Usually, between the two of us, either my friend or I have pretty well sussed where we’re headed, and what we might do there. Not this time. We’ve booked a night at Hipping Hall for its location. It’s a good mid-way point from Scotland back to London to break up the seven-hour drive. Except neither of us quite know where it is, exactly. The website says it’s between England’s Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, but now that we’re here, we realise there’s nothing ambiguous about it – we’re in the Yorkshire Dales. She’s a Brit, and I’ve lived here 12 years, yet neither of us ever ventured here. The landscape is all rolling hills punctuated by the odd church steeple.
We arrive at Hipping Hall late in the afternoon. The 15th century stone building used to house a blacksmith before a later owner married the daughter of a local lawyer, becoming proper “gentry.” He left the hall as a legacy and it’s now an intimate hotel with just nine rooms.
It’s a cold Saturday, and we’re shown to the sitting room where small coal fire is surrounded by comfortable couches, a pick of the day’s papers and wonderful jazz playing just loud enough. A welcome cup of tea and cake is soon set on a side table while I tuck in to the Times in the few hours before dinner.
Hipping Hall is miles from any major city, and like most country hotels, they offer dinner in their gothic dining room. It’s mostly couples on a romantic break, but we’re one of two sets of gal pals reducing the pressure on our neighbouring husbands and wives to look overly into each other.
Warm, fresh baked bread takes the edge off before we’re presented with a dish of pork belly accompanied by orange and chicory which are more subtle than overpowering. With the added broccoli stem it’s nearly a “healthy” dish as we’re more than halfway to our five-a day. Yorkshire goat’s curd arrives in the form of two bubble gum shaped balls, deep fried with a soft, salty centre. White and red beetroot and candied walnuts balanced the flavour, along with a lovely dollop of burrata.
We’re torn between the halibut and the vegetarian field mushroom duxelles, so we agree to share both. The mushrooms are tasty and unusual, but need a light jus or broth to enhance the flavour, and unfortunately it’s the third time we’re seeing the small fried balls (they were in the amuse bouche as a coating for quail’s eggs) so they’ve worn out their welcome. But the halibut is better than many I’ve had at top London restaurants. It’s a perfectly flavoured dish which marries mushrooms, an emulsion, and artichokes brilliantly. The halibut is moist and delicious.
We’re perhaps too accustomed to poor service in the UK, particularly once we leave the confines of the Big Smoke, but that’s where Hipping Hall shines. The same small staff that runs the hotel also works the dining room. They seem to get to know each guest (but not too much), and are very responsive. Every time we fail to leave a dish empty (which isn’t very many); we’re asked if it was okay, if anything was “not quite right” with the dish. Spend some time in England and you’ll understand how unusual this is. It’s not just that they ask, it’s the way they ask. Say to a Brit, “Is everything okay?” and you can pretty much bet serious money the answer will be, “Oh yes, lovely thanks,” even if it was dog food on the plate. It’s a subtlety, but by asking if something wasn’t quite right, the waiter has a better chance of gently coaxing the customer about what went wrong.
We keep it local with dessert, a sort of deconstructed rhubarb pudding. We’re informed it’s forced Yorkshire rhubarb. Little do they realise we wouldn’t actually be bothered if it was frozen, but we love the full disclosure. Two toasted mounds of marshmallow are set down with tiny drops of meringue, strips of rhubarb, and refreshing sorbet. It’s very tasty, but the best is yet to come.
It’s time to escape couple-dom so we retire to the fire for a few mean rounds of backgammon over tea and petit-fours. Three small chocolates never tasted so good. After a three-course meal I’m too self-conscious to ask for more, but if these came in a box, I’d have bought more than one to take back. The cream content is so high; they practically melt in our fingers.
Breakfast in the dining room with the Sunday papers is heavenly. The croissants are warm, the eggs delicately scrambled. And we’re off to the see Kirkby Lonsdale, just a few minutes’ drive. We know nothing about it, but quickly learn it’s a market town (code for quaint). We’re instantly charmed by the old fashioned sweets shop, Ruskin’s view (a sweeping view of the hills which the author pointed out to Turner, who later painted it), and a street lined with a handful of great boutiques. It’s the sort of shopping that convinces one to leave London; terrific things at a fraction of city prices.
Our little detour may convince us to give up the train, and drive to Scotland more often.