High standards and a warm welcome NEAL KEELING
Finds a harrowing journey up the M6 pays dividends when he arrives at The Pheasant Inn
IT seemed half of Mancunia was heading north on the same Friday night.
Soon a young buck in a beastly blue BMW lost patience and started driving with all the self-control of a yet-to-bepotty-trained ninemonth-old.
Other idiots soon followed his example with bursts of pointless acceleration and hard breaking.
The problem was Blackpool. All you have to do is turn left off the M6.
But its brashness was proving a beacon for hordes from Greater Manchester, and after an hour on the highway to hell we were still 80 miles from our destination.
Finally we reached the outskirts of Lancaster, and the rain came.
As our souls wilted, two songs were on repeat in my brain – Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones and Shelter From The Storm by Bob Dylan.
The northern lakes were waiting but my beat-up old Audi was growling under such a torrent of rain and sleet.
Finally, the 17th century coaching house we were seeking appeared.
Set back off the main road from Keswick to Cockermouth, The Pheasant Inn was the perfect refuge from a journey to forget.
A mountain of sandwiches were handed to us as we walked in at 10.30pm – an hour late.
A pint of Hawkshead bitter and I was well on the way to recovery.
The next morning after a tremendous full English breakfast I saw our hostelry in daylight. There is a black and white photograph of the inn on the landing of the first floor.
From the cars parked outside it was taken in the mid-1960s.
Where an old-style Royal Automobile Club sign once hung there is now just a metal bracket – otherwise it looks exactly the same today.
Inside it is a very comfortable country house, with open fires and elegant sitting rooms.
Lakeland paintings and seascapes adorn the walls.
But even more impressive is the standard of service, which was impeccable, from nightwatchman, barman, chambermaid, waiters, and reception – high standards tempered with an authentic welcome.
There were classy touches. The ‘Adriana’ Villeroy and Boch dinner plates, cups and saucers, complemented the fine food. Our Cumbriansourced evening meal was a highlight of a weekend break. Balsamic figs, grilled goat’s cheese, pickled beetroot and beetroot puree, and pea shoots, tasted good and were well presented.
The quality was maintained with sea bass and fennel in brown shrimp butter, and treacle-cured salmon with confit tomatoes.
Even a lemon tart, lemon curd, and meringue on one plate was delicate and tangy rather than heavy and too much.
The Rioja – Bodegas del Mediero – boasted ‘mellow oak overtones’ which was accurate, and top notch.
Such good food demanded several walks. Rising behind the inn are the Wythop Woods – a good place to start.
Keswick is always crammed and a little too obvious. I was glad that we headed instead for Cockermouth.
The pace is calmer. Its position at the junction of the River Cocker and River Derwent meant in 2009 the town was devastated by floods. But it also ensures a glorious trek through fields next to the River Cocker. On the recommendation of a helpful local we spent half an hour in Banks Ironmongers.
It was opened in 1836 and has been owned by two separate families. A small museum of artefacts at the back of the shop took me back to the era when my dad would get his Standard 8 car fixed at a tiny, well-run garage.
Wordsworth’s childhood home on Main Street was so fascinating we ran out of time to tour Jenning’s Brewery.
The next day we climbed to waterfalls across fells above Bassenthwaite Lake – where Osprey returned in 2001 after an absence of 150 years.
At the foot of Dodd, a small fell at one end of the lake which stopped at the Old Sawmill Teashop – not a twee name, that’s what it used to be.
Driving back to the Pheasant Inn on one of the first days of October the late afternoon sun caught the lower fells perfectly amplifying the red, brown, and gold of the landscape. The inn’s location is perfect and its standards high, but it is not resting on its laurels.
Since our trip, Head Chef Mark Dickson has replaced Malcolm Ennis who has left after 25 years running the kitchen. Mark, from the Inverness area, has run the kitchens of many highly-rated hotels and restaurants, including the Michelin starred Peat Inn in St Andrews, Fife.
The food is excellent at The Pheasant Inn
There’s a roaring fire to greet you at the Pheasant Inn and the food is excellent