We arrive in the night, with nothing visible through the steamed up car windows but dark fields corded with remnants of old snow, and woke up the next morning to a silent, white world. The moors gleam like a wedding cake with the hedges neatly piped around the square edges of the fields, and the bare black branches of the trees seem sprinkled with icing sugar. Now, what else do your thoughts turn to on a day like this but to crackling, log fires and comfort food? And where better to find it than the Fleece, a real country pub whose origins date back the 17th Century when it served as a coaching inn? But first we have to get to the little village of Addingham that winds like an end of yarn around the fringes of the Yorkshire Dales. The drive though Wharfedale is like crossing the landscape of old fashioned Christmas card, the snow scene peppered with glitter, and woolly, black and white sheep embossed on the gently undulating fields. I half expect seasonally dressed Breugel-esque figures to skate around the corner. Instead there's a huddle of stout, Northern matrons in sensible shoes, shopping bags clenched in gloved fists like shields, wearing anoraks and extreme weather hats, waiting for the bus to Leeds which stops, conveniently, right outside our destination.
Chris Monkman, who has owned the pub for the past three years explains that this is part of the place’s charm. “We’re at the hub of about seven or eight footpaths here that run from places like the Cow and Calf on Ilkey Moor, Rumbles Moor, Bolton Abbey, Skipton and then on, deep into the Dales. A lot of people will hike here, have lunch at the Fleece, and then bus back.” I’ve only tiptoed out of the taxi and into the tap room, but I have more or less the same idea. The fireplace, wide enough to roast a boar in, is glowing like the heart of the sun and already filling the room with a fierce heat. “We did used to cook on the fire,” says Chris. “When we first came here we did steaks on the weekend” but today, the only thing roasting in the coals are my outstretched arms.
Chris who lives upstairs with his family has a long pedigree in the kitchen starting from his own parents’ restaurant in Ilkley when he was a child. He comes to the Fleece from ten years as Chef/Patron of Monkman’s, a brasserie with bedrooms, in nearby Ilkley, and like the Pied Piper of Pubs, has brought most of his staff with him. His manageress, Kelly, started at Monkman’s as a schoolgirl, Steph used to be his housekeeper and Vicky his secretary. Even Matt Brown, the chef, worked with Chris on his first job out of catering college. They’ve all been, as Kelly wryly puts it, “caught in the Monkman trap”. Now Chris spends his time front of house while Matt has come full circle, from kitchen porter to head chef at the Fleece where he has worked on and off since he was a schoolboy. A local lad himself having moved to the village from Bradford when he was 14. “People around here have seen me grow up. They know me. I’m part of the fixtures and fittings.” But he’s thrilled to be cooking fir Chris and sharing his vision of good seasonal food, locally sourced with simple, traditional values. “I’m one of those rare people who actually ’loves’ coming to work,’ he adds, grinning.
The menu is chalked up on the blackboard. I can hardly restrain myself from following the smell of home cooking drifting out of the kitchen, when a chap in regulation flat cap and big padded coat ambles across the half-timbered stone floor, picks up the coal scuttle and walks calmly out the back door. I look at Matt, mystified. “Does he work here?” I ask. “Noooah, that’ll be John,” he replies, “You can set your watch by John. Twelve o’clock on the dot, Tuesdays and Thursdays, he comes in, fills the coal bucket and orders a drink.” Sure enough, seconds later the coal fairy returns, hangs up his coat and hat, settles down at the bar and orders “t’coke”, and indeed, it is just past noon”.
“We are a local pub, and our ethos is that we very much want to welcome absolutely everyone - families. suits, people with dogs, people with dogs to hikers and bikers.” Explains Chris. The tap room with its custard yellow walls and broad plush benches, ideal for broad beamed bottoms, hasn’t changed in 60 years. “it’s a very doggy room, Chris says, ideal for heavy boots and hearty appetites.
The main business of eating, however, goes on in the lounge bar. “We don’t want to call ourselves a restaurant – it’s just a friendly pub with really good food”, he says. Almost everything is local and organic where possible. “We have been pioneers in using local businesses to create a local food economy. The beef and lamb is from a local farm, Stephen Crabtree’s Bolton Park Farm, the pork is Old Spot, from Oxenhope, the fish mainly East Coast, and some of the allotment growers will bring us their produce in summer. They love seeing their name on the board. In season we’ll also get people knocking on the back door with game.” “We’ve
had pigeon, snipe, teal, mallard, woodcock, pheasant and rabbit,” adds Matt. “Once we had 290 pigeons dropped on the doorstep. There was all sorts on the board for the next week, everything but pigeon ice cream.”
I have my eye on the meat and potato pie, served in a deep dish the size of a basin, or Haddock from Whitby as wide as a muscleman’s forearm served with hand cut chips. There’s even a whole roast chicken on offer. “Aye, folk are often surprised when they get it and find it is a whole chicken” observes Matt, dryly. A couple of schoolgirls wriggle on the table next to me and I know just how they feel as I wait for the crab cake that eventually arrives, flecked with parsley and dense with chunks of potatoes and pristine white crab meat from Hartlepool. The accompanying mayonnaise is so thick I can stand my fork in it.
I soldier on in the name of duty through the pork fillet on a bed of jewelled beetroot and prunes and eavesdrop shamelessly on the barmaid’s musings on the merits of lamb racing over ferret racing for the primary school’s upcoming fair. Matt reappears and announces that Big Tom “is out t’back cutting logs” – ‘well he’s more the build for it than I am’, he adds.
The restaurant is full, as am I, by the time I lay down my fork in defeat. The food is faultless, the bar stocked with local ales and characters straight from Yorkshire central casting. It’s so welcoming that some of the regulars stay on a little longer than you’d expect. Chris’s predecessor often claimed to have had conversations with the previous landlord – Heapy, a local war hero who is reputed to haunt the place. “Aye,” says Matt, knowingly, “but you can believe that if you like…” In fact, well fed, a glass of wine in hand and toes toasting by the fire, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination. The bus to Leeds suddenly looks incredibly unappealing.