A return to one of my favourite parts of the country, which included visiting a number of my favourite pubs and because of the weather, not much else. So off to a soggy Cumbria, and more specifically, Coniston in the Lake District, we go....
I'd decided to book a few days off work with the intention of going away for a couple of days, but I had held off booking anywhere as the arrival of the 2024 Good Beer Guide was imminent. If somewhere within reasonable striking distance had been awarded a slew of new entries, I wanted to be there to capture the action as they put up their newly-awarded We're in the 2024 Good Beer Guide stickers and adapted to their new lives as pub-celebs. Although as it was the period before the official publication date we'd have had to keep schtum about it or face retribution from the high lords at CAMRA HQ....
Anyway, it wasn't to be as the no-show of the guide continued, and I decided to just go ahead and book somewhere as time was moving on. If it turned up in the meantime, then fine, but if not, no worries. And as I set off on my drive north to the Lake District, leaving in pleasant if weak sunshine but with a not-so promising forecast for the next couple of days, I decided I wasn't going to bother looking up any new places anyway, I was just going to call in a few familiar and favourite places and see how they were getting on.
I drove up through to Keighley via the A644 and A629, and then from Skipton followed the A65 through the Yorkshire Dales. It's a route I have done so many times over the years. And today, even being trapped behind a slow-moving tractor just beyond Gargrave for a few miles couldn't spoil my positive mood. I got past Ingleton and crossed the Cumbria border near Kirby Lonsdale and was looking forward to seeing the familiar outline of the mountains as the Lakes got nearer. I crossed the M6, and then followed the A591 northwards passing Kendal. Sure enough, the bulk of the Kentmere fells came into view, and shortly afterwards, a few miles shy of Windermere, I stopped for comfort break at the small settlement of Ings, which really should market itself as The Gateway to The Lakes.
|The Watermill Inn, Ings|
I've been calling in the Watermill for years, usually on the way in to the Lakes. It is situated on a lane just off the busy A591, and is an attractive stone-built former watermill with a lodge-like extension. It is home to the 5-barrel Windermere Brewery, whose beers often have dog-related names such as Collie Wobbles, and is a popular place, most visitors I guess are doing the same as me, stopping for a drink and/or food on their way to their holiday destination. And whilst there are rooms where you can stay overnight, the place does have the feel of a place of transition. It's perfectly comfortable, the staff are pleasant, the beer is fine, and the food has always been reasonable when I've had it. A window allows you a view of the small onsite brewery. Today I passed on the food, but went for a pint of a non-dog related Windermere Blonde, a refreshing 4.2% pale ale, which was on good form (NBSS 3).
And then I was off, through the outskirts of Windermere, and then onwards to Ambleside, where I vaguely noticed a sign about a road closure. A mile or two after taking the road to Coniston, it was apparent that it was this one when another sign appeared saying there was no through route to Coniston. So I had to turn back, and instead took the road to Hawkshead, and headed over from there.
I was staying at the 16th century Sun Inn, just a short distance up the Walna Scar road from the centre of the village, where I had stayed a few times before. I got checked in at the bar/reception, headed up to my room, dropped my bag off, and went back down for a pint as the weather outside my window looked to be taking a turn for the worse....
|Looks like rain over them hills....|
The walker's bar at the Sun, with its stone-flagged floor, wooden beams, and welcoming open range fire is iconic and full of character. There are normally up to 8 beers available on hand pump, and on this occasion, on the slate-topped bar, the choice included beers from the Coniston brewery down in the village, Hawkshead, Ennerdale Brewery, and Cumbrian. Having not had any beers from Ennerdale previously, I ordered a pint of the 3.8% Blonde. The brewery is family-owned, started out in 2010, and is based in the west Cumbrian village of Rowrah. I took my beer to a small table in sight of the fire and the bar. The beer was pleasant enough, if a little sweet for my taste (NBSS 3). As I sipped my pint, a couple of walkers came in, their waterproofs wet, clearly glad to be out of the worsening weather. That suggested it would make sense to get another pint before going out, and this time I went for a pint of Cumbrian's 4.3% Loweswater Gold, which is a well-balanced beer with a fruity character and a pleasant beer which I have enjoyed here over the years, and the pint today was excellent (NBSS 3.5). The beer is easily the best seller in the range available from this brewer who are based on the shores of Esthwaite Water, near Hawkshead. Once my glass was empty though, I decided I would risk venturing out and find out what the village had to offer this damp Monday evening....
|Iconic: the walker's bar at the Sun Inn|
It was raining as I lifted the latch and stepped out, although it seemed to ease as I approached the bridge in the middle of the village, the stream making its presence known as it noisily bubbled and boiled past the back of the Black Bull and under the bridge on its way from the high fells down to the lake. I headed for the Crown Hotel, a couple of hundreds yards away, a prominent Robinsons house that on my last few visits had been fairly subdued and lacking much character, tending to attract mainly disgruntled, miserable locals, and maybe a few bored guests. However, this time I walked in, and it was a proper jaw-dropping moment. There was a warm buzz as I entered. The bar had been moved to the other side of the main room. Most of the tables there were occupied, and there were several smiling, happy people sat around the bar, clearly enjoying their stay away from home in a place that seemed to have got its mojo back. A friendly lady with an Irish accent approached and took my order. A half of Dizzy Blonde, often a fairly unremarkable beer, but here it was in cracking form, its character shining through due to being well looked after (NBSS 3.5). The lady behind the bar told me the pub had been shut for a while from November 2022 whilst the refurbishment took place, but it had been very much a success. And based on this quick visit, I couldn't disagree.
|The Crown; great refurbishment(photo taken when shut)|
I wandered up in the drizzle to the Yewdale Inn, a pleasant enough hotel which can be relied on for a decent pint, although if you wandered in without knowing where you were there is little to suggest that you are in the Lake District. There were plenty of people in there, many dining in the main room which I always think has one or two many tables to ensure a relaxed visit. That said, I sat in there, enjoyed a couple of pints of Loweswater Gold (NBSS 3), and enjoyed a decent burger and chips once I'd finally decided what I wanted to eat. I got talking to some people on the next table who'd been hailed on as they headed up Coniston Old Man, the huge mass than dominates the background to the village, and then got on about our favourite ways to get to the top. The Yewdale is well-organised, efficient, and comfortable, with decent food and drinks, but just doesn't feel very Lake District....
|The Yewdale Inn, Coniston|
And then I went across the road to the Black Bull. This is home to the famous Coniston Brewery, producers of the award-winning Bluebird Bitter, situated in an extension to the back of the pub. It was very quiet when I walked in, I don't think I'd seen it so empty in all the years I've been coming here. I ordered a pint of Bluebird, named after the boat in which Donald Campbell attempted to beat the water speed record on Coniston Water. The attempt, on January 4th 1967, ended in failure, Bluebird crashed and sunk, and Campbell, who'd held previous records on both land and water, was killed. There are plenty of photographs of Campbell and Bluebird displayed around the pub, and another of the Coniston beers, K7, takes its name from the version of the boat used in the ill-fated attempt, whilst Bluebird is also brewed as a premium 4.2% XB version in addition to the standard 3.6% bitter. I ordered a pint of the standard, which is pale in colour, quite hoppy with hints of fruit and a bitter finish (NBSS 3), and sat at one of the small tables facing the bar. A few people were eating, a couple were just having drinks, the staff trying to find things to do. A bored dog yawned from under a table. Sometimes the Black Bull can be too busy, but tonight, no doubt partly due to the weather, there was a real end of season feel about the place.
|Evening at the Black Bull, Coniston|
I walked back up to the Sun with the intention of having a final pint at the bar but, having gone up to my room to drop my coat off, I decided to stay put, watch a bit of TV, and have an early night. The following morning, after a good night's sleep, the rain was still coming down, and a stream on the hillside across the fields had expanded into a torrent overnight. Breakfast in the conservatory consisted of a very good full English as the rain lashed down noisily against the windows, and left me undecided as to how to spend the morning. In the end, I checked out, and moved my car on to the back road beyond the Crown, and had a wander around the village in the rain, stopping for a coffee at the Black Bull. I finished my coffee (the pub was busier at this early hour than it had been the previous night!), and returned to the car. With plenty of surface water to contend with, I didn't want to leave it too late, so I set off on the road to Torver, where I turned off down the road past a misty looking Coniston Water, and eventually picked up the A590 at Greenodd.
|A gloomy Coniston Water|
I had earmarked a place for a call before heading back home. I left the A590 a mile or two after joining it and headed along a couple of narrow lanes to the small and attractive village of Bouth. I was heading to the White Hart, a lovely pub that I had visited plenty of times when I stayed at a mate's caravan on a nearby site. I have also stayed here at the pub, a pleasant bolt-hole in this part of the South Lakes that plenty drive past along the main road nearby without realising that gems such as the White Hart exist in what is a quietly understated but attractive area. The White Hart has white walls, a large car park, and a pretty much unchanged main room with the bar with a room off to the side. Large fireplace, local pictures, beams, Lakes ephemera. As I walked in, the lass behind the bar jumped off a bar stool and apologised for not having yet finished off sorting the beers out, and disappeared to do that. A few minutes later, I was drinking a half of Bowland Pheasant Plucker (NBSS 3), and she sat down again. We talked about the pub's trade, which was reasonable, getting staff (difficult, but then along with locals from Ulverston and Backbarrow, there was a lad who comes down from Cleator Moor, near Workington, around 45 miles away!), and what's going on in the village. A guy on his own from Manchester at a loose end till his wife joined him this evening came in and ordered some lunch, revealing he was a City fan as we chatted. Another couple of guys, somewhat damp after a morning's walking, called in for a pint of Pheasant Plucker and Neck Oil respectively, and retreated for a sit down. I had a second half and was enjoying the conversation, but it was soon time to get on my way, having thoroughly enjoyed my return visit here.
|The White Hart, Bouth|
And as I pulled out of the car park and headed for the A590, I was already looking forward to my next visit to this part of the world. OK, it had rained persistently, but hey, I've been coming here reularly enough to know that this is what can happen in the Lake District....
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