THERE’S a long steep climb out of Ilkley, whether you’re here to ramble across the moor, simply admire their two most famous rocks – or, like us, have come in search of a drink and dinner.
The pub and hotel is directly across from the cow and calf rocks, an ancient outcrop of millstone grit and a smaller boulder. Local legend tells how the two were split apart under the feet of the giant Rombald as he fled across the moor away from his angry wife.
This imposing stone property opened as the country’s first hydropathic hotel in 1844, trading on the Victorian fashion for taking the waters at spa towns whose wealth grew as a result.
The quality of Ilkley’s spa water had been well known for centuries, but the arrival of worthies like Madame Tussaud and Charles Darwin – whose book On the Origin of Species was published while he stayed in the town – really put it on the map.
The building later became a private home and later a boarding house, and is now a quality pub and restaurant serving the needs of those crossing the moor, those who have been drawn here from the towns around – and those lucky enough to be staying in the 13 bedrooms upstairs.
On this occasion we were not so fortunate but enjoyed a great evening of drinking and dining. The quality is evident from the moment when you walk in, and are faced with an attractive, well-kept, dog-legged bar with a enticing line of real ale handpulls and gleaming fonts offering a range of craft beers. Around the walls is a display of museum-piece photography – the 1905 Ilkley Carnival, ladies in crinoline, Bolton Abbey, the stepping stones, the mysterious Bronze Age carvings on the moor.
In summer the views from up here – and particularly from the terraced beer garden beside the front door – are truly spectacular.
The bar stands between the Cow and Calf’s drinking area to the right, and the dining area to the left, which is where we are heading to. We are shown through to one of the sturdy farmhouse-style pine table in an intimate room of terracotta-tiled flooring, huge beams and oak columns. These fitting are mostly false of course but between them they still create a perfect atmosphere, particularly at this time of year when the flames are raging in the imposing red-brick fireplace behind us.
Between the four of us, we work through a fair cross-section of the dishes on offer on the pub’s a-la-carte, fixed price and seasonal menus.
Of the starters two which deserve special mention are the duo of pate (£5.50) featuring a fabulous coarse pork and Madeira pate and a smoother chicken liver parfait, and the cocktail (£5.75) of big-tasting chunks of lobster and juicy king prawns which comes with salad, chunks of avocado and toasted rustic bread. All are beautifully presented.
Of the main courses, I thoroughly enjoyed my pie (£11.25) which was a steaming swamp of piping hot steak and mushroom in a velvetty rich sauce, topped with an extravagant puff pastry crust and served with a mound of mash and a host of vegetables.
Across the table the Christmas turkey and trimmings from the festive menu was eliciting positive noises from a couple of my dining companions. The service remained friendly and attentive throughout.
A sturdy pint of crisp refreshing Blonde from just over the moor in Saltaire was a fine accompaniment to my dinner, though had we been staying over, I might have made a closer acquaintance with the Cow and Calf’s comprehensive wine list.
Bookings are still available for Christmas Eve and Boxing Day – but the 25th is now sold out.
The Cow and Calf
Address: Hangingstone Road, Ilkley
Type: Popular food-led pub and hotel
Opening Hours: Noon-11pm Mon-Sat and noon-10.30pm Sun
Beers: Up to six real ales. Doom Bar is a permanent feature, but others will rotate. Choice also includes Becks, Stella Artois and Camden Helles lagers, Sierra Nevada, Guinness, Bulmers and Kopparberg Ciders.
Wine: Great choice from £4.20-glass and £14.95-bottle
Food: Vintage Inns menu served every session. Fixed price menus available
Accommodation: 13 bedrooms
Disabled: Ramp access available
Beer garden: Large terraced area to the front
Parking: Large area to the side and rear
Telephone: 01943 607335