Pint Pleasures: The Sun Hotel / Donald Campbell and Coniston Bluebird

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Previous Pint Pleasures - April 21, 2006

guinness eileen

The Sun Hotel, Coniston, Cumbria

Earlier this year, as we were driving up to Western Scotland, we decided to take a short detour into the Lake District. Andrew asked if there was any particular place in the Lake District I had always wanted to see. Since we were in the mood for a revitalising pint I suggested Coniston, where the award winning Bluebird Bitter is brewed.

So we took the short ferry across Lake Windermere, communing at the terminal with the pretty little bullfinches as we waited to cross. When we reached the other side we passed through Hawkshead and past Esthwaite Water, and in a few minutes we were in the village of Coniston, near the northern end of Coniston Water.

Originally a copper mining centre, Coniston today is a popular place for walkers. To the west are two small mountains, the Old Man of Coniston (2235 ft) and Dow Crag (2553 ft), as well as the Tarn Hows woodland beauty spot and the Walna Scar footpath. Artist, poet, and philosopher John Ruskin, who was born in nearby Brantwood, is buried in the Coniston churchyard.

But what Coniston is probably most famous for is Donald Campbell, who in 1955 set the world water speed record on Coniston Water. In 1967 he lost his life trying to beat his record when his boat, Bluebird, somersaulted at over 300mph.

On the far side of Coniston, on a hill with a nice view of Coniston Water, we found the Sun Hotel. We parked and entered the wonderfully classic pub which was empty except for the landlady who was sitting by a nice roaring fire. There were several handpumps featuring Hawkshead Bitter, Moorehouse Black Cat, Black Sheep, and Broadside, but fortunately one handpump offered what we had come for, Bluebird Bitter (3.6% ABV, The Coniston Brewing Co., Ltd., Coniston, Cumbria).

We ordered our pints and chatted with the landlady, who by this time had been joined by a few members of staff. We talked about the pub, cask ales, the high prices in the Lake District, and various other things. The landlady, who is from Wigan, has been at the Sun for two years. The reason it was so quiet on this January weekend was because the hotel was closing the next day for a month's worth of refurbishments. Our timing was obviously lucky.

The 16th century Sun Hotel is a CAMRA award winner and a real charmer. The pub consists of two attached rooms with lots of dark wood, flagged floors, stone walls, and low beamed ceilings. The accommodation was added in 1902. There are lots of photos of foxhunters and their dogs, and a rather alarmed looking fox's head peers down from over the fire. In the other room there are photos of Donald Campbell's Bluebird speeding and fatally crashing. Even with the violence inherent in the photos this is such a peaceful place.

We learned that Donald Campbell stayed at the Sun Hotel during his tests. And so did Anthony Hopkins when he was playing Campbell in the 1988 film Across The Lake. By this time more staff had congregated, but we were still the only customers. We chatted with Kat, one of several Eastern European staff members, while another young woman experimentally blended herbs in a mortar and pestle. Eventually a group of four cyclists arrived for lunch and a pint. We were tempted to stay longer; but as the hotel rooms were a bit too dear for our budget, we instead bid farewell and headed on our way.