Travel: High art and low mists in the Dales

Lilian Pizzichini goes in search of Yorkshire's finest pint of bitter and comes across ethnic cooking, a tragic contemporary of Turner and three blokes called Tor, Sprot and Grim

The Yorkshire Dales begin their dipping and rising course of limestone hills and sheep-flecked valleys just north of Leeds, at Wharfedale. Outside the city limits, conurbations give way to leafy suburbs and cricket grounds which, in turn, melt into villages like Bolton Abbey and Harewood.

The best way to navigate your way around the Dales' uplands and downlands is by following the trail of winding bridlepaths and Tetley alehouses. I'd been told by a reliable source that a pint of bitter just doesn't taste the same outside Yorkshire. To test this theory, I travelled eight miles north of Leeds to Pool-in-Wharfedale - an upland area so small it doesn't even qualify as a village. The high street has a church, a pub, a post office, and a restaurant where the chefs exploit the region's multi- ethnic mix by serving spring lamb chops with sag aloo - a spinach and potato side dish they picked up from Bradford's curry houses.

The rest of the land is taken up with farms whose fields are filled with the frisky lambs who supply the chops, and stately Highland cattle - local butchers do a secret roaring trade in beef on the bone, but it is all strictly under the counter. Wild daffodils grow on the verges of the high street, and the ale in the Half Moon Inn is creamy and smooth. The elderly landlord dispenses snuff to unwary patrons and its gingery high was enough to sustain me for the five-mile walk to Harewood.

The bridlepath begins just east of the High Street, on the road that leads to Arthington. I crossed lush green fields until I had reached Weardley and another Tetley stronghold, the New Inn - which is not so new at all, as the land around here hasn't changed for centuries, and the inn has been here all the while.

But I'd had my fill of bitter. Harewood House - with its Robert Adam- designed facade, Chippendale furniture and Capability Brown gardens - was my destination, and this path traced a route through the Earl of Harewood's estates. At the time of the Norman Conquest, in 1066, Harewood estate belonged to three Saxon chieftains: Tor, Sprot and Grim. Seven hundred years and quite a few changes of hands later, the land was bought by the Lascelles, who built a house at the top of a hill and were rewarded with an Earldom for their troubles.

The path looks over Harewood's gently rolling valleys, and skims the top of a range of hills. It was mid-morning and, although the sun was high, the mist hadn't lifted. In the foreground, dew-wet, mint-green fields were being munched into by placid sheep. In the distance, the valleys were draped in a light misty film, with pheasants diving in and out of tree-tops, making an appalling din as they cried out to each other. The woods on either side of the path were filled with bluebells - although I was too early to see them in bloom. Columns of moss-covered ash trees created an overwhelming effect of green rainfall. The views at any time of the year are a nostalgic pastoralist's fantasy, but when the mist lifted and Harewood House rose up with it from across the valley, a vision of architectural harmony was revealed between two avenues of ancient chestnut trees.

The house, and its family, have had an enormous impact on Wharfedale. At the same time as building their majestic monument to themselves, the Lascelles built a "model village" just outside its gates, tragically, and unnecessarily I feel, knocking down six pubs in the process. Neat, sand-coloured, York-stone houses and the Harewood Arms Hotel (fabulous Yorkshire pudding and onion gravy, by the way) make up the village.

The grounds include a lake, acres of plantations and undulating parklands landscaped by Capability Brown during the 1770s. He employed hundreds of men to shift earth from one place to another in order to enhance the land's natural curvature. From the Italianate, 19th-century South Terrace, which was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament, I could see cross-country to the same line of chestnuts leading back to my earlier vantage point high on the opposite hill. The terrace is formally laid out, and, despite the local children splashing around in its ponds, it was serene. Dwarf box-hedges and yew trees surround marble statues and terracotta dolphins, and the stone balcony looks on to yet more sheep (this time black ones) basking in the sunshine by the lake. Parts of it are roped off for private use, and I was sternly warned off by a flaxen-haired boy of six or seven playing with a hoop: "You can't come in here. It's private." To further his cause, he made himself known to me: "I'm a Lascelle."

Feeling suitably rebuked, I humbly beat my retreat into the house. I passed through an elegant procession of titled rooms -The Yellow Drawing Room, The Cinnamon Drawing Room, The Spanish Library, Princess Mary's Sitting Room - in all of which Adam had had an inspired free hand. But stately homes, no matter how antique the china, or rare the Chippendale commodes, don't do much for me. So I was relieved to find the Watercolour Rooms and the little-known paintings of Turner's contemporary and friend, Thomas Girtin. After his death at the age of 27, Turner is reputed to have said: "If Tom Girtin had lived, I would have starved." Edward Lascelles (the son of the first Earl) was Girtin's main patron, and is said to have always kept a room free for him. In return, Girtin left a series of deep indigo, acid green and russet-hued canvases dating from 1797 behind him.

In particular, he painted two views of the house from the south-west and south-east perspectives. As an indication of how little the topography here has changed, I could trace part of the route I had walked. Girtin's sombre watercolours, with their lowering clouds, rickety bridges and fields dotted with sheep (what else?) and farmworkers were revolutionary in their day for depicting scenes that were deemed mundane. In the sense of recognition they brought me, of my transient place in an ancient landscape, they definitely made my day.

YORKSHIRE DALES

WHERE TO STAY

Lilian Pizzichini stayed at the Harewood Arms Hotel, Harewood (tel: 0113 288 6566), and at Monkman's Bistro, Wharfedale (tel: 0113 284 1105).

The Harewood Arms Hotel charges pounds 48 per night for a single room and pounds 66 for a double room, with breakfast, on Fridays and Saturdays, or pounds 68 and pounds 85 respectively on other days. Monkman's Bistro charges pounds 99 per double room, with breakfast and dinner, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Otherwise, singles cost pounds 73 and doubles pounds 80, with breakfast. You will receive a pounds 10 discount if you eat lunch or dinner in the restaurant.

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