Tolkien is said to have modelled Middle-earth on Lancashire's Ribble Valley and the Queen has suggested that if she were to ever hang up her crown and retire, she would see her days out here
Fairy bridges, treacle mines and witches. The journey to the inner sanctum of the kingdom stirs up a spellbinding potion of local lore, as any travel to a mysterious land should. Untouched by armies of weekend warriors donning clean green wellies and demanding postcard trophies of their forays out of town, this baize mosaic of soft-focus fields and rural hamlets decorates 224 square miles of Britain in its Sunday best and has been relatively neglected by all apart from exceptional restaurateurs, and our foremost landscape gardener, Mother Nature.
I’m talking about the Ribble Valley - geographical centre of Great Britain, taking into account the mainland and all 401 offshore islands, as officially declared by Ordnance Survey in 1992.
Quite how the largest district in Lancashire, three-quarters of which is designated an Area of Outstanding Beauty, has been kept under wraps for so long is testament to the distracting techniques of crafty locals. For years they’ve pointed the way to the more illustrious popularity of neighbouring attractions. Beckoned us further west to Blackpool with sticks of candyfloss and saucy banter. Extolled the rugged virtues of the Yorkshire Dales to the northeast and been happily content to let the lakes of Cumbria lap up all the attention.
Well now the secret’s out. The core of the kingdom is open for business and the journey begins here. But don’t expect dungeons and dragons. The most dramatic encounter with wildlife you’re likely to experience will be with moorhens and grouse playing chicken with the tractors – and not very successfully, judging from the number of feathered frisbees dotting the country lanes.
There are dozens of villages and hamlets cradled between the might of Pendle Hill and the moors of the Trough of Bowland. Some are no bigger than a handful of tiny cottages growing out of the surrounding foliage. This is just a chocolate-box selection of the sweetest, leading to the ultimate soft-centre.
Just off the A59, the historic market town of Clitheroe is the urban hub of the Ribble Valley and an obvious starting point for an expedition to the centre of the kingdom. In the shadow of an 800-year-old Norman keep, Castle Street separates rows of traditional shops where you can stock up on picnic essentials. Cliff Cowman’s Famous Sausage Shop will fill your hamper with wonderful lengths of pork and walnut, wild boar or one of 60 other breeds of home-made bangers. For an accompanying gargle, there’s a vintner’s Valhalla at award-winning Byrnes’s wine merchants on adjoining King Street.
The castle itself houses a museum with recreations of life in the Queen Vic days. If being spooked is your thing, then it’s worth spending an afternoon with Simon Entwistle, who will lead your round ancient Clitheroe’s more unearthly side.
From Clitheroe, head north along the B6478. A five-minute drive past moss-upholstered walls will bring you to the village of Waddington, the quintessential idyllic village with bosoms of white blossom spilling over front garden walls. Sitting outside the Waddington Arms or the Higher Buck with a glass of real ale is heaven on a bench. Opposite, the immaculately coiffured Coronation Gardens mirror the curves of a petal-lined stream and water trickling over smooth pebbles adds an audible quality to the setting.
Henry VI was a temporary resident who probably wished he’d stayed longer. He took refuge here after an ignominious defeat during the War of the Roses and on leaving was captured downriver at the wonderfully named Brungerley Bridge.
Whitewell provides the next port of call but don’t blink or you’ll miss it. Perched nest to a small chapel, the Inn at Whitewell
must provide one of the North’s most treasured lodgings. Parts of the little manor house date back to the 1300s and behind thick drapes of ivy lie 17 individually styled guest rooms, delightfully creaking character with every step. Book room 11 for a night if you can. With a floor of its own, It’s one of seven rooms with a cosy peat fire available and you’ll wake up to a magnificent view over the Forest of Bowland.
For a meal, exert yourself no more than descending the staircase to the dining room. Both lunch and dinner menus provide creative spins on traditional recipes and have been lauded from as high up the gourmet tree as Egon Ronay, who said it was the best place in Britain for a pub meal.
After a morning stroll along the banks of the River Hodder, wind down the windows and motor through a warren of leafy tunnels with eau d’agriculture whistling through your nostrils like nasal Dyno-Rod. Destination: Chipping.
If there was one village that you had an irresistible urge to put in a box and take home with you it might well be Chipping. Nestling above the inappropriately named River Loud, this tranquil paragon of antiquity has surprising commercial momentum. A cluster of pubs, a cheese-maker and a chair factory are a few of the local enterprises unobtrusively embedded in Chipping’s character.
In addition to the 13th-century church, historical interest lies in Britain’s oldest continually trading shop. Set back on the cobbled pavement of Talbot Street, since 1668 the stone cottage has previously been a butcher’s, a baker’s and an undertaker’s. If you stoop through the studded timber door nowadays you’ll find yourself in the post-office and craft centre, while in the back garden an old barn houses a collection of locally-produced furniture.
Just a minute or two from downtown Chipping, the Gibbon Bridge Hotel
offers rustic charm with a touch of class and is an alternative base for exploration.
Head for Hurst Green next, via Longridge Fell. Cromwell passed this way on his march to do business at the battle of Preston. From the top it’s possible to see the Ribble Valley, the Welsh Mountains and the Isle of Man. Like most things British, the Ribble Valley is spectacularly understated, drawing more “ahs” than “oohs” but one exception is Stonyhurst College, which dominates the village of Hurst Green. A Grade 1 listed building of immense proportions, registering high on the wow scale, the college offers tours within its historic confines from July onwards. The Shireburn Arms and Bayley Arms both serve excellent pub lunches in the centre of the village.
On the way to the screenstar of the Ribble Valley, Downham, go the long way round past the Swan with Two Necks pub in Pendleton. Here, the occasional machine-gun fire of underpassing cattle grids is the only disturbance that ruffles the karma of the countryside.
In Downham, set designers need no more. Ducks, daffodils and mullion windows surround a village green sheltering at the foot of Pendle Hill. Present squire, Lord Clitheroe, keeps tight control over its appearance forbidding electricity pylons, television aerials and painted woodwork. The Assheton Arms is all you’d expect from a pastoral inn. A hearth fire, low ceiling, creaking benches, polished brass and a fat, ginger cat contemptuously eyeing all who let out warmth through the front door. If you don’t fancy one of the seafood specials, such as kiln-roasted salmon, two other pubs in nearby villages have been ceremoniously decorated for fine fayre. The Spread Eagle at Sawley wears two AA rosettes for its food, one more than The Stirk House Hotel in Gisburn.
Gastronomic acclaim does seem to have been strewn on Ribble Valley pubs and restaurants like seeds sown in the wind. But don’t get me wrong. These are no randomly scattered awards. The region really does have an unbelievable density of fantastic eating venues.
Suitably fed and watered, the journey nears its climax by first heading north through the pretty Bolton-by-Bowland and then west towards Slaidburn. Park the car on the outskirts and take some time to walk amongst the grey stone buildings. Some, such as the Hark to Bounty Inn, date back to the 13th century. The small but fascinating Heritage Centre will fill you in with the whys and wherefores of local history.
If it’s more green you want, walks abound in every direction. The Ribble Valley’s only youth hostel is to be found here, providing a more communal alternative to the Hark to Bounty’s nine residential rooms. Cutting through heather moorland and past quiet riverside pastures, you finally arrive at Dunsop Bridge. Although a fairly unremarkable habitat, it does lay claim to being the closest village to the centre of Britain. The exact bullseye is a further four and a half miles over stiles and grassy tufts near Whitendale Hanging Stones.
If this was America, a whole leisure industry would have sprouted along the Centre of the Kingdom theme. Terrifying rides into a black abyss; medieval life recreated by costumed actors; ‘Heart of Britain’ T-shirts and interactive information points. But this is England. On the grassy riverbank outside Puddleducks’ tea room a solitary payphone commemorates its nucleus status. Phone 01200 448659 for the centre of the Kingdom.
There are more mapped walks in the region than you can shake a sturdy stick at, including a 46-mile trek broken into eight sections appropriately entitled Journey through the Centre of the Kingdom. Contact the Tourist Information Office in Clitheroe for more details.
As you’d expect, the centre of the Kingdom is easily accessible via motorway links from the M65 and M6 (junctions 31 and 31A). A regular train service runs between Clitheroe and Manchester.