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Until the formation of the Westmorland Damson Association in 1996 brought renewed interest in this little fruit, there was general agreement that the damson’s purple patch in Cumbria was in the first half of the 20th century. Originating in an area around Damascus in present day Syria, this member of the plum family most likely found its way into England through the Romans. Damson stones have been found in archaeological digs at their ancient camps and settlements across the country.

By the middle of the 17th century damson trees were certainly in evidence in Westmorland where they thrived on the well-drained, shallow, limestone soils in an area to the south west of Kendal: the Lyth and Winster valleys. 60 or 70 years ago the blossom on the estimated 30-40,000 damson trees attracted huge numbers of people, many making the journey from Lancashire mill towns to see the spectacle.

After the harvest in September tons of damsons were despatched to jam-making factories in Lancashire and Yorkshire, while Kendal’s ‘Damson Saturday’ in October saw growers and farmers piling into the town to sell damsons to the public.

By the 1970s the numbers of the trees had declined significantly. Changing farming practices, changing eating habits, less people on the land willing or available to carry out the arduous task of picking the fruit, and jam makers sourcing fruit elsewhere all played a part in the demise of the orchards.

Peter Cartmell, whose family had lived in the area for centuries, witnessed the decline and was determined to do something about it. So in 1996 he and a number of enthusiasts formed the Westmorland Damson Association. Its aim was to restore the orchards to their deserved glory, promote the cultivation and use of Westmorland damsons, extend the market for damson products and look after the interest of local growers.

20 years on the picture is quite different. Damsons are used by local producers in the making of jam, jelly, chutney, pickles, wine, beer, gin, syrups, vinegars, cake, bread, chocolate, ice cream, sorbets, cheese, pies and more.

Cowmire Hall, High Cup Wines, Hawkshead Relish, Claire’s Handmade, Friendly Food and Drink, Savin Hill Farm, Hawkshead Brewery and Stringers Beer are some of the producer names to look out for.

You’ll also find that a number of local pubs like the Masons Arms at Strawberry Bank (pic) use damsons in their food as well. And every year in April, Damson Day celebrates the revival of this wonderful fruit in the Lyth and Winster valleys.

Even if you forget the name - which, let’s face it, is pretty unlikely - you’ll never forget the luxurious surroundings of Randy Pike. Rococo meets Gothic and lots of colour at Andy and Chrissy Hill’s three bedroom B&B, located off the road between Ambleside and Hawkshead. A fourth suite is on the way.

One of the perks of staying at Randy Pike is that you can be ferried to and from The Jumble Room in Grasmere, Chrissy and Andy’s other business which this year is celebrating its 20th birthday. For much of that time it’s been a regular in the Good Food Guide (it’s there again for the 2017 edition), the menu criss-crossing the world with dishes like the Thriller in Manila, coconut and red lentil dhal, Teppanyaki steak and the very popular fish and chips.

The restaurant business wasn’t the couple’s first choice of career. Chrissy, born of an old Lakeland family (one of her ancestors used to serve teas in Victorian times at a small stone hut at Easedale Tarn near Grasmere), was a hairdresser by trade who briefly worked at Vidal Sassoon’s studio in Mayfair.

Andy, son of a vicar (latterly of St Andrew’s Church, Coniston) was a heating and plumbing engineer for nearly 20 years. When the couple decided to open a café in a building once used for junk (hence The Jumble Room) the place quickly evolved into a restaurant.

‘It’s got such a lovely atmosphere it almost sings,’ a diner once told them, which is an appropriate comment given Andy’s great interest in music. Jazz photographs adorn the walls upstairs while the album covers in the ladies and gents may detain you longer than you bargained for. Check out ‘Sounds from the room’ on The Jumble Room website as well.

Five years ago the same ethos which pervades the restaurant - ‘take the very best ingredients, cook them with love and serve them with pride’ - transferred to their new B&B, a former hunting lodge, built by the same man who constructed nearby Wray Castle.

Large bedrooms and bathrooms, huge beds, lavish colours, richly textured fabrics, all laced with a bit of eccentricity. That’s what you get and that’s what people love about the place. Not forgetting the Randy Pike trifle for breakfast and the charming, generous, very welcoming and slightly off-the-wall hosts who serve it. Many congratulations on the 20 years.

The Good Food Guide 2017 and the Good Pub Guide 2017 have just been published and once again they confirm the yawning gulf that exists between south/mid Cumbria and the north of the county (including the city of Carlisle) when it comes to inclusion in these two well known publications.

Of the 22 restaurants, pubs and cafés listed in the Cumbria section of the Good Food Guide only one place - Farlam Hall near Brampton - is located north of a line that stretches from Cockermouth to Culgaith near Penrith. Farlam Hall (top picture) celebrates its 40th consecutive year in the food lover’s guide book.

It’s a similar story when it comes to the Good Pub Guide which names The Watermill at Ings as its Own-Brew Pub of the Year 2017. Of the 34 main entries for Cumbria only three lie to the north of the A66 Penrith-Keswick-Cockermouth road although a number of pubs in this part of the county do make the GPG’s ‘Also Worth a Visit’ section.

They include The Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket, Golden Fleece at Ruleholme, Wheatsheaf at Wetheral, Plough at Wreay (last three all near Carlisle) and The Kings Head in Carlisle, the only pub listed for the city.

Some places, of course, feature in both guides, familiar names like The Drunken Duck near Hawkshead, The Pheasant Inn at Bassenthwaite (new entry for 2017 in the GFG), The Punch Bowl Inn at Crosthwaite, the Sun Inn at Kirkby Lonsdale and the George and Dragon at Clifton near Penrith, Cumbria Dining Pub of the Year in the GPG.

Charles Lowther, joint owner of the George and Dragon also has Askham Hall near Penrith, another new entry in the GFG. Two other new entries are the Three Hares Café in Sedbergh and The Forest Side at Grasmere (pictured). The latter also receives the GFG’s Editors’ Award for Best New Entry while Mrs Miller’s at the Hazel Dene Garden Centre, Culgaith near Penrith is a regional winner, Local Restaurant Award.

But the greatest achievement is L’Enclume at Cartmel (pictured) maintaining its number one place in the Good Food Guide’s list of top 50 restaurants in the UK, the fourth year running that Simon Rogan’s restaurant has claimed this coveted spot. Two more of his restaurants - Fera at Claridges in London and The French at the Midland Hotel in Manchester - come in at number 15 and 18 respectively in the same top 50 list. Rogan & Company in Cartmel is in the Good Food Guide too.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Heaton Cooper Studio, Grasmere

What with Grasmere’s association with William Wordsworth and the Lake Poets, you might think that this famous Lakeland village is defined solely by its literary luminaries. Not so. Every year the Lake Artists Society holds its annual exhibition in the village hall here - ending this year on September 7 - while several generations of a renowned family of artists are represented at the Heaton Cooper Studio, opposite the village green.

The first of this creative dynasty was Bolton-born Alfred Heaton Cooper who after being trained in London in the 1880s travelled to Norway with the intention of selling landscape paintings to European tourists. Things didn’t quite work out so he returned to England with his Norwegian wife, shipping back a log cabin to act as a studio in Coniston. He later moved the wooden building to Ambleside where it’s now a restaurant called The Log House. His painting of the Langdale Pikes is pictured.

His son William inherited Alfred's artistic talents - his picture of Derwentwater is left - and their original paintings and prints are sold in the different galleries along with work - sculpture and ceramics included - from other members of the family. It was William who built the Heaton Cooper Studio in 1938.

His marriage to sculptor Ophelia Gordon Bell produced four children, one of whom (John) runs the studio while another (Julian), is an artist in his own right, well known for his mountain paintings.

Julian’s wife Linda Ryle is also an artist - an exhibition of her past and present paintings Time Regained is showing at the studio until the end of October - and so is John’s daughter, Rebecca, working in mixed media and collage.

What also draws people here is the range of artists’ materials for sale: paints, pastels, pens, pencils, brushes, easels, inks, paper, sketchbooks and more. That makes it a perfect destination for all those who want to capture the beauty of the Lake District as artists have been doing for over 300 years.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Peter Hall & Son

Every time I drop off my guide books at Peter Hall & Son in Windermere - that’s grandson Will reading one in the picture - I can’t help but covet the beautiful furniture which is on display here. If you wanted proof that the tradition of fine furniture making is in safe hands, this is the place to head for, or the firm’s workshop in Staveley.

Staveley is where the dining tables, chairs, sofas, sideboards, dressers, wardrobes and bookcases are all made and where in 1972 Peter Hall set up the business. A New Zealander by birth, he had just finished working for De Havilland in Hatfield, having acquired a degree in aeronautical engineering just after the war.

It was EF Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful that persuaded him to go into furniture making, and being married to the daughter of a Hawkshead vicar, this part of England seemed an obvious place in which to settle. By coincidence, the old county of Cumberland was where the De Havilland-manufactured Blue Streak rocket had been test-fired in the 1960s.

Today Peter Hall & Son - son Jeremy came into the business via Leeds College of Art and West Dean College, Chichester - are not only bespoke furniture designers and makers but woodturners, antique restorers and interior designers, the ethic and inspiration drawn from the Arts and Crafts movement.

English hardwoods like oak, ash, sycamore, elm, yew and walnut are their staple, with the very thickest of planks being air dried for up to eight years. The moisture content is then reduced further in a dryer.

Last year saw the opening of the boutique and interior design studio in Windermere which also sells the work of other artists and makers. Staveley has a small viewing gallery so you can watch the furniture being made or, as the picture shows, woodturning in action.

One of the more recent projects was the carving of a new serpent figurehead - called Sid - for the National Trust’s boat Gondola on Coniston Water. Gondola was Visitor Attraction of the Year in the Cumbria Tourism Awards 2016.

Bearing in mind John Ruskin’s influence on the Arts and Crafts movement and the influence of the Arts and Crafts on Peter Hall, it was a perfect commission. Ruskin spent the last 29 years of his life at Brantwood on Coniston Water, the lake much in the news recently because of the new film of Swallows and Amazons.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Sunshine and crowds in Lakeland

I can’t remember now when I first came across the work of photographer Nina Claridge but I do know she took some wonderful pictures for both the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Dymond Guide to the Lake District and Cumbria.

We’ve emailed and chatted on the phone over the last three years but, strangely enough, never actually met. Until yesterday when - totally by chance - we bumped into each other at Yew Tree Barn near Low Newton, home to a brilliant range of architectural antiques.

Nina was taking promotion photographs for Harry’s Café Bar there (pic), I was delivering copies of the guide book for the shop to sell. It was a big surprise but a great start to the day, one which saw Lakeland at its sunniest best.

After Yew Tree Barn it was the two beautiful self-catering cottages at Howe Foot, ten minutes from the south end of Coniston Water. Owner Sue Hawkard kindly buys my guide books to give to longer-staying guests, so they can discover more about the area. Incidentally her Garden Cottage is now on the Sally Cottages website and the other one, Otley Beck, is coming soon.

Back to Newby Bridge, we headed for the Lyth and Winster valleys (photograph on the left by Nina, from my guide book), passing four well known pubs along the way: the Masons Arms, at Strawberry Bank, the Hare and Hounds at Bowland Bridge, the Punch Bowl Inn at Crosthwaite and the Brown Horse Inn at Winster.

There were more stops for photographs and then a guide book delivery at Blackwell, the Arts and Crafts House overlooking Windermere. I love the shop here, with its ceramics, jewellery, textiles, ironwork, wooden boxes, glassware and art books, and the house itself is magnificent.

As everyone knows, this part of the world took a real hammering from the weather in December and January, so it was very encouraging to see so many visitors lapping up the beauty of lake and fell.

One of those places hit by the heavy rain was The Forest Side at Grasmere where the extensive kitchen garden was pretty well washed away, and this around the time of the new hotel’s opening. But look at it now - a credit to the owners, gardeners and kitchen team.

Head chef is Kevin Tickle, a keen forager who used to work at L’Enclume in Cartmel. And that’s where the day came full circle because the operations manager at L’Enclume is Sam Ward and he’s married to......Nina Claridge, the photographer whom I'd finally come face to face with in the morning. Cumbria’s a big county but, as Nina says, it’s a small world....full of very pleasant surprises.

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