At a gallery in England’s picture perfect town of Grasmere the art handler nonchalantly asks where we’re staying. When we respond with The Drunken Duck he gets a bit wistful as if he were recalling a fond memory and responds “The Drunken Duck? That’s a nice spot” then gives a small shout of “Adam, these two are at the Drunken Duck for the night.” Like a scene in a Simon Pegg film, a ginger-haired man pops his head out from behind a computer and repeats “The Drunken Duck? That’s a nice spot.”
There’s no shortage of amazing inns throughout England. Inns that feature cozy pubs, comfortable lodging, delicious dinners and hearty breakfasts. Inns where you can imagine a half-drunk Victorian writer spilling their heart out with ink during a blustery night on the moors. I only stayed at two inns during my time in the country, but The Drunken Duck is so special that I have no issue labeling it “the greatest”.
The Drunken Duck lies in England’s Lake District National Park. Towns in the park become clogged with tourists each afternoon, but nestled five minutes outside the town of Ambleside, The Duck is an inn at a crossroads that skips the daily congestion and feels like a true country retreat. Its pub is stocked with beers brewed onsite by Barngates Brewery, its restaurant is Michelin recommended and its rooms are well appointed yet homey.
Room reservations include a reserved dinner table for every night booked and breakfasts every morning. The price of dinner is not included with the reservation, but trust that you’ll want to eat onsite for at least two nights. I booked my room three months in advance and at that time only one standard room was still available, so be sure to book early if you want to stay the night. If you can’t snag a room, make a dinner reservation at least two months before your visit; the restaurant books up each day and you won’t want to miss out.
On our first evening at The Duck we have an hour to kill before dinner and choose to spend it nursing beers outside (non-alcoholic for pregnant lil me). We take a seat at a picnic table with a view of the rolling hills beyond and read while sheep graze on grass just a few feet away. Baahhs can be heard as the sun begins its nightly descent and casts a golden glow on everything it touches.
It’s an English scene as idyllic as an episode of the Great British Baking show and as beautiful as Hugh Grant’s smile.
Dinner is so good it’s ridiculous. Our first course is a tomato salad with red paprika gespacho and whipped feta, and a Lancashire cheese and chive souffle whose texture is so perfect, so even, it’s like biting into a pillowy, cheesy cloud. This is followed by crispy pork belly paired with black pudding, walnut ketchup and hispi cabbage, and a venison bourguignon suet pudding stuffed with heritage carrots, broad beans, and salsa verde.
Before this night I’ve never had suet pudding and never had a desire to. The dish doesn’t sound very appetizing. It sounds like something that only exists in the musty pages of Charles Dickens novels and never made it past the 19th century. The mere description of suet pudding sounds dated. Traditionally it’s made by grating suet (the fat found around the loins and kidneys of beef, lamb or mutton), mixing it with flour, stuffing it with meat or fruit and nuts, then wrapping it in cloth before it’s boiled or steamed.
The suet pudding at The Duck isn’t stuffy or dated. It’s my everything. It makes Carl go wide-eyed and makes me happy-curse. The dish is so flavor packed that even the carrots taste meaty, while the salsa verde brightens up the pudding and prevents it from becoming too heavy.
Dessert is a classic sticky toffee pudding topped with vanilla ice cream. The meal is enhanced by our server, the tannest man I saw in England (so, like, mildly tan by East Coast US standards) with tightly curled silver hair shaved into a high fade who wears a cobalt and fuschia floral short sleeved shirt unbuttoned to the chest.
We head to our room happy and full where I draw a hot bath and sleep soundly. Come morning I wake up alone in bed. I wander downstairs to find Carl reading at the same picnic table we sat at the night before, a tea tray in front of him. He tells me that within moments of sitting down the breakfast server rushed out and practically shoved a cup of steaming tea in his hands.
Breakfast is hot or cold, dealer’s choice, and is served in the same spot as dinner. Since it’s our first morning in the Lake District I’m itching to hit the road early for a hike, and opt for the cold route: overnight oats swimming with rhubarb, strawberries and currants.
Carl’s tea fairy is our server; a fifty-something woman with cropped gray hair and a wrist brace who is so enthusiastic to bring us another pot of tea and a toast caddy that as I smother my toast with butter and fresh raspberry jam I can’t help but pick up some of her giddiness to start my day.
Our afternoon hike begins with sun and quickly turns into a classic British spring day — Rain rolls into the valleys outside of Grasmere and dampens every inch of me. The dozens of sheep along our path don’t seem to mind. They snuggle together beneath trees and softly bleat the sheep equivalent of a sigh.
My runny nose and rain soaked leggings mean it’s time for an afternoon respite so we wrap up our hike, head into Grasmere and duck into the Scandi-chic Mathilde’s Cafe. For lunch we nosh on raspberry jam donuts and cinnamon buns, washed down with tea, a steaming black currant licorice cordial and a hot chocolate.
My stomach is satisfied but my clothes are still soaked so it’s quickly time to head back to The Duck. On the walk to the car I’m waylaid by a children’s toy shop whose windows are filled with Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit book series. Potter’s former cottage is nestled nearby in the Ambleside hills. The cottage’s facade is covered in wisteria vines while the interior features massive hearths and oodles of wallpaper and is just as adorable as you’d expect from the creator of The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.
I pick up a tiny copy of Beeatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddleduck for the baby brewing in my belly. Carl loves ducks and we’re staying at The Drunken Duck. I mean, how could I not?
Back at The Duck I peel off my cold clothes and take another long soak while Carl heads down to the pub. Our room isn’t extravagant, it’s one of the smallest in the inn, but it wants for nothing. I have a bathtub, a cozy bed, an armoire and a view of the blooming terrace below. I enjoy a large, luxurious room as much as anyone, but in this inn I feel like a chestnut inside of its shell and I love it.
I find Carl sitting outside the pub with a few locals. Next to him sits a sixty-something man who introduces himself to me as Paul. A gardener from Kent, Paul has a white ponytail streaked blonde, a neck-length bushy white beard, knobby nose, rosy cheeks and sun-formed wrinkles. He wears small glasses sitting high up on his nose, a puffer vest and khaki cargo pants that house an impossible number of pockets. His fingernails are dirty, but not unkempt, they’re just coated in actual dirt from gardening.
Paul is a staple at The Drunken Duck and is loved by the staff and regulars alike. He lives just down the road and stops by for a pint or two in the evenings and is always up for a chat. He’s not a loud or tipsy pub-goer. Instead he’s soft spoken and a careful listener. He and Carl discuss the blight the woolly adelgid has reaped on the American Hemlock. Paul’s familiar with the Latin name of any plant or tree you throw his way and before leaving for the evening he’s endeared Carl with the nickname “the tree guy” (he’d later refer to him as “the Pennsylvanian”).
A few feet away from us stands a thin, sharp nosed, suntanned man with shoulder length, dirty blonde hair; handsome in the classically sixty-something English gentleman kind of way. He wears hiking boots, fitted jeans and an army green walking jacket. With a cigarette between his fingers he addresses his seated friends — “Wordsworth was nice, banal poetry for the masses, but Shelly was a true poet”.
He goes in depth into Percy Shelly’s death on the Ligurian Sea and whisper recites The Hymn for Apollo “I am the eye with which the universe beholds itself, and knows it is divine.” All of this sounds like it could be incredibly pompous or tiring, but it’s not. He’s heartfelt when he speaks, not condescending. His friends engage him and there’s laughs and banter and back and forth.
This scene plays out for a few minutes before he and his partner, a beautiful and age-appropriate woman with a white-blonde ponytail and chandelier earrings head inside for dinner.
Once they’re inside Paul leans into us and gives us the goss — That’s Nigel Le Vallant, the star of the incredibly popular 90’s BBC show Dangerfield. A true thespian at heart, Nigel left his show and show business in general, turning away millions, to get out of the public eye. Nigel now splits his time between India and the UK and stops at The Duck annually.
We see the couple around the Duck several times in the coming days. Nigel and his partner have cataloged the entire staff’s names and personal stories to heart and it’s clear they’re beloved at this inn. They chat with us at the pub for a few minutes one evening, asking us about our travel plans and letting us know what to expect in the countryside for the upcoming Platinum Jubilee. Like Paul they’re warm and engaged and another example of the characters who gravitate to The Drunken Duck.
We go into dinner for the evening excited to try more off the menu and it does not disappoint. There’s a chicken and leek terrine with a crumpet and chicken butter, roasted beetroot with cashew hummus and whipped vegan feta (the whipped feta is a revelation and is better than any feta I’ve ever had, ever), sole with warm tartare sauce, grapefruit and new potatoes, an aubergine steak with cauliflower green beans and dauphinoise, and for dessert, carrot cake with vanilla yogurt and cinnamon ice cream and a chocolate orange mousse with mandarin sorbet and honeycomb.
Sated and sleepy we tuck into bed and decide to read our new copy of Jemima Puddleduck aloud. We figure there could be nothing more wholesome than reading a classic children’s book in bed to my five months pregnant belly in this gorgeous English countryside.
We were wrong.
Jemima Puddleduck is the story of a farm duck whose biggest desire is to hatch a duckling, but her eggs keep getting taken away by the farmer. As a solution she wanders into the nearby woods and befriends a somewhat suspicious fox who’s very keen on storing her eggs in a duck-feather filled room in his home. You can probably see where this is going. Once our girl Jemima wisens up she gets some farm dogs to pay a visit to the fox’s abode, at which point not only do the dogs kill the fox but they eat all her eggs in the process and she returns to the farm in shame for her foolish ways. The book ends abruptly with a final page noting that she hatches a brood on the farm a few months later so it’s all ok I guess.
We finish the book with a look of horror on our faces. I apologize to my unborn baby that the first book read to him is the English equivalent of a Grimm fairy tale.
When I find Carl in the breakfast room the next morning he has another exciting update for me; a horse has been clomping down the road all morning so keep an eye out for it to circle back around. We’re feeling like an unrushed day and spring for the hot breakfast — Poached eggs, bacon, mushrooms, spinach and toast, washed down with a pot of steamy Yorkshire gold tea. Not less than ten minutes after being seated, what do I see out the window other than a woman trotting down the street on a black mare.
Sometimes you travel to a place and it’s nothing like what you imagined in your mind. Every street is full of surprises. Stereotypes are smashed. Preconceived notions are wildly inaccurate. England is not one of those places. Even when witnessing surreal scenes like the one outside the window, or a man riding a John Deere tractor down a country road wearing a hand knit sweater over a button down I’m left with a feeling of “yep, checks out”.
Our afternoon is wonderfully busy with no particular itinerary. We visit Castlerigg to satiate Carl’s love of ancient stone circles (while skipping the crowds of Stonehenge) then window shop through Grasmere before touring Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum (sorry Nigel).
For a late afternoon caffeine boost we return to Mathilde’s to share a pot of tea. The Heaton Cooper Art Studio is connected to Mathilde’s and on display are the paintings and photographs of the lesser known stone circles of England, done by local artist Tony Galuidi. We’re caught by a moody, twilight scene of Ring Cairn on Askham Fell. I’m not big on souvenirs when traveling (part of being such an efficient carry-on only packer is there’s little room for extras), but this painting feels like it belongs in our living room. It’s during checkout when we negotiate shipping that the seller comments on our stay at The Drunken Duck. Whenever a spot has local cred you know it’s legit.
That evening we’re back outside The Duck chatting with Paul as he and Carl drink down a pint. He gives us a five-minute recap of his gardening career. Living in Kent a few decades ago he put an ad in a women’s magazine advertising his gardening services and received a response from a woman in South Hampton saying he was hired and that she’d send over a plane ticket. England’s Kent and Southampton are a two and a half hour drive apart so Paul responded saying there’s no need for a plane ticket, only to learn his new employer was in South Hampton New York.
Young and plucky he thought to hell with it and accepted the job anyway, only to find out that he absolutely hated the Hamptons lifestyle. He spent that summer watching the homeowner hiring and firing multiple English nannies and French chefs and described an entire team of brutally underpaid Puerto Rican women whose full time job it was to launder and iron linen.
He lasted a few months then quit to work at a nearby nursery before being sniped up by a famous author. Turns out that it’s a Hamptons status symbol to have an English rose gardener, similar to having an English butler at the turn of the century. He subsequently worked for a billionaire tech mogul in Barbados before returning to England where he’s been camped out since.
Paul strikes me as the kind of person who is purely who they appear to be. Even when name dropping he does it without pretense. He’s warm and welcoming and genuinely curious and engaged. I’ve only known a handful of people like that in all my life. When we said goodbye he wished us luck on our pregnancy and upcoming parenthood, remarking that maybe we’ll return and he’ll meet our son someday.
I don’t know if The Drunken Duck’s magic exists because of the people that gravitate there, or because it’s due to its magic these people are lured in. The source isn’t important, I only care that in a heavily touristed nook of England that there’s a place so peaceful and so idyllic, so homey and cozy and quirky and delicious, where a steaming cup of tea or bitter ale are never more than a moment away.