With the best intentions of leaving at 40 minutes earlier, it will come of no surprise to any who know us well that we pulled away at 9.10am. Slipping with remarkable ease through the Surrey rush hour, it’s fair to say that scenes of us fiddling with USB cables at traffic lights and trying to pair our respective smartphones with the car would be left on the cutting room floor. Likewise for much of the next couple of hours, as we weaved and chatted our way around the M25, the M40 and onto the M6 toll. It’s no surprise that Michael Winterbottom, Mags Arnold and Paul Monaghan reduced the best part of four hours of motorway driving to a couple of minutes.
The plan was to reach the Inn at Whitewell for lunch. Google Maps had us arriving 1.40pm but as we faffed around stopping at Keele services for a coffee and a reminisce about our sister’s aborted fresher’s week at the local uni, and a detour into Knutsford’s ‘city’ limits to find the right kind of fuel, the timing slipped. By the time we peeled off the M6 at junction 31 and headed off on the A59 towards Clitheroe (as Steve directed) we and Google Maps knew we were not going to make it for lunch, which stops at 2pm sharp.
An inauspicious start to the trip perhaps but, as it turns out it wasn’t a disaster. The undulating countryside off the A59 and up through Ribchester gives way quite suddenly to more dramatic scenery. Dry-stone walls herald the start of the Forest (trough?) of Bowland. Winding first up and then down, each turn supplies a new vista and countless opportunities for photos that we didn’t stop to take. A technology fail meant we had to forgo the Joy Division ‘Atmosphere’ soundtrack that accompanied the original journey, but in the afternoon light of a bright autumn day the visual if not aural impact was the same. There’s a bleakness to the landscape here. Whether it’s the rusty heather and moorland, the gnarled and coppery sentinel oaks or the patches of newly-coppiced woodland and bare hillsides, it’s a marked contrast to the gentle verdant rural meandering that precedes it.
Dropping into the valley floor of the Trough of Bowland, the Inn at Whitewell appears suddenly, surrounded by trees and in a setting that, like many country inns, feels frozen in time but for the slew of cars crammed in around laneways and driveways that only ever envisioned carts and carriages, not Bentleys, Jags and Jeep Cherokees. We parked up. At 2.15pm we were agonisingly late but the positive news was that as we arrived the lunch crowd were leaving, the wood fires were in a warming slumber and the iconic (perhaps) table that Rob and Steve occupied was unoccupied. In The Trip they dine here, and not in the more formal dining room or conservatory that the Inn is famous for, presumably because the setting (and the lighting) is more televisual. But for our visit and drinks the formal dining table place setting was gone, replaced by the usual bar furniture. No matter. You simply drink in the view. The composition from the beautiful Georgian panelled sash window is English rural perfection. It’s as if the landscape is contrived in a Capability Brown kind of way but of course it isn’t.
We reluctantly finished our drinks and returned to the car, resolved to return in the evening when the kitchens open for supper. Without the funding of the Observer Magazine, we’d elected not to stay at Whitewell and headed off to a nearby inn at Bashall Eaves. Here the afternoon had some unintended synergies with the original. John went out for a run, although with a little more athletic prowess than Rob managed, and I sought out an elusive mobile signal to make contact with the more mundane and irritating aspects of real life. While Steve suffers through calls first with his agent and later his (ex-)girlfriend, I had to make do with the news that, in the process of putting our house on the market, the lady engaged to survey our house for an energy performance certificate had managed to tear the loft hatch from its hinges, hitting her head in the process. Tragedy and comedy indeed.
Eventually the evening rolled round and we drove back through the dusk to the Inn at Whitewell, finally with the Joy Division accompaniment. Serendipitously, the table remained unoccupied and we took up our previous positions and settled in for the food we should have had 6 hours earlier! The view was slowly absorbed by the creeping blackness of the evening, leaving only the subtle lighting of the terrace outside the window. From the supper menu John chose a squid starter, and we both opted for the Inn’s signature dish, the fish pie. A glass of NZ sauvignon blanc for my erstwhile companion and the driver’s soft drink of choice for me. The fish pie was a triumph. I’m no food writer so I’ll just say that I thought it was excellent and worthy of its apparent reputation. Pained by being in a state of starvation for most of the day and nursing a heavy bronchial cold, I nevertheless had to try the sticky toffee pudding (by this stage in The Trip, Rob and Steve had moved to a table by the fireplace at the front part of the Inn, which is a great spot if you can get it). I found the pudding, also another iconic Inn at Whitewell dish, heavy going and a little rich but John didn’t seem to have a problem. Perhaps on another occasion I’d have enjoyed it more.
As the local Clitheroe crowd, a sort of North Lancashire elite, gathered and their Friday evening was just beginning, we eschewed coffee and the usual after dinner rituals and headed back out into the night to The Red Pump Inn. Falling into an enormously luxuriant bed without the anxiety of willing two pre-school children through the night, I drifted off to sleep the kind of sleep that only a parent covets.