A giant oak log has been newly thrown onto the fire, a tentative flame is licking between its opened halves, a single shaft of brightness that splits the sooty dark of the fireplace.
Wood smoke clings to the air as it has for generations; there’s a gentle murmur around the oak-panelled bar, the chink of glasses and cutlery and hushed conversation respectful of a pub whose history hangs heavy, touching the skin.
Founded as a hunting lodge, this lovely stone building first opened as a pub in 1840, taking as its name an emblem from the coat of arms of the Earls of Ailesbury, once great landowners in these parts. Between 1859 and 1989 it was run by the same family, latterly by Bessie Fletcher – who served her beer from a jug, never opened on a Sunday and turned customers away if she didn’t like the look of them. By the end it had fallen into disuse, disrepute and disrepair.
So when Paul and Helen Klein took over in 1990 they took a certain leap of faith that they could rebuild its reputation and draw in drinkers and diners to this out-of-the-way hamlet, high in the Dales, where a picture postcard ribbon of stone cottages beside a manicured village green forms the quintessential Yorkshire scene.
That faith – and no doubt many years of dogged persistence which followed – have long since paid off at a property now renowned for the high quality experience it provides for drinkers and diners alike.
It’s open on a Sunday now of course, but it’s midweek when we call in, lingering first on the high stools beside the bar where Masham’s rival brewers go head-to-head, with Black Sheep and Theakston bitter competing for trade, as they do in so many of the great pubs of the Dales.
From here we are shown to a table close to that crackling fire, in a flag-floored dining space of dark wooden tables and high-backed settles, where an ancient grandfather clock ticks off unchanging times. A long brass huntsman’s horn hangs over the bar; a high shelf is cluttered up with bottles and pottery and ornately painted plates.
The menu blackboard above the fireplace offers a splendour of choices from which my partner chooses succulent scallops, attractively served with pea shoots and with balsamic and fruit puree for extra zip. Shiny black shells clatter into a bowl as I work eagerly through a steaming mound of mussels.
Further drama follows as a poached egg oozes a slow slither of yellow across my smoked haddock to which a sauce of leeks and gruyere adds a creamy, salty dimension. Similarly, blue Wesleydale and parmesan add extra depth of flavour to my partner’s risotto.
The service is genuine, generous and attentive – and we are fortunate enough to see these standards of customer care reprised over breakfast, after a welcome stay in one of the Blue Lion’s beautiful bedrooms. A stable block to the side has been remodelled to extend the accommodation. Repurposing cricket balls as key fobs for the guests is a characteristically quirky touch.
As the years pass and the bones become worn and weary, it’s becoming harder to drive an hour back home after dinner, so it’s a treat we might have to afford ourselves more often. It’s a single shaft of brightness that splits the dark halves of the working week.
Type: Traditional country pub and restaurant
Hosts: Paul and Helen Klein
Opening times: 11.30am-11pm daily
Beers: Three hand-pulled real ales, predominantly from Yorkshire, plus Amstel, Moretti, Strongbow and Guinness
Wine: High-end wine list
Food: Quality dining with a la carte, lunchtime and Sunday menus
Accommodation: Comfortable rooms with Dinner, B&B deals available
Children: Welcomed but no special facilities
Disabled: Straightforward access
Functions: Spaces available for private events
Beer Garden: Areas to the front and rear
Parking: Large area to the rear
Telephone: 01969 624273