraya is an obvious influence, but his approach is also informed by his life-changing travels across Japan and Thailand and the fusion acumen of his mentor, the great Michael Wignall (now of The Angel at Hetton, 30 miles away, outside Skipton).

You can sense a meal is going to be a triumph when a major effort has obviously gone into the pre-dinner snacks. Venison tartare and prawn toasts look and taste sensational.

Mutton Dish At Hipping Hall
Mutton is from down the road Image: Neil Sowerby

Successively Gressingham duck breast, Cornish John Dory and Eshton Herdwick mutton will share the plate with the likes of carrot cooked in shio koji, walnut miso, sea vegetables and finger lime, culminating in shiso granita, mandarin, yoghurt and poached quince, chocolate, hay milk ice cream. Give this man a star!

I often shy away from wine pairings, but in this case, I’m glad I don’t. Really thought through is the global procession of a Marlborough Pinot Noir, Viognier-Roussanne blend from the Ardeche, Premier Cru Chablis, Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, a sweet Sauvignon Blanc from the Rheinpfalz and a South African Muskadel.

Hipping Hall Dniing Room
The dining room has that medieval ambience Image: Neil Sowerby

All this procession of delights takes place in the 15th century, tapestry-hung dining hall, complete with ‘minstrel’s gallery’. Hipping Hall is dog-friendly, but they are not allowed in this space, so Captain Smidge has to sit it out in our expansive Stable Block suite, to be rewarded eventually with his doggie bag.

He is hardly suffering with his lodgings, airy and chic with a comforting country solidity, too. He has a top-of-the-range snooze cushion, and for us, there’s a king-size bed, mattress packed with Herdwick wool.

Hipping Hall Bedroom In Min Building Hh
Bedrooms in the Main House are equally luxurious Image: Hipping Hall

The same attention to detail is apparent in the main house. The mark of renowned interior designer James Mackie is everywhere. Curtains, cushions and throws have been crafted using three bespoke Pendle Tweeds sourced from Clitheroe. The headboards have been made by Woodhutch of Burrow; the curtain poles and ironmongery are from Albion Ironworks of Lancaster, reflecting Hipping’s origins as a smithy all those years ago.

Hipping Hall Kirkby Graveyard
Graveyard at the heart of picturesque Kirkby Lonsdale Image: Neil Sowerby

Out and about in the vicinity

Kirkby Lonsdale remains one of the most perfect country towns in the land. It’s best to park down near Devil’s Bridge. The tale behind the name is one common in folklore. A woman who was separated from her straying cow by the river made a pact with the Devil. He would build a bridge across, in return for the soul of the first living thing to cross it. The woman threw a bun to trick her dog into running across and the angry Devil had to be satisfied with an animal soul. He vanished, leaving behind a whiff of brimstone.

At weekends the three-arched packhorse bridge swarms with bikers, some of whom might fancy themselves as Satanic, alongside families queuing for ice creams.

Kirkby itself was an important market town mentioned in the Domesday Book. Evidence of its past is evident in street names. Swinemarket and Horsemarket are open spaces today, separated by ginnels with quaint titles such as Salt Pie Lane, named after an enterprising provider of mutton in pastry. 

The most impressive edifices date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. They are home to a range of independent eating places and shops. No chains. Alas, the cheerily camp Churchmouse Cheeses in Market Street is long gone, but excellent gastropub The Sun is still going strong and close by is Dales Traditional Butchers (voted ‘Britain’s Best’ in 2021) alongside a raft of independent shops and cafes.

Hipping Hall Thorntons Force
Thornton's Force, most spectacular of the Falls Image: Ingleton Waterfalls

Ingleton Waterfalls Trail is privately owned. It costs £8 a head per adult, £4 for children (card only at the ticket office, dogs go free), but it’s worth every penny, taking in a series of spectacular waterfalls and wooded gorges with, in the middle, a calf-stretching moorland march in the shadow of Ingleborough. Dogs have to be kept on the lead in this section, which offers a cafe and toilets before the descent back to Ingleton. The trail takes on average 2 hours and 30 minutes to complete. It opens at 9am; closing times vary according to the time of year and, as I write this, it is currently closed due to weather conditions. Check. 

Follow Neil on Twitter: @AntonEgoManc

Fact File

Hipping Hall Cowan Bridge, Kirkby Lonsdale, LA6 277, 015242 71187.

Five AA stars. 10 rooms in the main house. The Old Stables houses a further five bedrooms. Rates vary. Currently, for the entry category Cosy Room during the week there is a choice of B&B at £199; B&B plus 4-course dinner at £329 B&B plus 8-course dinner at £399. Saturday – only the 8-course menu is available (£399). The canine package including bed and treats costs £20 a night.

Read next: 'Hearty and clever food' - The Yew Tree Inn, Anglezarke, reviewed

Read again: Forest Side: a trip to Grasmere

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