Natural beauty and brilliant businesses go hand in hand in Windermere

PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 July 2019

Windermere; town centre

Windermere; town centre

Milton Haworth

We meet the people working to keep Windermere ahead

The downstairs bar at The Crafty Baa, Windermere; voted England's best pub by an AA surveyThe downstairs bar at The Crafty Baa, Windermere; voted England's best pub by an AA survey

The village of Windermere, a kilometre up the hill from the lake after which it is named, has made a disproportionate contribution to the success of the Lake District and its £2 billion a year tourist trade.

And although it is only small, The Crafty Baa's admirers think it is perfectly formed. Former window cleaners, Vince and son Ben Gregg, and Vince's wife Lisa, fancied a change in lifestyle so set up Crafty Baa in Victoria Street three years ago.

They didn't want just another pub, and spent two years planning and collecting paraphernalia from skips and their rounds to fulfil their do-it-yourself and innovative redecoration of the former second-hand book shop.

'When customers walk in we want Crafty Baa to feel like home, slip off their shoes, relax and enjoy good food and drink,' says Vince.

Owner Lisa Gregg Upstairs in Potting Room at The Crafty Baa, WindermereOwner Lisa Gregg Upstairs in Potting Room at The Crafty Baa, Windermere

Every nook and cranny is plastered with gadgets and household goods turned into decorations: there is a wall of beer in the social room; a Prosecco lounge; a lost and found room, which has become homage to the haunted; and a potting shed - 'an indoor beer garden as it always rains in the Lakes' - with an upside down floral border on the ceiling.

Around 80% of the materials they used were either recycled or up-cycled which has gone a long way to giving the pub a unique style and atmosphere.

Within two years the Automobile Association was lauding it as a "breath of fresh air, unique and different" while awarding it the Best Pub in England award at a glitzy award ceremony in London's Mayfair.

'We couldn't believe it. We thought it was a joke when we got the letter inviting us, and were even more shocked when we got the main award,' says Keith.

Ben McClure checks the fresh produce at McClure's wholesale food suppliers based in WindermereBen McClure checks the fresh produce at McClure's wholesale food suppliers based in Windermere

Far from resting on their laurels, the family has now opened what they claim is the smallest pub in the Lake District, next door. Called The Pie and Pint, it has its own front door, kitchen and bar, although beer is mostly served straight from casks which adorn one wall of the one-room pub.

And the family's cheese and grilled sandwich menu has proved so successful they are now offering outside catering.

A family affair

Chairman Keith, MD Matt and Sales Director Ben McClure outside McClure's wholesale food suppliers based in WindermereChairman Keith, MD Matt and Sales Director Ben McClure outside McClure's wholesale food suppliers based in Windermere

Windermere has become a business hub, with many companies who serve the whole National Park and beyond, based there.

Typical is McClures. Even if you never have heard of the food wholesalers, if you have ever eaten or drunk in a cafe, restaurant or hotel, it was probably McClures which sourced the ingredients.

The family firm has come a long way from its founding by Bill McClure in 1945 when he was demobbed from the Royal Air Force at the end of World War Two. Bill sold Morecambe Bay shrimps from his hand cart in Kendal. He worked until he was 90, dying aged 94 in 2004.

McClures is now in the hands of his son Keith, as chairman, and grandsons Ben, the sales and marketing director, and Matthew, the managing director.

Keith, now 74, was plucked out of a Lancaster Friends School at just 15 to run the company's first shop in Grange-over-Sands, selling fruit, vegetables, fish and nursery plants. He still comes into work seven days a week.

The company employs 150 workers, has 40 refrigerated vans and is open 24 hours a day, with only three days a year with no service. Several brands now fall under the McClures umbrella, including Wilson's confectionery and Kendal Mintcake, which it has just bought from Hall's of Kendal.

The phenomenal growth of the firm has followed many social changes, with interest in food transforming since 1960 when Keith started. 'With the growth of tourism in the 1960s we made a pioneering decision to get into food wholesale, with hotels wanting someone to provide their fresh produce,' says Keith.

The company set up home in Alexander Road, next to Lakeland Plastics, as it was then, and the two future giants worked hand in glove, with Lakeland producing plastic bags and McClures the food to put in them.

Another pioneering breakthrough came in the early 1960s, when the company started dealing with frozen foods, considered quite revolutionary back then.

In 1989 McClures joined the Sterling Group, who represented 36 independent food wholesalers throughout the UK. Working together meant they could compete with the multi-national corporations on price and quality. Keith was its chairman for many years.

That quality became ever more important when the current trend for master chefs started in the 1990s. As the Lake District became a nearly as famous for its foodies as for its fells, the business mushroomed.

Turnover is now £21 million a year and they provide 6,500 lines. They cover an 80 mile radius from Gretna in the north to Preston in the south, taking in Lancaster as well as the Lake District.

Their service has been transformed. Some of the old style local suppliers would deliver once a week and tell food outlets they could only have what they had.

Not McClures, which delivers to some outlets twice a day and offers a seven-day-a-week service. Although Mediterranean vegetables were hardly heard of back in the 1960s, now they are expected to source from all over the world.

Mr McClure couldn't remember once having to tell any chef he couldn't get what they wanted.

The market threatens to grow more, with hotels and restaurants struggling post-Brexit to find staff, they are keener than ever to buy ready prepared vegetables.

The threat of a no-deal Brexit also meant McClures stockpiling ingredients in case they couldn't be imported. That has put a great strain on their College Road depot, which it acquired when it bought JT Parsons in 1984.

The family is now looking for a new home for its warehousing, but it won't ever leave Windermere. 'Windermere has been very good for us, and we have been good for Windermere so we will always have our hub here,' says Keith. The McClures put plenty back into the local community, through numerous charities and sponsorship deals and Matthew is a retained fireman. But as in most areas, they don't shout about it. 'We are just a hard-working family business,' is how Keith describes their success. Next year is the 75th anniversary of Bill starting the company with his hard-cart selling seafood. He would be glad to know the business is still very much alive, alive-o.

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