Food & drink

It’ll all end in Beers

Local brews and epic views on the ultimate Lake District pub crawl.
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“It’s often said that beer tastes the best when you’ve earned it and the day was already putting the theory to the test.”

The track steepens, and then steepens again until conversation dwindles to nothing. Hands on knees, pushing like pistons, we’re all suddenly breathing too hard to waste precious oxygen on words. There is only the sound of our boots on the loose, slate-stone track and some badly disguised grunts of exertion. Then a cry from up ahead: “Hey! I can see the pub from here!”

 

Energised by the thought of a beer, the rest of us quicken our pace, tracing a contour weaving between Loughrigg Fell and Todd Crag. As the 200-metre ascent levels off, we step into a breath-taking diorama: the crumpled, craggy landscape of the south-eastern Lake District in full wintry splendour.

To one side Windermere stretches off to the horizon. The gunmetal surface gleams bronze in the low sun. Ahead is Loughrigg Tarn, a circle of perfectly reflected sky. Beyond we can make out Elterwater set against a backdrop of the snow-capped Langdale Pikes. Lastly I spy a cluster of white buildings among the fields and hazy brown mist of bare trees below: the tiny village of Skelwith Bridge, and its promise of a pint.

The plan had been simple: four of us – all old friends – would combine some scenic winter walking with a dip into the Lake District’s ever-evolving beer scene, stopping at five different pubs along a 10.5-mile circuit from Ambleside into Langdale and back.

Each pub along the way promised beers from the area, so what better than to link them in an ale trail that promised stunning views and local brews in equal measure? Best of all, there’d be no need to draw straws for a designated driver. We could all walk it in a day.

 

An hour earlier, at 11am, we’d strapped on rucksacks and tightened boots in the car park at the walk’s start (and finish) point, the Ambleside Salutation Hotel, BW Premier Collection, the classic Lakeland hotel perched at the top of the village. After a brief debate about a sharpener at the bar before leaving, it was agreed we should save that joy for the end and, erring on the side of hydration, plumped for bottles of mineral water instead.

Now, after skirting Loughrigg Tarn to drop down to Skelwith Bridge, it’s time for something a little more exciting. The Talbot Bar is a rustic kind of place where country bric-a-brac and curios like horse brasses and old shotguns jostle for wall space. With the log burner roaring, we strip jackets and take seats at the bar. I’m tied between the pub’s own Talbot’s Tipple – an English Pale Ale – or Goldwing, made at Cumbria’s Strands Brewery, close to Wastwater. After a quick eeny-meeny-miney-mo, the Goldwing wins it. And it doesn’t disappoint. Clean, crisp and citrusy, it’s a thirst-quencher and seriously moreish.

Instead of another round through, we play sensible and push on for pub two, aiming to be there before lunch. Outside there is the roar of Skelwith Force through the trees, a waterfall just up the River Brathay. Knowing we’re coming back this way, however, we vote to save it for the return leg and cross the bridge that gives this village its name to join the Cumbria Way to Little Langdale.

Through a wood of sessile oak, holly, rowan and birch we soon find another waterfall – Colwith Force – crashing dramatically through the trees. Then we’re in the open air again, taking the high road above Little Langdale, a rolling pastoral scene with its scattering of stone farmhouses, encircled with high fells.

If this place feels secluded now, it wasn’t always so. The valley was once the busy intersection for many of the historic tracks in the area. Ancient packhorse ways fed into Little Langdale from every point on the compass. We trace a path down to the valley floor and detour slightly to visit a reminder of those old days. The picturesque Slater Bridge is a sturdy packhorse crossing that still spans the River Brathay. Striding over its wonky, worn back we climb up to a network of inter-linked ex-slate quarries now owned by the National Trust and open to the public. Following a signpost at the tunnel entrance, we stoop and walk into darkness, emerging in an enormous main chamber known as Cathedral Cave, lit by two ‘window’ holes off the main quarry.

Little Langdale’s only pub is The Three Shires Inn, but it is a goody. Built in the nineteenth century with local slate, it gets its moniker from the fact that it is only two miles from where the boundaries of the old counties of Cumberland, Westmorland, and Lancashire used to meet. We arrive just in time to catch lunch, washing down a well-earned Ploughman’s with glasses of Goodhew’s Dry Stout from Barnsgate Brewery in Ambleside. Its dark toffee and liquorice tones are a perfect complement to the local cheese, pickles, ham and pork pie.

“Not a bad drop, eh?” Says a local walker with a collie, raising his pint with a nod. “Our beer’s the best in the world by my reckoning.”

His pride is understandable. For many years the notion of selling beer that had been created just a few miles away would have been unthinkable in a pub like this. Now craft ale and its potential for myriad flavours and subtleties is a booming industry with new microbreweries opening every week. And as with a wine and its particular ‘terroir’, counties, towns and villages all over Britain are brewing up ranges to reflect their region, giving places and even pubs their own intriguing personality and flavour again.

Re-filling our water bottles at the bar, we trek from the Three Shires north for a mile and a half, skirting the lower flanks of Lingmoor Fell to drop down into Great Langdale. Through a fairytale-like forest of sculptural trees, where old logs are decorated with coins hammered into every crack, we follow a trail that runs between collapsing, moss-hanging walls into an oddly industrial setting: the eerie quiet of another slate quarry. This one half-resembles a ghost town from the Wild West. Huge, domed mountains with a dusting of snow frame the slumped telegraph poles and rusting machinery. At the bottom, Great Langdale Beck surges in a twisting tumble of clear water. We cross to find ourselves suddenly – and happily – in a manicured beer garden.

Wainwrights’ Inn at the village of Chapel Stile is the sort of place any weary-legged walker dreams of finding. Even on a fair-weather day like ours, the combination of old bar, flag floors, fires, settles and a menu of house-smoked meats is pretty irresistible. So too its range of beers. Seated by a window with views of the trail we just bagged behind us, we try out the freshly pulled ales.

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Between us, there are pints of the incredible Loweswater Gold – a golden ale made in Hawkshead using German lager hops – and a robust best bitter called Hardknott Continuum from Hardknott Brewery in Millom. All are sunk quickly, partly because they are delicious and partly because on any pub-crawl, it never pays to get too comfy.

As we rise and pick up packs again, it’s clear that energies are flagging a tad. No one is admitting it, but on the way out I catch all four of us massaging creaking muscles with a grimace. Fortunately the hop to the penultimate pub involves less than a mile of gentle riverside rambling.

We breeze downstream along the beautiful beck-side footpath to the pretty village of Elterwater. At its centre, above a little green, the white-painted Britannia Inn buzzes with atmosphere, inside and out.

If it has changed in the last fifty years, it doesn’t show. The Britannia is an old-school Lakes boozer by any definition and all the more wonderful for it. Think hay bale-thick walls and wonky rooms with wooden pews and live fires. And in every nook and cranny, customers – the sure sign of a brilliant watering hole. Stepping into the taproom, I’m drawn towards the two beers brewed for the pub by Coniston Brewery: Britannia Inn Gold and Britannia Inn Special. 

“You look like a Gold man to me.” The barman says, hand poised on the pump. “Am I right?”

Turns out he must be clairvoyant. The honey-coloured brew is cool, hoppy, and exactly what I need. It’s a tough job to motivate everyone back to their feet again. There are even a few unhelpful shouts from the barman suggesting we relax and order a taxi. But a couple of chocolate bars and talk of a hearty fish pie for dinner at the Ambleside Salutation Hotel, BW Premier Collection, provide the requisite boost.

From the Britannia we pick up the Cumbria Way heading east. With the Langdale Pikes behind and Elterwater to our right, it’s absolutely breath-taking stuff and we meander all the way along the shore path to Skelwith Force, the waterfall we’d bypassed earlier. ‘Force’ is the right word for it. As the water leaves the calm of the lake it is channelled into a torrent of white that roars and rebounds through the surrounding trees. With evening approaching, the tentative suggestion of revisiting The Talbot Bar in Skelwith Bridge doesn’t really get off the ground and we tramp up through Neaum Crag, back onto Loughrigg Fell.

“In the last glow of the setting sun, everything is golden; the fields and fells washed with light.”

Maybe it’s all the beer, but the last leg feels like a slog and a half and it requires plenty of water and snacks to keep the pace decent. Eventually though we are elevated in every sense, wandering down to Ambleside through the gathering dusk. I doubt the town has ever looked as good to anyone. In the last glow of the setting sun, everything is golden; the fields and fells washed with light.

We shed our boots and backpacks at the door of the Ambleside Salutation Hotel, BW Premier Collection, and drift into the bar on numb legs. The final pint awaiting us is Hawkshead Bitter, a CAMRA award-winner known in these parts as “the hiker’s favourite” and we soon understand why. Its citrus and hoppy qualities are easy to drink, crisp and refreshing. We take seats with views out over the town and the fells beyond, feeling the buzz of accomplishment tingling through our bodies.

No one speaks; there is no need. The little clink of raised glasses and a silent, nodded ‘cheers’ says it all. It says nearly eleven miles done; six hundred metres of ascent and some of the most beautiful landscapes and beers you can find in Britain.

Now that’s what I call a round.

Where it all happened: Ambleside Salutation Hotel, BW Premier Collection – A classic and luxurious Lakeland hotel in seventeenth-century building surrounded by fells with pool, spa and gym. We’d particularly recommend you try their ramblers leg massage to soothe wearied legs!

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Ambleside Salutation Hotel, BW Premier Collection – Lake Road, Ambleside, LA22 9BX – bestwestern.co.uk – +44 (0) 844 387 6310

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