The Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales both have that ‘thing’ don’t they? That ‘je ne sais quoi’ that seems to transport you to the scenes from a classic English novel. Sweeping landscapes, rolling hills, dry stone walls, a bleakness that reminds you of Heathcliff mixed with the storybook beauty of a Beatrix Potter novel.
It’s all of those things that make them so popular as quintessentially English destinations, attracting hordes of people throughout the year who are happy to brave often bad weather to pull on their wellies and go yomping around the hillside before piling into pubs and restaurants to warm themselves by the fire and congratulate themselves for really appreciating what England has to offer (yes, I’m among these people).
But the relatively close proximity of two such stunning national parks means that the bit in between becomes somewhere to whizz through on your way to one or the other – or from one to the other. This is an error.
Pull up google maps, find the Lakes and the Dales, and look carefully in between and you’ll find Sedbergh. Right on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, it’s just a stone’s throw from the M6 and happens to be home to a rather lovely pub turning out food that can in no way be described – even affectionately – as pub grub.
The Black Bull describes itself as a coaching inn and dining room and indeed, that’s what it is. One review describes it a “cosy spot to shelter from the rain” and that also is true – tested by me and my friend when we arrived after a drive from the Lake District on a cold, wet evening and found ourselves doing that stereotypical sigh of happiness as we walked through the big doors into a warm pub complete with log fire and stylish yet cosy interior.
A separate section houses the restaurant which feels a bit more moody, all wooden floors and dark furniture, but again perfect for snuggling up away from the Wuthering Heights weather and checking out some rather great food.
Okay, before we get to the food, let’s take a peep at the rooms. If you think these are going to be standard ‘over the top of a pub’ rooms then you’re wrong. Yes, I know there are plenty of pubs that now offer the option of rooms and are pretty good. But these are a bit of a cut above.
We stayed in ‘Crook’ – one of the fells that surrounds the Black Bull, which could be spied from our bathroom. On the other side, behind a rather luxurious chaise longue, our window looked out on to Sedbergh’s main street. The whole look was simple yet cosy, with plenty of low lighting as well as all the mod cons we’ve come to expect of hotels these days.
However, if I’m honest, the bathroom stole the show. Separated from the bedroom by a glass wall (don’t worry – there are curtains so you don’t have reveal all if you don’t want to, especially when it comes to using the toilet).
A freestanding bathtub positioned so if you lie from a certain angle you can see that view up to the fells, as well as an expansive shower complete with rainfall, Monsoon, shower head thing to wash away the cold and damp of an afternoon’s walk.
As you’ll see later, The Black Bull is all about provenance and that extends beyond the food to the toiletries you find in your room. Petrichor – the word specifically for the smell of rain (look it up if you don’t believe me) – happens to be one of my favourite words as it is, and The Black Bull have named their own range of toiletries, made for them by The Sedbergh Soap Co., after this little-known word.
On top of that the carpets and blankets are made locally, as are the mugs, photography, tea bags and coffee. In a world where we’re feeling the effects of our endless shipping of goods millions of miles rather than get it on our doorstep, this stuff counts. To me, anyway.
And so to the food. After a quick freshen up we headed downstairs to try out some of The Black Bull’s famous food. Be warned, these pictures don’t do it justice so make sure you read my finely crafted words.
At first glance, The Black Bull is a fine example of the kind of seasonally-driven, provenance-focused restaurant that you find across England. Look a bit closer and you’ll notice a few things that suggest it’s not just about traditional English food. Like the Miso and Turnip Kimchi in the Aubergine starter, or the Furikake (a type of Japanese seasoning) with a wild halibut dish also on the starter menu.
The Asian influences stand out, sure, but if you look even more closely you’ll see the use of other ingredients that may originate closer to home but still don’t necessarily put in an appearance on many other menus – at least not as part of what initially seem to be fairly traditional dishes. Things like Nasturtium Capers, billberrys and liquorice.
Yes, of course you’ll find them adorning the menus of top restaurants but you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see them pup up on what you initially thought was a pub menu. Because (yes, you guessed it), this isn’t just an ordinary pub.
To start, I went for the slow cooked beef rib with polenta, IPA cheese sauce and the aforementioned Nasturtium Caper. A stack of indulgence right there on the plate, the slow cooked beef was shredded and mixed into a sauce that only emphasised its beefiness into an unapologetic punch of pure animal. Add to that the cheese sauce with a slightly hoppy bite, a brick of polenta and the crispy, tangy capers and you have a foolproof combination.
I’d love to say that stole the show but then I tried the aubergine starter. Granted, aubergine is rarely the most aesthetically pleasing of vegetables but what are looks when taste is superlative? It was so simple. Slices of aubergine, allowed to shine in their own right. Crunchy turnip with the tangy saltiness of kimchi and the umami of miso. Yet again I find myself wishing I was better with words but when people talk about taste sensation, this is what they mean.
With such clearly ambitious food coming out of The Black Bull’s kitchen, initial plans to go for a simple Sunday roast of Howgill Hereford Beef, Howgil Herwick Lamb or wild partridge were thrown off course.
While an aubergine and cashew nut curry was tempting, I was keen to explore the more subtle way that The Black Bull brings asian influences to traditional British dishes. With that in mind, I opted for Red Gurnard with mussel, clam, bouillabaisse and seaweed. The fish was delicate, the bouillabaisse rich and fragrant, with a slight hint of liquorice, counteracted by the salty seaweed.
My friend went for wild venison, with billberry, parsnip and kale. A more traditional-looking dish that allowed the venison to stand out while bringing variations on tried-and-tested accompaniments, like the ever-so-slightly tart billberry.
Mains done, we spent some time debating the dessert menu, which was a far cry from the average chocolate fondant and creme brulee you might find in a gastropub. Unable to choose one each, we had three. Sorry not sorry.
My favourite was probably the salted caramel, pecan and banana. Simple, tried-and-tested flavours, presented prettily with contrasting textures as well as flavours.
Second was the one on the right, goat’s cheese parfait with pecan nut, quince and pear. Think of almost a cheeseboard turned into a dish in and of itself. The parfait was creamy with a slight hint of sourness, contrasting with a crunchy pecan brittle, sweet quince and tangy pear.
The most interesting was perhaps the quince, red wine, chocolate and blue cheese. Again, a playful, imaginative twist on what we’d usually see as far more than just a dish combined into one plate of food, combining chocolate, quince in the form of a dauphinoise and blue cheese moulded into an ice-cream. Tasty, interesting, ambitious. All the hallmarks of a place that takes its food seriously.
It would be remiss of me not to mention an interesting and inspiring wine list, including the option of a sparkling mead as an aperitif (rather nice too). Again, not your average pub menu.
A good night’s sleep under our belt, we needed sustenance for the journey home and it’s safe to say The Black Bull doesn’t just save up its good cooking for dinner time. Like all the best places, the menu is simple but that doesn’t mean it can’t be good.
Forget things like avo smash or eggs benedict, this is wholesome, classic stuff. A Full English, eggs on toast, porridge, or a sausage or bacon sandwich. We opt for dishes that remind us of our childhoods, knowing – ham and fried eggs and mackerel and scrambled eggs – knowing that this part of our stay is all about the ingredients.
The ham and eggs are a food envy-inducing plate of loveliness. Eggs fried to perfection, the yolks just waiting to be popped over thick slices of salty ham. You can keep your #eggporn videos over on Instagram – the memory of seeing these beauties explode is still ingrained in my memory.
My scrambled eggs were the soft, yielding delight that I’ve only had at home (my husband cooks the best scrambled eggs, FACT) and at The Gallivant on Camber Sands, while the mackerel rested on top of them will convert anyone who says they don’t like smoked mackerel to trying it again.
I know, I know. It’s another gushing, superlative review. But The Black Bull really is rather good. I’d go there again, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that others should too. The rooms are nice, the food is beyond good, it’s in a beautiful place and it has somehow hit the formula that makes somewhere feel like a home from home whilst simultaneously feeling that little bit special.
With all that in mind, next time you’re planning a trip up north, don’t miss out some of the less obvious bits on your quest to the storybook favourites. You might just be missing somewhere great.
[Disclosure – I was invited for a complimentary stay and dinner at The Black Bull in Sedbergh for a review for Belle About Town but it was so lovely I wanted to tell you about it here too]