Bill Bryson once said of Malhamdale: “I won’t know for sure if it is the finest place there is until I have died and seen heaven (assuming they let me at least have a glance), but until that day comes, it will certainly do.” The much-loved travel writer was a local resident. He also talked of the “Malham wave”, where drivers would raise a finger in recognition when passing on the local roads.
As my brother and I pulled in one Friday in September after a long drive from London, we got the wave, only it wasn’t a friendly greeting a van driver gave us, but rather the finger.
“Strange welcome,” said Hamish, deadpan.
As Hamish’s and my own name might suggest, we’re not Londoners by birth. We had come to Yorkshire to meet our siblings, Angus and Katie, along with respective spouses. We are one of those families who, although we love each other, say things like: “Where’s Katie?” “Oh, she moved to Antarctica three months ago, didn’t you know?” So, in an effort to get us together I had pointed at the map somewhere between Scotland and the expat capital London … and here we were, all a little startled by the beauty of the dales.
Obviously Malham is not a secret, but it was new to us. Pulling off the A65 and turning into the Yorkshire dales, we admired the smooth slopes that steepened on either side, the fields, tended for centuries, split by pretty dykes and limestone cliffs. After getting over our not so gracious welcome, Hamish and I crested a humpback bridge over babbling Malham Beck, and pulled up outside the Lister Arms.
I think it was Christopher Hitchens who said something like: “I love family – you get to spend time with people you wouldn’t normally socialise with.” We are not that jaded, but like all families we have our itchy moments, so a lack of stress is helpful when we’re together. To hit a wall of laughter at the Lister’s door was just the tonic after such a long trip. We found the Scottish contingent there, delighted by a variety of beer that went far beyond the 80 shilling we are used to farther north, even if most of it seemed to be named after military aircraft.
The Lister, which is owned by Thwaites, has recently converted a barn on the other side of the beck, a spooky late-night stagger across a troll-infested slate bridge. It is supremely comfortable, each of the rooms plumped up like mother geese waiting for you to tuck yourself in after a hard day on the walking trails. This is where we slept after a vast dinner of pie, steak, fish and chips, puddings, laughter and lashings of booze, all in that warm fug of a country pub at full cry. When we got in, there was the world’s best-behaved birthday party in the main area of the barn; charmingly and quietly having a lovely time.
After the full Yorkshire the next morning – when the duty managers, a couple who exuded happy enthusiasm, rushed over to confirm my assertion that 42nd Street is a great night should anyone be visiting London – we walked as a family up the beck to Malham Cove. There the water (that has seeped down from the famous Malham Tarn a few miles to the north) emerges from the base of a limestone cliff. A pair of rock climbers were picking their way up the sheer side and Hamish, while not doing anything quite that energetic, at least found a ledge to clamber out on, to cries of “Don’t fall off!”
My sister loves a stout walk, which began to stretch family unity. I had already been shot down for suggesting we spend the day floating about on the tarn chasing trout. Now we headed over hill and dale, with my eldest brother complaining that it was “pointless to walk without purpose”, while gazing longingly down to the pub on the valley floor.
Although the landscape is wild, we derided that description (being from the Scottish Highlands), but the living that has been done in this dale certainly impressed us.
That night we walked up to Beck Hall, another inn in the village. It sits beside a mill pool where, earlier, while checking our reservation, I had watched a kingfisher cut a dash through the heavy air. Beck Hall is owned by a couple who, just after they bought it, managed to have two sets of twins in as many years. As a result, the renovations are a bit behind, and the Secret Bistro, its restaurant, is still all potential, with charming staff, but misjudged food that offers little competition to the Lister Arms.
As I drove south on the Sunday, I felt that deep warmth of having spent time with family, of 36 hours in the comfort of people who, while they may judge, do so with love, and whose company I am entirely content in. That morning we had sworn to keep up this idea of meeting in the middle, so discovering more of England, places so calming that no drama can interfere. To that end, Malham worked a treat.
Way to go
Rooms at the Lister Arms, Malham, start at £79 a night for two sharing – though the preference is for two nights minimum over the weekend. For more information on Beck Hall, go to beckhallmalham.com