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A trip to the Brontës’ old school and beyond

Barbondale church
Barbondale church
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DAY IN A DALE: BARBONDALE Yvette Huddleston and Walter Swan discover what Yorkshire’s western fringe has to offer.

Driving along the A65 on a cold wintry day can be inspiring. As the sun broke through, there were glimpses of the snow-capped Three Peaks and remarkable panoramas of the distant Lake District hills and mountains. Also tipped with gleaming snow, they seemed remarkably close, thanks to the unusual quality of the morning light.

Cowan Bridge is famous as the place where four of the five Brontë sisters went to boarding school and made a big impression on them – mostly for the wrong reasons. A plaque on the side of a building on the main road as you leave the village notes that Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte and Emily Brontë (Anne was too young) were at the school between 1824 and 1825. What is doesn’t add is that the older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died as a consequence of illnesses contracted here and the two famous younger sisters were removed from the school by their father, Patrick. The headmaster, the Reverend William Carus Wilson, was later represented by Charlotte in the unflattering portrait of Mr Brocklehurst of Lowood School in the early chapters of Jane Eyre – which almost led to a libel case.

The school moved from Cowan Bridge to nearby Casterton in 1832, since when it has flourished to become one of the most highly regarded girls’ boarding schools in the country.

Turning right off the A65 at Devils’s Bridge near Kirkby Lonsdale, you take the A683 in the direction of Sedburgh. At Casterton, you discover most of the buildings form a part of the school.

We visited the nearby church, Holy Trinity, on a bend in the main road close to the school’s entrance, which has an enchanting interior.

It features a memorial tablet to William Carus Wilson and has impressive wall paintings and stained-glass windows by James Clarke RA (1858-1943) and the better-known Henry Holiday (1839-1927), a close friend of Lewis Carroll, and whose work in stained glass can be seen at Westminster Abbey.

Our next stop was the village of Barbon after turning right off the main road into Barbondale. At the Barbon Inn, we relished the log-burning range and the hospitality of a friendly New Zealand barmaid, Yvonne Thorsen, who has been living around these parts for four years.

“We moved here because my husband came to play rugby for Kirkby Lonsdale,” she says. “It’s a lovely place to live.”

The bar area is cosily small; the rest of the inn comprises dining for nearly 40 customers. There’s a comfortable seating area and, upstairs, there are 10 bedrooms.

The inn which dates back to the 17th century, is owned by the present Baron Shuttleworth, also owner of nearby Barbon Manor. This impressive Victorian mansion was built in 1862 for Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, a friend and benefactor of Charlotte Brontë.

Sandra Grainger and her sister, Joyce Mason, have been managing the historic pub, hotel and restaurant since 2006. Sandra has 30 years’ experience as an hotelier. She grew up in nearby Sedbergh.

“My mum came to work here 70 years ago when she was 14, ” says Sandra. “She and her older sister were live-in chambermaids. They did cleaning and helping out in the kitchen, but they weren’t allowed to be seen by the guests.”

The sisters shared a room at the top of the house and were occasionally allowed to go to the local dance. “My mum met my dad at a dance in the village hall here. He was from a local farming family.”

Close to the Yorkshire Dales and within easy reach of the Lakes, the inn is an ideal base for walkers and other holidaymakers.

“We are quite busy year round,” says Sandra. “And we have lots of returning clients, including some from Germany and Belgium. We have quiz nights on the first Sunday of every month.”

Sandra’s sister, Joyce, and her husband were farmers. After the last foot-and-mouth crisis, they decided to retire, which is when Sandra persuaded her sister to go into partnership with her.

“We both love it here,” she says. “We’ve known the place all our lives.”

Bright winter sunlight illuminated the village as we emerged from the warmth of the pub, the nearby tower of the church gleaming golden against the backdrop of a brilliantly blue sky.

There’s evidence of a place of worship on this site dating back to the time of Shakespeare. Another church was built in 1815 but it was replaced some 80 years later. Lady Shuttleworth laid the foundation stone in 1892, as well as donating a stained-glass window, but it was not until 1898 that the church we see now was completed.

The Kay-Shuttleworths now rent out the manor house, built in 1862.

The Barbon Manor Hillclimb, organised by the Westmorland Motor Club, takes place three times a year on the driveway to the house on a steep, meandering ascent. The record for the 890-yard course, from a standing start, is a remarkable 20.5 seconds.

You leave the village with a steep hill climb of your own if you are driving towards Gawthrop and Dent, where Barbondale creates a T-junction with Dentdale.

Close to the village, the beck is known as Barbon Beck, but for much of the five-mile stretch of the dale, it is known as Barkin Beck.

Barkin is the name of the ridge near Calf Top which, at 609 metres, is the highest point on the western side of the dale.

Barbon High Fell, looking towards Crag Hill and Whernside, is on your right as you head north-eastwards up the dale.

Having driven the length of the dale, we turned around, which enabled us to enjoy again the various features of Barbondale: the minor waterfalls, the extensive vistas, curious sheepfolds – like the one designed by artist Andy Goldsworthy whose work features at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield – and dry stone walls that run in straight lines directly up the steepest of slopes.

The area to the east of Barbondale is characterised by pot holes, and we encountered a mini-bus load of schoolchildren from nearby Ingleborough Hall outdoor centre looking as if they had enjoyed a good day out.

Back in the village of Barbon, we chatted with shopkeeper Peter Crook.

Originally from Liverpool, he has been running the shop for the past 17 years having moved to the village from Preston.

“It’s hard work – 10 hours a day, seven days a week – and you don’t make a fortune,” he said. “But we’re happy. The countryside is really nice around here.”

The shop also contains a post office – a rarity in many Dales villages these days – and stocks newspapers and all the essentials for locals.

Peter, who is in his sixties, is planning to retire next year, which leaves the future of the shop uncertain.

There are rumours that the Yorkshire Dales National Park wishes to include the whole of Barbondale within its boundaries. Barkin Beck has its origins within the National Park confines, and the valley forms a part of the significant geological feature known as the Dent Fault.

Membership of the National Park brings certain obligations and restrictions (for example, regarding planning consent) but the benefits for local businesses of the extra publicity that is generated make such membership very attractive.

Whatever the future brings, the true measure of Barbondale’s appeal is that it’s worth stepping outside of Yorkshire to visit it – and well worth claiming it as our own.

Barbondale fact file

The Pheasant Inn, Casterton, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria LA6 2RXTel 015242 71230 www.pheasantinn.co.uk

The Barbon Inn and Restaurant, Barbon, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria LA6 2LJ Tel 015242 76233 www.barbon-inn.co.uk

Barbon Manor Hillclimb details available through the Westmorland Motor Club www.westmorlandmotorclub.co.uk

Bullpot Farm, Casterton, Carnforth, Cumbria LA6 2JP (Bunkhouse and camping facilities) Tel 01524 271837 www.campingbarns.net