Having explored quite a lot of Cumbrian beers recently, it was good to cap it off with a visit to the Beer Festival at Taste Cumbria. The CAMRA-run festival at the Jennings Brewery was part of a programme full of exciting food events in Cockermouth.
Because there was so much on, we only got to spend a few hours at the festival, but enjoyed a few of the range of Cumbrian beers and got to talk with some luminaries of the Cumbrian beer scene including Neil Bowness and his other half Sharon, Jeff Pickthall, Hardknott Alex and Coniston’s Ian Bradley and Helen Bradley. The beers were a good representation of the Cumbrian beer landscape and included some excellent examples from the progressive fringe, including Hawkshead NZPA, Hardknott Code Black, Coniston Infinity IPA, Coniston No 9 Barley Wine and Stringers Furness Abbey.
In addition I got to try a couple of beers from breweries that were less familiar to me. Hesket Newmarket Scafell Blonde was a pleasant light blonde of which it would be easy to sink a few pints after a long summer walk. Great Gable Yewbarrow from Egremont was a great beer hiding behind an unassuming pumpclip: a 5.5% strong dark mild that was packed with flavour.
We also got to chat with Pete Brown at the festival, and on the Sunday we went to his talk and tutored tasting. We tried a perry, cider and five beers from the festival, which Pete talked us through in an engaging and informative manner.
He also did a couple of readings from his books, including his new one, Shakespeare’s Local, about the history of The George Inn in Southwark. It sounded like it should be as fascinating and funny as the rest of his books, an exercise in studying the wood by looking very closely at a single tree. The book is released on 8 November and will be a Radio 4 Book Of The Week in December. Pete also talked about his new project surveying international ciders and perries for a world cider guide, which sounds like it should be an interesting survey of an drink that isn’t usually considered in a global context.
Sadly, I missed a few of the other beer events, including Jeff Pickthall talking about the more esoteric beers of Cumbria (although Jeff very kindly gave us a bottle of his aged stock of No 9) and Pete and Jeff’s pub quiz on the Saturday night. But it has been a fantastic weekend and everybody involved, especially including Neil and Sharon, deserve a lot of thanks for the work they put in to showcasing the best of Cumbria’s beers prominently alongside the best of its food.
A couple of weeks ago we went to the annual Westmorland County Show. I’ve never been to an agricultural show before but it’s difficult to describe how much fun it was without sounding like an enthusiastic three year old: “There were sheep and really fat pigs and massive bulls and weird chickens and ferrets and huge owls and men with chainsaws and kids Cumberland wrestling and great cheese and lots and lots of tractors…” It was amazing though.
The bar for the show was provided by Hawkshead Brewery, and it was good to see that, alongside their standard Bitter (which is a very enjoyable example of a safe style), they were also selling a lot of Windermere Pale, which is packed with Citra, all for £2.50 a pint.
It struck me that what you might assume to be the most conservative of audiences was taking very well to such a modern beer style, in the same way that Coniston seem to be able to sell Infinity IPA and Bluebird XB in traditional pubs in remote market towns. Whilst unexciting brown bitters seem to be the norm in most Cumbrian pubs, perhaps they needn’t be.
We also managed to squeeze in a trip to the Hawkshead Beer Hall at the brewery in Staveley, for another Windermere Pale (it’s great to have a really nice session strength beer when you’re driving) and a scotch egg, pork pie, sweetcorn fritters and mushrooms and stilton on toast. We also picked up a fancy numbered bottle of St Austell Royal Diamond Jubilee Imperial IPA to take away.
I’ve written about the Beer Hall before, but I mention this just to emphasise that Hawkshead Brewery in particular seems to be pulling the Cumbrian beer scene up by its bootstraps, both through its beers and also its brewery tap.
Cumbria Way Pubs: Coniston-Elterwater, The Britannia Inn, Coniston Britannia Inn Special Edition and No 9 Barley Wine
Day two of our Cumbria Way walk started with a filling breakfast at the Black Bull in Coniston: thick bacon and poached eggs for me; an almost Germanic cold ham and cheese platter for Kate, before we started the walk up and out of Coniston in the rain. The first few miles of the walk were mostly gently ascending through pleasant farmland and woodland, with some spectacular views of cloudy fells beside and ahead of us. Despite the showers, the walk up to Tarn Hows was a very pleasing introduction to an area with some of the most striking views in the Lake District.
Unfortunately, at that point, Kate’s knee started to cause her a lot of pain. However, using two walking poles she valiantly struggled through the rest of the walk on access roads and through woodland to Skelwith Bridge. The walk from there along Elterwater (from the Norse for “swan lake”) was thankfully relatively easy and flat, so we decided to end the day in Elterwater village, rather than continue on for the last three or so miles to Dungeon Ghyll.
This meant that we were able to end the day’s walk in the Britannia Inn, an excellent coaching inn in the beautiful village of Elterwater. Three quarters of the residences in the quiet village are holiday cottages, but the Britannia Inn is a real pub and one of the best places to drink in the Lake District.
Unlike some other pubs, it continues to serve a small selection of warm food to hungry walkers and tourists between lunch and dinner service. We enjoyed a decadent basket of chips with melting mature cheddar, along with a couple of pints of Coniston Brewery’s Britannia Inn Special Edition Ale. The helpful description on the pump described it as Coniston’s take on a beer with the profile of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, and so it is: a solid, satisfying, robustly-hopped English best bitter.
After enjoying that and waiting for our lift, I decided to have a half of Coniston No. 9 Barley Wine, which I’d had in bottle the night before at the Black Bull, but which the Britannia Inn had on cask. It was even better from a handpull, adding to the existing smoothness, balance and warm drinkability of the strong beer that I’d enjoyed in the bottled version. The barman came out for a chat to see if I was enjoying it.
The Britannia Inn is one of those warm, well-stocked, happy pubs that you could cope with being stranded in for hours (or even days) if the weather happened to turn. Just so long as the beer, and cheesy chips, didn’t run out.
After enjoying our Dales Way walk so much, we decided to try out the Cumbria Way, a 72 mile walk from Ulverston to Carlisle. The walk didn’t go entirely as planned and was curtailed due to injury after three sections, which was also a bit of a relief given the ever-changeable weather. However, we still got some great walking done through some lovely countryside, and got to visit a few nice pubs and drink some lovely beer along the way.
The Cumbria Way is traditionally done from south to north and starts at a square called the Gill in Ulverston, marked by a modern sculpture. We had a sunny morning and a really pleasant start to the walk through fields, small villages and farms, with great views back down to Ulverston, the beacon that overlooks it and Morecambe Bay beyond.
We remained in good spirits as we started to ascend into wilder territory in the Blawith Fells. The walk got a bit more difficult at this point, as we had to carefully pick our way through boggy ground around a tarn before descending through some bleaker landscape towards Coniston Water. Around this time the sky darkened significantly and it felt like dusk from around 3pm, before the clouds opened just as we approached the lake.
The final few miles of the walk, mostly close to the water’s edge through woodland, were very wet and it was difficult to appreciate the full beauty of Coniston Water in poor visibility. However we finally got to our stop for the night, The Black Bull at Coniston, damp and sore but relieved.
The Black Bull is an old Lakes coaching inn with a traditional oak beam and carpeted interior. We were staying in one of the ensuite rooms, which was spacious and clean. After a hot shower, we changed and hobbled down to the bar for a pint and dinner.
The Black Bull is the brewery tap for Coniston Brewery, much loved for their Bluebird Bitter, presumably named after the water speed record breaking boats of Donald Campbell, who drank at the Black Bull during his attempts on Coniston Water, the final of which resulted in his death in 1967. All of the Coniston range was on the bar, in cask, keg or bottle, so whilst I like the consistent, pale, refreshing, sessionable Bluebird, I appreciated the ability to try the US-hopped variant Bluebird XB and the more robust and malty US-influenced Infinity IPA on cask, both of which were very good examples of New World-hopped cask ales.
Food at the Black Bull is pub grub done superbly and generously, and even after a long walk neither of us could quite finish the massive plates of succulent gammon. After dinner I tried a bottle of another beer, Coniston No. 9 Barley Wine, 2012’s Champion Beer Of Britain, following Coniston’s previous success with Bluebird in 1998. It was everything you could want in a barley wine and a nightcap: sweet but not oversweet, mellow and warming. A fitting end to a tough day in a very nice pub.