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Lakes, Ales, and a Road Trip to Boot....

I went back to the Lake District this week for a few days break in one of my favourite parts of the country. This gave me the chance to check out what was happening on the local pub and beer scene, which, with the odd exception, did not disappoint.

I had to call in at Ambleside to sort out some new walking shoes, so I decided I would get my visit to this crowded spot out of the way and then it was done. This meant I approached via the A591, which gave me the chance to pop into the Watermill at Ings, which is set back on a lane just off the main road. It is a comfortable pub with its own on-site Watermill Brewery, whose ales tend to have doggy-related names. It was pleasant enough to sit out in the little beer garden and enjoy the sunshine. Welcome to the Lakes!

My business done in Ambleside, I headed the 8 miles or so to Coniston where, as usual, I was staying. Duly checked in, I headed up to one of my favourite pubs, the Sun Hotel. As usual, the bar did not disappoint. 8 handpumps including beers from Hawkshead, Cumbrian Legendary Ales, Ulverston, Coniston, and Fell breweries. I got a pint of Lonesome Pine from Ulverston and headed out to the terrace at the front of the hotel to enjoy the views over the fells and back over the village. I maintain that this is one of the best places anywhere to enjoy a pint outside. The pub is friendly, with a few locals, walkers, general visitors, and families, along with those staying in the rooms. Decent enough food is served in the bar and restaurant.

The Black Bull was as busy as ever. I got a pint of XB Premium, brewed on-site at the Coniston Brewery. A year since my last visit, and it still seems to be relying on past glories. Yes, we know Bluebird was Champion Beer of Britain, but that was back in 1998, yet everything seems to focus on that fact. The beers are OK, the food is OK, and the place is comfortable. It is functional. Yes, it is always seems busy. But to me it now seems tired and lacking in any personality.

Across the road is another hotel, the Yewdale, which by way of a contrast has upped its game over the past year or two. It had also just received an award as local CAMRA Winter Pub of the Season for 2016-17, which reflects the quality of the beer on offer. 4 hand pumps are on the bar, and I was drinking the Loweswater Gold, which was very good. I got speaking to a couple from Shropshire, he used to work at the former Wem Brewery, and is a big fan of Lemon Dream, also a big favourite of the RARM Massive! And with football added into the mix some good conversations ensued.

Moving on from Coniston, I headed south west towards the coast, with the weather a little inclement not quite sure where I would end up. I passed through Broughton-in-Furness, where the Manor Arms sits proudly in the main square. I ended up on the Cumbrian coast, not far from Bootle, a remote and desolate spot. The MOD have a firing range close by, and for a good couple of miles on the way to Ravensglass the base sits besides the road.

Ravensglass lies at the mouth of Eskdale, and is the site of a Roman bath house. It is also the start of the Ravensglass and Eskdale Railway, a narrow gauge, miniature railway('L'al Ratty') which runs 7 miles up a beautiful valley as far as Dalegarth, just before the village of Boot. Today it carries walkers, families, and a few locals, but originally the railway(on a larger gauge) was used to transport iron ore that was mined in the valley. I decided to go up to Boot and visit the Hardknott Cafe at the Woolpack, but rather than getting the train, I drove. I followed the sign off the A595 and ended up driving on one of the narrowest country roads I have ever driven on in my life! I parked up once I had got on to a proper road, and headed the half mile or so up to Boot.

Boot is a small village consisting of a few houses and a couple of pubs - the Brook House (currently in the Good Beer Guide), and the Boot (which is not), but not the Woolpack, which is a mile or so beyond. It is also home to a fascinating little museum at Eskdale Mill. It had been a working mill until 1937 when the last miller died, after which his daughter shut it up and left everything as it was, apart from building a new water wheel. It passed into the ownership of Cumbria County Council in 1976, who again did nothing, until it was taken over by a trust last year. And so the trust have spent the time cataloguing what was left, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the process of milling and how the miller lived. The trust have unearthed all sorts of old tools, equipment, and paraphernalia, and the two guides, Ian and Lesley were very passionate and informative about the mill and the history of Eskdale. We had a demonstration of the old water wheels, which still work and turn the giant millstones used to make the flour. And they were very generous with their time; Ian took us a short way up to the hillside to another old building, which before it fell into ruin was the old station when L'al Ratty ran all the way through to Boot. Further up the hillside were entrances to the old mines. Very interesting, and well worth a visit.

I headed back down the path of the old railway line, joining the road at Dalegarth station, and back to the car. I then moved on to the Hard Knott Cafe and Bar, a pub within a pub at The Woolpack Inn, just before the road begins its ascent up the Hard Knott Pass. It was busy, quite a lively place with tourists and the odd walker. The beer choice was a little bland, a shame considering this was the original home of the highly-innovative Hard Knott Brewery before it upped sticks in 2010 and moved to Millom into bigger premises to cope with demand both nationally and internationally. Still, the pint of Rudgate Gold was perfectly fine, as was the chip butty made with huge, proper chips.

Suitably fortified, I began the drive up the Hard Knott Pass which links Eskdale with the neighbouring Duddon Valley on the way to the central Lake District. The original route was created by the Romans and on the western side of the pass there are the remains of a Roman fort. It climbs via a tortuous road which is 1 in 3 in some parts and features a series of hair-raising hairpin bends on what is reputedly the steepest road in Britain. I remember when I drove over the pass for the first time many years ago, my old Morris Minor struggled with three passengers to make it, so at one point they leapt out reluctantly and walked a short distance to lighten the load. This time low cloud added to the fun. Arriving in the Duddon Valley, there is a brief respite before the road climbs again over the Wrynose Pass, which also has its moments, although this is a relative lightweight, only reaching a mere 1 in 4 gradient at its steepest. Eventually you arrive in the lovely Little Langdale Valley, which runs parallel with its more famous big brother. This is a relatively quiet place, with fewer visitors, offering impressive views of mountains like Wetherlam and Swirl How. That said, the narrow road which runs through the valley is busy enough to require careful negotiation at certain points. You can turn left at this point to go into Langdale, or right to go towards Elterwater and Coniston.

I decided to go into Langdale, and as you enter the valley you are met with a stunning view of Upper Langdale as it splits into two mini-valleys, Oxendale and Mickleden. A genuine jaw-dropping moment. Depending on visibility, you also have a tremendous view of some of the greatest mountains in the Lakes massif, including Bowfell, Crinkle Crags, and the Langdale Pikes. Unfortunately it was too misty on this occasion to see the full extent of Langdale's wonders, but it was still impressive.

I pulled into the National Trust car park (beware -the ticket machine does not take the new pound coins), and headed for a well-earned pint at the Old Dungeon Ghyll. Like the Sun in Coniston this is a place I have to visit every time I am in the Lakes. Attached to the Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, this is a simple one-room bar with a great range of beers. Whilst it is great to visit at any time, it is especially welcoming after a hard day walking on the fells, particularly when you are cold and wet, when the heat from the old kitchen range comes into its own. I bought a pint of Yates Bitter - this has been a regular here for years - and reflected on some of the previous post-walk pints I had enjoyed with my walking companions. An essential destination when in the area.

It was time to head back home, so after a morning's walk around Coniston village and the head of the lake, I set off for Kendal. I hadn't visited this attractive market town for many years, so I decided I would have a walk around. Kendal features many alleys, or 'yards' as they are known round these parts. In days gone by these would be fortified to offer protection for the locals against hordes of raiding Border Reivers. It was tucked away down one of these that I stumbled on the Kendal Brewery. I popped in the brewery tap, Burgundys. It was empty. I ordered half of Kendal Blonde. It was in a poor state, and I am afraid that is totally unacceptable, especially considering the brewery tap is your shop window! Probably explains why the place was deserted....

My final port of call was Kirkby Lonsdale, another attractive but much smaller town situated just off the A65. It is a busy place, with many visitors aiming for the Devil's Bridge, which crosses the River Lune on the edge of town. The structure dates from 1370 and today is a magnet for bikers, as well as general visitors. At one time it carried the main traffic between Kendal and Skipton, but today the traffic is carried by a more modern bridge. My visit to the town was two-fold; to do a bit of shopping at the Booths supermarket, which along with some high-quality provisions offers an amazing range of bottled ales, and try out the new brewery tap for the local Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery.

I parked at Booths, and then wandered down into town. Less than 5 minutes walk down the road I came across the new Royal Barn Brewhouse. It is a stunning conversion of what was originally a barn, which has had several uses over the years. It houses a bar and brewery, all very tastefully done, and with a pianist and friendly bar person, it was a very pleasant spot to while away an hour. The bar offers the full range of Kirkby Lonsdale beers and a number of snacks. I had an excellent half of the Tiffin Gold, an easy-drinking 3.6% pale session beer. A complete contrast to the Kendal Brewery!

So, a good few days in one of my favourite parts of the world. I am looking forward to going back again soon....

The bar at the Old Dungeon Ghyll, Langdale


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