The North of England landscape that started a food tourism trilogy is a revelation, writes Pam Wade
Steve Coogan and I have shared a bed. Not at the same time, I hasten to add — but the actor and I slept in the same room at the Inn at Whitewell, in the same four-poster, and wrestled the same antique over-bath shower.
It wasn't a coincidence: I was stalking him. Him and Rob Brydon, who together starred in The Trip, the first movie in their now-trilogy about restaurant-reviewing tours. They have subsequently been through Italy and are about to be on NZ screens in The Trip to Spain, but in the original they travelled through northern England.
Although they were very funny, it was the food and, especially, the scenery that made an even bigger impression on me than theirs of Michael Caine.
"Big" is the right word: having associated England with a pretty, domesticated countryside of fields and hedges, I found the footage of the misleadingly-named Forest of Bowland's bleak empty moorland, bare rocky hillsides and distant horizons a revelation.
The movie was filmed in winter; but even on a summer's day with the lanes fringed with cow parsley, dog roses and foxgloves, the scenery was wild and grand — and refreshingly under-populated compared with the Lake District, its better-known neighbour across the M6. Apart from a scattering of hikers, bikers and horse-riders, there was just the odd tractor busily turning hay and scenting the air — or, less appealingly, spreading slurry.
The signature section is the Trough of Bowland, a length of winding road through a deep valley and up over a 295m pass to a viewpoint in almost the middle of what is officially an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. All around are bare, blunt fells, or hills, draped with drystone walls and grazed by shaggy sheep nosing through the heather. Solitary farmhouses huddle in hollows, pheasants panic over the road, shadows chase across the hillsides.
It's still England, however: there are many ancient settlements here, tucked into valleys carved by streams and rivers. They're all pretty, like Chipping, where the national Britain in Bloom competition is taken with deadly seriousness; Dunsop Bridge, in the exact centre of the country; and Kirkby Lonsdale, with its Devil's Bridge.
Pleasantly untouristy is the market town of Clitheroe. Here the butcher sells 34 types of sausage, the museum is full of surprises, such as the 120,000-year-old locally-found rhino horn and hippo teeth, and Pendle Hill, beside the town is still known as the place from where 10 witches were taken away to be hanged in 1612.
Most of them went to the scaffold at the Castle in nearby Lancaster, which holds the record for more hangings than anywhere else in England. The Crown Court still sits here, and it was a prison until very recently: it's crammed with great stories that guide Peter delivers with customised relish. Finding Kiwis in his group, he was happy to share that Edward Gibbon Wakefield, among the founders of Christchurch, was tried here for abducting a rich man's daughter, and sentenced to three years in prison.
The building is full of things to marvel at and recoil from, and novelties like sitting in a judge's chair, or in the dock — or being shut in pitch dark in the cells.
Morecambe, just a few miles away, also has plenty in both those categories: a broad beach with fast tides and quicksands, and more tat and tack along the seafront than you could shake a Kiss-Me-Quick hat at. The lettered sticks of rock are tacky in both senses, with their messages of Lousy Lover, Plonker and Tosser; but the afternoon tea at the Midland Hotel is a classic, tiered cake stand and all.
For food to get excited about, however, back in the Forest of Bowland it was a dead heat between Coogan's choice, the Inn at Whitewell, and the Parker's Arms. The view from the inn's dining room, over a gently burbling river and rolling pasture where sheep, rabbits and ducks were bathed in soft mellow light, was the perfect accompaniment to excellent home-made chicken pate, potted crab and fish pie, and sticky toffee pudding: English food at its very best.
But at the Parker's Arms at Newton, the tasting menu had 11 — count them — pretty and interesting dishes coming to the table in a long and jolly lunchtime. Friendly and funny, Kathy and Stosie proudly presented such locally-sourced delights as mushroom parfait, vodka-cured salmon, smoked trout caught half a mile away, unexpectedly delicate black pudding sausage rolls, a 70 per cent Valrhona chocolate indulgence and, finally, Wet Nellie, which wasn't wet, and tasted of Christmas.
They thoroughly deserve their awards, and Coogan and Brydon made a big mistake in not coming here too.
Perhaps I'll mention that to Steve, next time we share a bed.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Emirates flies from Auckland to Manchester, via Dubai. Lancaster is an hour's drive north of Manchester.
At the movies: The Trip To Spain, the third installment of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan's road movies, premieres in New Zealand on August 17.