Celebrating Christmas in the Lake District village of Grasmere
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 December 2017 | UPDATED: 10:13 05 December 2017
Christmas seems even more appealing in a beautiful rural location, as Mike Glover and photographer Sandy Kitchin discovered
FOR many fans across the Globe, Christmas means gingerbread. As one wrote of Sarah Nelson Original celebrated Grasmere gingerbread, it is ‘Christmas in a box’.
So it is no wonder that Grasmere Gingerbread shop is geared up for the festivities, but not too early.
‘Although customers start pestering us in July asking if they can buy our Christmas range, we don’t stock anything until the Christmas puddings in September, and we don’t put up any decorations until the end of November,’ says owner Joanne Hunter. ‘We don’t want to celebrate Christmas too soon. I am quite old-fashioned and a traditionalist.’
And of course that is what appeals about Grasmere and gingerbread: tradition. By the time December comes round there are three Christmas trees around the shop and staff dressed up to sell the full range, from mulled wine and hot chocolate, to Cumbrian Rum butter, which goes so well with mince pies and Christmas pudding. There is fudge and ginger beer kits, pomanders made of oranges and cloves and traditional decorations.
At the heart of the business is the oblong biscuit-cum-cake, with its secret gingerbread recipe that has kept the family in business for 163 years. It comes hand-wrapped in parchment in parcels of six or 12 pieces.
‘People are buying into it because it hasn’t changed, whereas everything else has,’ explains Joanne. Strangely the shop is not at its busiest in November and December, but the staff of 19 are.
Grasmere gingerbread has been into mail order for 80 years, but the development of the internet has pushed this aspect of the business into overdrive.
Now orders come in from all over Europe, the Far East, Australia, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia as well as the United States.
As this issue of Lancashire Life went to Press, Grasmere Gingerbread was waiting to hear if it had won the Family-Owned Business of the Year category of this year’s Amazon Growing Business Awards, at a plush ceremony in London on November 29.
Awards are appetising for any business, but it is tastier still to keep customers happy. If you ask nicely and the order is big enough, then the traditional block of gingerbread can be moulded into different shapes: Labradors for a dog-lovers wedding, a rhino for a zoo wedding and a running man for a corporate customer, for instance.
But the recipe for gingerbread – and success – remains the same.
Another famous success story in Grasmere is Heaton Cooper studio, founded by Alfred Heaton Cooper, born back in 1864 in Bolton, where his parents were humble mill workers. After a brief career at Bolton Town Council he went off to be an art student and painter.
He started a dynasty, with son William continuing the reputation as one of the most famous of the English landscape artists. Grandson, Julian Cooper, is now Britain’s foremost painter of mountain scenes.
This year an exciting new extension to the studio came with the opening of a new cafe, Mathilde’s, named after the young country girl from Norway who fell in love with Alfred. She played a quietly supportive role in his life and gave birth to William.
In her honour the cafe has a distinct Scandanavian theme. Breakfast menu includes Rye and Chia Seed Porridge or Pumpkin Spice Nordic Waffle. At lunch sandwiches are Smorbord, and hot dishes include Kottbullar, Scandanavian meatballs with sauerkraut and lingonberry.
It’s been a labour of love for studio director Becky Heaton Cooper, Mathilde’s great grand-daughter. ‘Mathilde was the love of Alfred’s life,’ she says. ‘It really was a love match.
Alfred was the centre of her world, and we think it’s wonderful to have her name here now at the centre of our new expansion.’
Next door the studio has the most amazing selection of artists’ materials, which would be an ideal gift for any budding or frustrated MichaelAngelo.
Book in for Christmas
Opposite the Heaton Cooper studio is Sam Read, bookseller since 1887. Owner since 2000 is Elaine Nelson, its sixth.
It is equally busy in the pre-Christmas period with books of all sorts being last minute gifts of choice, especially for walkers heading back from Easedale Tarn or Helm Cragg or on the Coast to Coast walk, which passes its front door in Broadgate.
The shop is one of the local businesses which supports the thriving Grasmere Church of England Primary School, which started life in what is now the Gingerbread shop back in 1651.
Like all schools, it has a very busy December. This year the juniors are turning the imposing St Oswald’s Church into First World War trenches to put on a play in memory of the Christmas truce. There is also a carol service and the infants are putting on a traditional nativity.
On November 28 they put on a Christingle service and on the last year of term will be having their annual treat, for pupils and the 30-plus volunteers who help make the school the community success it is, by walking to Rydal Hall.
The three mile hike in party cloths covered by water-proofs culminates in a crib service, lunch, exchange of presents and a service by new vicar, Gill Henwood.
One of the busiest places at Christmas is bound to be the award-winning Tweedies, run by Alex Goodall, and attached to the 16-bedroom family run Dale Lodge hotel in Church Stile.
Its fine dining, live music and craft and real ales, lagers and ciders means it is bursting at the seams as visitors pour into the village for the festivities.
Alex’s mum, Gillian Roberts and her husband Brian moved in 14 years ago to build a reputation for its luxury, boutique feel with its food and drink offering, as shown by the annual Grasmere Guzzler festival in September.
Grasmere’s position on the nationwide food map has been bolstered this year with The Forest Side retaining its Michelin star, and being voted the most romantic hotel in the UK.
Christmas in Grasmere
Andrew and Joanne Hunter and family at their Grasmere gingerbread shop
Delicious gingerbread from the historic Sarah Nelson business
Delicious gingerbread from the historic Sarah Nelson business
The tiny gingerbread shop
Youngsters from Grasmere at a festive gathering (Picture: Martin Campbell)
Pupils ready for a nativity play at Grasmere School
Grasmere Primary School head teacher Johanna Good
One of the residents on the lake
Boating on Grasmere is popular all year
Alex Goodall, manager at the award-winning Tweedies Bart
Pastels ready for artists at the Heaton Cooper Studio
A bust of Sir Edmund Hilary at the studio
Decorations ready for the tree on sale at the studio
Cakes on the counter at Mathildes Café
The Sam Read bookshop
A village front door ready for Christmas
The hotel is another to support the school with its annual enterprise challenge teaching the pupils how to run a business and raising money for charity.
Yule enjoy it
For a pre or post-Christmas Day treat with a difference, wander a quarter of a mile out of the village, past the garden centre up Red Bank, and find the secluded Faeryland run by former corporate lecturer Rick Martin.
It is a tea and coffee garden run from a shack by the shores of Grasmere with rowing boat hire. Weather allowing, the nine rowing boats are busier than ever in December, if you can avoid the attentions of Henry the swan and his latest mate.
Rick, who gave up team building for business people 18 years ago, specialises in Italian coffees and blending his own tea from 50 different recipes from around the world.
And for this time of year he creates a Faery blend, including Cinnamon and Cloves among other secret ingredients, which truly smells like Christmas in a caddy.