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A day out in Kendal - touring the gateway to the Lakes

PUBLISHED: 00:12 17 July 2013

Branthwaite Brow

Branthwaite Brow

Archant

Kendal modestly calls itself the Gateway to the Lakes but there's much to detain the visitor, as Martin Pilkington discovered

River KentRiver Kent

A special delivery

The Oxford Guide to Literary Britain ignores Kendal. How could this be, given Postman Pat originated here?

‘I lived on Greenside, on Beast Bank, which is the steep hill rising from the town hall, with the little green opposite it,’ recalls Pat’s creator John Cunliffe. ‘As a mature teaching student I got a job in a Kendal School, Castle Park, and taught there for about four years. It was a lovely school, still is a great school with lovely children, but my goodness it was exhausting!’

Having already published children’s books he applied for a post in children’s television advertised by the BBC. ‘They said at the interview they weren’t appointing me, but they were setting up some new series for children – would I like to come and talk with them?’

At the subsequent lunch producer Cynthia Felgate suggested he write a series set in the countryside. ‘On the spur of the moment I said how about something about a postman?

‘There was a little post office on Greenside, it’s now a private house but it has a big red plaque with words – that I composed actually – about Pat. I lived a few doors away from there. That was the first place I went when I started to write the stories, to chat about how country postmen did their work.’

It took 18 months for the project to secure funding, then the great Ivor Wood (The Magic Roundabout, The Herbs) and various BBC people came to Kendal. ‘Ivor wanted to take photos of the settings where I thought the stories were happening. Longsleddale was where I did one of my teaching practices while at college in Ambleside, so that was in my mind, and Kentmere much more so, being an unspoiled little valley just off the tourist track.’ They are the real Greendale.

Fittingly the public library also celebrates John and Pat, the bearded author central to its Millennium Frieze. John Cunliffe lives elsewhere now, but says: ‘The auld grey town has a fond place in my memory. Pat and Kendal are very close to my heart.’

Touring the town

Susan Bagot, the president of Kendal Civic Society, has good advice for visitors: ‘For somebody coming for the day I’d say get out of your car and walk. There are so many interesting things to see, plaques which interpret a lot of the old buildings, and buildings that have been restored. I’d start at the parish church and walk through the town. Be sure to look up, and look into some of the restored yards off the main streets – the yards are fascinating. Walk right through past the Town Hall down to Stricklandgate House and you’ll see such a lot on the way.’

Those yards, some now home to independent shops, others full of characterful cottages, are a reminder of Kendal’s medieval past when their narrow entries offered easily defended space should the reivers call.

A sense of history

Kendal’s parish church is the third widest in England, giving an idea of the town’s historic significance. Helpful stewards direct visitors to its many fascinating memorials, perhaps the most dramatic the helmet of Robin the Devil. Robin was Robert Philipson, a Royalist commander who was besieged by Kendal Roundheads on Belle Isle in Windermere. After his brother broke the siege Robert sought revenge in Kendal, riding his horse up and down the church before he was attacked, losing his cavalry helmet and nearly his life.

Next to the church in fine Georgian buildings stand The Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry and Abbot Hall Art Gallery. ‘We cover 300 years of Lakeland life, to tell the story of the way of life and means of livelihood of the people of the region,’ says assistant curator James Arnold.

‘Key concepts are that it’s an industrial landscape, and how that landscape has inspired people to create.’ Such creation ranges from fireside rugs and baskets made by unknown country craftsmen to the works of celebrated Arts and Crafts furniture makers and textile designers, and to authors like Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame.

He would have been fascinated by the temporary exhibition Welcome Aboard: Boating on Windermere. ‘That’s about the small items associated with the steam launches, the lifestyle of the people with the boats, tourism, even flying-boats built here, plus some stuff on childhood,’ says James.

The gallery across the courtyard is equally impressive. ‘We have a fantastic collection of George Romney pictures – he trained in Kendal – and a small watercolour gallery that changes regularly, with Ruskins and Turners for example,’ says James. ‘And upstairs there’s a 20th century British space with people like Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and three galleries dedicated to our changing exhibitions, four every year – at the moment it’s Lynn Chadwick sculpture, then we have Graham Sutherland from the end of June.’

Pop to the shops

Even before its market was chartered in 1189 Kendal drew shoppers. The indoor market operates Monday to Saturday, the outdoor version Wednesday and Saturday, and there’s a Farmers’ Market on the last Friday in the month.

Stricklandgate and Highgate are the main shopping streets in Kendal, but don’t miss the yards. Julia Davenport runs Davenport Ladies Fashions in one recently revamped and she said: ‘I like Wainwright’s yard, they’ve done it very well. It’s a pleasant area, especially in the summer when people sit outside in the sunshine. All the units except Pizza Express are independents – the whole point surely of a nice market town like Kendal is to have independent shops, different places.’

Eating and a cuppa

As a Lakeland destination there’s no shortage of tea-rooms and eateries in Kendal, some offering history with the refreshments.

‘I don’t even notice the smell of the tea and coffee anymore,’ says Rebekah Grace at Farrer’s on Stricklandgate. ‘But everyone who comes in says you can smell it as soon as you come through the door.’ Coffee is no longer roasted on the premises as it was when they opened in 1819, but the fabric of the building is infused with a richly caffeinated aroma. History is very visible here too. ‘All the big tea-tins at the front are original, and are listed with the building. They may have been here since day one.’

Another listed structure, The 1657 Chocolate House on Branthwaite Brow, was actually around before that date. ‘The building itself was constructed in the 1630s, but 1657 was when chocolate came to Britain as a luxury item and the first chocolate shop opened in London in 1657,’ says owner Gavin Lowe. ‘It’s been a chocolate shop and tea-room for 20 years or so.’ Chocoholics will swoon over the downstairs shop’s fine selection, most handmade locally. Food and drink are served on the next two floors. You can squeeze up to them through the narrowest and lowest-ceilinged spiral staircase from the shop, or choose an easier route via another street-side entrance. ‘But about 75 per cent go up and down the staircase as it’s part of the history of the place,’ says Gavin.

The Castle Dairy Restaurant (‘dairy’ a corruption of ‘dower’) is newer and older than those two establishments. ‘Two years ago this place was falling down, then it was taken over and restored to how you see today,’ says chef Robert Stacey, whose cv includes The Ritz and work with Gordon Ramsay. It belongs to Kendal College, whose head of culinary arts Robert Marshall-Slater calls it: ‘An apprenticeship finishing school.’

‘We get the brightest and best students from the college to work with us and gain some real experience,’ explains Robert. ‘We aim for two to three rosette standard and the more we develop the further we push it. It’s definitely the finest dining in Kendal, though I may be a bit biased,’ he adds.

Work is already underway within the Grade I listed medieval building to enable them to operate seven days a week, rather than Thursday to Saturday as now, including ultra-modern kitchen equipment. Rather a contrast to the inglenook fireplace, the magnificent blackened beams and the original Roman road that forms part of the flooring.

Celebrated products

The town’s name is associated with a variety of products, like Kendal Mint Cake, with three confectioners – Romney’s, Wilson’s and Quiggin’s – still making the peppermint-oil and sugar bars here. From July 19 to December 21. The Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry has an exhibition called Kendal Mint Cake: On Top of the World, with artefacts from several Everest expeditions – Hilary and Tenzing famously ate mint cake atop Everest in 1953.

For centuries Kendal was known for its wool cloths, Kendal Green even mentioned by Shakespeare. Samuel Gawith & Co’s Kendal Brown is entirely different, a snuff still ground with the machine purchased for the job in 1792 in a factory just across the River Kent.

Parking

There’s a multi-storey attached to Westmorland Shopping Centre, and pay and displays around town, including at the Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry and behind the Castle Dairy restaurant.

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