CALL me a snob if you like but I usually avoid holiday caravan parks and their associated facilities like the plague.
This may have a lot to do with a miserable week spent in such a park in Cornwall many years ago where the “on-park facilities” included a bar and restaurant which made the infamous all-inclusive fare offered by the Solano Hotel in the hit ITV sitcom Benidorm look like the Ritz.
You’ll have to forgive the popular cultural reference here; I’m just trying provide evidence that I’m not a snob.
These days, of course, there are holiday parks and holiday parks. For every sad collection of side-by-side static caravans on a wind-swept bluff overlooking a grey North Sea, there are Centre Parc-style lodge developments sensitively sited in sylvan landscapes.
And there are places like Akebar Park in Wensleydale, which is now one of the best in the country, at least according to the good readers of Practical Caravan magazine who voted it in their top 100 sites in the UK last year.
Not being a caravanner I couldn’t tell you if that’s fair assessment or not but I can tell you that it has undergone a major refurbishment in recent years, including the “on-site pub and restaurant” – the Friar’s Head.
Yes, that’s the same Friar’s Head we tried to visit a few weeks back and arrived just at the tail end of the latest stage of that refurbishment – a wholesale month-long revamp of the kitchens.
It re-opened at the beginning of March and it has to be said the place looks utterly splendiferous compared our previous visit a few years ago when it was a little jaded. Perhaps that’s a little harsh as the building dates from the 1700s and after almost 300 years, any building is entitled to look a little past its best.
Anyway, the 2017 Friar’s Head is now beautiful. The stone flags and walls, massive fire, assorted vines and shrubbery are still there but the shabby chic vibe has been given a comprehensive makeover. The conservatory is still delightfully light and airy during the day and, we imagined, romantically cosy during the evening thanks to an array of fairy lights festooned through the aforementioned shrubbery and across the roof.
Even better looking is the West Wing but that is set aside for evening dining, functions and weddings and it was Saturday lunchtime. Another time perhaps.
We settled in the bar with drinks to examine the lunchtime options which included an array of traditional English pub classics (pies, sausages, soup and sandwiches) plus fajita wraps, macaroni cheese and some separately-listed specials including moules and chateaubriand (£58 for two). We thought that was overdoing it a bit for lunch.
There was also a modest tapas menu so pretty much all bases are covered.
Prompted by the tapas options we decided to eat tapas-style from the standard lunch menu choosing four dishes to share.
These were an excellent warm salad of crispy bacon, black pudding and chorizo (£6.95 – also available in a large portion size for £10.95) topped with a poached egg. What made this work really well was the caramelisation of the chorizo slices, the almost crackling-like quality of the bacon and the crunchy-soft black pudding. The combination of this with the soft egg and the salad leaves was textural heaven.
Prawns sautéed in butter with garlic and just the right amount of chilli so the heat didn’t overwhelm the prawns also came with salad (£9.95).
We had asked them to hold the skinny fries which would have come with the juicy prawns on account of a desire not to overdo it as we also had a soufflé and meatballs to tackle.
The twice-baked soufflé with Wensleydale smoked cheese and spinach (£6.95) was as light and fluffy as they come. Perhaps it could have been a bit cheesier but I guess that would have masked the spinach.
Finally, the lamb meatballs (£8.95) came with its own little salad of leaves, tomato, feta and green olives with a ramekin of refreshing tzatziki. Again, we had asked for no pitta bread which would normally have been served with it.
The meatballs – about half a dozen - were nestling in a tomato sauce and while finely minced and lean were a little on the tasteless side.
We did well to resist the lure of Sicilian lemon tart, chocolate banana bread and butter pudding and Brymor ice cream which were among the desserts and asked for the bill.
To drink, Sylvia enjoyed a 20cl bottle of Prosecco for Sylvia, and I had two soft drinks which I now realise I was not charged for. Result: a very reasonable total of £40.75.
We vowed to return on a future evening to enjoy the splendour of the West Wing. I’ll settle up then.
The Friar’s Head, Akebar, Leyburn DL8 5LY
Tel: 01677 450201
Disabled access. Gluten-free and vegetarian options
Open for food: noon-2pm, 5.30-9pm (6pm Saturday)
Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 8 Surroundings 9 Service 8 Value 9