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.
For our final night of the Cumbria Way we originally intended to stay in Caldbeck, the traditional stopping point before the final 14 or so miles to Carlisle via Dalston, through flatter countryside. Although we had decided not to do that section we thought we might spend a night in the area anyway. Ultimately though, the place we had booked was really quite tatty, so we didn’t, although the owners were at least good enough to give us our deposit back.
We therefore went back to Kendal after an afternoon of pootling about in the car, no harm done and otherwise having had a good day. However, the one shame about the experience is that we didn’t get to have a pint at The Old Crown in Hesket Newmarket. This pretty pub on a picturesque but very quiet village green looks like it might find it hard to survive commercially, and indeed that seems to have been the case, because the website states that it was the first pub to be taken over and rescued by a village cooperative.
The pub is also the brewery tap of Hesket Newmarket Brewery, whose bottled beers I recall trying with little excitement merely due to their conservative styles, but I was very happy to give the wider cask range a chance. It seems that a small brewery’s bottled beers are often the safe styles that sell well, whilst their more interesting experiments are played out on cask. The brewery is similarly owned by a cooperative, and mentions local climber Chris Bonnington and his wife on the website.
The reason we didn’t get to try the beers or the pub was that it doesn’t open until 5.30pm on a weekday outside of peak summertime, which seems sensible given how quiet the village was at 4pm. However having seen the idyllic pub covered in bunting and peered through the window at the wide range on the bar, I’d love to go back to give Hesket Newmarket beers a chance and to see a real community-run pub in action.
Although our walk along the Cumbria Way had ended in Keswick, meaning we would miss the last thirty miles from Keswick to Carlisle, there was nothing to stop us exploring the area by car.
After a morning in which we drove to Penrith to see the Tour Of Britain riders pass through at high speed, we got lunch in a nice country pub in Mungrisdale, which is the opposite side of Skiddaw to the route of the Cumbria Way, but close to the A66.
The Mill Inn is a Robinsons pub, so the beer selection was limited to their beers and those of Hartleys, an Ulverston brewery name that Robinsons seem to own. They had Hartley’s Cumbria Way on, so I had a half, which seemed appropriate. It was a decent beer, if it did taste a little like the kit Yorkshire bitter I made on the one occasion that I have done anything like homebrewing: basically a rough-around-the-edges Black Sheep.
The service in the Mill Inn was incredibly friendly and accomodating, and there was a steady stream of customers coming in for lunch after 2pm (they serve all afternoon). I had a very tasty burger and chips and Kate enjoyed a generous roast beef sandwich.
Fundamentally, the Mill Inn is a pub that knows what it needs to do well, which is to offer tasty, good value food, and to do so with a smile.
Some scaling back of our ambitions for the Cumbria Way was required after Kate’s injury. After completing the Yorkshire Three Peaks a few weeks previously, I was determined that walking is something to be done to increase happiness, not to endure misery merely for the sake of achievement. So we decided that we weren’t going to complete the Cumbria Way on this occasion, but we would do one more relatively flat section, to take us to Keswick. This involved skipping the section between Elterwater and Rosthwaite (much of which we had done before) to avoid the ascent and descent of Stake Pass.
After being dropped off in the village of Rosthwaite, another relatively sunny morning meant that we had a lovely couple of hours walking through farmland, woodland, by caves and over disused slate quarries alongside the River Derwent, before we got to the foot of Derwent Water. From there there was a pleasant lakeside walk for a few miles before the Cumbria Way leaves the lake for a less interesting walk through managed woods and through the village of Portinscale before entering Keswick.
I wasn’t entirely enthused by what I’d read about the pubs in Keswick, but we wanted a pint and some food at the end so we first tried the Dog & Gun, the only Keswick pub in the 2012 Good Beer Guide. It turned out that the pub wasn’t so much dog-friendly as seemingly run entirely for the benefit of dogs, with posters all over the place for doggy treats sold in “a new poo-bag for you to use afterwards”.
The range of beers was fine if not amazing, with Cumbrian Legendary Ales Loweswater Gold and Keswick Landlord’s Choice both pleasant and refreshing enough. The Dog & Gun wasn’t serving food any more so we moved on to try The George Hotel (looked fine, but had stopped serving food and was therefore empty by 3pm) and eventually the Oddfellows.
The Oddfellows only had Jennings on cask, but a Cumberland Ale and Sneck Lifter were both sufficiently satisfying to accompany our cheesy chips. The service was good and the food came quickly, although the pub, covered in horse-racing memorabilia, looked a little tired and had that oddly quiet, sombre atmosphere traditional pubs can have on a weekday afternoon, despite having quite a few customers in.
Our couple of hours in Keswick reminded me that the majority of pubs are merely alright, and that great pubs, like the Black Bull in Coniston or the Britannia Inn in Elterwater, should be appreciated.
Beer Reviews Andy has subsequently suggested the Bank Tavern as another option in Keswick. If you have any tips for good pubs in or around Keswick for Cumbrian Way walkers, please let me know in the comments.
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.
I’ll be putting up quite few posts about Cumbria over the next couple of weeks, following a week’s holiday there and an only partially successful attempt to walk the Cumbria Way. The full 72 mile Cumbria Way starts in Ulverston, and it seems appropriate to mention Stringers, the excellent brewery based there.
Presumably only due to Stringers’ capacity, we don’t get a lot of their beers in Leeds, but you can buy their very satisfying Amarillo-hopped bottled IPA in Booths and recently North Bar did a tap takeover event. I managed to pop in to North for a couple of halves after work and picked up two of their special bottles to take home with me, one of which was a damson beer.
Damsons are small plums and are particularly associated with Westmorland, specifically the Lyth and Winster valleys near Kendal. Unfortunately there has been a particularly poor crop in Cumbria this year, so I’m not sure if this beer was actually made with local damsons.
To go with the beer, we (primarily Kate) made a damson cobbler/crumble from a recipe by Dan Lepard. The small, sharp damsons that we used were from Kent and had been bought from the new fruit and veg stall that has recently filled a greengrocer-shaped hole in Chapel Allerton.
The beer itself is billed as being sharp and dry, to make it clear that although it is a fruit beer, it won’t be sweet. Pouring as dark as a Belgian dubbel, it had a crisp blackcurrant nose and a dry, tart and, in fact, slightly lambic, gueuzey sourness.
I enjoyed the beer a lot, but I think the sweet, sharp damson crumble wasn’t necessarily the best match for it. Next time I have one of these beers I think I’ll try it with a nice creamy hard cheese, perhaps a Lancashire, to balance the acidity.