A Dickens of a time in Grassington

by Johanna Bradley

I've lost my heart to Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales! This small town with a village atmosphere celebrates Christmas unashamedly, appealing to the child in me as I join in the torch-lit procession

I’d previously only known Grassington as a base for walking in summer, but this year I had a treat in store. I had timed my arrival to perfection, just after the first spell of severe winter weather. The organ grinder on the corner of Main Street heralded the joys to come - the 29th Grassington Dickensian Festival was under way.

Charcoal braziers filled the air with the scent of roasting chestnuts, almonds and cashews sweetened with honey too. I drifted through the crowds, sniffing appreciatively and trying to decide where to spend my money.  A mental note was made of the mulled wine stalls, and the coffee and hot chocolates variously spiked with brandy or Baileys to ward off the chill after sunset.  A particularly luscious-looking chocolate tart, with raspberries, I just knew would call me back.

A breath of fresh air

It was a glorious day and knowing I had time in hand I opted for a short walk first. The heart of the village is only two streets wide and is best seen on a less crowded day, with the help of a booklet titled “One hundred things to see on a walk through Grassington”. At £1.50 this great little book is available throughout the village, in the pubs, and wherever a poster appears in a shop window.  It benefits local charities.

I retraced my steps to the bridge and took the grassy path alongside the River Wharfe in the direction of Hebden. The thaw in progress, the river was swollen and tumultuous with melt water. Sun glinting and sparkling, it drew people to just stand and stare.  This is former corn mill territory, the power of the water harnessed to good use.  Crossing over Tin Bridge, pause in the viewing area for a close up of Linton Falls. You can continue on to Linton Church and Mill, but in December the days are short and the Fair was calling me back. Steadily uphill on The Flags will bring you back to the village - stop to catch your breath and some beautiful views.

Time now to amble round the stalls, nibbling, slurping and enjoying the street theatre. Mummers improvise brilliantly, drawing the crowd in, their banter and dodgy jokes so very British. Though small, Grassington punches above its weight in shops and cafes. Many of the shops are former cottages and brimming with character. My favourites are Gemini, for crafts and jewellery, and Rustic Rabbit, for every sparkly Christmas thing you can think of.  Both are on Main Street.  Cobblestone Café on the main square, and part of a corn mill 400 years ago, was extremely popular, and I have to say that I never saw longer queues for a Fish Shop in my life than at 6 Garrs Lane.  Festival aside, I don't think this would be a place to go hungry.

The event is largely about raising money for charity and as I stand on the steps of the Black Horse Hotel I am gently accosted by a group of young men in the guise of kings and shepherds - “20p to kiss a shepherd?  Or a wise man?  A beard has to be worth more?” They’ve been manning the stalls all day and have come for a quick pint before joining in the procession.

The atmosphere builds as the sun drops below the hills, flooding the sky with crimson. At 4 o'clock sharp, the torches are lit and we all move off, following Mary and Joseph. We call at each of the town's three hostelries, only to be told “no room at the inn”. The crowd gives a collective sigh at each announcement, and a wry smile at each other.  Then it’s back to the manger in the Square for carols. 

Suddenly it’s all over and the traders are packing away their stalls.  During the day there are queues to enter many of the shops, so now is a good time to have a closer look, as people drift away. I headed into the Foresters Arms, where an impromptu concert had started - fine and practised village voices singing all the old Christmas favourites.  Never had I felt more welcome in a village.

No room at the inn?

I have a dilemma here - I didn’t actually stay the night, though I wished in retrospect that I had.  All three public houses offer accommodation.

The Devonshire Hotel on Main Street offers seven newly refurbished double en-suite rooms, including one with a four poster bed, from £70 per night, 3 nights for the price of 2 till March 2011.  You can also get a cracking 2 course meal here for £7.50 on a dinnertime or £8.50 in the evening. The corned beef hash, pickled beetroot and red cabbage with crusty bread was right up my street.

The Black Horse Hotel on Garrs Lane has 15 en suites, at 2 nights for £80, and £30 each night thereafter. The roaring fire, the friendliness of the staff and the fact that the “shepherds” used it as their local won me over and this would be a place I would like to try.  Dating from the 17th century it is also the oldest of the inns.

And then there is The Foresters Arms, 20 Main St., where I was serenaded in style. Seven en suites are also available here, £70 per night per double, £60 for 3 nights or more.

If you're here for a special occasion Grassington can also offer 5-star luxury.  Grassington House Hotel is truly beautiful, with immaculate rooms and an award-winning chef.  The doubles are deluxe and are upwards of £90.  It's often possible to get a really decent price for an off-season midweek break.

The area is outstandingly beautiful, and repays a visit at any time. Grassington lies on the Dales Way, which stretches 80 miles, from Ilkley to Bowness-on-Windermere, and also on the 130 mile long Dales Cycle Way (www.dalesway.org.uk and www.cyclethedales.org.uk). Bikes can be hired locally.  In addition to the Dickensian Fair, there is a Festival of Music and Arts in mid-June (www.grassington-festival.org.uk).

Transport is obviously an issue when the festival is taking place, though it is as highly organised as any I have seen. Park and ride operates from outside of town, and the large coach station makes it relatively easy for day trippers. That said, it would be wonderful to spend some time in this heady atmosphere, and maybe even combine it with a visit to nearby Skipton's Yuletide Festival. The festival takes place on three consecutive Saturdays each December, and at Skipton on the Sundays.

However, or whenever, you decide to come, do please purchase the booklet - it includes an extended version of my walk, and many fascinating details which will really enhance your visit and give a little bit back to the community at the same time.

P.S If you visit www.grassington.uk.com  there's a lovely little video which will give you a flavour of the Festival and other details besides.

Update Finally gave in to the urge to continue writing and set up a blog, despite being technically challenged in the extreme. You can follow my continuing exploits on http://restlessjo.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/a-day-out-on-the-wensleydale-railway/

Johanna Bradley

I'm a happy resident of Hartlepool in the "sultry" North-East of England. Luckily for me I also have a home in the Eastern Algarve, and Polish ancestry. My Dad was reunited with his family in Poland 6 years ago, after a gap of 64 years, which has given him a new lease of life. Now 85, he's always glad to return to his homeland. My challenge is  learning Polish in order to converse with my "new" family- 2 uncles, 1 auntie, 26 cousins, partners, children, and counting.... They are a joy!  Trouble is I was already trying to learn Portuguese and now speak a fluent mixture of rubbish!  I have always loved to travel and now have plenty of opportunity. These past years I have been to 3 family weddings in Poland (the level of celebration has to be seen to be believed!),a Silver Wedding in Zakopane, Madeira for my 60th, and numerous trips to my beloved Tavira in the Algarve. How bad is that?  We have Polish family strewn all about the place and I' ve also visited the Norfolk branch, one of whom is a boat builder.

I'm also a keen walker and belong to walking groups both here in the UK and in the Algarve. It's a lovely way to make friends and to experience our wonderful world at close quarters.

I have been appointed by the Simonseeks editorial team as a Community Moderator, to review and rate guides on a regular basis.