Ambleside - the Lake District’s capital of culture
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 July 2017
How Ambleside played a key part in the Lake District’s World Heritage site status. Mike Glover reports
PHOTOGRAPHy BY SANDY KITCHING
The United Nations has granted the Lake District World Heritage site status, putting it on a par with the likes of the Taj Mahal and the Great Barrier Reef.
One of the major pillars of the bid has been how man has shaped the landscape and how it has inspired its cultural heritage. Culture can mean many things to many people, from dry-stone walls to fine art but whatever your definition, one town at the heart of the Lakes has it all, and regardless of the World Heritage site decision, will carry on the traditions which attract millions of visitors every year.
On the last Thursday of July (that’s the 27th this year) Ambleside hosts the last gathering totally devoted to traditional sports, one of the activities that underpinned the World Heritage bid.
The core events of Ambleside Sports are Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling, hound trailing, fell and guide races, handicapped grass track running and cycling, and children’s sports.
Visitors cannot really say they’ve absorbed the unique Lakes culture until they’ve seen men, and now also women, clad in long johns overlaid with embroidered silk knickers, grappling in the outdoor arena. Or seen the fell-runners disappear into the mists as they climb up one side of 2,870-foot high Fairfield Horseshoe and reappear an hour and a half later haring alarmingly down the other side, a clock-wise round trip of about nine miles.
An even older spectacle is the guide races, in which runners race straight to the top of a fell and, even more scarily, sprint back down again.
The guide races were originally intended to win reputations for the brave locals employed to show round visiting Georgian and Victorian city dwellers scared of the Lakes wilderness. But prize-money and side bets were also at stake. So the apparently child-like ‘race you to the top and back’ format was actually so the runners were always in view and no-one could cheat.
For the hound trailing dogs, following an aniseed trail around a six-mile course, there are colour coded flashes applied at the last minute to prevent substitutes being slipped into the pack on the home run.
Betting is still prevalent among the 5,000 spectators who attend the Sports, hence the handicapping in the track races.
In its present form the Sports have been going for 131 years, although something similar has been going even longer. Seventy one years ago the Sports moved to Rydal Park from nearby Miller Field.
Preparations last all year, but the serious hard work starts on the Sunday before the event when around 30 volunteers remove excrement left by the sheep and cows which graze 51 weeks a year. This is known as SSS, which stands for a blunt phrase: S for excrement, S for a large spade, and S for Sunday.
The next day the track is marked out on the exact same spot every year, due to hidden clues and triangulation within the landscape. This enables marquees, side-stalls and support services to be precisely plotted.
The routes of human and canine races have to be marked. A new trophy will be awarded from this year, to the owner of the winning dog in the senior hounds race, in memory of ace trail-layer (and fell runner) Gerry Meneaud, who died last December after a short illness.
His daughter Carolyn has taken over the organising of the Rydal Round fell-race after local legend Pete Bland stepped down after 42 years.
The mum of four, herself a keen fell-runner, will make sure the 100 entrants are dressed suitably and equipped to navigate the course, which is only flagged at the start and finish, with a couple of check-points on the way.
Ambleside Sports has an organising committee of 30. The patron is Lord Inglewood and president is Geoff Atkinson who owns the Salutation Hotel which dominates the centre of the town itself.
Chairman for the last 18 years is Jak Hirst, who said: ‘Ambleside Sports is a celebration of our culture in the Lakes. Other events have been modernised, but we chose to go the other way and tune in to the increased interest in heritage. Our aim is to put on a major sports event each year for the benefit of the locals, participants and tourists alike.’
There is a spin-off with any excess proceeds going to a scholarship fund to finance youngsters getting into sports, even those like hockey, wind-surfing and football which don’t feature at the event. Kit, equipment, training and transport can all need financial backing for young athletes. One spectacular success is Ambleside Athletics Club which has attracted hundreds of youngsters, some of whom are now attaining county and even national recognition.