A Natural high in the Dales
As a first-generation member of the diaspora in London, I never managed to get outside of the M25.
The day school was out, we'd be on the Swansea-Cork ferry for a summer of sitting on the beach in Ireland under an umbrella with a ham roll saying 'Well, isn't this lovely?'. Don't get me wrong - I loved it, and being The English Kid on the campsite was very character building. But a part of me always wondered about the Lake District, Cornwall, the Yorkshire Dales - places which seemed no more real to me than Narnia.
Last year I made my first tentative trip to the English seaside: it was a sunny bank holiday and sort of what I always imagined Magaluf to be like. We picked our way around the raucous sunburnt bodies to find a space on the beach, removed the cigarette butts and tried to ignore the stones imprinting themselves on our asses. I looked out at the depressingly flat horizon contemplating the English enthusiasm for really long piers. I could see why no one wrote poetry about the English seaside.
So my shamefully limited and biased experience of English holiday destinations left me pretty sceptical before my first trip to the Yorkshire Dales. It didn't help that all I knew about Yorkshire I learnt from Wuthering Heights, mid-afternoon crime dramas, and smug southern jokes. However, it became clear very quickly - even to someone who didn't know their moors from their dales - that Yorkshire's reputation as poetic muse actually made quite a lot of sense. Unlike my Essex beach, a poor relation to my childhood holidays in Ireland, the Dales were distinctly different - and distinctly English.
I spent a weekend in a Natural Retreats lodge, tucked away in a very secluded yet not too remote complex in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. What sets Natural Retreats apart is its commitment to sustainability; now when I hear 'eco-tourism', I tend to think of cold nights, compost toilets and smug people in hemp with kids called Storm. Natural Retreats, however, has achieved a zero-carbon status without compromising on comfort and luxury. In fact, you'd never know what a virtuous holiday you were taking unless you asked - which probably means they've done it right.
The complex is pretty much invisible until you're actually in it; eco-friendly design, including an entirely glass frontage, means the lodges melt into the landscape. In fact, the lodges are built so that underneath them are living habitats, as are their grassy roofs. A bit like a nature sandwich. It's like having all the moral feel-good factor of camping but with a coffee machine, a dishwasher and posh shampoo.
For Natural Retreats, sustainability goes further than solar panels and recycling - the resort is deeply rooted in the local community. On arrival you are greeted with a welcome hamper filled with the basics and some luxuries from local delis and bakers.
It was a deliberate choice to not have a restaurant on site, to encourage visitors to explore the nearby towns. A full concierge service ensures you won't be stuck for places to go. There is a good choice of restaurants in Richmond including The Richmond Brasserie and Grill. The menu is simple and unpretentious but varied and executed perfectly. Do yourself a favour and leave a good stretch of evening to get in all three courses; the sticky toffee pudding is the stuff of dreams.
Richmond is a traditional market town where I happily pootled around for an afternoon rummaging in second-hand-book shops, the Victorian market hall and a purveyors of dolls' house accessories. Lunch was found in a scone bar (have two more glorious words ever been put side by side?) which will put together a picnic hamper to take on walks in the dales or tuck into beside the stunning Aysgarth Falls nearby. The town is small but includes a cinema, theatre and microbrewery.
Further afield is Wensleydale which has a lot more to recommend it than just dairy products, chief among the other attractions is The Wensleydale Heifer. The food was well worth the scenic 40-minute drive; it's obvious why it has been recognised by the Michelin Guide for the last few years. Despite its name and being landlocked in the middle of the Dales National Park, The Wensleydale Heifer is acclaimed for its imaginative seafood, including a completely weird and gorgeous maple roast lobster, scallop and pork belly salad.
Natural Retreats has recently revamped its Yorkshire Dales site in a bid to attract groups of friends - many of the lodges now have three either double or twin ensuite rooms with a large and airy living area, which worked perfectly with the front opened onto the dales on my sunny summer weekend, but would work just as well in the colder months wrapped up on the couches around the wood burning stove.
As part of the push to draw more adult groups, Natural Retreats now offer a 'personal sanctuary' service where a therapist will come to your lodge.
The complex remains, however, perfect for families with children. While an outdoor playground is being planned (in addition to the existing indoor play area), the woods and ponds and hills appeared to provide more than enough entertainment for the young families staying there. The kids spent hours tracking rabbits and frogs and crouching over the ponds while their parents kept an eye from the decks.
Don't tell the parents, but my time in the Natural Retreats Yorkshire Dales persuaded me that perhaps English holidays do have more to offer than piers, pebbles and pissed teenagers. Maybe, just maybe, those proper English kids didn't have it so bad.
Natural Retreats (www.naturalretreats.com/uk, 0844 384 3166) offers 7 nights in a 3-bed lodge in the Yorkshire Dales from £1,275 in August 2014.