Is Sedbergh a town that can’t make up its mind? Much like my permanent indecision when it comes to sweatpants or pyjama bottoms (I work from home), this enchanting market town straddles the Yorkshire Dales and Cumbria.
Well, I say straddles. Sedbergh is so tiny and cute that I suspect its Northern thighs would struggle to straddle anything wider than a Shetland pony. A detailed and serious conversation with the lady behind the counter of Sedbergh’s information centre brought me no nearer to a conclusion. We, um, concluded that this charming spot is both Cumbrian and in Yorkshire. In the end, it mattered little (well, not to this incomer, anyway). When you’re in one of Britain’s three ‘book towns’ (the others are Wigtown and Hay-on-Wye) with more literary tomes than Charlotte Brontë could shake a consumptive stick at, there’s not much to quibble about.
My arrival on an inclement Northern night lent itself to a gothic novel, all wuthering moors, wrong turns and a rising sense of panic. But once I’d steered Beyoncé (what, you don’t name your car after a fierce female singer?) into The Black Bull’s car park, my pulse ceased to quicken and my mind moved to thoughts of crackling fires and hand-drawn ales. And that was exactly what I got.
Half-expecting to see Branwell Brontë propping up the bar in this 17th century former coaching inn, the wood-burning stove, burnished surfaces and low chatter spoke of evenings well-spent. A pint and a chapter of my Scandi Noir book later and I was inclined to agree. The Black Bull, which re-opened its doors in July 2018, is a self-styled gastropub with rooms, but the bar area retains that indefinable yet immensely pleasing aura of times gone by and sorely missed.
While a table had been reserved under my name in the adjoining 60-cover restaurant (a decorative contrast with its wooden floors and Japanese centre-pieces), I demurred having spotted next door’s contingent, made up of the poshest of posh including a braying portly fellow who was regaling all and sundry with his thoughts on Cheltenham racing and rugby. No thanks, I’d rather spend the evening adjacent to Joe Pasquale singing falsetto. Besides, someone with taste clearly had control of the bar’s jukebox. An entire album by Bright Eyes? Bravo, brava.
By the time my starter arrived, it was clear this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill gastropub menu. I knew that, in its current incarnation, The Black Bull had scooped a slew of awards, including last year’s four AA Gold Stars and its first AA Rosette for Culinary Excellence. In January it was included in the Estrella Damm Top 50 UK Gastropubs. Not bad for a venue in a town which involves a twisty-turny drive and an unyielding desire by said motorist to reach their intended destination.
The first clue was head chef, Nina Matsunaga (co-owner with her husband, James Ratcliffe). Born in Dusseldorf to Japanese parents, her food is said to fuse modern British cooking with Japanese and German influences. That’s quite the melting pot. You know what, though? It works. Yes, the maple pea hummus did little to tickle my tastebuds but its friends on the plate – the handmade rye crackers and warm bread – made up for the pea’s shortcomings. All was forgotten and forgiven when the hen’s egg made its sly entrance. With the scent of truffle wafting ever upwards and wild garlic making its presence felt, a slight stab of my fork and the yolk oozed languidly out, not too slow, not too fast. It was taking its goddamn time. An unidentified yet welcome crunch mitigated the oyster-like slippery-silk texture of the egg. What manner of fowl laid this yellow orb of loveliness? Give that chicken a rosette.
By the time the lemon sole arrived, I was back with Jo Nesbo and a frosty Norwegian winter. And then there it was. A fish cooked beautifully enough to make me forget Scandinavian stabbings and chain-smoking alcoholic detectives with winning smiles and bad intentions (well, not entirely, I am a woman after all). With another come-hither scent drifting sexily towards me, and the by now familiar lustiness of wild garlic (I live in Ramsbottom which, contrary to popular belief, means ‘valley of the wild garlic’ so I’m all over this flavour), it came as no surprise when the sole sloughed off the bone, as if responding to a polite yet firm invitation to make itself at home.
Dessert was beyond me. The Black Bull could have wheeled Tom Cruise out on the cheese cart, slathered his butt-cheeks in honey and said ‘ave at him and I couldn’t have risen to the occasion. As I heaved myself up to my room, I pondered my inability to squeeze in afters. As with the other bedrooms, a name was emblazoned on the door: ‘The Calf’. I toyed with renaming it The Fattened Calf in tribute to the evening’s culinary achievements.
The room. Oh the room. It may be one of the loveliest most gorgeous gastropub-with-rooms I’ve ever stayed in. It was bigger than my first flat in London. And cleaner. A giant double bed made for jumping on, a sitting room made for cuddling up in, and a bathroom deserving of its own star-rating. Oh my. I’m almost ashamed to say that there were downsides to this splendid suite, the most obvious being its location above the bar. Thank god the person with his/her hand on the jukebox liked relatively laid-back tunes instead of Def Leppard and Led Zeppelin. And despite being a compact and bijoux town, the main (and only) stretch was noisy. So much so that, at some point before dawn, I had to reach for earplugs to drown out the street noise. In truth, I should have squeezed those yellow pieces of foam earlier given this was an old building with precious little soundproofing.
Still, a fractured night’s sleep did little to hinder my childlike wonder at Sedbergh once I’d stuffed my face with a fine and filling Black Bull breakfast (they really know their mushrooms). It may only be small but this book town is replete with literature. From the Information & Book Centre with its local history, travel, geography, arts and crafts to the marvellously brilliant Westwood Books (a former cinema), home to more than 70,000 secondhand, new and antiquarian volumes, not to mention the wealth of cafés, local craft shops and inviting pubs, I was loathe to leave. There’s even a bus shelter repurposed as a book shelter, in essence a free library. Every town should have one.
And the ginnels, oh god, the ginnels. I’ve never been to a town with so many alleyways, snickets, jennels and cinderpaths. If there weren’t so many other reasons to adore Sedbergh, the ginnels might swing it for me. Sedbergh may sit in the glorious Howgill Fells, described by Alfred Wainwright as “velvet curtains in sunlight and like silken drapes at sunset”, but I was all about the ginnels. Oh, and I bought a badge of a viaduct in the Information Centre which may be my best purchase ever. I love a good viaduct.
If you’re one of those Northern, lefty, book-loving, liberal types like me, consider the fact that The Guardian has recently waxed lyrical about this town. Yes, it described Sedbergh as being in both Yorkshire and Cumbria. But hey, what do journalists know?
By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
Rooms at The Black Bull start at £125 a night and include breakfast. For more information about The Black Bull, click here.