And the two of us booked two further holidays with them, the first being a four-day festive guided walking holiday in the Southern Yorkshire Dales, from 30 December 2019 to 3 January 2020. (An equivalent holiday is available in 2020/2021.)
Our journey up was straightforward, quick and relaxed. We allowed considerable extra time for the first leg into Vauxhall, to accommodate the strike-beleaguered South Western Railway. But their service was unusually reliable, so our tube deposited us at Kings Cross Station some 45 minutes prior to departure.
Following a leisurely coffee we joined our LNER service which left on time. By booking twin single advance tickets with railcard discounts we managed to secure both return journeys for less than £50.
The QR codes on my smartphone misbehaved – as they normally do when introduced to the barrier readers – but our pre-booked seats were reserved and empty, the seats were pleasantly comfortable and the service comparatively uncrowded.
We arrived at Leeds a few minutes late, but there was enough time to grab a sandwich before boarding the rather clunkier Northern service from Leeds to Skipton, which was destined ultimately for Carlisle.
We arrived at Skipton before 14:00 and jumped straight into a Star Taxi, which took just 20 minutes to reach our base at a cost of £15 plus tip. This included a quick tour of the highlights of Skipton, including the High Street, the marketplace and Ermysted’s Grammar School.
The entire journey took less than 6 hours, comparable with the driving time reported by fellow guests, several of whom had apparently been swallowed into the maw of Bradford.
I had the distinct impression that Bradford was not an impressive place for them, though it is sacrosanct to me as the crucible of so much Dracup family history.
We were staying at Newfield Hall in Malhamdale, located adjacent to a farm and a busy road, just south of the villages of Airton and Calton, close to the River Aire and the Pennine Way.
We were told that the farmer does not see completely eye-to-eye with HF, but we very much enjoyed his donkey’s energetic braying, which periodically permeated the rear wall of our room.
The Hall is a Victorian country house, built in 1856 for William Nicholson Alcock, a lawyer, who had it designed by architect E.G. Paley and constructed at a cost of some £36,000.
Newfield was inherited by Alcock’s nephew, a military man, who lived there for a short time before selling the Hall and accompanying farm in 1890 to William Illingworth, a Bradford worsted manufacturer.
In 1901 Illingworth sold it on to J W Morkhill (1861-1932), another lawyer, who became High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1929. But when Morkhill’s son inherited he was soon beset by financial problems. Several of the farms were sold to their tenants and the remainder of the estate to All Souls, Oxford.
The Hall itself reopened as a guest house in 1933. It took in Czech refugees in 1938 and Vietnamese boat people in 1983.
A refurbishment in 1990-91 was interrupted by fire which destroyed the kitchen and west wing. HF Holidays took over shortly afterwards. There was further refurbishment later that decade and the Hall has only just emerged from its latest makeover.
There are 48 guest rooms, so this is one of HF’s larger properties. It has an imposing entrance hall, a bar, dining room, ballroom, small swimming pool and two lounges. An additional activity room is used principally to research and select walks, to choose packed lunch and dinner options.
There are some limitations to the layout however: only the dining room and ballroom can accommodate all the guests simultaneously; one of the lounges is far cosier than the other; and there is a dearth of comfortable chairs close to the two inviting open fires.
The gardens outside are also quite limited in scope but do boast beautiful views across Malhamdale, particularly on a fine morning when the sunrise throws lambent rays through the large dining room windows.
I particularly enjoyed the lion sitting at one end of the terrace, his back to the morning sun.
We found the staff unfailingly professional, capable, efficient and friendly. A small group of youngsters were Spanish and so held their midnight festivities an hour earlier than us on New Year’s Eve. These included consuming the Twelve Grapes of Luck.
Following a quick guided tour by one of the walking guides we were conducted to our ‘better’ double on the ground floor in the quieter courtyard section of the building, almost opposite the boot rooms.
This contained a very large and comfortable bed, extensive wardrobe and drawer space, a desk, two armchairs and two radiators (which had to be turned off completely – and the window opened – before the room could be considered temperate). There was no bath, but the shower was so powerful as to be positively painful at full volume. Everything was pristine post-refurb.
We unpacked and orientated ourselves through a quick walk round the gardens and drive, then convened with the other guests for coffee, scones and mince pies.
There is always a certain social discomfort as people introduce themselves to complete strangers, making small talk about motoring routes, their familiarity with various HF country houses and the frequency with which they take holidays with the Company.
As usual, the assembly was almost exclusively white and middle class and mostly of a certain age – some little way north of mine and a little further north of my companion’s. But they were drawn from all over the country, north and south, some from as far away as Dorset and West Sussex. There was a healthy mix of couples, smaller groups and people on their own.
So middle class are we that it has become customary on these holidays to enjoy a pre-dinner G&T once the sun has passed safely over the yardarm. We were pleased to discover that the yardarm was pleasantly low, since G&Ts were both healthily fruit-laden and half-price during Happy Hour, which began at 17:30 daily.
Shortly before dinner we were ushered into the ballroom to be given our walking options for next day. Rather than the standard three choices, this centre has begun trialling four, so catering for guests who prefer a gentler amble as well as those who demand a severe challenge.
While some HF guests wouldn’t be seen dead on a less challenging walk, we like to choose on the basis of aesthetics as well as physical challenge. If a shorter walk promises to be more beautiful it will attract us more than a yomp across windswept moors.
We had to rely on short verbal descriptions from the guides though, and would have welcomed the visual run-throughs supplied on our previous stay at Sedbergh.
At 19:00 dinner was served – as is HF’s custom – on round tables accommodating eight to ten people. The idea is to meet a variety of other guests throughout the holiday. We always stayed together, but often found ourselves with different neighbours, some more conducive than others.
The food was served in three courses – more on New Year’s Eve – and the usual over-generous portions. It exceeded HF’s customary high standards, even on New Year’s Day when the chef valiantly tried to use his leftovers.
On this first night I greatly enjoyed my ‘deconstructed chicken pie’ which was far better than it sounded.
The evening entertainment was of the quiz variety and we retired early. By and large, HF likes to keep its evenings low key, which is completely fine, especially after dinner and a full day’s walking and talking with one’s companions.
Walk 1 – Linton to Grassington (New Year’s Eve)
For this first walk we chose option 3 of the four available, following a clockwise and almost circular route via the outskirts of Conistone, a distance of almost exactly 10 miles. Only a handful of others made this choice, so we were a small group, relatively easy to prod over the several stiles.
Our guide, Mike – a sociable ex-farmer from the Borders – argued that our choice was actually more challenging than option 4, but we chose it because there was less exposure to the higher moors and we thought it might be more photogenic.
All four groups travelled on the same coach, which dropped us in Linton around 09:30, on the B6265, adjacent to Linton Beck and opposite The Fountaine Inn.
We walked round past the Inn for a closer view of the Baroque frontage of Fountaine Hospital Almshouse, opposite the Village Green. Both were named after Richard Fountaine, a wealthy London haberdasher who had been born in Linton in 1639 and who provided for the almshouse in his will.
Then we headed broadly northwards, following the line of the Beck along a path close to its left bank called Well Lane. This soon diverted along a more north-westerly route, crossing the main road and running next to Threshfield Beck, giving views of Grassington, our endpoint, across the River Wharfe.
Crossing Threshfield Beck shortly after Threshfield itself, we followed a footpath marked for Grysedale Lane and Skirethorns Lane, pausing to admire a row of beehives on the other side of a mossy wall, passing shortly afterwards through the imposing entrance to Wood Nook Caravan Park.
Just beyond the caravans we entered the south-east corner of the Malham-Arncliffe Site of Special Scientific Interest, which stretches westwards to Malham Tarn.
We crossed Malham Moor Lane and began to climb Green Haw Hill, heading up towards Mastiles Lane, close by How Gill. Here we stopped on the slope for coffee, looking back down towards Linton and Grassington as the sky turned blue and the sun began to warm our faces.
Joining Mastiles Lane – described as a Roman marching road and, later, a route by which Cistercian shepherds drove their sheep from Fountains Abbey to their summer pastures – we turned right along it, heading in a north-westerly direction towards Conistone.
We followed the course of How Gill until shortly before crossing the River Wharfe at Conistone Bridge just below Kilnsey, on the edge of Conistone Village. Here we paused briefly to admire the stone buildings and this sculpture of a sheep lurking beneath a bench.
Then we followed a path eastwards, entering a gorge which culminates in a scramble across limestone rocks up to Conistone Dib. We spotted several bird skeletons upon the path.
At the top we paused to take coffee and some more photographs before heading almost due south towards Grassington, following the Dales Way. At this point we encountered a herd of shaggy cattle, one of which seemed determined to obstruct our path.
We descended slowly along a path through fields to Grassington, entering this small market town by Bank Lane and Chapel Street before passing along Main Street and the Hebden Road to climb aboard our coach at the Grassington National Park Centre.
On our return to Newfield Hall we were greeted with mulled wine and cake, then a quick briefing on next day’s walks, followed by prosecco and canapes served in the hall before dinner.
My munching was interrupted, however, and I was slightly taken aback as a woman introduced herself who had been a friend some fifty years before, when we were in the final year of primary school. How does one summarise succinctly half a century of existence for someone one hasn’t met in all that time?
The experience gave me cause to reflect on mortality and the ultimate futility of personal achievement.
Dinner was a brash and raucous affair with crackers aplenty, not to mention sundry farting balloons and party poppers.
There were extra courses too, but also an opportunity to dance off our chronic overeating courtesy of the Phoenix Ceilidh Band which put us through our paces until champagne was served at midnight and we tried drunkenly to remember how properly to sing Auld Lang Syne (a quiz question from the previous night).
And so to bed.
Walk 2 – Malhamdale Circular
All four options for our walk on New Year’s Day departed from and finished at Newfield House.
We made our choice the night before, not yet knowing the state of our hangovers, but decided that we should try to cover a meaningful distance without over-exerting ourselves. It was also noted that the longer the walk, the earlier its departure time!
We exercised caution and selected option 2, a distance of about 7 miles, departing at the respectable hour of 10:00.
After walking down the drive we turned right on to the road, past the farm, then turned a left hand corner into what is allegedly called Badger Butt Lane.
This merges into Hall Brow which leads into the small village of Calton. We paused to peer over the wall at Calton Hall, now a private residence but once the birthplace of John Lambert (1619-1684) a Parliamentarian general and Commonwealth politician who in 1653 drafted the Instrument of Government, perhaps the nearest we have come to having a written constitution.
The building itself has been substantially renovated.
In Calton we forked left along Old Lane which culminates at Foss Gill, a tributary of the Aire. Following a short break we continued northwards, crossing the Aire just above Airton before following Kirkby Brow down into its centre, pausing on the village green.
Here we admired the ‘squatters’ cottage, said to have been erected to house the homeless, and the Quaker meeting house, originally a thatched barn, constructed in the early Seventeenth Century and in use since the 1650s.
We also walked down to the River to see Airton Mill, now converted into private residences but previously a cotton mill, built in 1797 alongside a much earlier corn mill.
It was repurposed several times, including in 1942 when Reckitt and Coleman housed their Dettol disinfectant operation here, evacuated from beneath the bombs falling on Hull.
Retracing our steps, we passed out of Airton heading south along Kirk Syke Lane to Bell Busk, a name said to be derived from the Old Norse and Old English for ‘bell-shaped bush’.
We paused close by the former Bell Busk Station, opened in 1849 on a line between Ingleton and Skipton and closed in 1959. We chomped our lunches seated along the two verges of the road running adjacent to Otterburn Beck.
After lunch we continued along this road, following it a little too far down towards Coniston Cold and having to retrace our steps to find the bridge over the Aire on Mark House Lane. We skirted the north side of Haw Crag, then followed the Pennine Way north to reach the Aire again just below Newfield House.
We were back as early as 14:15 and, after a period of much-needed rest and recuperation, strolled into the Hall for a tot of frangipane hot chocolate laced with hazelnut liqueur.
Following our habitual G&Ts, dinner was served – a hot and cold buffet, featuring a variety of dishes designed to use up leftovers but nevertheless extremely tasty.
I particularly enjoyed the curries and an amazing apple and plum crumble which was so filling that we were both physically incapable of taking part in the traditional inter-house quiz scheduled for that evening!
Walk 3 – Ingleborough
For our final walk we selected the hardest of the four options, climbing Ingleborough. This was the second of our Three Peaks, having ascended Whernside in October 2019, so only Pen-y-ghent still to go.
The weather forecast anticipated unhelpfully low cloud and gusty winds.
All four groups again climbed aboard the same coach, departing shortly after 09:00 and arriving at Clapham around half an hour later.
Clapham lies about 12 miles to the north-west, along the A65, on the other side of Settle. It is believed to have Saxon origins and a church was built there before the end of the Eleventh Century. King John granted a market charter in 1201.
Much later the Farrer family established themselves as the leading landowners in the area and, in the late Eighteenth Century, founded the Ingleborough Estate. Clapham assumed the role of ‘estate village’ supplying the manpower to run it.
As we descended from the coach, sorted out our gear and made use of the handy public conveniences, we were made welcome by a friendly cat.
Once under way, we climbed Church Lane, passing behind St James’s Church and through the Thwaite Plantation, then along Long Lane, following broadly the line of Clapham Beck.
Then turning east along Clapham Lane, we skirted Clapham Bottoms before approaching Ingleborough (723m) from the west across a hillside called Simon Fell Breast.
By the time we arrived at the summit the low cloud had descended with a vengeance. We clustered for warmth against the sheltering wall, built for those visiting the summit, and took our lunch while staring at the non-existent view. Behind us another group was enjoying a birthday lunch and we joined in ‘Happy Birthday’ to warm ourselves a little more.
We also admired an only just visible cairn before starting our descent, heading almost due south, past Little Ingleborough, then south-east by means of several rather slippery flights of limestone steps, heading towards Gaping Gill.
Gaping Gill is rather underwhelming from a distance, but becomes more impressive as one gets closer. This is the site of Britain’s highest unbroken waterfall and the cave beneath is said to be roomy enough to house York Minster.
There is an information board above which advertises the so-called Winch Meets enabling visitors to descend down the Gill’s shaft, 100 metres deep, with either Craven or Bradford Pothole Club. A couple on our dinner table the night before had shown us photographs of their descent some months previously.
The first complete descent took place in 1895 by rope ladder. The following year, members of Yorkshire Ramblers Club began to explore the Main and West Chambers. This video supplies a 3D view of the full cave system.
After a brief coffee break on the lip of Gaping Gill we continued on our way, heading south to enter the rather forbidding limestone gorge of Trow Gill, which demanded careful, concentrated scrambling.
The remainder of our walk ran closely parallel to our outward journey, through the Ingleborough Estate Nature Trail, which runs alongside Clapham Beck and past the entrance to Ingleborough Cave. This connects with Gaping Gill underground, though several sections of the route are submerged.
We soon passed a Nineteenth Century construction known as Aunt Bessie’s Grotto, after Elizabeth Farrer, wife of James Farrer, who apparently enjoyed taking tea there.
Towards the bottom of the trail there is a man-made lake, created by Oliver Farrar in the 1820s and later used to power turbines which supplied electricity to the village below.
Exiting the Trail, we strolled along Riverside back into the centre of Clapham. Crossing the bridge opposite the New Inn Hotel, we were soon back where we had started, welcomed by the same cat we had seen that morning.
The coach ferried us back to Newfield Hall, both of us feeling very tired, my companion suffering exceedingly cold hands despite wearing gloves all day. But we were soon speedily revived by coffee and cake.
My choice of dinner that evening comprised delicious cauliflower and truffle soup, a massive lamb shank and a gigantic bowlful of lemon posset, which so overfilled me that I could neither listen to a presentation on the Dales National Park nor participate in the indoor roller curling competition taking place in the ballroom.
After breakfast next morning we packed at a leisurely pace and were met by our taxi at 10:00, the time at which we had been asked to vacate our rooms.
We headed to Skipton Station by way of a second and even more thorough tour of the Town’s touristic hotspots. Skipton does look interesting and worth a stay in its own right.
Our train back down to London ran to time and we arrived home without mishap or misadventure, grateful to have survived the eating marathon and greatly looking forward to a period of abstemiousness.
We both enjoyed our holiday immensely, and look forward to spending further time away with HF in the near future.