Between Lancaster and Carlisle, and thus between my two latest cycle rides across Yorkshire, I stopped for a couple of nights in Kendal, on the edge of the Lake District. This is another place (see my posts on Wensleydale and Suffolk) that was made very wealthy by the wool trade (Kendal Green was almost as big a thing as Robin Hood’s Lincoln Green), and then in the nineteenth century the shoe industry took over. The Somervell brothers were leather dealers until in 1857 the first sewing machines were imported from the USA; in 1862 they produced their first complete shoes and in 1865 introduced the ‘K’ trademark. Howard Somervell went to Everest in K boots as a member of the 1922 and 1924 exhibitions. K Shoes and Clarks Shoes (in Street in Somerset – I remember a school trip to the factory many years ago) dominated the sensible/school shoes market for many years, and the two companies merged in 1981; but foreign imports and recessions shrank the industry until the last shoes were made in Kendal in 2003 (there is still a distribution centre on Natland Road). The factory outlet shops, opened in 1988, were rebranded as K Village but have finally closed and are now being rebuilt as a Travelodge. The kitchenware company Lakeland began in the 1950s selling chickens in Kendal market – in plastic bags, which proved far more interesting to the public. They’ve always been based in Windermere, but there is a distribution centre in Kendal.
As elsewhere, wealth from wool translated into a church largely rebuilt in the fifteenth century to be much bigger, particularly in the window department. It’s the largest church in Cumbria, with a nave and two aisles on each side. It’s close to Abbot Hall, a Grade-1 listed mansion built in 1759 that houses a surprisingly decent art gallery, largely due to its collection of works by local boy George Romney (1734-1802, one of the many fine portrait painters of the period); it also has drawings and watercolours by Ruskin and a good collection of modern art by painters such as Bomberg, Lowry, Sutherland, Nicholson, Schwitters and Hockney, and sculptors such as Arp, Hepworth and Frink. Unfortunately it’s currently closed, not because of Storm Desmond in 2015 and now Covid-19 but to improve access, security and exhibition conditions; it should reopen in 2022. Alongside is the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, which covers the region’s social history with some excellent preserved shops and rooms, but it’s also closed for refurbishment.
On the other side of the town centre (near the station), the Kendal Museum reopened fairly early after the lockdown and has a remarkable range of displays – on the history side it starts with pieces from Ancient Egypt, Mesolithic and Neolithic stone tools, a dugout Viking boat, and coverage of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s last wife and a London girl, although her family held Kendal Castle for centuries) and Adam Sedgwick, father of modern geology, who was born in Dent in 1785. There are also displays on local geology and natural history, including birds, beetles and butterflies, a moose head, and a stuffed lion, elephant and polar bear. And in an awkward bit of corridor there is of course a display on Alfred Wainwright, who was Kendal’s Borough Treasurer (1948-67) and Honorary Clerk to Kendal Museum (1942-85) – he also wrote the definitive illustrated guides to hiking in the Lakes and the Coast to Coast Walk. The Coast to Coast doesn’t pass through Kendal, but I still come to see friends every couple of years.
Kendal has other mountaineering links – there’s the horribly sweet Kendal Mint Cake, which also went on expeditions to Everest (thankfully healthier sources of energy are now available) and the excellent Kendal Mountain Festival, founded in 1980, with lots of talks and films, the presentation of the highly prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and other events.
Reopening in September, the Brewery Arts Centre opened in 1972 on the site of a brewery opened in 1853; in addition to live performances, there’s a good arty cinema, decent food and drink, and a youth hostel, opened by the YHA in 1971 and sold off in 2011 – it’s doing just fine as an independent (Covid-19 apart) so once again I’m left wondering about the YHA’s management. The Brewery garden is one of the last remnants of the burgage plots that sat behind the houses along the main north-south street, reached by about 150 yards (ie alleys), most of which survive. The town’s newest art gallery is at Cross Lane Projects, in a converted garage just south of the centre – I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had folded since I was last in Kendal, but they’ve come though the lockdown to reopen with interesting new sculpture exhibitions.
Due to the pandemic, I wasn’t interested in the town-centre pubs, acceptable as they are, but had a couple of pleasant outdoor pints at Castle Mills, across the river (the Kent) from the town centre. The Factory Tap claims to stock ‘the most rewarding new hand-crafted beers around’, while the Barrel House is the brewery tap of Bowness Bay Brewing; also here is Joey’s Café, for excellent coffee, salads and pizza.
The first village north of Kendal (along National Cycle Route 6) is Staveley, home to the Hawkshead Brewery and its Beer Hall, opposite Wilf’s Café and Wheelbase, which claims to be the largest bike shop in the UK (the Eagle and Child has been recommended too, as a good place to stay and eat). And in the next village north, Ings, the Watermill Inn also has good food and beds and is home to the Windermere Brewery.
Just south of town is Lower Sizergh Barn, a superb farm shop and café which also has windows over the milking parlour so you can watch the action daily (3.30pm) and also buy raw milk from a vending machine outside. It’s on the edge of the National Trust’s Sizergh estate – the tower house (c1350, transformed in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries) has not yet reopened, but I have enjoyed its panelled rooms and paintings by Romney, Opie, and ‘after Kneller’. In any case the gardens are lovely. As a travel writer, I was interested to learn that Thomas West, a Jesuit priest and antiquarian, wrote A Guide to the Lakes (1778) here – the first guide to the Lake District.
About a dozen miles further southwest from Sizergh is Cartmel, a small village known for its Priory, founded in 1189 by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, which has a superb east window and a unique bell tower set at 45 degrees on top of the original tower, and more recently for Simon Rogan’s gastronomic ventures – having begun with L’Enclume in 2002, which now has two Michelin stars, he established his own farm in 2009, with a produce shop in the village, and in 2018 the more casual Rogan & Co neighbourhood restaurant, which has also acquired a Michelin star but remains relaxed and affordable. Also on the village square is Unsworth’s Yard, with brewery and bar, bakery, a wine shop and a wonderful cheese shop where you’ll find the products of Martin Gott and Nicola Robinson of nearby Holker Farm – their sheeps’ and goats’ cheeses are at the forefront of the revival of British raw cheese-making. The Cavendish Arms seems to be a pretty decent pub too.
We also passed through Grange-over-Sands, just south on Morecambe Bay, where £2m has been found to stop the Lido (built in 1932) from collapsing – being familiar with the success of the spectacular Deco lido in Penzance, I hope they can manage something similar. I was also reminded of the salt marshes of the Baie de Mont-Saint-Michel, and the similar tradition of guided walks (at low tide) across the bay.