Thursday , December 8 2022

A walk across fells to a great pub: the Kirkstile Inn, Lake District

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The Kirkstile Inn was first documented in 1549. Then a farm, it was sold by west Cumbria’s St Bees Priory after the dissolution of the monasteries. Today, it’s a pub with low-beamed ceilings and old fireplaces popular both with locals and tourists stopping for a post-walk meal and a pint from its own brewery.

The inn’s pull is impressive, given that the village in which it lies, Loweswater, named after the nearby lake, is home to just a couple of hundred people. Away from the tourist honeypots, the western side of the Lake District is an altogether more peaceful place.

A view of Mellbreak from near Loweswater.
A view of Mellbreak from near Loweswater.

Broadly speaking, car parks are not known for being good vantage points, but the view from the Kirkstile Inn’s is stunning. Towering behind the pub – an endearing complex of white farm buildings with turmeric-coloured doors – is the majestic Mellbreak fell. At 512 metres, its profile almost fully visible, Mellbreak is an elegant miniature mountain. It is not connected to any other fells; Mellbreak stands alone, basking in splendid isolation.

I set out with my parents on one of those days that starts out overcast before surprising you with an afternoon of sunshine and blue skies. This being rural Cumbria, the easiest way to get to Loweswater is by car. You could also cycle or get a taxi from Cockermouth, eight miles away, or a bus from Keswick to Lanthwaite Farm, a 30-minute walk away from Loweswater.

Nearing the pub.
Nearing the dry, warm, friendly pub. Photograph: Mark Waugh

Opposite the Kirkstile Inn car park is Saint Bartholomew church, a greyish building constructed in 1827, then restored in 1884, although a chapel was first built here as early as the 12th century. The graveyard is enclosed by a drystone wall, and inside this tranquil church a timber roof runs above the nave.

Heading right, we come across an old signpost for cars at the junction by Kirkstile Inn. It is a handy albeit outspoken reference point, boldly declaring “NO ROAD TO THE LEFT” on its left arm, and “NO THROUGH ROAD” on its right.

A foxglove.
A foxglove offers a splash of vibrant colour against the greens and greys of the walk on a damp day.

We go right, over Church Bridge, passing Kirkgate Farm, where the loosely cobbled path leads up to a wood. Our ascent, Alfred Wainwright’s preferred route, is a steep one: through the firebreak in the wood, on to a grassy slope that leads directly up the fell, via a pretty gnarly section of scree. I don’t think there is a gracious way of climbing scree, and so I resort to an unflattering crawl, like a drunk Spider-Man, away from my parents so as to not hit them with dislodged rocks.

Post-scree, my thighs exhausted, I look down at the view: the tiled roofs of Kirkstile Inn, and the lake of Loweswater, lingering among fields. On the horizon, there is the Solway Firth: a blue-grey expanse, part of the border between England and Scotland, dotted with the curiously beautiful turbines of Robin Rigg, Scotland’s first offshore windfarm.

The slopes of Mellbreak.
The slopes of Mellbreak.

We continue, soon reaching the heather-laden northern summit of Mellbreak, marked by a small cairn, where we eat our sandwiches while admiring the view of Crummock Water, itself calmly observed by the encircling fells of Whiteside, Grasmoor and Whiteless Pike.

The northern summit is actually three metres lower than the southern peak, where we head afterwards, on the other side of a two-thirds-of-a-mile-long depression.

Wainwright compares this dip along Mellbreak’s ridge to the “keel of an overturned boat”, noting that the fell’s name has a “long association” with the local hunting group, the “Melbreak Foxhounds” (spelt with one “l”), as documented in the photos on the walls of the Kirkstile Inn, which was formerly known as the Hare and Hounds.

Looking towards the fells Whiteside and Grasmoor.
Looking towards the fells Whiteside and Grasmoor.

Mellbreak’s name is believed to be derived from the Celtic word moel, which translates as bare hill, and the Old Norse term brekka, meaning a hill slope.

The path to the south summit is well defined, albeit boggy in parts, which, for comparison, evokes the muddy chaos on the last day of music festival. The bare south top is also marked with a cairn and, from here, there are views over the far end of Crummock Water and, further south, of Buttermere, where a small boat with a red sail floats about.

Our descent begins: continuing south, over a fence and down a grassy slope, then heading left along a stony path with a beck on our right; at one point this converges with the path, so we hop over stepping stones to get across. We reach Crummock Water, the sun now fully out, lapping up the serenity of the arresting fells, with bright yellow pops of blooming gorse bushes surrounding the gravelly route.

Sheep graze with Grasmoor in the distance.
Sheep graze with Grasmoor in the distance.

About a third of the way down this path, we pause for a rest on the shingle shore of a peninsula called Low Ling Crag, which spools out into the lake, its circular head like the top of a lollipop.

This is the final stretch of the walk, up along Crummock Water heading roughly north-west, then through a wood of old oak trees – where we hear a woodpecker somewhere nearby – on to a road leading back to Kirkstile Inn. This time, we emerge on the other side of that old signpost. I look back up at Mellbreak and the imposing profile of its north face, silently admiring our accomplishment. As Wainwright put it: “There is only one Mellbreak.”

Google map of the route

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Start/end: Kirkstile Inn
Distance: 6½ miles
Time: 4 hours
Total ascent: 657 metres
Difficulty: Moderate

The pub

The Kirkstile Inn, with Melbreak behind.
The Kirkstile Inn, with Melbreak behind.

Kirkstile Inn has a cosy atmosphere, thronging with the happy chatter of locals and walkers, its walls adorned with the medallions of country life: old horseshoes, stirrups and a classic “last orders” bell. Through the pub’s sash windows, there are superb views of Mellbreak, and a cheery beer garden sits outside.

The kitchen, headed by chef Paul Williamson, serves hearty, homemade fare, with an emphasis on local ingredients, including slow-roasted lamb, battered hake (gluten-free on request) and Lakeland steak, plus vegetarian options such as butternut squash risotto and sweet potato curry (both can be made vegan).

The traditional interior.
The traditional interior.

I have the steak and ale pie, a Cumbrian classic, which is sumptuous and rich, topped with a crumbly shortcrust pastry and thick gravy, plus chunky hand-cut chips. The inn is also renowned for its beers, made in the pub’s own brewery in Hawkshead, particularly its award-winning Loweswater Gold – a light, crisp ale. On our visit, two of its other beers are on offer, both bitters: Esthwaite and Langdale. For dessert, there are more Cumbrian favourites; I try the sticky toffee pudding, and the sponge is satisfyingly moist, regally sitting in a pool of addictive toffee sauce.

Steak and ale pie with a pint of Loweswater Gold.
Classic steak and ale pie with a pint of Loweswater Gold.

Where to stay

Kirkstile Inn has 10 rooms, one with a four-poster bed and all en suite. The rooms were refurbished a couple of years ago and the decor includes original timber ceiling beams and a pastel colour scheme.
Doubles and twins from £145 B&B, kirkstile.com

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