An August 2005 trip
to Lake District by jaybroek
Quote: Out-of-the-way rural charm in a pub in the Lake District. Home-brewed beer, gourmet dining and constant rain--just your average summer weekend, then.
Set alone on a crossroads two miles above Ambleside, the Drunken Duck is what every hiker wants to hove into view around that final bend; outdoor tables offer views over cloud-tipped fells, hearty ‘real’ ales to pontificate over and conviviality in excess. The Duck fulfils this idealized portrayal of a Lakeland hostelry but is also a hotel offering simple, refined comfort and a restaurant with a deservedly high reputation. The whole package is there, making it no surprise that it is the winner of many awards for its food, accommodation, and beer.
We caught the best of the weekend weather when we arrived on a bright Saturday afternoon and were on the patio with beer in front of us within minutes of arrival. Parents for a year, this was the only the second occasion that we’d had a couple of nights to ourselves and, frankly, we behaved disgracefully. As Saturday afternoon gently slid into evening we were in serious danger of following in the wake of the ducks that the pub was named for. The ducks’ drunken state was, allegedly, due to a barrel slipping its hoops and draining its contents into the feeding ditch. Our downfall was somewhat less accidental although the odds of the outcome being the same, being found lying incapacitated on the cross roads and taken for dead, were shortening all the time. I just hoped we would escape the plucking.
As for the Drunken Duck itself, it would me almost criminal not to sample at least one of their amusingly named beers (all brewed on the premises). I can personally vouch for the quality of ‘Tag Lag’ and ‘Chester’s Strong and Ugly’; I’m saving ‘Cat Nap’ and ‘Cracker Ale’ for next time. The pub and restaurant are open to non-residents although I would recommend booking ahead if you want to eat, particularly at the weekend.
A popular holiday weekend activity for many across the north of England (and the south of Scotland) is to crawl up the M6 motorway, turn off towards Kendal and Windermere and sit in a traffic jam; steep fells and lake-filled valleys do not lend themselves to rapid motoring and the popularity of the region virtually guarantees snarl ups. If nothing else, it’s an excellent way to encourage you to walk everywhere else for the duration of your stay.
If you’re flying in, Manchester, Glasgow, Blackpool and Newcastle all have domestic and international flights – choices will depend on your low cost airline of choice and the area of the Lakes that you’re targeting.
It became obvious on arrival that The Duck was a popular place to interrupt such adventures. The outside tables were crowded with walkers enjoying a not-so-brief respite over a fortifying pint or two. We decided that a spot of fortifying might well be in order with or without the strenuous build-up and got through the formalities of checking in with unseemly haste.
The hotel’s 16 rooms are divided between the upper floor of the main building and an annex to the rear. We stayed in the main building in one of the ‘superior’ rooms where limited space was more than made up for by the quality of the furnishings and the ‘modern rural’ styling that pervaded the hotel. A simple antique pine chest of drawers adorned with a dramatic contemporary flower arrangement and the latest in flat screen TVs (although the reception wasn’t up to much – it’s a ‘feature’ of the fells, you know) married well with a sturdy iron bedstead, clean white linen and a satisfying heap of feather pillows. The whiff of class, and fresh paint, extended to the clean lines of the limestone tiled bathroom, with separate shower.
My overriding memory of our stay at the Duck is our reluctance to leave that room. The factors stacked up against us; infernally comfortable bed, foul weather (‘Oh to be in England now that summer’s here’), room service delivering our every need including a vast breakfast that required several staff in relay to deliver it, and The Ashes cricket on the TV (admittedly, that one seriously tested the Blonde’s staying power). We eventually had to go on a short walk just to get uncomfortably soaked so we could come back and appreciate the room all the more. You can tell we don’t stay in nice hotels so much.
We were so relaxed that the temptation to wander down to the restaurant in pyjamas was strong but we steeled ourselves and began to preen in preparation for a night of fine dining. The Blonde took to the bathtub after a disconcerting false start; the whisky-coloured water supply that the hotel draws out of the hillside, and prides itself on, was interrupted by a healthy splutter of mud. ‘Don’t worry’, we were reassured by the in-room guide, ‘it’s almost certainly good for you’.
During a gap in the jolly August downpour we explored the grounds and found much to encourage a return visit. The hotel’s own tarn (Lake-speak for pond or small lake) has a pretty lawn running alongside with tables crying out for tea, scones, broad-brimmed hats and summer gloves.
This may be the perfect weekend retreat.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 19, 2006
The Drunken Duck Inn
Barngates, Ambleside, Cumbria.
Lake District, England
+44 (1) 5394 36347
Restaurant | "The Drunken Duck Inn"
This has, of course, no impact on the food. The Duck takes pride in its menu, which is descriptive in a way that required me to come over all unreconstructed philistine or bluff quite shamelessly. Needless to say, I chose the latter and sounded ridiculous. - Look, darling, the salmon have been plucked from the Solway Firth. That’s a relief.- Now, I wouldn’t normally, but seeing as it's air-dried...The owners are passionate about well-sourced produce; the menu entries stop just short of the name of the lamb you are about to eat but you can address his owner by name the next time you’re in Millbeck. There is a wide choice on offer and, in our two nights of fine dining, we sampled some of the most delicious dishes we’ve eaten all year. This is something of a relief as we’d taken the optimistically romantic decision to order for each other – a course of action rife with potential pitfalls of the ‘you know I don’t like X’ or ‘well I’m sorry about the smell but you know Y gives me gas’ variety.
Highlights amongst the starters included cornfed chicken, lemongrass and chili sausage (appealingly piquant and paired well with spring onion crème fraiche), potted Flookburgh shrimps (the sort of dish that inspires convoluted reminiscing from elderly relatives) and a simple, succinct pea and parmesan risotto. With the main courses we were happier with our first night’s choices of smoked fishcakes (trout, salmon and haddock) and seared king scallops (diver caught no less) had a degree of specialness that was missing from Sunday’s pan fried pork fillet. The fact that I did the choosing on Saturday was never mentioned. Well, barely.
The chef’s sourcing obsession reaches pathological levels when it comes to the cheese. The plate has eight different English cheeses, each described in lavish detail on the menu – I was snared, while the Blonde explored a variety of things that could be done with strawberries. Beautiful presentation and delicious.
Dining in the Drunken Duck – too good for the likes of us.
Drunken Duck Inn
Lake District, England
+44 15394 36347
We visited on our final morning in the area; the hotel owner had recommended it after we presented her with rather tight parameters (‘we have about an hour or so and we want pretty’). Situated 6 or so miles from Ambleside, Tarn Hows is owned by the National Trust who bought it from Beatrix Potter (she of Peter Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggywinkle fame). Signposted from the B5285, The Tarns are easy to find. A large car park is situated at the end of a twisting lane, hidden from the lake and any photographic vistas by a suspiciously convenient hummock.
As it turned out I was right to be suspicious – The Tarns have had a little help in becoming the epitome of Lakeland charm. The tarn is actually three tarns that were joined together in the 19th century and the surrounding trees are mostly conifers. On that Bank Holiday morning in August, however, I was blissfully unaware of its provenance – the beauty of the spot tends to distract you from looking for the joins.
A well-maintained path hugs the waterside and removes any need for map-reading or navigation skills. I had donned walking shoes which looked like conspicuous overkill; flip-flops or carpet slippers would’ve served adequately. There are several longer trails described on boards next to the car park and signposted from the main path but our strict timetable restricted us to the simple loop around the tarn. We ambled as casually as we could and soaked in the views offered in all directions. We had come to the Lakes with the intention of climbing something and finding a little rugged, splendid isolation and if you seek the same then Tarn Hows won’t be high on your itinerary. If, however, you have an hour or so to kill and feel the urge to give your knees a break, then you could do far worse.
National Trust website
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on January 19, 2006
The National Trust, Boon Crag, Lake District
Coniston, Cumbria, England LA21 8AQ
We left our dripping clothes destroying the clean lines of the bathroom and lit out in the car, hoping we might outrun the weather and discover a somewhat unlikely microclimate down by Lake Windermere. Of course, every other person enjoying their bank holiday in the vicinity had the same idea (a little before we did) and Ambleside was full. The pavements were choked with soggy families; mums and dads dressed in waxy items and loud outdoor wear could be seen dragging sullen, damp offspring from fogged up tea room to Beatrix Potter-obsessed gift shop. Day-tripping groups huddled in what ever shelter they could find, eating chips and occasionally performing exaggerated neck-craning movements, optimistically searching the sky for hopeful chinks of blue. While I bathed nostalgically in childhood memories of damp English bank holidays, the Blonde set about ‘making the best of things’. I’ll make an Englishman out of her yet.
Ambleside is pretty well equipped to deal with such a population influx – it’s had over 200 years of practice. Blame for the birth of mass tourism here is laid at the doors of Wordsworth and his ilk, with their flowery descriptions of rural idyll and honest toiling peasantry appealing to a romanticized gentry, and the dastardly Frenchies, with their beastly revolution blocking access to the Grand European Tour. It has barely abated since with heavily populated northern cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds all within day tripping distance.
It has to be said though; it fulfils its role as gateway to the southern fells with a degree of charm that would require more than an obscenely large crowd and an unseasonable downpour to dislodge. Despite the enormous pressure, the town has not succumbed totally to the pressures of modern commercialism. Narrow passageways squeeze between sturdy stone cottages; bridges arch over mill races and babbling streams. The odd quirky shop and old ‘local’s’ pub can be tracked down amidst the tea rooms and Victorian resort hotels that have morphed into cavernous, characterless providers of anonymous pub grub. The locals have tenaciously held out against the hordes. Just.
As one might expect, those with hiking and rambling pretensions are well catered for in Ambleside. An obscene number of outdoor pursuit shops cluster in the centre of town along with some excellent book shops where I could’ve whiled away the day quite happily. I know better than to make such suggestions now (it took a few years but I learned eventually). A much more likely alternative for a rainy day activity was found in Zeferelli’s, Ambleside’s excellent little independent cinema but it was edged out of the running by the simultaneous discovery of The Unicorn and a desire for beer.
Over lunch we decided that Ambleside had been ‘done’ and, with fell walking off the agenda, a drive further afield was in order. There followed an afternoon driving to places with ever waning optimism and an increasing certainty that we really should be taking advantage of our delightful hotel room. A lap of Kendal’s ring road and a rather cautious circumnavigation of Lake Windermere decided it – back to The Duck for hot tea and a mound of scones was the only sensible course of action.
Edinburgh, United Kingdom