10 successful Lake District businesses and organisations
PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 August 2015 | UPDATED: 22:55 21 October 2015
Most of us go to the Lakes to rest and play, but there is also a lot of work going on behind the scenes. Martin Pilkington spoke to 10 organisations making the region tick
Fine food purveyors and butchers Cranstons is a business that says something about the Lake District both in its longevity – the company celebrated its 100th anniversary last year - and in the regional origin of much of its product range.
Stanley Cranston, the great-uncle of current directors Philip and Roger, established the business in 1914. ‘The business has changed a little since the days of my great-uncle and his horse and cart but Cranstons key values remain unchanged,’ says Philip Cranston.
He’s being modest - nowadays it has four traditional butcher’s shops in Penrith, Brampton, Carlisle and Hexham, and two food halls just off the M6 at Penrith and at Orton Grange near Carlisle, plus a production unit in Penrith that processes more than 200 of their own lines.
As you’d expect they stock local lamb, bacon, venison, sausages... but the 20,000 customers they serve weekly have more than choice cuts to shop from. ‘In addition to buying local meat, Cranstons support over 40 Cumbrian food and drink producers,’ says Rebecca Lamb from their marketing department. ‘Our food halls stock a whole host of locally produced goods from ice-cream, jams and chutneys to ale and cheese.’
When Biketreks began more than 25 years ago it operated from the back of a van. Then it became a small shop, and in 2002 moved into a former glass blower’s on Rydal Road in Ambleside to be able to fit in its vast range of bikes, accessories and cycling gear.
‘Our catchment area is from Tokyo via New Zealand to just around the corner - we get a lot of clients from Lancashire, Dumfries, Newcastle...’ says Keith Ronson, who heads the clothing side. ‘The Lake District is now a magnet all year round. As any outdoor shop would say, it’s not the weather it’s the kit you have to cope with it.’
To stay successful they’ve adapted to changing markets. ‘We take great pride in our women’s wear – a lot of bike shops totally ignore the female market,’ Keith says. ‘And now cycling is the new golf. We’ve plenty of clients at or near retirement who dump their golf clubs, pick up road bikes, and see their fitness levels go up and weight come down.’
That takes commitment in time and apparently money too. ‘We don’t really do the most basic starter bikes, ours tend to start about £800, and the average price is about £2,500. We’ve currently got a customer downstairs whose bike is worth £7000, more than many small cars.’
The history and nature of the George Fisher outdoor clothing business in Keswick says much about how significant a business resource, and often a starting point, the lakes and hills are for many businesses here. ‘George was a local electrician who was a climber and mountaineer, and a guide in outward bound,’ explains company director Andy Airey. ‘In the 1950s he found it difficult to buy the kit he wanted, so he imported it from Europe, then did so for friends, and ended up setting up a shop in 1957.’
Ownership has changed twice since then, but the core strength remains the same. ‘The heart and soul of the business is footwear, the knowledge our staff have is fantastic, we’re very good at finding the right fit for people, including those with awkward feet!’
In common with many other specialist businesses here their clientele is often international, and they’re finding the visitor season is extending. ‘Our customers come from all over the world, they may only come once or twice a year, but as part of a visit to the Lakes they call on us,’ says Andy. ‘We’re a true destination store. Foot-fall is highest Easter to October half-term, with a bit of a peak at Christmas, but it’s far less seasonal than it used to be.’
One industry with extraordinarily deep roots in the Lake District is that of tobacco, for which Kendal was once famed throughout the country. Times have changed, but a characterful corner or two remains – the Lake District likes its traditions.
Part of Gawith Hoggarth’s business amazingly can be dated to 1792, when the founder Thomas Harrison brought some second hand machinery down from near Inverness and began producing snuff in Kendal. Sadly the machinery Harrison carted down from the Highlands finally, or at least for now, stopped producing earlier this year, and that Samuel Gawith business was rolled in with the pipe tobacco part in the Lake District Business Park. ‘It’s much more modern plant here,’ says international sales manager Bob Gregory. ‘We have to move on, though the Samuel Gawith name still exists, and tobacco is still being processed here in Kendal,we supply English pipe tobaccos to the trade. You can’t buy any English-made pipe tobaccos other than from us.’
‘The family still lives here as they have since 1208, but hopefully our business structures are no longer medieval,’ says Peter Frost-Pennington, of Muncaster Castle.
Year round Muncaster employs about 30 people, peaking to twice that in the summer. The core business is the castle as a visitor attraction, drawing people from all over the world to see the Grade I listed building and its collections, and the Grade II* gardens, plus the famous Hawk and Owl Centre.
As a business, however, the castle has aims well beyond simple profit. ‘The whole ethos of Muncaster Castle is to keep the house and gardens as a wonderful attraction, a sustainable and beneficial resource for West Cumbria,’ adds Peter. ‘The family living here are integral to the attraction, approachable and not too odd! But we’re keeping it going for society in general, trying to raise enough cash to look after it ourselves.’
To that end along with the income from day visitors the castle pays its way as a venue for events ranging from weddings to TV locations and its famous ghosts mean Halloween is the biggest week of the year. ‘Originally it was a defensive place, to protect the local community and keep outsiders away. It still benefits the community in this beautifully remote part of West Cumbria, but now that’s by attracting all-comers,’ concludes Peter.
The work of the Cumbria Wildlife Trust enhances the environment to the benefit of locals and visitors alike. ‘In April for example we purchased Eycott Hill, to make it a nature reserve,’ explains senior marketing officer Charlotte Rowley. ‘Over the next five years we’ll be planting trees and improving the habitat. It’s a big new project for us. More generally we do a lot of work on historic hay meadows on other people’s land, we’ve restored about 40 hectares a year for some time, bringing lots of flowers back to our fields.’
Doing those things costs money, so the Trust is very much a business. ‘The Trust mainly raises money through its membership base, so a reasonable proportion of our income comes from our 15,000-plus members who are mainly, as you’d expect, in the Cumbria area, though we do have some all around the country, people who come to the area and love it.
‘The other big element of our income is from grants – if, say, we want to restore a nature reserve we’ll apply for a grant or grants to do that. Often nowadays that’s the Lottery, though there are other charitable trusts that give money out for environmental causes. We’re one of the few wildlife organisations that doesn’t have a visitor centre, though that’s not to say we won’t go down that route in the future.’
The Calvert Trust
The Calvert Trust’s operation on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake near Keswick makes sure the beauties and especially the challenges of the Lake District are available to people with disabilities, offering them activities like sailing, canoeing, climbing, hill walking and riding.
‘We specialise in working with people with more profound disabilities, so we offer short breaks for school or family groups, or other charities like Mencap or Back-Up,’ explains business manager Lynn Healey. ‘Nearly all of our activities are in the National Park, so we get out and about as much as possible. It’s about pushing the boundaries and enabling them to get involved in things they maybe never imagined they could do, so everyone experiences the feeling of success from completing them.’
This entails the use of specialist equipment, and great support from the 35 dedicated staff members at the site, and that means it has to be run as a business. ‘It costs roughly £1.3 million to run the centre each year,’ says Lynn. ‘The majority of that comes through the fees our visitors pay, and in addition to that this year for example we have to raise about £550,000 through donations, from the community, grant applications, and occasionally legacies, and we also receive a lot of support from other Cumbrian businesses.’
Frank Johnston Tractors Limited
The Lake District is a living, working landscape, where agriculture plays a significant part in maintaining an environment appreciated by millions every year. Frank Johnston Tractors Ltd has been supplying agricultural machinery to that market from more than half a century. ‘It was started in 1962 by Frank Johnston, my grandfather, then passed to his son and daughter,’ says Tom Johnston, representing the third generation to work in the business. ‘Our specialism is agricultural machinery - John Deere tractors, Kverneland machines and Suzuki all-terrain vehicles are our three key brands.’
‘Overall, as regards demand from the industry in Cumbria is not exactly on fire, down to worldwide factors like commodity prices, but the essential items still need to be renewed when they are not serviceable anymore,’ says Tom. It seems to be working for Johnston Tractors, as to the original Carlisle depot they added a new one in Dumfries in 2003, and since then another in Appleby.
Lakeland Land Rover
Lakeland Land Rover has been part of the landscape here since 1960, when Eric and Jack Hadwin established the business, and the vehicle itself is almost a symbol of life off the beaten track.
‘When we started it was all farmers using the workhorse vehicle, then they added the Range Rover, and with the wide range of vehicles nowadays like the Evoque and Discovery we supply that original market, plus leisure users and business drivers,’ says managing director Eric Hadwin.
The sometimes tricky roads and the climate in the Lakes have been silent salesmen for the vehicles over the company’s 50 years plus of existence. ‘Any of the vehicles are very capable in the winter snow here, they can handle anything the Lake District weather throws at them,’ says Eric.
The company’s main dealership and service centre in the Lakes is at Torver to the west of Coniston, from which annually they sell about 500 of the vehicles, new and used, from across the range.
Andersons has been around in Carlisle since 1888, though with several changes of ownership since then. But in recent years the company has expanded – and is about to do so again - and added another major element to its range.
‘It still is a timber business as it was when it started,’ says managing director Vince Woods. ‘In Carlisle we have a timber yard, sawmill and showroom, and still sell everything to do with timber - sheet material, joinery, doors, windows, flooring...’
When the current owners bought it in 1996, however, they added the kitchen side. ‘We cover all aspects from the basic budget kitchen from about £1,000 to luxury versions at £40,000 and upwards where the customer can specify pretty much anything they wish – mood lighting, special flooring, the highest spec appliances. The beauty of Andersons is that as an independent we’re not stuck to one catalogue, we use lots of different suppliers,’ he says.
The move has worked, with three other branches added in Scotland, and another they hope to open in Barrow at the end of the year, where they expect to employ 15 more staff to join the 78 currently on the company’s books.