For ten years now I’ve joined the annual pilgrimage. It started out with four friends, then expanded by a few more, then partners, now their children. For a week we rent a house in one of the towns or hamlets in the Lake District, one of the wettest and beautiful parts of England, to catch up and hike its mountains.
Recent years have seen the slow dilution of walking’s centrality to the holiday. Children, my dear boy. Where once four or five of the seven days saw most of the group venture out for a day-long hike, now the day is defined by child-centred activities and anticipation of the evenings when pitter-patter is replaced by adulthood and breaking bread.
This year, our destination was Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived and wrote his best work. It’s the land of stone houses and slate roofs, sheep farms and the majestic ‘Wainwrights’ (mountains) looming down on the village, neighboured by the brooding Lake Grasmere. On our first full day, I spotted a white-washed, two-storey inn on the main road that outskirts Grasmere village. Its signs are defined by a silhouette of a walker replacing the A in THE TRAVELLER’s REST. I was enticed.
The day-long hikes, I’ve realised after a decade of them, take a particular course. The first ascent of the day is usually the toughest. There’s always a map wielder among us. There are the talkers, who entertain or occupy minds. There are those who are focused on getting up and getting down, comforted along the way by the views and snacks. Sleet or rain always bring risk of going the wrong way. There’s always a false peak. False and real ones are always accompanied by sheep: usually a small group, oblivious to height or proximity to precipice, looking bewildered at the spectacle of humans.
The peaks are cold and you can’t stop for too long. Yet two things are spectacular: the views and the feeling of remoteness, that feeling that nothing but earth and rock are near you for miles. The final descent is usually tough on the knees.
Lastly, there’s always that push among some of us for a post-walk pint. With knobbly knees and punch-drunk tiredness, we’ve thirst and need for relief. Only two of us did a ‘long walk’ this year. The route to Blea Rigg and Tarn Rigg was accessible from the house. Spouses in need of relief from a day’s entertaining were undeniably waiting for our return. Yet it was a Monday afternoon, around 4pm, five hours of walking done. When did we ever get a Monday afternoon pint? Not even bank holidays. We were travellers in need of a rest.
An open fire just just inside the front door greeted us. The barman – fifties, tall and dressed semi-formally and all in black – let his Northern accent (I’m guessing Cumbrian) come through as we discussed the crisp options and payment by card. Four or five draft beer options presented themselves but Loweswater Gold won it. It’s in the name. Then into one of the snugs in the one of the two rooms for patrons, where nothing distracted us from the view of the mountains we’d just conquered, the slow peace from the beer and our own easy chat amidst a backdrop of low burble from the other tables.
I can’t offer much other information about the pub except that the menu looks good (e.g. Hunters Skillet of pan fried chicken livers with Rich Jus for starters, £9.95; Scallops and Pancetta Linguine for mains, £17.95). There are separate dining areas for evening meals and for the ten letting rooms’ lodgers (presumably for breakfasts). Either side of the building has an expanse of beer garden with appealing views. After one pint, we left with hope of return.
Something about the pub I couldn’t put my finger on gnawed at me for a few days. There was something strange about the atmosphere. On the evening we got home from the pub I couldn’t find the water bottle from the walk. That gave me a reason to go back to the pub.
The last day of the holiday brought biblical rain levels – volumes often seen in those parts. Dripping wet, I ran in at Friday lunchtime. The open fire was even more inviting and this time I thought of more than one. I realised what was strange. It was the atmosphere of a pub with no locals – none of the easy banter that emanates from patrons who know each other, staff and a place well. The pub’s architecture doesn’t help. But located on the main road, an unpleasant walk at night from the village, it’s only surrounded by farms. The pub can’t do anything about that. But it can keep providing rest, for an hour, for a night, for a week, from the rain.
(Two pints of Loweswater Gold and two packets of crisps: €13.28, current converted)