FOR more than 20 years now I’ve enjoyed a secret love affair with the quite superb Mason’s Arms on beautiful Strawberry Bank, at Cartmel Fell in Cumbria.
And I’m delighted to report that at every return visit, my gastronomic ardour is in no way suppressed. Perhaps sadly, I even confess to that slight butterfly-in-the-stomach feeling every time I draw up in front of the sainted place.
Epicurean whimsy aside, my Masonic rituals started in the late 1980s when this quite extraordinary place was run by Helen and Nigel Stevenson who made a name for this lofty pub by stocking just about every type of beer imaginable from across the globe.
The food was traditional rustic fare but one got the impression it was the cosmopolitan jumble of beers which were the main draw. Two hundred Trappist-hell-brews or suchlike meet a pubby bucolic heaven etc.
But then things changed. Around the turn of the century Helen and Nigel moved on and many whispered, would the hallowed Masons be the same? Some even spoke of a little disquiet and rumblings of major change in this elevated corner of Cumbrian paradise.
Initial signs were a little worrisome - less attention seemed to be being placed on the legendary range of beers, and the prices and decor became a little more city-style rather than those more suited to the bracken-and-beer mentality of the past. But such nerves were soon allayed.
Thankfully, Individual Inns, the new owners, are not only proving to be remarkably canny business people, but the Masons - some ten years or so after the change - rather like a fine cathedral, continues to inspire awe among devotees.
It may well be that the money is in food rather than beer these days, but the switch of business focus - combined with some delightful accommodation to the rear - has been an inspired one.
Not only has the new-look and emphasis (albeit now a decade on) quite rightly won the Masons the NW Pub of the Year award in the Good Pub Guide 2012, I would without hesitation suggest it is now the foremost pub/eatery combo in N of England. For style, food, setting and service I simply couldn’t find fault - it fact, this humble reviewer never has been able to. With an easy charm and confident aplomb, this priceless Mona Lisa of pubs just gets more enigmatic.
My spare ribs starter, served alongside a glass of draft Paulaner Heffe-Weisse beer was its usual heavenly self, while the gargantuan yet delicate fish and chips with tartare sauce, and a mini pot of mushy peas, was quite simply the best I have ever tasted; in fact it was three fish (whales actually) and chips all round at our table of three.
I miss the days when licensee John Taylor and his then colleague in chat Ryan used to welcome all with hearty jolly banter - but many of the delightful regulars are still there.
But the Holy of Holies of this lofted vision is the view towards Bowland Bridge from Strawberry Bank; on summer days, there is no better place in the Lake District to just sit, beneath heated umbrellas, with nothing to disturb the tranquillity but the roar of gas jets from a lazily-passing by hot air balloon, the drip of the morning dew from the bracken fronds which jut out from the surrounding walls of the courtyard into a watery footwell, or the chink of glasses or distant laugh from inside this much loved hostelry.
A good sign of the success of any pub or restaurant is to listen to the chatter on other tables; places which aren’t doing well have quiet, if not disgruntled customers; pubs which are succeeding have chatty customers; those of stellar success, as per the Masons, have customers who chatter, cluck and coo with all the eiderdown like-contentment of a covey of grouse settling down for the night beneath pungent heather on some safe upland moor, snug under the blanket of a warm summer night. Happy grouse don’t grouse.
I’m not sure how the Mason’s got its name - the square and compass above the door is more than indicative - but if it did have a connection with Freemasonry, a Grand Architect of sorts has certainly been at work here.
In fact, drinking a glass of Sandford Estate Victoria Chardonnay 2009 with convivial guests, beneath autumn stars, crisply alive in the land of the Romantics, I couldn’t help but marvel and ponder how many other places could do well to divine and copy the secrets of the Masons.
With still an enviable range of beers - many arcane and esoteric - , the Masons remains a Grand Lodge among pubs - with all the mystique and time honoured grandeur of such. Long may this particular Masonic ritual endure. You'll fall in love with the place - but just keep it secret……
Pics are from 'Individual Inns''s website which can be found here.