At the beginning of April, I was lucky enough to take part in The Pendle Witch Tours, organised by Stirk House Hotel, on behalf of Aspire Magazine.
As wonderful as it sounds on paper, (two days of guided tours around the Ribble Valley region of Lancashire, with lunch, dinner, bed and breakfast and afternoon tea at Stirk House), it’s only by experiencing something like this, that I can write a genuine and insightful review, but as jobs go, this one was rather special, made more so because my boyfriend Ian was invited too.
You might remember that I wrote about the background and history of Stirk House recently, but in brief, it’s located on the A59 in Gisburn, just 10 minutes from Clitheroe, 15 from Skipton and 20 from Settle. It has spectacular views over Pendle Hill and it’s the Pendle area around which the tours are centred.
At the start, I knew very little local history and even less about how in the early 1600s some women were tried and hanged, because they were believed to be witches. It was little to do with curses and spells and everything to do with James I’s paranoia and scepticism about witchcraft and its prevalence among the common people. I was shocked and saddened to learn about the way in which women were treated, simply because they demonstrated courage and intelligence.
The tour began at Stirk House and were greeted by our tour guide Simon Entwistle and coach driver Steve. Our first port of call was the breathtakingly beautiful village of Downham, which is where Whistle Down the Wind and Born and Bred were filmed. Here, Simon gave us some insight into the local area and explained that the village was where one of the Pendle Witches, Alice Nutter was believed to have spent time, having hailed from the nearby village of Roughlee.
From there, we continued along to get this spectacular view of Pendle Hill …
Then on to Roughlee village, where we stopped to see a statue of Alice Nutter, immortalised in 2014 to commemorate the 400 years since she was hanged for witchcraft.
Following a visit to the Pendle Heritage Centre in Barrowford, we returned to Stirk House for a fabulous buffet in PRIME Restaurant.
It was excellent and it particularly lovely because everyone taking the tour sat together. It was an ideal time for introductions and explanations, (in particular, why I take so many photographs). Lunch, tea and coffee are included in the package price, but Ian and I made it even more special by ordering a glass of Prosecco from the bar. The homemade, super-fresh mini beef-burgers, the sandwich selection and the mini goats cheese tarts, served with salad and fries were all divine and exactly what we needed to refuel before starting the afternoon tour.
We spent the afternoon at Samlesbury Hall in Lancashire, a beautiful stately home. Again, Simon conducted the tour which told of the Samlesbury Witches and he described the history of this magnificent building.
The Manor Suite at Stirk House
Back at the hotel, Ian and I checked into The Manor Suite, which is in a lodge detached from the main building. It has far-reaching views of Pendle Hill and of the 22 acres of woodland in which Stirk House is set. The soft furnishings and decor are gorgeous.
The suite has a separate sitting room with its own dining area; private dining, overlooking the picnic terrace, is available in all suites for a true “get away from it all” experience.
The bathroom is stunning with a large roll top bath and walk-in shower
Lunch, dinner and afternoon tea can be taken in a choice of places at Stirk House including the Fire Lounge (see the photograph below), on the Champagne Terrace, (which overlooks Pendle Hill), in the conservatory and in the private dining room, (photograph below). We chose to dine in the award-winning restaurant, PRIME which is where we’d eaten lunch earlier.
A three-course meal is included in the price of the tour and for my starter, as I often do, I chose fish: smoky fishcake and a soft-poached egg with green herb salsa. It was poached-egg perfection and the perfect accompaniment to the delicate smokiness of the fish.
Ian chose a dish with very local provenance: Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire Cheese with roast beetroot and spiced walnut salad. The mellow beetroot worked perfectly with the slightly sharp cheese and the spiced walnuts added crunch to the other softer textures.
Fillet of sea bream with purple sprouting broccoli and lemon buttered shellfish were too much to resist despite the fact I desired everything else on the menu. The shellfish were both sweet and tangy and the bream was cooked perfectly, (though I’ve come to expect nothing else from the very talented head chef Chris Dobson!)
PRIME restaurant is renowned for its steaks and several people had recommended that we try one, so Ian ordered an 8oz Sirloin with slow-roast tomato, Portobello mushroom, triple-cooked chips, watercress and a crushed peppercorn sauce. It almost goes without saying that it was cooked exactly as he likes it and was locally sourced.
Ian and I dine out regularly and we have lost count of times that we would like every dessert on the menu. This was no exception and we finally decided upon warm treacle tart with clotted cream and spiced caramel syrup and orange creme brulee with chocolate shortbread. We shared them and truly, couldn’t decide which was the nicer, both being simply exceptional.
Breakfast, also included in the price of the tour, is buffet style with orders for tea, coffee and hot food taken at the table. Ian chose an omelette which was light and fluffy and the perfect way to start the day. As well as hotel residents, there were some non-residents at breakfast- the convenient location of Stirk House makes it ideal for business meetings at any time of day, several of which I noticed taking place throughout our stay.
Day two of the tour started with a picturesque drive to Dunsop Bridge through the Trough of Bowland where we stopped for elevensies at the charming Puddleducks café.
From there, we headed to Lancaster Castle for a guided tour during which we learned more about the witches, (it was there that the Pendle Witches were tried), and about the legal system both then in the 17th century and in the present day. It was truly fascinating and very insightful. Being both a working criminal and a working, civil court, photography inside the castle is, understandably, prohibited so I can’t show you the civil courtroom which is particularly spectacular.
Simon Entwistle our tour guide was absolutely brilliant. His knowledge of the witches and their plight along with that of local history is amazing. He captured our attention throughout and welcomed questions while showing a genuine interest in each and every one of us on the tour. He works for the Lancashire tourist board and as a native Lancastrian, (I was born in Preston), I cannot think of a better advocate to promote my home county. The tour wouldn’t have been the same without him and his enthusiastic personality.
Our final destination was back at Stirk House for afternoon tea, again included in the price. Comprising of a selection of seasonal sandwiches, hot homemade sausage rolls, mini brie and cranberry open sandwiches, scones, mini cheesecakes and all sorts of other sweet delights; the perfect way to end the tour
I can’t finish without sharing a few more photographs of Stirk House. Over the last eighteen months, Stirk House has undergone a significant and sympathetic refurbishment and it has been wonderfully executed.
This is the bar area…
And this window can be seen on the right of the photo above. It looks into a private dining area, is ideal for a family occasion or similar.
And this is the Fire Lounge, perfect for morning coffee, pre-dinner drinks, informal business meetings, and any other occasion one can think of.
The two day Pendle Witch Tour is absolutely fascinating. For just £295 per couple, lunch, dinner, bed, breakfast, afternoon tea and of course, the fascinating tours are included. It was thoroughly enjoyable, very informative and something different. To stay in a beautiful hotel with an award-winning restaurant and glorious views is something to behold and I recommend it wholeheartedly. It is fabulous and is excellent value for money. The next one takes place on 17th and 18th October. Visit the Stirk House website for more details.
Stirk House Hotel
Tour Guide and Professional Storyteller.
Stephen (our driver).
Green Leaf Travel