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Changing faces and dramatic performances in Keswick

PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 August 2016

Conrad Lynch at Theatre by the Lake

Conrad Lynch at Theatre by the Lake

not Archant

FACES and floods may come and go, but Keswick continues to thrive as one of the most successful of the Lake District’s tourist spots.

Keswick tourism officer Vanessa Metcalfe Keswick tourism officer Vanessa Metcalfe

For many reasons, 2016 has been a year of change for the honey-pot town. New tourism officer, Vanessa Metcalfe, has switched from banking to run the familiar building just down the main street from the iconic Moot Hall. She replaces Linda Furniss who has been at the helm for 13 years and is returning to her native Yorkshire Dales.

Conrad Lynch is about to take over as chief executive and artistic director of Theatre by the Lake, which continues to flourish as one of the country’s premier provincial theatres. A new lakeside café, with staggering views of Catbells, has been built by the theatre to ensure its economic viability in these days of austerity.

Not least, 25,000 tonnes of gravel have been extracted from the River Derwent near the Pencil Museum, as part of a major campaign by the Environment Agency to minimize the risk of storms having such a devastating effect again.

Storms Desmond and Frank were probably two of the only visitors not welcomed by Keswick. New £6 million flood defences, built to withstand the 2009 highs of 15.2ft, were overwhelmed when the River Greta surged to 17.4ft. 500 homes and businesses were inundated. Some families are still not back in their homes and others are living in houses yet to be repaired.

River Greta and Upper Fitz Park. River Greta and Upper Fitz Park.

But with just 5,000 full-time residents, the town on the shores of Derwentwater, was keen to recover in time to welcome six times that number of visitors at any one time. An estimated 98 per cent of the jobs locally rely directly or indirectly on the tourist trade.

Mrs Metcalfe said: ‘The floods in December really saw the town pull together and almost all the businesses were up and running for Easter if not before. It was a slow start to the season but many regular visitors to Keswick came to show their support to the town and for that we are all very grateful. The closure of the A591 certainly had an impact on visitor numbers, particularly day visitors but once re-opened the impact was immediate.

‘Businesses reported an instant uplift in bookings and footfall and we saw the return of the coach tours. As a result, the May half term was the best for almost ten years. The wonderful weather we have been having has meant that town is buzzing with visitors every day, not just at the weekends.’

One of the attractions which marks Keswick out is the Theatre by the Lake, with its stunning location and professional reputation. Former freelance producer and arts consultant Conrad Lynch, began as part-time artistic director and chief executive, in spring and becomes full-time from September.

Main Street Main Street

The post is a new one which includes aspects of the roles of Executive Director Patric Gilchrist and Artistic Director Ian Forrest who are both standing down by the end of this year. Patric and Ian have nurtured the theatre from its opening in 1999 and proved that a producing theatre could operate successfully all year round, be artistically successful and financially stable. Theatre by the Lake now stages almost 700 events a year and welcomes 130,000 ticket buyers.

Conrad said he first visited Theatre by the Lake soon after moving to Kirkby Stephen with his family 18 months ago. ‘Theatre by the Lake’s work is unique in having a summer repertoire season with such a wide range of work that appeals to different people,’ he said. ‘I want to build on that and broaden the work we do both on and off stage, partnering with a wide range of collaborators and artists.’

By August 6, the absorbing psychological drama, Iron, by Rona Munro, completes the theatre’s famous summer season. The others are: The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan; Sophokles’s Electra; Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott; The Vertical Hour, by David Hare; and Watch It Sailor, by Philip King and Falkland L Cary. All run to November 5.

As well as the plays, Conrad will also be responsible for the theatre’s programme of festivals and visiting work that includes drama, comedy, dance and music. Conrad’s recent freelance producing has included work with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Manchester International Festival, the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Shakespeare’s Globe, Shared Experience and West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Cafe by the Lake Cafe by the Lake

Father-of-two Conrad, aged 46, studied at The University of Surrey, City University, Chartered Institute of Marketing and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Part of his new empire is the new Café by the Lake, which has risen on a site between the theatre and Derwentwater. Landscaping is due to finish this month. This was partly financed by the Arts Council to encourage the theatre to develop alternative revenues with the public purse strings being pulled ever tighter. The café seats 100 customers inside, and up to another 100 outside.

At the end of July 15,000 Christians from across the world, who since 1875 have flocked to Keswick for its Convention, make way for the more traditional secular holiday-makers. This year’s 141st convention majored as always on Bible teachings, worship and fellowship, as well as making the most of the stunning countryside round-about.

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