It’s a funny thing, when I’m in France I always associate things by the sense of smell. I can clearly smell the earth – a real dusty and musky smell. If it’s really dry, I can actually smell the fresh water as I top up the animal’s water trough. And I love the sweet scent of newly mown hay as much as my sheep do.
When I’m in Yorkshire though, it’s the visual senses that prevail. The vast pewter skies. The breathtaking scenery. Watching the wind roll and ripple the long grass like an ocean. Not stunningly dramatic like the Lake District or Scotland but just picture-perfect, no-nonsense Dales scenery.
Hardly surprising then that Henry Clifford, the character I wrote about in my book The Shepherd Lord, chose this spot at Barden Tower as his idyllic retreat. It was said that he did not like the bustle of life at Skipton Castle and chose this old hunting lodge as his main abode so he could stay close to nature. As I stand here, I can picture him in my mind’s eye. He would have kept a flock on the heather clad hills, cosseted his prize tups (rams) in the many stone-walled sheepfolds surrounding the lodge and gazed at the woodlands surrounding the Strid to remind him of the day when he rescued the Nut-Brown Maid from the forest.
Today’s resident does not have lordly or even rural connections. It is managed by Debbie Leathley, a straight talking lass from Pudsey, who kindly granted me permission to look about the place for research for my next novel, which will largely be set here. The ruins of the old Hunting Lodge still stands proudly overlooking the river Wharfe, a testament to the renovation work carried out hundreds of years ago by The Shepherd Lord and one of his descendants, the redoubtable Anne Clifford. Where the story gets interesting though is the adjacent building, the Priest’s House, which Debbie now runs as a thriving restaurant business. There cannot be many venues that boast a medieval building, breathtaking scenery and a first-class dining room.
Why is there a Priest’s House here? Well, Henry Clifford was illiterate when he was restored to his lands and titles and needed to get an education in order to carry out his new found responsibilities. The Prior at nearby Bolton Abbey provided this and helped him indulge his passion for astronomy, fostered by gazing at the stars at night whilst he was tending his flock when he was in exile. Indeed, one of the rooms at the Priest’s House is called the Stargazer’s room. Henry did not stop at that though. He converted the undercroft of the Priest’s House into a chapel. It has not been used for over a century but now Debbie plans to change all that – she wants to open it up as another venue for her business. I could not help but catch my breath with anticipation as she took out the rusty old key that opened the double-doors to the chapel. As the doors opened she beckoned me into a large stately room where the invading sunshine picked out the rays of dust mites like a magical scene from a Harry Potter movie. Debbie told me that she cannot wait for the day when the enormous shuttered windows are opened and she can seat her guests at table.
All in the garden is not so rosy though, as Debbie will have to overcome mountains of red tape and negotiate agreements with the Estate Office, English Heritage, Planners and anyone else that cares to voice an opinion. All I can say is they do not know who they are taking on. Debbie is a person who does not have the word “can’t” in her vocabulary. You can tell that she is passionate about this old building, woeful of its neglect and determined to make a success of it. I know what it’s like to bring old buildings back to life. I’d rather they be made good use of and be full of happy people as they were when they were first built. Better that than preserved as some dusty old museum, or worst still, left to rot into the ground for wont of funds. All it needs is a person with some gumption like Debbie, to pull this off.
The upstairs dining room at the Priest’s House is full throng with customers and when you taste the food you can understand why. I tucked into smoked trout for my starter, popped the buttons on my trousers eating the Sunday roast and made a real pig of myself by indulging in the carrot cake and fresh cream. I don’t normally eat dessert but I couldn’t help myself. It minded me my childhood when I visited indulgent Aunties who wanted to see you polish off every last crumb of their home-made fayre.
When you visit our God’s Broad Acres, you must pay a call to Barden Tower and the Priest’s House. You will find Debbie there at front-of-house, giving you a warm Yorkshire welcome and who knows, by then she may have been granted permission to open the Old Chapel.
Details of how to get to Barden Tower can be found at: