“The wildest, most barren and frightful part I have passed over in England, or even Wales.” So wrote Daniel Defoe of the Lake District, encapsulating his era’s dread of untamed highlands in general and the wet-footed peaks of Cumbria in particular. An uphill walk out of Ambleside would to him have seemed an inhuman punishment, an ordeal unthinkable without a numbing skinful taken aboard at one of the town’s inns.
Then Wordsworth wrote the poetry that taught us to love the Lakes and, a century and a half later, Alfred Wainwright launched the illustrated walking guides that showed us how and where to express this love. Almost 300 years on from Defoe and we’ve reached the happy stage where Lakeland fell and pub can coexist in harmony, the latter there to refresh and refuel the walker, rather than blot out the former’s looming horror.
But one man’s swift half is another’s unsightly binge. Ninety miles, seven days, 44 pubs – the statistics of the Inn Way – summon the image of an attritional stag-do. Mark Reid, who created this walking tour of the Lakes’ best hills and hostelries, happily does not. Reid is a thoughtful evangelist for sustainable tourism, informed by a deep affection for England’s scenic majesty and the rural inns that embellish it. “They’re certainly not intended as pub crawls,” he says of the circular walk and the others he has established in the Peak District, Northumberland and Yorkshire. “Though if anyone does visit every pub on a route, I send them a certificate.”
As well as writing guidebooks and a website mapping out his routes, Reid leads group hikes personally and I join him in Ambleside for a two-day taster.
All weathered slate and fresh white paint, the village’s narrow pavements are lined with trim bed-and-breakfasts and a-throng with sensible tourists in rustling, colourful outerwear. The shop windows are full of fleece and Gore-Tex, with a healthy smattering of the tea cosies and fridge magnets that place it in the outer circle of Beatrix Potter-dom. We set off from our guesthouse under a bright blue sky – perhaps a little too bright, on the back of an evening spent with Reid touring Ambleside’s low-ceilinged old taverns. I have a curious weakness for local cask ales with silly names, which in Cumbria, as elsewhere, means pretty much all of them. Dizzy Blonde and Great Cockup seem rather less silly in the cold light of a very sunny day.
Reid sets off up Ambleside’s girdling of smooth green fells at an ambitious pace, that of a man who covers a thousand steep miles a year. “You’re going to burn 100 calories per kilometre today,” he calls out over his shoulder, “and sweat out three litres.” The prospect of replenishing this latter deficit with Dickie Doodle and Sneck Lifter is not laden with appeal as I struggle behind Reid up the shadowy Coffin Route, once used to ferry the dead from Grasmere to Ambleside. We pass above Rydal Mount, the Wordsworth family home, and I find myself dwelling upon a tradition of liquid befuddlement dating from the dawn of Lake District tourism. Wordsworth’s brother ran a pub in Penrith and Samuel Coleridge used to fortify himself on marathon Lakeside rambles with draughts of Kendal Black Drop. Sadly this wasn’t the hearty malt ale the name suggests but an opium-based brew so potent it made laudanum look like Ovaltine.
But aerobic exertion and outstanding natural beauty prove a powerful restorative and by the time we stand at Alcock Tarn, the cobwebs of crapulence have been blown clean from my living soul. The weather is tirelessly glorious: the only reminder that we’re in England’s wettest place is a sign outside a pub that reads, “In loving memory of a sunny day”. It’s one of those mornings, in fact the first of two entire fol-de-ree days, which makes you wonder why you’d ever bother with abroad. Grasmere sparkles distantly beneath us, looking like Lake Garda. Trickling mountain gills marble the richly verdant slopes; Reid identifies the floral blurts of yellow and purple that line our path. We whistle down into Grasmere where – first at the Swan Hotel, and then at Tweedies Bar – I rediscover an interest in that most hallowed reward for human toil: the well-earned pint.
“When you get away from towns, pubs are living museums,” says Reid, over a plate of Cumberland sausage and a Cocker Hoop. “I was in one up in the Yorkshire Dales a few years back with a Norwegian chap, and a couple of old farmers came in speaking gibberish. The Norwegian started talking back to them – they were still using a dialect that dated from the Vikings who settled the area.” As a geography student who combined a love of walking with more typical undergraduate passions, Reid landed on his muddy feet with his first job: rural area manager for a Yorkshire brewery. “I can spot a bad pub without even going in,” he says. “A pile of fag ends by the door, that sort of thing. When you do walk in, you should be welcomed within 10 seconds, and given a farewell when you go out.” We shoulder our backpacks and, on cue, the young barman wishes us a good afternoon.
It’s better than good as we stride up Far Easedale, leaving behind Grasmere’s crowds and its slightly manicured gentility. With 300 tourists to every Lakes resident, the perpetual challenge is to get away from all the people who’ve come to get away from it all. Reid’s hard-won familiarity with almost every public footpath in the north of England makes light of this challenge: a couple of crafty turns and we’ve got the wonders of Cumbria to ourselves. Eight hard miles in my legs, two and a half pints in my stomach and I’m cruising. I remind myself of alcohol’s long, if chequered, history of performance enhancement: several generations of Tour de France cyclists exploited its crude amphetamine effect, and as late as the 1980s the great Bernard Hinault had his water bottle filled with champagne before the last climb of the day. Regrettably, Far Easedale isn’t the last climb of the day.
The final haul to Greenup Edge is, for me at least, an all-fours scrabble up a rocky ravine. Soured Hartleys XB speckles my brow. At the top it’s bright blue above but bleak all around. Everything’s gone: lambs, trees, my legs. The expansive views no longer inspire but dishearten. Reid points out a tiny white speck near the fundament of the great green cleft beneath us, a grain of rock salt in a massive salad. It’s our next pub and it takes forever to get there, a sweaty, boneshaking descent that makes strangers of my knees and ankles. At length I stagger into the Langstrath Inn’s beer garden, parched and desperate. My pint of Black Sheep is dispatched in homage to the bar scene at the end of Ice Cold in Alex, although I don’t remember John Mills spilling half his beer down his trousers.
Our stop for the night, the Royal Oak at Rosthwaite, lies happily close to hand. It’s a convivial old warren of small rooms, most full of hardcore senior walkers, many shoeless, some sockless. “Pretty easy day,” says one barefoot chap in his seventies. “Just did Scafell Pike and a couple of others.” All three courses at dinner are wonderful, crowned with a peerless sticky toffee pudding. Our digestifs: two pints of Keswick Thirst Rescue from the bar next door, despatched under an overwhelming canopy of celestial fairy lights.
Set up by an epic sleep and a matching Full English, the next day’s 12-mile trek to Braithwaite is one of unalloyed sensory delight and untroubled physical achievement. We stride up hill and down dale, drinking in the views and the ales. I repeatedly and heroically rise to the challenge of transforming myself from whey-faced, pint-draining Tim into red-cheeked, fell-striding Tim. Nothing can take the edge off the day, not even the trampy waftings of the previous afternoon’s spillage rising up from my trousers. Not even the discovery that the pub we’d pencilled in for our lunch stop has suffered under new management. Reid fears the worst from 100 yards: “Just one parasol out, and look at the state of those hanging baskets.” Instead of a welcome, the landlord grunts that he’s run out of food. With the next refuelling option four miles off, we make the best of a bad job: Theakston’s Black Bull and three packets of pork scratchings.
An hour and a half later, light-headed but not heavy-legged, we arrive at Braithwaite’s Coledale Inn, and take our ease among the hot and prostrate walkers sprawled outside on the lawn. Twenty-five miles, 10 pubs, 14 ales. Not worth one of Reid’s certificates, perhaps, but an achievement all the same. Lying there in Skiddaw’s mighty shadow with a valedictory pint of Blencathra at my side I feel I’ve seen the Lakes as they should always be seen: in blazing sun and a beery haze.
Tim Moore’s ‘Highway to Hull: Travels through Unloved Britain’ will be published in October by Jonathan Cape
For details of the Inn Way walks, see www.innway.co.uk; for trips guided by Mark Reid see www.teamwalking.co.uk. Tim Moore stayed at 3 Cambridge Villas, Ambleside (www.3cambridgevillas.co.uk; doubles from £60 including breakfast) and the Royal Oak, Rosthwaite (www.royaloakhotel.co.uk; doubles from £116 half board).