Before we set off on our Grand Yorkshire Whistlestop Coach Tour (if it’s 3.30pm, it must be Fountains Abbey; 4pm? Er, Ripley Castle), brace yourself for a long and rather lovely sentence about the county...
“Within a short motor-drive one can pass from congested industrial areas where iron, coal and steel rule men’s waking hours, to fat pastureland where mild-eyed cattle stand hock-deep in lush water-meadows, and thence to the sweeping moors and lonely hills that are the haunts of curlew and of grouse.”
If you didn’t already live in Yorkshire, you’d want to drop everything and join the mild-eyed cattle in their lush water-meadows, wouldn’t you? And how would you get there? Why, by coach, of course.
That long, lovely sentence comes from Touring Britain by Coach, a handy little booklet published around 1950 and now feeling as old as its references to coal and steel. It was a guide to prime destinations (Lake District, Norfolk Broads, Scottish Highlands) for holidays in the sort of coaches that can now induce instant nostalgia. Tiny drivers’ cabs, swirling Art Deco-ish bodywork, mudguards like great waves crashing on a shore... the sort of coaches in Ealing comedies.
Coach holidays aren’t just things of the past. As the Grand Yorkshire Whistlestop Tour revs up in Skipton, a key statistic is being bandied about... nearly seven million people still take UK coach tours every year. We – a dozen travel journalists from all over the country – are here to sample a specially devised one, and I’m looking forward to seeing “ourselves as we’d like others to see us”.
Our weekend will cover Aysgarth, Masham, Fountains Abbey, Ripley Castle, Saltaire, Keighley and Haworth. We’ll be taking in a castle, an abbey, a stately home, a canal cruise, a preserved railway and the worst hangover I’ve had for 20 years. A whole summer’s worth of day trips in one weekend.
The trip, though not the hangover, has been jointly organised by the tourist authority Welcome to Yorkshire and the Coach Tourism Council, which, logically enough, promotes coach tourism. It aims, says its chief executive Chris Wales, to broaden the appeal of coach travel to “people who probably haven’t been on a coach since one took them to swimming lessons at school”.
He adds that you can see a lot from a coach, and he’s right. We’re travelling on a smart, comfortable vehicle from David Palmer Travel of Normanton, near Wakefield, family-owned winner of the Coach Tour Operator of the Year award in 2009-10. As we head up twisting, turning lanes in the Dales, the coach’s high vantage point gives a superb view. Or it would without the fog.
Before we set off for the Dales, however, we’re in Skipton. We’re staying at the Rendezvous Hotel, whose genial owner Malcolm Weaving (“You can always tell a Yorkshireman but you can’t tell him much”) shows off the new Honeymoon Suite, with its “his and hers jacuzzi” and shower “like a tropical rainforest”.
This being Skipton, my wife Clare (who I should have said is with me) and I browse the street market (mini-cyclamens and extra-large chamois) and visit Simpsons, one of the dying breed of proper gents’ outfitters. “Do you sell macs?” I ask owner John Buckingham. “Raincoats, not macs,” he corrects, eyes me up and down – “You’ll want XL, I should think” – and points me to a rack beyond the Panama hats and silk dressing gowns. I buy a raincoat and yes, it was, sadly, Extra-Large
Round the corner, by a statue of Freddie Trueman, hair flying, hurling himself into a fast-bowl, our voluble guide, Keith Mulhearn from York, is getting us all to introduce ourselves. I say that, coming from Sheffield (others have come from Norwich and Dundee), I’m the most local person here. “You talk very well for someone from Sheffield,” says Keith pleasantly. I consider hitting him, but Sheffielders are noted for their courtesy and restraint.
From time to time over the next two days, Keith will attempt to give us a crash course in Basic Yorkshire. We dutifully chorus “Eyup, sithee, ow’s tha bin?” and “Hear all, see all, say nowt...”. It amuses the southerners.
We eat well at the Rendezvous, and a prominent Skiptonian and I go off for a drink or two. We end up talking to a businessman who is boasting about being so successful that he hardly ever sees his children. “Last week, one of them said: ‘Daddy, what do you do at work?’” I get to bed at 3am and the hangover hangs over for about a week.
Next day, as we head up the Dales, Keith points out the place where Denis Healey had his honeymoon and eventually we reach Masham. While everyone else tours the Black Sheep Brewery, Clare and I have lunch at a church fair in the Town Hall. What a scene of community contentment! “My courgette was going bananas, it was growing so much,” an elderly woman at the next table tells her friend.
Clare buys a packet of vanilla sticks. Use them in cakes, the woman on the stall advises. “I don’t make cakes,” says Clare. “Well, use them in custard then,” the woman suggests. “I don’t make custard either,” says Clare. “Darling,” says the woman, fixing her with an incredulous stare. “What do you do with your time?”
Fountains Abbey, Ripley Castle, overnight at the excellent Marriott Hollins Hall Hotel in Baildon, on to Saltaire, chuff up to Haworth on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, fabulous lunch at Weaver’s restaurant... a good two-day tourist survey, it turns out, avoiding some of the obvious. The other journalists are impressed. “I’d no idea there was so much in Yorkshire, and so much variety,” says one.
Coach Tourism Council: www.findacoachholiday.com . David Palmer Travel: 01924 895849 (www.davidpalmercoaches.co.uk ). Welcome to Yorkshire: www.yorkshire.com .