England's Lake District promises civilized ambling, Beatrix Potter, drunken ducks
Some would argue that the quest for the Drunken Duck began at the home of Peter Rabbit.
But maybe it began, as tales often do, in an unassuming pub.
It’s evening, and my husband, Kevin, and I are having a bite to eat near our hotel in the Lake District town of Bowness, deep within the heart of Jolly Olde England. Earlier that day, we’d been to William Wordsworth’s home and viewed the landscape where he’d wandered lonely as a cloud. Entering his doll-sized cottage, I thought I’d have wandered a little too, especially since his low-ceilinged home was stuffed with his wife, their five kids, and his single sister, who was adjusting to her third set of wooden teeth.
Still, it was easy to see why these rolling hills inspired. The Lake District has a fairy-tale timelessness.
We’d also visited Beatrix Potter’s former home, where we learned why the scenery has remained unchanged. The coal fire still glows in the house, called Hill Top, though now it warms a museum dedicated to Potter’s life. In the early 20th century, she used her publishing success to buy over 1,600 hectares of farmland around Hill Top. According to her wishes, it was given to the National Trust after her death in 1943, preserving the timeless view for generations.
But back to that drunken duck.
We start talking to a local in the pub. He listens while we talk about our day’s touristy highlights, and then suggests we do some fell (hill) walking to get a proper feel for the area.
“Look,” he says, drawing a cryptic map on a napkin. “You’ll walk for about two hours on well-signposted trails and you’ll get to my favourite lunch spot, the Drunken Duck Restaurant. It’s easy-peasy.”
However, the next morning, after two-and-a-half hours of steady walking, we’re not so sure about the peasy-ness. We know from past experience that our pace is about six kilometres an hour, and while the trail is indeed signposted, many of the posts say the same thing: Designated Path.
I recall my father’s advice about directional challenges in any North American city: “They speak English, don’t they?” His words felt appropriate, especially with us being in England and all. We query some gumboot-clad people accompanied by their Border collies. I want to ask, “Do you know you’re embodying a cliché?” But instead I say, “Can you point us toward the Drunken Duck?”
Canadian hiking is not the same as fell walking. A Canadian hike usually involves slogging about with a large backpack, and ends with setting up a tent and boiling up dehydrated substances that often resemble a dog’s abandoned chew toy.
But in the Lake District, even with all our cloudy wandering, we need only a water bottle and a credit card. This is civilized ambling—though a map would have been useful.
After just over three hours of steady walking and endless bleating sheep, we come upon a pub.
Alas, it is not the Drunken Duck. We could have stopped right there. But that’s the thing about quests—they start to resemble obsessions.
I don’t want to insult the fine publican, so I decide a slight lie is in order: “We’re meeting people at the Drunken Duck. Could you direct us to it?”
Following his direction-pointing finger, we leave his establishment, round a corner, and walk straight into desolation. We are now in hills that are high, rolling, and void of life. There aren’t even sheep. Not even bleating. The oaks look lonely. My legs are heavy. We’re both famished. Why didn’t we just stop back at the last pub? After all, waxing on about the benefits of needing only a credit card and how you’re never too far from civilization is pointless if you don’t actually take advantage of the situation.
We spot a bend far off in the distance. “If we can’t see this place after that corner, it’s over,” Kevin says, looking as beaten as I feel. Approaching the turn, we estimate that we’ve gone about 21 kilometres.
And there it is, the Drunken Duck.
The menu is a foodie’s dream. The reverse side lists every item’s origin. The pork is from Higginson’s farm and specifies which herds. The butter is churned in the traditional manner by Cream of Cumbria at Howberry. Even the farmers’ phone numbers are included.
It is said that hunger is the best sauce. But that’s not the only reason we relish our meal. Not only is each mouthful a delight, the wine is from an accomplished list. We find out later that the British newspaper The Independent rates the Drunken Duck as one of the top-100 places to eat in the U.K. The fire cracks, there is a snoozing dog, and everyone smiles.
When we add up the bill, the strong Canadian dollar works its magic: the whole glorious thing, including a bottle of wine, costs less than it would at a lousy pub in Vancouver. A short, wine-warmed taxi ride to the Ambleside ferry dock, a 40-minute cruise across the lake, and easy-peasy, we’re back in time for afternoon tea.
I now feel like a bad Canadian. Not a Wordsworthian daffodil-inspired revelation, my epiphany has come by way of an inebriated duck.
I still love the “get out in nature” aspect of Canadian hiking, but there is something so properly British and civilized about coming back to the comfy sofas in the hotel’s parlour rather than setting up a damp nylon home in the bush. Toss the tent—I prefer the silver.
ACCESS: The writer stayed as a guest of the Macdonald Old England Hotel in Bowness-on-Windermere. Get a map, and let it guide you properly to the Drunken Duck Inn and Restaurant. For more info on sights in the area, see www.visitcumbria.com/.