The perfect trip: Yorkshire
Masham: Best for ale
Plumes of steam are rising from the chimneys of the old Theakston's Brewery as Jonathan Manby ties on his apron and starts work for another day. Around him are arranged all the tools of a cooper’s trade – clamps, hammers, jiggers, adzes, crozes and planes heaped on the workbench alongside iron hoops and oak staves. In the background a collage of brewery posters and beer mats lines the workshop’s walls, and a brick furnace glows orange in the gloom.
‘I’ve been a cooper for 17 years, but I’ve been drinking ale for a good deal longer,’ he says, running a spoke-shave down the edge of a half-finished keg. ‘We’ve got a tradition of brewing in Yorkshire that goes back hundreds of years, so we should know what we’re doing by now!’ He chortles gruffly, then picks up a mallet and starts to beat a hoop into shape, sending sparks cascading across the workshop’s floor.
Just east of the Yorkshire Dales, the little village of Masham has been a centre for the brewing industry since 1827, when local businessman and philanthropist Robert Theakston founded his family brewery here, attracted by the famously clear spring water, which – according to ale aficionados – gives Masham’s ales their special taste. In its heyday during the late 19th century, the village was home to several working breweries, although now only two remain: Theakston’s and its rival Black Sheep Brewery, established in 1992 just across the village.
‘Brewing’s halfway between a science and an art, just like wine-making,’ explains Jonathan. ‘There are so many things that can affect the taste – the hops, malt and barley you use, how you roast them, how you blend them. Any idiot can follow a recipe, but to make a great beer, well, that takes proper skill!’
A hundred years ago, all Yorkshire’s breweries would have employed their own teams of coopers, but these days, the use of metal barrels has rendered their craft largely obsolete, and Jonathan is now one of only two working coopers left in Britain. But while the technologies have moved on, the basics of the brewer’s art have hardly changed in centuries. Inside the brew-halls, malt and barley roast in giant ovens, before being fermented with yeast and flavoured with hops: it’s the combination of these ingredients that give each beer its distinctive colour, strength and flavour, from dark porters through to amber ales. This is a complex process with its own arcane language – mash tuns and worts, scuppets and roundels, sparges and hop backs – set to a constant soundtrack of rattling bottles and chugging machinery.
‘Oh aye, it’s a world of its own, is brewing!’ laughs Jonathan, as he adds the finished cask to several others piled outside the workshop’s door. ‘It’s part of our heritage. I couldn’t imagine life without ale. For me, it would be like taking away cricket and Yorkshire pudding.’
Where to eat
Just off Masham's main square, Vennell's has a fine-dining menu featuring roast partridge, ox cheeks and lamb 'three ways' (two-course menu £24.50).
Where to stay
Bivouac, an eco-friendly complex of yurts, bunk-barns and handmade cabins sits in a remote spot about five miles from Masham, surrounded by woods, meadows and hills. The cabins, which sleep up to seven, are deliberately simple – heat comes from wood burners, and there's no electricity – but they're a fine bet if you want to get back to nature. There's also a super café on site (cabins from £395 for three nights).