We are wearing face masks. There are only 20 of us; the coach is half empty and some of us haven’t had a haircut for a year. But who cares? We are on our way.
Like hibernating animals emerging from our burrows, we are doing what seemed like a distant dream at Christmas — having a holiday, and a proper holiday at that. Not in Barbados or Tenerife but in God’s Own Country of Yorkshire.
We are based in the old spa town of Harrogate, never more beautiful than in spring, and will be zig-zagging across the county by coach on a series of optional excursions. An RHS garden one day, a market town the next, a world-famous cathedral. What’s not to like? Unless you are a confirmed sun-worshipper, it’s hard to beat the English countryside and its weatherbeaten towns and villages.
Pride of Yorkshire: The Daily Mail’s Max Davidson stayed at Harrogate’s Hotel St George
Shearings, which was acquired by Leger Holidays last year, has been offering this type of escorted coach holiday for years and knows its market.
Coach holidays are not for everyone, just as cruises are not for everyone. Antisocial types fret about sitting next to a bore in a four-hour tailback on a motorway. But if you relish scenic variety and are happy to embrace the company of strangers, they are hard to better.
My fellow passengers, who have joined the coach at various points between London and Yorkshire, are what might loosely be described as sexagenarians plus VAT. They have been jabbed and re-jabbed and are ready to go.
Some are Shearings regulars. Chinese-born Ruth has found coach tours the perfect introduction to British history. And 93-year-old David has zig-zagged across half of Europe with the company.
‘I must have been on nearly a hundred Shearings trips,’ he says. ‘The great thing about coach trips is not just the company and the fact they take away the stress of driving but the unusual itineraries, taking you to places you probably wouldn’t get to otherwise.’
Others, like globetrotting Jane from Surrey, are simply impatient to resume normal life. ‘I just love getting out and about and meeting new people. I’ve hated being trapped at home.’
Max said there was a long queue outside the popular Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms in Harrogate
SHEARINGS RULES OF THE ROAD
- If your holiday has to be cancelled as a result of any new coronavirus restrictions, you will receive a full refund within seven days.
- Shearings coaches are currently operating at about 60 per cent of their normal capacity, but this limit should be lifted by June 21.
- All passengers will be temperature-checked when they first join the tour and advised they cannot travel if their temperature exceeds 37.5 degrees.
- You will not be seated next to anyone you are not travelling with.
- Your coach will be treated with antibacterial fogging that will disinfect all surfaces within the vehicle each evening.
There is a sense of liberation from long captivity — and it’s shared by the staff of the Hotel St George, our base in Harrogate, which has had no guests for the past 14 months. Some have been furloughed. The barman at the Dog and Duck bar has been working at the family farm. But, boy, are they glad to be back. Behind the face masks they are grinning.
Harrogate itself is battered but unbowed. There are a few boarded-up businesses but a long queue outside Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms — and an even longer one outside a gym in the town centre. The tulips in the squares and gardens are breathtaking and the pubs are doing a roaring trade.
Our first excursion takes us to the pretty town of Knaresborough, perched high above the River Nidd. There is a ruined castle, an old stone railway bridge and shops of every description.
Butchers’ windows bulge with ribs of beef. Florists bask in the sun. In the town square, I even spot that quintessential Yorkshire type, a knobbly-kneed cyclist in baggy shorts, moaning about something that happened in 1996.
Lunch is a pint of bitter and a platter of delicious local cheeses, then it’s on to RHS Garden Harlow Carr, one of the horticultural glories of northern England.
Roaming the ancient woodlands, the wildflower meadows and the little hillocks interspersed with dappled streams, I feel like a character in a Bronte novel. I can barely tell a narcissus pseudonarcissus from a galanthus nivalis but I know beauty when I see it.
Back at the hotel, with the wine flowing, everyone is still raving about the garden. We have walked for hours and are bone-weary but would not have swapped it for any beach in France.
The next morning, after breakfast (what joy to recite ‘I’ll have the full English’ again!), we’re off to the market town of Skipton, gateway to the Dales, quintessential Yorkshire with its cobbles, narrow alleyways and wizened famers stopping for a natter.
It is market day and you can buy everything from carrots to flat caps to wooden ducks in wellington boots. ‘National Pie Champion’, boasts one shop. ‘Five Times Supreme Pork Pie Champion’, brags another.
Max also visited the pretty town of Knaresborough, perched high above the River Nidd
Other highlights include a fine stretch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and a statue of local cricketing hero Fred Trueman hurtling in to bowl.
The rainclouds are gathering as we re-board the bus but the drive back to Harrogate is a pleasure: drystone walls, gambolling lambs, wooded hills, crooked spires, bonkers place names. (Birstwith, Kettlesing, Blubberhouses).
As I take my leave of my fellow passengers, there are broad smiles all around.
Five day tours based in Harrogate from £449pp. Other Shearings highlights this summer include Newquay, Whitby and Llandudno, all from £289pp. Prices based on two sharing and include four nights with breakfast and evening meals, all excursions and local joining points (shearings.com, 01709 289 821).