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Letter from the Lakes....

The BBC have recently been showing a series called 'The A Word', about a 5 year old boy called Joe, who is on the autism spectrum, and the impact this has on his family, who all seem to have plenty issues of their own to deal with. One of the manifestations of Joe's condition is remembering perfectly the words to his dad's favourite songs, and the show starts each week with him marching down the beautiful Honister Pass, headphones on, singing a song such as Julian Cope's 'World Shut Your Mouth', only to be picked up by a passing family member or friend and driven back home. It also caught my attention because the family business just happens to be a brewery!

I mention this as the other week I was in the Lake District, where the series is set. One of the locations used is one of my regular haunts, Coniston, and as with 'Happy Valley' it has been interesting to see places I know on the TV screen. I had gone to the Lakes to blow away some cobwebs over the Easter period, do a bit of walking, have some great beer and eat some good food, as well as generally chill out. This is an area which is not far from the tourist traps of Ambleside, Bowness, and Hawkshead, but manages to keep its feet on the ground and head out of the clouds.

Unfortunately, the weather scuppered some of my plans. I have generally been lucky on my recent trips to Cumbria, but this time the rain was persistent enough to limit my walking plans to a couple of low-level sorties. It did mean that I got to visit the museum in Coniston for the first time ever; plenty about Donald Campbell, who came a cropper on Coniston Water attempting to set one last water speed record in his vessel 'Bluebird' way back in 1967, copper mining and other local industry, and that cultural behemoth from these parts, John Ruskin. And it was well worth a visit!

Fortunately though, the weather had little discernible impact on the food and drink on offer. Coniston has 4 pubs, the Sun Hotel, Black Bull, Yewdale, and the Crown Hotel, plus the Ship, which is a good half mile or so out of the village on the road to Torver. Things change over the years, but currently the Sun rules the roost in my opinion. 

Set slightly above the village on the road up to Walna Scar and Coniston Old Man, whose brooding presence maintains a steady watch over the village below, the Sun is a an old hotel with traditional walker's bar complete with roaring fires, wood panelling, and a bank of hand pumps dispensing some of the area's best local ales. Expect to see the likes of Stringers of Ulverston, Cumbrian Legendary Ales, Barngates, and Swan Bay on the bar. Ale quality is excellent, the food offer has been simplified recently, but is still of a high standard and I had a couple of enjoyable meals there. The Sun are at pains to point out they are not a restaurant as Trip Adviser seem to think they are, and in my view, if you only get chance to visit one place in Coniston, this is the place to go, for locals and tourists alike. One of my favourite places to be, in summer the terrace is an absolute delight with great views of the surrounding fells.

Back down in the village, the Black Bull sits in a dominant position on the crossroads, which means it gets a lot of the custom. Round the back is the award-winning Coniston Brewery. It has some good beer - though pricey considering the beer is brewed only yards away - nice food, the obligatory 'Bluebird' memorabilia, but lacks atmosphere. You don't tend to get many locals in the Black Bull. For most of the visitors, though, it is the default place to visit.

Across the road is the Yewdale, a hotel which also has a comfortable bar with a TV screens, not normally something I bother about, but if you do want to watch live football and enjoy some great beer as I have done on more than one occasion, this is a good place to go. This evening I'd enjoyed some lively conversation on football, village gossip and 'Bluebird'. One of the guys in the group was the funeral director who'd organised Donald Campbell's funeral after his body was finally retrieved from the lake in 1981.

Then there is the Crown Hotel, just down the road from where I stay. I was invited down by one of the guys in the Yewdale with whom I'd been chatting . The Crown is predominantly a hotel but also gets a fair number of locals, particularly younger ones. The beers are all from Robinsons, who took over the much-loved Hartleys of Ulverston years ago, but despite keeping the name going the beer is a pale shadow of its former self. Still, it is worth a visit for a quick drink.

I did though venture a little further away. Hawkshead, a nightmare in summer, is fine to visit when it isn't too busy. Beyond the gift shops and the outlets there lies a beautiful Lakeland village, with white walled buildings and lots of odd little nooks and corners, charming streets - one, now the more prosaic Wordsworth Street, formerly answering to Leather, Rag, and Putty Street. There is one shop you must visit if you like pickles and chutneys, the Hawkshead Relish Shop, which is full of every one you could possibly think of, and many that you couldn't. There are a few pubs, in my opinion the best being the Kings Head, where I enjoyed a delicious, unhurried lunch of Lakeland Tapas, which includes delights such as Wild Boar Salami, Cumbrian Chorizo, Wild Venison Salami, with lashings of Hawkshead Relish, washed down with a great pint of Loweswater Gold.

I had a trip over to Langdale the next day when the weather relented and did a pleasant walk taking in the environs of Elterwater and the village. Again this is an area to avoid at busy times simply because there aren't that many places to park. The scenery is fantastic though, with views of the Langdale Pikes and across to the Coniston fells. I had another notable lunch at the Britannia in Elterwater village, just a simple Steak Sandwich, but with a massive basket of chips so full a family of four would have struggled to polish it off! This is a lovely little village pub, with lots of little rooms, but as you would expect it can get very busy. I had a good pint there, but in the intervening weeks I have forgotten what it was!

Meanwhile, back to Coniston. It is a half a mile or so to walk down to the lake from the centre of the village. Here you can take a cruise, enjoy a brew at the Bluebird Cafe, take in the views, or just potter around the shore. The lake and the village are inextricably linked, 'Bluebird' and Campbell pictured everywhere. TV series like 'The A Word' may bring a few extra visitors to the area for a while, but when the visitors disappear, the lake, the mountain, and the village will carry on just as they always have done. And that is what keeps bringing me back....

Coniston Village



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