North Yorkshire, England — A common fantasy of weary travelers is that they will stumble upon a fabulous place to stay - whether quaint old inn or modern pleasure palace - in the midst of perfectly ordinary surroundings.
Some years ago I was driving through the Yorkshire Dales on a windy, wet autumn night, clinging to this particular fantasy because I was tired and had spent the afternoon in the grim environs of Haworth. Rain-blackened gravestones and bleak moors seemed to dominate the tiny village where the Bronte sisters had spent their lives. As I drove off in the twilight, rain falling, I cherished the mad hope that an elegant old inn called the Devonshire Arms Hotel would materialize out of the mists in true ''Wuthering Heights'' fashion.
Weeks before my trip, an elderly friend in America had recalled the hotel being in this vicinity during her girlhood, and had spoken nostalgically of it. Her English grandfather had been the vicar at nearby Bolton Abbey, site of a beautiful ruined priory dating from the 12th century. She said she thought the old hotel just might still be there as it was one of the grandest spots in England.
Could wishing make a thing come true? It certainly seemed so. After about an hour of driving on a narrow, winding, pitch-black road, I came upon a large, comfortable-looking stone lodge across from a rushing stream. Its aged facade was covered with ivy, and yellow lamplight glowed from its mullioned windows.
Within, fires were roaring in several huge stone fireplaces. A five-course continental dinner, featuring roast lamb, was about to be served in the mirrored dining room, accompanied by candlelight, white tablecloths, and fresh flowers. After dinner the few guests were invited to settle down in front of various fireplaces to chat in a series of parlors crammed with lovely antiques and oil portraits. When bedtime came, each was led to a cold bedroom upstairs to spend the night beneath pink satin coverlets and several layers of eiderdown quilting.
Needless to say, this was my fantasy come true. And it was the Devonshire Arms Hotel. I learned it had opened at least as early as the 16th century, when the Duke of Devonshire acquired all the land in the neighborhood, and it had not changed very much or closed its doors ever since.
This spring, when I was in England once again, I came upon the inn on a bright March day. The impossibly wide gray-green fields around it, bordered by irregular stone fences, were dotted with sheep, and the first few tiny lambs of the season were stumbling about on thin legs. Stripped of its ivy, the hotel had a young, clean-shaven look; a raw, new parking lot was under construction behind it.
As Mr. John Goodchild, the young, new manager, explained, the hotel had been undergoing a complete renovation for the past 18 months, and had just reopened its doors. Now, instead of 11 cold bedrooms, it had 38 well-heated ones - each complete with a modern bathroom, color television, digital clock radio, telephone, and electric kettle. The Duchess of Devonshire herself had supervised all the changes, he said, and he was quite sure its elegance had not been sacrificed in the process.
This time I spent two days and two nights in the embrace of the Devonshire Arms, testing its charms in the plain daylight of a renewed and more mature acquaintanceship. The ivy was indeed gone, and with it some of the Old World glamour of the place had inescapably fled. The eclectic jumble of antiques, accumulated over centuries and exuding elusive memories and musty aromas, had vanished.
A firm feminine hand had done a vigorous spring cleaning, it seemed. The result was spacious, light-filled rooms decorated with rose-patterned carpets, chintz armchairs, flowered wallpapers, the most solid of the antiques, and the best-preserved of the oil paintings. The bedrooms were definitely more comfortable. Mr. Goodchild admitted there had been no heat in them before the renovation - except that which ascended from the rooms below!
It took little time to reach the conclusion that the hotel, renovated to meet 20th-century standards, was well worth a leisurely visit, not just a fortuitous one-night stay. From October through March, a full weekend (two nights) in a double room at the hotel costs only about $80 ((STR)41.50). A full English breakfast, complete with bacon, sausage and kippered salmon, is included. And since the restaurant has hired a French chef who favors simple, but hearty, English cooking, the meals are delicious. Roast lamb, not surprisingly, remains the specialty; among other decidedly English treats are Stilton soup, baked egg with tarragon and cream, and rich cakes and puddings.
The region surrounding the hotel is treasured by nature lovers; the dale in which it is located, bordering the Wharfe River, is considered by many to be the loveliest of all the Yorkshire Dales. The remote moors here seem primeval in their agelessness. One can still imagine hordes of Scotsmen on horseback tearing across them, descending from the north to rampage and plunder as they did throughout the Middle Ages. The limitless expanses are broken only by occasional austere farmsteads and far-reaching stone walls, piled by hand. Seagulls, magpies, and curlews swoop in the enormous skies overhead, intermittently settling on the grass in flocks of white and gray.
There are no city pleasures - a visitor is inevitably caught up in the rhythms, joys, and hazards of country living, where sheep and cattle raising continue to be the main pursuits of the local people. For many, the hiking trails are the primary attraction. One can pack a sandwich and roam for hours through uninterrupted wilderness and tranquil countryside. The local pubs - which offer such traditional fare as shepherd's pie, ''bangers'' (sausages), and Wensleydale cheese - make for pleasant stopovers.
No walking tour is complete without a visit to the infamous strid. Marked with danger warnings on all the maps, the strid is a narrow, rocky channel in the river through which the water boils as in a whirlpool.
The season for simply visiting the area, says Mr. Goodchild, is April through September, when double room rates are about $80 a night ((STR)41.50). ''We get converged on then,'' he says. ''It's best to come in the winter,'' he adds. ''You can borrow Wellingtons from us and go walking. The snow is so beautiful and clean, and you can see the lambs running in the snow.'' Practical Information:
To get to the Devonshire Arms Hotel from London, one can drive (31/2-5 hours, depending on the traffic); take the train from Kings Cross Station to Leeds and change there for Ilkley, which is a 10-minute drive from the hotel (this trip, which takes about 31/2 hours altogether, costs roughly $100 round trip); take a bus (which takes five hours and costs about $25 round trip); or fly to the Leeds-Bradford Yeadon Airport and hire a taxi from there (at a cost of about $ 100 round trip, the same as the train). For reservations, write: the Devonshire Arms Hotel, Bolton Abbey, Skipton, North Yorkshire, England; or call (075 671) 265.