The story behind Ambleside’s rush-bearing mural
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 May 2020
Ambleside is proud of a mural painted in a church during World War Two which still draws crowds
Life-long Ambleside resident Glenise Brood has never forgotten the gift of a juicy orange she was given after posing for an artist painting a mural during World War Two.
She was one of 62 local people depicted taking part in the annual rush-bearing ceremony in the village. Glenise, then aged six, is at the front of the central of three panels, wearing a pink dress, a white hat and with a finger in her mouth. In normal times, the mural attracts thousands of visitors to St Mary’s Parish church in the centre of the village.
‘I remember it as if it was yesterday. We were taken by our parents and up the stairs to the attics of The Queen’s Hotel, where the artist took sketches of us. I was given an orange, which was a real treat in the war,’ says Glenise, now 81, who has remained in the pretty market town at the heart of the Lake District, working as a school caretaker and housekeeper, while bringing up six children.
She now has 14 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. ‘The eldest great-grandchild, Declan aged 10, thinks I am famous,’ she laughs.
She attends the rush-bearing every year and two years ago 13 of her descendants were involved in the ceremony, which is always held on the first Saturday in July, but for obvious reasons may not go ahead this year.
And this year she, like the nine other survivors of the modelling session, was excited that two of the sons of the mural painter were due to make a pilgrimage to see the artwork for the first time. Due to the coronavirus crisis, this trip has now been postponed until 2021.
Painter Gordon Ransom completed the mural in four months during 1944, with studies of identifiable local residents and students depicted. The figures are arranged in four groups, showing four episodes of the procession.
Martin Ransom, a retired journalist who lives in France, his wife Paulette, and brother Francis, who lives in Kent, are keen to have their first sight of the painting his father did while he was a final year student at London’s Royal College of Art.
The students were evacuated from the capital and re-located to Ambleside for the duration of the Second World War.
Martin told Lancashire Life: ‘It will be our first visit, and the first time we see the mural.’
The students were housed in two large hotels, The Queens (Now the Ambleside Inn) and The Salutation.
Gordon had been born in 1921 in Rugeley, Staffordshire. For health reasons he wasn’t conscripted, despite wanting to be in the RAF.
Martin adds: ‘Three years after completing the mural, he married our Parisian-born mother Claire, herself daughter of a well-known French painter Gabriel Fournier.
‘I was born in France in 1948, and my two brothers Lawrence and Francis in 1954 and 1957. We all remember that in our youth our father used to evoke the mural in St Mary’s Church showing us a black and white photograph.
‘Preparing our visit, I have retrieved documents, including a sketch-book he used during his stay in Ambleside.
‘Although our father spent his life in London - working as a freelance illustrator and ending up as the Head of Graphic Design at Saint Martin’s School of Art - he loved the countryside, and must have greatly appreciated the Lake District.’
He died of a brain tumour in 1986.
Former chair of the rush-bearing organising committee, Sue Cooper, said: ‘Martin said his father threw nothing away and he has every piece of documentation with regard to the rush-bearing mural as well as the sketches he drew of the children and he thinks their names are on them - now that will be interesting!
‘The mural has proved a priceless gift to Ambleside, as it attracts droves of visitors. The documentation will be another priceless gift and we are contacting the town’s Armitt Museum to see if they can they look after it.’
Rush-bearing is the traditional celebration to mark the laying of new rushes on the earthen floors of churches to provide a carpet for parishioners and also to freshen up the often stale air of the church. The practice was particularly popular in the north of England but has largely died out although some communities continue the tradition.
In Ambleside a decorated rush-harp is displayed at the head of the rush-bearing which follows a traditional route from St Mary’s Church. The procession halts in Market Place where the time-honoured rush-bearing song is recounted and rushes raised before returning to a service of thanksgiving and dedication as garlands are displayed in the church.
The rush-bearing mural received a £13,000 restoration in 2018 after it had begun to flake and show signs of deterioration.
Beverley Lock, rector at the church, said: ‘Rush-bearing is an important annual event in Ambleside. People have taken part since they were babies and it holds a special place in their hearts. The older people remember when they got a new dress or shirt and looked forward all year to being part of this great spectacle.
‘Today families who have moved away come ‘home’ for this week end to be part of it. It is part of the life of the community and it draws crowds of visitors too. The rush-bearing mural is a striking feature of the church and serves as a constant reminder that when a community work together they can create something unique and special.’
A decision on whether this year’s rush-bearing event will go ahead is expected in June.
Rush-bearing stalwart Joan Newby, who died last year, has left a legacy through support given to local cancer sufferers.
Mrs Newby, aged 97 when she died, was affectionately known to many as “Mrs Ambleside” for her love of the community where she spent her long, active life. One of her earliest memories was taking part in the Ambleside rush-bearing procession aged three, in 1925. Later in life she helped organise the event, with husband Bill as marshal.
When her husband died of cancer nearly 30 years ago, Mrs Newby was determined to help others and she helped to establish the Ambleside branch of CancerCare which has been providing free professional therapy to people dealing with the effects of cancer and bereavement for more than 35 years.
The charity has centres in Lancaster, Kendal and Barrow and offers a wide variety of services including one-to-one counselling, holistic therapies such as aromatherapy and creative and physical activity groups.
The service, which helped more than 1,600 people last year, is also open to family, friends and carers of people with a diagnosis.
The Ambleside branch of CancerCare still meets weekly at the Kelsick Centre and continues to organise fundraising events which are invaluable for the charity which relies almost entirely on public donations to keep it running.