The British counties luring holidaymakers with destination cheese shops

This is my first experience of cheese diplomacy. And, as I talk between mouthfuls of Darling Blue and Dorstone Curd, I’m fully in favour. I’m at Rind, a new cheese and pizza restaurant with a panoramic view of the Yorkshire Dales.

I tuck into a “Half & Half”, a satisfyingly chewy wood-fired slice topped with both Yoredale Wensleydale and Kirkham’s Lancashire. The combination is a nod to the friendly rivalry between the counties and the excellent cheese both produce. It’s a tasty way to unite old foes.

Settle is a thriving market town, and much of it is a conservation area (Photo: Getty)

A few tables away sit a group of women who’ve made the pilgrimage to Settle in North Yorkshire from Trawden, across the border in Lancashire. They found about just-opened Rind on their last visit to buy cheese at its neighbour The Courtyard Dairy, the cheese shop that’s made the location a busy hub of cheese tourism.

“We were last here for the cheese-making day and heard about the restaurant so thought we’d make a day of it,” says Jane Wilcock, 68, who has driven the 25 miles with Heather Schofield, 81, and Joan Harper, 82.

Joan says she thought she’d only eat half her pizza, because of the size, but she’s finished it. “It’s very tasty,” she says. “We always find some new cheeses here, and the tastings and how they explain the cheese make it a really nice event.”

Rind Restaurant
Sophie tucked into the pizza at Rind (Photo: Jo Ritchie)

Yorkshire cheese tourism

I’ve wanted to visit The Courtyard Dairy since reading about it some years ago. Living 320 miles away in east Kent has delayed my trip, but I am finally here. I arrive, despite some train disruptions as the last of Storm Ciarán blows through, to blue skies punctuated by swiftly moving clouds that cast playful shadows across lush pastures and gentle peaks.

Settle is a small but thriving market town and the gateway to upper Ribblesdale at the southern edge of the Dales. Much of the town is a conservation area thanks to its picturesque 17th and 18th-century stone cottages. Even though it has a population of just 2,600, there are sevearl hotels and guesthouses (Falcon Manor, The Golden Lion, King William the Fourth Guest House) to host tourists who come for the views, the walking, the cycling, the popular Settle to Carlisle railway and, of course, the cheese.

“We realised early on that people were travelling to visit us,” says Kathy Swinscoe, co-founder of The Courtyard Dairy.

“They were coming from Huddersfield or Halifax or having a holiday in the north and saying they’d ordered online or heard about us from friends who’d holidayed here,” she adds.

“People will come for the day and walk the dogs or stay in a guesthouse or Airbnb.”

Settle Railway Station in the Yorkshire Dales in northern UK, with Sugar Loaf Hill in the background.
Tourists can take a train through rolling countryside to reach Settle (Photo: Getty)

“I’d like to think they come for us”.

“The big cheese sign helps. But we can’t compete with Ingleborough and the Three Peaks.”

Settle is also home to the world’s oldest music hall, in operation since 1853.

Cheese history

The Swinscoes – Andy, 37 and Kathy, 42 – opened their cheese shop in 2012. It expanded in 2017 to include a cheese museum that shows the evolution of cheese internationally and locally. Among its collection are vintage cheese-making tools and reportage photography. Here, I discover that Wensleydale used to be blue, soft and spreadable, and that 150 years ago there were 2,500 cheese-producing farms in the area.

As a fan of British cheese, I’m ashamed I don’t know much about Wensleydale. But Andy is ready with a quickfire education. He reveals how Stonebeck and Fellstone, both made to the same method (Stonebeck in Yorkshire’s Nidderdale and Fellstone near Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria), have distinct flavours.

While The Courtyard Dairy, also a cheese maturer, sells well-known cheeses from around the country, and the world – a snapshot of its stock includes Hafod, St Andrew’s Cheddar, Parmesan and Pecorino – it is also deeply rooted in local cheese culture. This is the beauty, and the reward, of travelling for your cheese.

For a similar experience in Lincoln, for example, cheese lovers might visit The Cheese Society, a cheese shop and café with a remarkable selection of Lincolnshire cheeses.

UK food tourism

More than two-thirds of international travellers are keen to explore local food and drink while on a British holiday, according to research by Visit Britain.

Domestically, more than half of UK respondents surveyed said they were likely to consider going on a food or drink-related tour or visiting a food or drink-based attraction in England, making it one of the most popular holiday activities.

Meanwhile, VisitScotland reported that trying local food and drink is one of the top activities for the country’s tourists.

“Our research shows that consumers are looking to connect with the people and places associated with their food and drink purchases,” said Malcolm Roughead, its chief executive.

Thanks to a resurgence in British farmhouse cheesemaking, there are plenty of places to source great cheeses in Britain. Many good shops are in urban areas, such as Neal’s Yard Dairy and Paxton & Whitfield in London, IJ Mellis in Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews, The Fine Cheese Company in Bath and Ty Caws in Cardiff. But Settle’s finest can hold its own.

Rind Restaurant Mathew Carver
Mathew Carver, who set up Rind, says The Courtyard Dairy is often busier than London cheese shops (Photo: Jo Ritchie)

“The Courtyard Dairy is often busier than London cheese shops on Monday mornings,” says Mathew Carver, who founded Rind, as well as three cheese restaurants in the capital.

His speciality is British and Irish cheese, so opening a restaurant at The Courtyard Dairy was an ideal match.

Other British cheese pilgrimages

Westcombe Dairy, Somerset

Westcombe Dairy had been in the Calver family for decades before chef Tom (Calver) took over in 2008 and set about transforming it into the destination dairy it is today. It supplies shops and restaurants all over the UK and welcomes visitors to the dairy shop six days a week.

Known for making unpasteurised Somerset cheese – clothbound Westcombe cheddar, Duckett’s aged Caerphilly and raw milk ricotta – Westcombe also sells a wealth of hyperlocal produce, including its own charcuterie, Somerset cider and brandy, and Landrace bread. Only a few minutes from art and antique destinations Bruton and Shepton Mallet, food producers such as Westcombe make Somerset one of the UK’s on-trend tourist spots.

Tom says: “We have a real mixture of visitors to the dairy shop. Some people know about us and will come in when they’re visiting the area.

“The Three Horseshoes in Batcombe (recently taken over by Margot Henderson) is very popular and they suggest people pop in to us, and vice versa, as do lots of other local places.”

westcombedairy.com

Ardardan Farm Shop and Estate, Argyll and Bute

The Montys – May and Grant Montgomery, and daughters Sue and Sara – set about renovating the derelict Ardardan estate in 1996 and have grown it into a destination food hub for Argyll and Bute. The estate includes a tearoom, garden nursery and farm shop.

Ardardan is best known for its cheese counter, part of the Scottish Cheese Trail, a self-guided tour new for 2023 on Geotourist, which leads visitors to cheesemongers and makers across the nation, from Highland Fine Cheeses of Tain to IJ Mellis in St Andrews.

Sue Aikman, of the Montgomery family, says: “Given our location close to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, we get lots of lovely tourists and we very much appreciate all who come from seeing us on the Cheese Trail.”

ardardan.co.uk