Is Penrith the perfect town?
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 September 2014 | UPDATED: 10:24 28 April 2016
Beauty, history, shops and plenty going on - Penrith has got it all, as Suzanne Elsworth discovered
There is always something going on in Penrith. This pretty market town has an enviable calendar of events – from a successful music scene, to theatre and cinema shows, as well as its own food festival, traditional country show, and the magical Winter Droving festival, complete with torch-lit procession.
And it’s this busyness and bustle which makes up a big part of the town’s charm, according to its residents.
‘Penrith’s a real northern market town,’ says Reverend David Sargent, Rector of St Andrew’s Church. ‘It’s not over touristy, it has great independent retailers, a theatre and super cinema, great access to the north, south, east and west, and, because you have town and country combined, it’s ideal for bringing up young families. It’s a big enough community that there is always something going on, but it’s small enough so lots of folks know you.
And even if you’re not in town for the entertainment, there’s still an enviable list of things to do – not least, visiting the independent shops.
MC Ferguson, famed as a quirky bathroom and ceramics shop, attracts visitors from miles around. Don’t be surprised to see unusual statues wearing ski masks or clutching a pair of skis – getting out on the slopes is a family passion. The shop was opened nearly 60 years ago by Marjorie Chester Ferguson and her son Mark runs the business today.
The business has always sourced its products from around the globe – particularly ceramics from Europe, statuary from Hong Kong before it reverted to Chinese rule, and striking pieces like an enormous Chinese vase that sits in the shop’s doorway. But though Mark travels widely to source new products, Penrith is definitely home.
‘I wouldn’t live anywhere else,’ he says. ‘And I think that goes for most locals. They disappear somewhere else then come back when they realise it’s a nice place to live.’
Another historic gem is J&J Graham. It opened in 1793 as a general store, selling farm supplies and groceries. Now it’s a deli and artisan bakery, with a range of fine food including cheese and ales. Alan Reading and his daughter Joanne Ashby bought the business in 2012 and say there is an appreciation in Penrith that you have to move with the times.
‘We reflect what people are looking for,’ says Alan. ‘The internet has changed things too – we sell hampers all over the UK and ship our own tea across the world.
Sarah Graham, of Arragon Cycles in Brunswick Road agrees. She says publicity generated by the Tour of Britain coming through Cumbria and the Tour de France passing so close by has boosted the sport’s popularity immeasurably. And Penrith is on the route of the C2C cycle route, which is also good for business. ‘Lots of people call in for emergency cycle repairs,’ she says. ‘We’ve had them queuing before we open the shop.’
And there’s loyalty among the locals too. Greg Forbes worked in hotels and restaurants including L’enclume and Rampsbeck Country House, before opening Smoked, smoking meat, fish and more on the premises of his Burrowgate store.
Penrith New Squares shopping area
Penrith New Squares shopping area
The Musgrave Monument and Market Square
St Andrews Church
Penrith Corn Market
A taste of Spain
Penrith Town Hall
The Alhambra Cinema in Middlegate
A brand new pavilion is now in place at Castle Park Bowling Club to replace the old one which was destroyed by fire in March last year
Arragon's Cycles, Brunswick Road
Wild flower display at Middlegate
TwentyOne8 in Middlegate
Jill Taylor (right) with customer, Jennifer Ryan at TwentyOne8 in Middlegate
Smoked at Burrowgate
St Andrews Church
Devonshire Street shops
J & J Graham at Market Square
The George Hotel
Shops by Penrith Corn Market
Penrith Corn Market
Penrith & Eden Museum in Middlegate
Teaching assistant, Mrs Emma Dixon, with children in the MUD KITCHEN, a feature of the Jungle Garden at Brunswick Road School
Year TWO pupils rehearse their leavers assembly presentation at Brunswick School
Chris Nicholson of Arragon's Cycles, Brunswick Road, with three budding Tour de France cyclists, 7-year-olds Alexis McGuinness, Ryan Connor and Mason Fleming
Mark and Michelle Ferguson at MC Feguson's, Brunswick Road, with a ten-feet-tall Chinese ceramic vase, one of a pair gifted to London in 1983
MC Ferguson, Brunswick Road
‘I get people coming back every week,’ he says. ‘And they tell their friends too. Someone will come in and say ‘my friend told me you do smoked hummus’, for example, and as I get to know them, I can recommend new products.’
When you visit Penrith, remember to look up. There’s some beautiful architecture, particularly around Market Square, like N Arnison and Sons, with its fantastic signage, and the sandstone and stained glass of J&J Graham. There’s also the imposing facade of the neighbouring George Hotel, where Bonnie Prince Charlie is said to have stayed.
He wasn’t the only prominent figure to have visited the gateway town. Richard III was apparently a regular at the Gloucester Arms pub and lived in Penrith Castle, and Mary Queen of Scots and Oliver Cromwell also used the town as a convenient stopover spot.
And there aren’t many towns that can boast the grave of a giant king. Legend has it that Ewan Caesarius once ruled all of Cumbria, ‘slaying monsters, men and beasts’, including wild boars that roamed the nearby forests. His grave is in the tranquil churchyard of St Andrew’s, just off the Market Square.
William and Dorothy Wordsworth are other famous names with Penrith connections. A blue plaque on the Arnison’s building marks where their grandparents once lived.
The town has its celebrity fans today too. You might spot author Hunter Davies enjoying a spot of lunch in the Wordsworth Bookshop cafe, or BBC broadcaster and writer Stuart Maconie, who has a home in the area, heading to Gianni’s Italian restaurant.
They can be a feisty bunch in Penrith too. The businesses fight hard for people to shop close to home – spreading the word that for every £10 spent in an independent business, £8 stays in the local economy. More than 400 town traders and organisations have also joined forces to create the Penrith BID, or business improvement district, paying a levy on their business rates which is then used for things like marketing, events, or practical improvements.
The creation of the New Squares development, which includes a supermarket, retail and homes, has caused public debate for decades. One of the more unusual leaflets you can pick up in the Tourist Information Centre promotes Muzac Free Eden and names and shames businesses who play their music – or muzac – too loud. And when the owners of the Lonsdale Alhambra Cinema announced plans to close it a few years ago, hundreds attended a town centre rally, thousands signed a petition and £120,000 was raised in just two months to save the building. The public won and the cinema is still there today.
Need to know
Foodies will love shopping in Penrith. Even the Prince of Wales is a customer of The Toffee Shop in Brunswick Road, where fans say the fudge is the best in the world. Devonshire Arcade has a proper butcher and fishmonger, and Cranstons food hall is a must – they have a shop in the town centre too. Don’t miss Arnison’s, it’s like stepping back in time. Nice homewares at White & Green, Five, Country Basket and Country Home, and lovely ladieswear at TwentyOne8 on Middlegate.
Eat and drink
Angel Lane Chippie is a quirky little takeaway with traditional fish and chips. You’ll be spoilt for choice in Devonshire Arcade with The Lemon Tree cafe, the Soup Shop and the Thai Food Cafe. Four &Twenty restaurant serves very fresh local fare, or seek out Costa’s tapas restaurant. For great beer, you’ve got to go to Moo Bar, or try one of the more traditional pubs like The Agricultural.
The North Lakes Hotel, on the outskirts of town, has a lovely spa, while the George Hotel is in the perfect central location. Try the Brooklands Guest House if you prefer a B&B.
Pick up an illustrated trail guide from the Tourist Information Centre and take yourself on a walk around town. Don’t miss the castle, once home to Richard III, and rumoured to be connected to the Gloucester Arms pub by a secret tunnel. If you want a walk, head up to the Beacon with great views of the Eden valley.
There’s a proper toy shop and sweet shop in the town centre if you’re looking for treats. The Pirates of Penrith soft play centre is a popular choice on the Gilwilly Industrial Estate, and Crafty Monkeys, where you can throw your own pots, often ranks as the town’s number one attraction on Trip Advisor.
Rheged visitor attraction is just a few minutes’ drive away, on the way to beautiful Ullswater. Visit Aira Force waterfalls if you’re there. And the increasingly popular Lowther Castle is a short hop down the A6.
Find out more
Penrith Tourist Information Centre is on Middlegate in the town centre. It is open from 9.30am-5pm Monday to Saturday and 11am-4pm on Sundays. Call 01768 867466 or go online to visiteden.co.uk. Another useful website is discoverpenrith.co.uk