The Black Bull at Sedbergh is the final piece of a jigsaw that seems to make the village in which it sits – and served – complete.
Only recently, in the shadow of Howgill Fell, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, have some unfamiliar Japanese words crept into the vocabulary of Sedbergh folk who for centuries have been busy with sheep farming and weaving. In fact, there is still a loom in a Sedbergh Main Street shop window. On the hills and dales sheep outnumber people by 6 to 1. Round here it makes sense to measure social distancing as the length of two sheep.
So, it’s a surprise to hear the locals talking of the Japanese kokedama mossball rooted plants on restaurant tables at The Black Bull, ordering a wasabi vodka from the bar, talking admiringly of the chef’s homemade kimchi and discussing the merits of deep Japanese thinking baths.
Since Nina Matsunaga, born of Japanese parents in Düsseldorf, and Cumbrian born James Ratcliffe, took over the Black Bull there have been some remarkable changes to the rambling 18 room, seventeenth century coaching inn.
Nina’s fusion of locally sourced ingredients with Asian influences and a quirky German / Austrian influenced wine list has attracted international attention. Back in the days when National Geographic’s judges were still judging the world, the Black Bull at Sedbergh was their runner-up in the Gourmet Getaway character. For the record, the winner was The Bless Hotel in Madrid.
The days when walkers on the Dales Way, hiking from Ilkley to Windermere, could arrive in Sedbergh late afternoon and nab a room at the Black Bull are long gone. Sedbergh’s reputation has risen in tandem with Nina and James’ pub. Westwood Book’s move from Hay-on-Wye to the quaint, almost medieval town, has confirmed Sedbergh’s status as England’s book-town. If you are on a J.R. Hartley literary quest for a long-lost title, Sedbergh, with an annual book festival, is the place to head.
Nowadays foodies are competing with bikers, hikers, twitchers and the bookish for one of the rooms where East meets West. Although the Zen calm neutral toned rooms have the oriental feel of a tranquil Tokyo stay they are through and through Cumbrian.
Check blankets on the bed are woven by local Laura’s Looms from the wool of Herdwick Sheep. The moody prints of the Yorkshire Dales landscape are taken by local photographer Rob Whitrow and toiletries are from the Sedbergh Soap Company. Inevitably, the cups on the tea tray are thrown by a local potter whilst the chunky choc-chip cookies are made in the kitchen below. Rooms focus on the views, where possible, there are balconies with tables and chairs strategically placed to spend time taking in views that are continually changing.
Sourcing for the menu is hyper-local too. Vegetables are grown at the bottom of the pub’s garden, herbs taken from a nearby meadowy grass verge. Nina is a nose-to-tail chef, eager to make use of every last portion of an animal, avoiding waste.
Few diners can resist the nibbles that are offered prior to starters. Perhaps Thai sliced cauliflowers with a creme fraiche dip or crispy Hereford short rib beef with just subtle garlic tones drifting from the creamy mayo.
Mansergh Hall pork served with spicy kimchi, Nina’s take on the Korean tradition of fermented vegetables, which rest on a charred lettuce leaf, could well be the Black Bull’s Anglo-Asian signature dish. Though the kohlrabi accompanying the Lakeland Venison tartar and cured egg yolk could also be a dish that represents Nina’s Central European roots. Though she does admit to watching many hours of Jamie Oliver when growing up. And on the cusp of the Lake District and Cartmel, it would almost be a crime for sticky toffee pudding not to appear on the choice of puds.
Set among the scenic fells, rivers and waterfalls of the Yorkshire Dales, Sedbergh with its Norman Church, age-old burgage plots and weavers’ cottages even hosts an artisans’ market. Amongst the beeswax, bread, cheeses and jams, visitors feel that they have been taken back to another, simpler era.
Find out more about the Black Bull at Sedbergh
Look at sample menus and the Black Bull’s accommodation at theblackbullsedbergh.co.uk
If you enjoyed Michael’s Sedburgh sojourn, you’ll find more inspiration for UK breaks on our Around the UK travel channel.Last modified: June 21, 2021