Suzanne Elsworth gives us the lowdown on an enjoyable weekend in Cockermouth
PUBLISHED: 22:29 03 October 2012 | UPDATED: 17:13 05 January 2018
William Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian were born here and Melvyn Bragg is a big fan. Suzanne Elsworth presents an insider's guide to Cockermouth. Photography: John Cocks
‘I can’t believe I’ve never been here before.’ It’s a familiar phrase from first-time visitors to Cockermouth. This bustling Georgian town is a well-kept secret. Let me share it with you.
Just five minutes from the fells and 20 minutes from the beach, it makes a great base to explore the northern Lakes and the Solway Coast, and it’s the gateway to West Cumbria, an area where the lakes, mountains and coastline go largely undiscovered.
Cockermouth isn’t a big town, but it has something special. Jonty Chippendale, acting chairman of the chamber of trade, and owner of the Toy Shop on Main Street, is well placed to talk about the town’s charms.
‘The best thing about Cockermouth is that it’s still a “real” town,’ he says. ‘It hasn’t been swamped by businesses only catering to the tourist trade, like so many Lake District locations, so you will still find great independent shops – there are butchers, a fishmonger, greengrocers and bakeries next door to gorgeous gift and homeware shops or high-end clothes retailers.
‘We’ve got a cinema which shows the quality of independent films you’d normally only find in the likes of Manchester, a deli that the most cosmopolitan of cities would be proud of and so many pubs, cafes and restaurants it’ll take you three weeks to try them all.”
Cockermouth produced a host of famous sons in the 1700s – the poet William Wordsworth, the astronomer Fearon Fallows, John Dalton, who first proposed the theory of atoms, and Fletcher Christian, of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame.
Wordsworth is no doubt the town’s most famous former resident. He and his sister Dorothy were born in a townhouse at the end of Main Street, now called Wordsworth House and Garden. Rescued 59in the 1930s by local people, who were outraged at plans to demolish it and turn it into a bus depot, this attractive property has been restored by the National Trust and is open to the public.
Its Georgian gardens were swamped by the floods which hit the town in 2009, but they have since been restored, including the terrace where the poet once played. There’s a café, but you can take your picnic outside if the sun is shining - the costumed servants who look after visitors will even lend you a rug! The house has also been licensed as a wedding venue.
The manager, Zoe Gilbert, said: ‘Some of my favourite Wordsworth poems relate to the poet’s childhood here at the house. He obviously has such warm memories of growing up here; swimming in the river, playing in the garden and exploring Cockermouth Castle. He famously wrote “the child is father of the man” and his formative years here certainly shaped the poet he became.’
More recently-arrived fans of Cockermouth include author and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, who was born in nearby Wigton, and the writer Hunter Davies, and his novelist wife Margaret Forster, who have a home close by in Loweswater.
Hunter is a regular visitor, but still enjoys exploring. ‘I love all those little lanes which run off Main Street,’ he says. ‘Most people don’t realise there are houses tucked away down there and there are still some that even I haven’t been down. I love a poke around at the auction rooms too, with the clutter and chaos of sale days.’
There’s plenty of history in the town’s landmarks too. The 180-foot spire at All Saints Church, with its distinctive blue clock can be seen from miles around. William Wordsworth was baptised here and his father is buried in the churchyard. Next door is The Saints’ Rooms, now a private function venue. It was built on the site of All Saints’ School where Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian were educated.
In Main Street stands the figure of Richard Southwell Bourke, sixth Earl of Mayo and MP for Cockermouth from 1857 to 1868. His statue, in the centre of Main Street, was erected after he was assassinated while Viceroy and Governor General of India.
The famed Jennings Brewery moved to Cockermouth in 1874 and the water used to brew the famous beers is still drawn from a well. The Castle, perched above the River Derwent, was painted by Turner and it is the home of the Dowager Lady Egremont.
Cockermouth folk can be a feisty bunch. In 1881, when the gas suppliers started asking too much for their fuel, the town responded by fitting electric street lights – one of the first in the world to do so. Special trains were put on for the switch-on and more than 4,000 people came to watch.
Sadly, the technology wasn’t totally reliable and they had to revert to gas.
More recently, in November 2009, the town made the international headlines when it was hit by devastating floods. Visitors can keep a lookout for the ‘tidemark’ stickers and signs on the walls of the buildings which show how terrifyingly high the water levels rose. It is testament to the strength of spirit here that Cockermouth recovered so well and no wonder that the town has won awards for its post-flood restoration.
There’s definitely never been a better time to visit.