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How Grasmere recovered from the floods

PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 August 2016

View of Grasmere from Allan Bank, Wordsworth's other home....

View of Grasmere from Allan Bank, Wordsworth's other home....

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Grasmere is back in business after the chaos caused by the devastating floods, writes Eileen Jones

Becky Heaton Cooper at The Heaton Cooper Studio Becky Heaton Cooper at The Heaton Cooper Studio

Grasmere is smiling. A gentle spring and delightful early summer have brought visitors flocking back to Cumbria’s most popular tourist village.

Driving through the village is once again a slow slalom to miss the trippers who are squeezed off the pavements, or who wander into the road for the best view of the church. And driving on beyond the village is possible once more.

Storm Desmond and the hole in the A591 which became known as ‘The Gap’ had a more dramatic effect on Grasmere than anywhere else. Though the winter floods initially deterred many Lakes visitors, when they did start coming back they could reach Windermere and Bowness as usual. They could get to Ambleside, and from there into Langdale, or over the Struggle to Ullswater. But Grasmere was the end of the road.

Keswick, at the other end of The Gap, still had approach roads open from the north, east and west. Grasmere became a ghost village as the tour operators chose to turn back at the head of Windermere, and a nationwide misconception pervaded that Grasmere was closed.

National Trust volunteer, Alan Ellison, and visitor experience assistants, Sophie Lawson and Emma Richardson  in the library at  Allan Bank, Wordsworth's other home.... National Trust volunteer, Alan Ellison, and visitor experience assistants, Sophie Lawson and Emma Richardson in the library at Allan Bank, Wordsworth's other home....

‘We were set for our busiest weekend of the year, with a great Christmas display, a shop stocked with gifts, and a fascinating exhibition under way,’ says Becky Heaton Cooper, director of the Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere. ‘Then came the floods.’

The shop and gallery escaped with only minor damage. Much of the village was inundated, but businesses worked quickly to re-open again within days. But the road from the north was closed, and the world thought that Grasmere was closed too.

‘The impact was more than you could imagine,’ says Becky. ‘By January takings were 60% down. Things slowly started to pick up mid-February. But once the road re-opened, it was like a light had been switched on. It really was that instant. We have almost caught up in the year now.’

Businesses found ways of coping. Grasmere Gingerbread opened a pop-up shop in the Lakeland homeware store in Windermere, and another above the Windermere Lake Cruises Information Centre in Bowness.

Allan Bank, Wordsworth's other home.... Allan Bank, Wordsworth's other home....

Villagers lobbied to help schoolchildren needing to travel between Keswick and Grasmere, and the result was a temporary walkway connecting to a shuttle bus for children who needed to cross Dunmail Raise daily. It became known as ‘Molly’s Path’, after Molly Steels, one of the pupils who wrote to David Cameron urging him to ‘turn my life back to normal by fixing the A591’.

In spring Grasmere was visited by the Prince of Wales who called there after viewing the decorated Herdwick sheep from the Calvert Trust Art Trail. Chris Shaw, whose Grasmere Village online blog records daily life from a delightful perspective, used her local knowledge that day. ‘I’d been balancing on the church wall, but jumped backwards into St Oswald’s Church grounds. Meanwhile everyone was waiting for Prince Charles to re-appear out of the front door. But he didn’t, he came out through the back and made his way across the graveyard to Wordsworth’s Grave. He was met there by Michael McGregor, director of the Wordsworth Trust and I got a great view.’

Chris dedicated one of her recent posts to her late father-in-law Eric Shaw who had lived in Grasmere for many years and died in May, just a month short of his 99th birthday. ‘There has always been a very strong sense of community in Grasmere pre and post flooding,’ says Chris. ‘Adversity always makes it even stronger.’

Elaine Nelson, who runs Sam Reads Bookshop, agrees. ‘There’s been a lot of pulling together,’ she says. The shop dates back to the 1880s, and is one of the oldest independent bookstores in England. Though water got into her building – the toilet and a corridor – Elaine’s bookshop escaped flood damage. ‘We didn’t do too badly, especially when the temporary shuttle bus from Grasmere to Keswick started running. There were visitors from Keswick arriving every hour.’

Elaine Nelson at Sam Read's Bookshop Elaine Nelson at Sam Read's Bookshop

The A591 reopened with a fanfare in May, in time for the spring Bank Holiday. A minibus of schoolchildren from Grasmere was the first to travel along it. A new 106-metre retaining wall has been constructed at Dunmail Raise, and repairs were carried out on three bridges, seven other retaining walls and 91 drains alongside Thirlmere.

And now locals and visitors drive to and fro as if it were all a bad dream. Tourists are once again paying homage to William Wordsworth who lived at Dove Cottage and then at Allan Bank, now a National Trust flagship property. It’s been open to the public for the last five years, and its grounds are used by local schoolchildren for their Forest School activities.

And, says Elaine Nelson, the world heard all about Grasmere. ‘It did draw attention to us. People are now coming specially to the village and they can see that we survived.’

Grasmere village Grasmere village

Grasmere’s gingerbread and butter

Andrew and Joanne Hunter were also hit hards by the floods and the closure of the A591. The couple, custodians of historic business Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere GIngerbread, saw a devastating drop in business and were forced to make two people redundant.

‘It was a very difficult time for us. There were days when our business was down by 80 per cent. On a good day, we were still 40 per cent down. We were lucky in that we never had to close. But our storage place in Kendal, where we keep our packaging, tins and jars, was under five feet of water. We only started getting replacement tins at the end of June so we had to cope for all of that time without. When the floods happpened people just weren’t coming to Grasmere. People didn’t think the Lakes was open for business.

‘When the road opened again, it was very intense. It was the May Whit holidays and we had wonderful weather, it was very very busy. Since then it’s been up and down but we’re feeling more optimistic. I know we are lucky. There are other businesses who have still not been able to reopen. That is really dreadful.’

Joanne and Andrew also had much welcomed support from other Cumbrian retailers who offered them free space to hold a pop-up shop. These including Lakeland and Watts in Carlisle. Joanne was also invited to a meeting with David Cameron to discuss the best way forward after the floods and they also recieved £10,000 funding to promote their business outsdie of the north west. This included visits to events in Birmingham, Leeds and London. The business was also one of those visited by Prince Charles when he came to the region after the floods. ‘

‘That was a wonderful day,’ said Joanne. ‘He had some gingerbread and has since ordered more. It was incredible to be chosen to be a part of such a special event. There is definitley a more positive feel now in the Lakes and in Grasmere. We’ve been able to take someone on, the village is busy with tourists again and business has definitley picked up.

‘But we’ve been going for 162 years, we’re not going to be defeated and we’re not about to give up. The floods were devastating but there was no way we were going down without a fight.’

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