Neil Sowerby finds a perfect base for witchy Pendle and foodie Ribble
THE earth reveals its secrets in the oddest ways. In 2011, on the eve of the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials, a 17th century cottage was discovered under a grass mound near Lower Black Moss Reservoir in the shadow of the great hill. Complete with a deliberately positioned mummified cat.
In the refuge of your smart boutique room try on that witch’s pointy hat you bought on a whim
Lancashire’s ‘Tutankhamen’s Tomb’ was one over-heated reaction. Speculation had it as the site of Malkin Hall, home of witch matriarch Demdike, who died in Lancaster gaol while awaiting trial; her nine-year-old granddaughter Jennet testified against the family and neighbours and they were all hanged. Britain’s Salem 80 years before that particular mass hysteria.
More prosaically, maybe the habitation just belonged to a weaver? After archaeological investigation it has since been reburied ‘to preserve it from the elements’. No idea what became of the cat.
The ‘Back of Pendle’ is a great place to wander, fascinatingly witch-haunted. Up above the reservoir along Aitken Wood’s Barley Sculpture Trail, where arty bats and spiders dangle from the gloomy conifers, you encounter a life-size carved figure of a witchfinder. It’s a spooky reincarnation of magistrate Roger Nowell, who first interrogated the doomed suspects.
On a more cheerful note, last summer, just six miles away, it was the turn of the ‘Ghost Garden’ of Gawthorpe Hall in Padiham to make a reappearance, boosting visitor figures at the National Trust-run Jacobean pile. The vestiges of the original Victorian, Italian style parterre only become evident across the front lawn during extreme drought.
I love the building, full of textiles and borrowings from the National Portrait Gallery, but perhaps Gawthorpe’s affectionate sobriquet, the ‘Downton of the North’ is a step too far. The grounds are ringed by housing estates and its riverside neighbour is Burnley FC’s training ground.
Still it has long been what puts Padiham on the map. Now the transformation of a 200-year-old Grade II listed property on the main street has given a new boost to a town that appears, in passing, a humdrum extension of Burnley.
The Lawrence makes a stylish, boutique base for visiting Pendle Witch Country and the Ribble Valley. And it’s only a taxi ride away from three foodie hotspots – Northcote at Langho, The White Swan at Fence (each boasting a Michelin star) and the Freemasons at Wiswell (which surely deserves one alongside its ranking as No.3 in the Estrella Damm Top 100 UK Gastropubs).
After an ascent of Pendle or perhaps an exploration of Tolkien’s Hobbit-forming haunts around Stoneyhurst College the temptation might be just to chill at The Lawrence. Our duplex suite, the Aya certainly encouraged holing up. A roll-top bath brimming with bubbles, a well-stocked bar with honesty box to pop down to on the ground floor.
And our accompanying chihuahua, Captain Smidge, was instantly inseparable from resident Sprocker Hettie. The Lawrence’s owner Michael Huckerby, who founded NQ pioneer Simple bar in Manchester, runs a dog-friendly as well as a people-friendly establishment.
He will arrange in-house beauty treatments on request and you can order meals to eat in, but we we were determined to check out the area’s acclaimed food pub destinations.
Come May, the Freemason’s at Wiswell will have opened four en suite rooms of its own in a neighbouring cottage in the village near Whalley. We were more than happy to utilise The Lawrence, a £15 cab away, as a perfect base camp for its culinary heights.
Captain Smidge was happy to sample these, consuming half his own body weight in roast venison loin from his settle cushion perch. I managed to keep my suckling pig (crisp belly, sticky cheek, black pudding, rhubarb, Xo sauce and more) from his grasp. Great local produce treated with imagination, so typical of chef/patron Steven Smith (abobe). Steven will be running a pop-up version of his gastropub at Michelin man Tom Kerridge’s Pub In The Park festival in Knutsford (June 7-9). I can’t for the life of me see why Steve is not equally worthy of a star.
The White Swan at Fence has just received one; it is also one place (11th) behind the Freemasons in The Confidentials’ Top 100 Restaurants in the North West. Here chef Tom Parker’s prodigious talents astonish in a simpler pub setting that might perturb swankier Michelin Guide box-tickers. They should be made aware they are in the presence a former Supreme Champion Best Bitter. A pint of Timothy Taylors’ malty Boltmaker (the family-run Swan is still a Taylors tied house) makes a fine amuse bouche while you await your £55 five course tasting menu. Smidge particularly relished the Goosnargh duck. To get a flavour of the place check out Confidential’s excellent recent interview with Tom Parker.
If fine dining is not your fuel of choice before tackling Pendle, I’d suggest a visit to The Pendle Inn in Barley, which specialises in home-made pies. hand-pulled local ales, log fires and dog-friendliness (we counted seven with their owners in the main bar alone). Barley, with its large car park, is the best starting point for the ascent of Pendle Hill, famously just 162ft short of being classified as a mountain. Expect to spend a couple of hours walking to its 1,827ft summit and back.
Afterwards, retail therapy can come in various forms. At nearby Newchurch-in-Pendle you can purchase witch-centric souvenirs at the Witches Galore shop.
If you’re all spooked out by now, drive around the other side of Pendle down through the glorious village of Downham and into Clitheroe, which counts as a metropolis in the rural Ribble Valley. Essential stop-off there is the legendary Aladdin’s Cave of wine that is D. Byrne & Co Wine Merchants and I’d also recommend, in the street of that name, Giles Shaw’s quite wonderful Wellgate Fisheries, which supplies The Freemason's and The White Swan with their turbot, lobster and the like.
On the way out of town in the Whalley direction stock up with further foodie goodies at Holmes Mill, a £10 million conversion housing a food hall, gelateria, boutique hotel, Bowland Brewery and a stupendous Beer Hall, retaining the original features of the Boiler Room. There are 42 hand pulls for cask ales, including Bowland’s own Hen Harrier, with a penny from every pint sold going to the RSPB’s work to protect that bird of prey.
All this would be something, with the gleaming tanks of the brewery at the end of the room, but step left and you enter the atmospheric Engine Room, complete with the mill’s original engine, Elizabeth and extremely comfortable seating.
So congratulations. You’ve climbed Pendle. It’s thirsty work. Grab a beer. Just the one if you’re driving back to The Lawrence. There’s a nice bottle of affordable Albarino chilling in the bar there and a tail-wagging welcome from Hettie. In the refuge of your smart boutique room try on that witch’s pointy hat you bought on a whim.
The Lawrence, 26-28 Church St, Padiham, Burnley BB12 8HG. 07921 684742. It has 16 individually designed bedrooms. Rooms are available from £65 per night and can be booked online or by calling the hotel on 01282 771804, via the website or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Manchester via the M66. Nearest rail station is Burnley Manchester Road under four miles away.