The haunting of Coniston in Cumbria
PUBLISHED: 22:06 12 January 2010 | UPDATED: 19:07 13 April 2016
A report claims second homes are turning rural communities into ghost villages. But that's not the whole story, as Mike Glover discovered
IT IS a figure that is likely to cause a gasp of disbelief. The substantial village of Coniston, in Lancashire North of the Sands, has more than 600 properties and 53% of them are owned by non-residents, either as second homes or holiday accommodation.
The perceived wisdom is that the biggest threat to community strength, and retaining a young population, is the explosion in second home ownership. Yet Coniston continues to thrive both commercially and as a community. How does it do it?
The first obvious answer is that Coniston is a very special place. Nestling between Coniston Water and Coniston Old Man means that it has always attracted visitors, some of whom want to stay and others want to live there at least some of the year. A high percentage of visitors come year after year - hence the demand for holiday homes.
Ever since Victorian thinker, critic and artist John Ruskin had his beloved Brantwood built across the lake, Coniston's born and bred have been used to welcoming off-comers.
Their experience tells them that there are two types of non-residents, the good and the other sort. Locally managed holiday lets are good, like the Copper Mines, which has 60 to 70 properties and employs a local maintenance manager to make sure that any fall-out from visitors is cleaned up.
There are some remotely managed lets with a not so good reputation. They let tenants leave black bin bags outside the gate when they leave the area, whatever the collection day. So badgers drag them all over the village spilling the contents.
Then there are those who allow drains to be blocked by leaves, causing local floods which can trap villagers in their homes and in cold weather turn into ice-rinks.
Like-wise, pure ignorance can lead second home owners into trouble. One recently decided to pretty up his garden, not realising the concrete base he was installing blocked a storm drain.
The biggest risk of a high proportion of non-residents is the lack of community, or neighbourliness. Take The Banks, old miners' cottages from the Copper days, which are much sought after. One row of six is now all second homes. A row of 12 has just five lived-in all year round. Another row of 12 has just two, and so on.
What this means is that there are fewer neighbours to chat to, fewer people to pop in and see if you want something picking up from the shops or if you are all right.
The most welcome of temporary residents are, therefore, the ones who get involved in the community: attend church, join the clubs, use the local shops.
Coniston born and bred Anne Hall, parish and district councillor who also represents South Lakeland District Council on the Lake District National Park Authority, delights in telling the story of the second generation second home owner who makes full use of her brother, Harold Hutchinson's butcher shop.
'When I told him my brother was coming up to his 70th birthday, the next thing I knew there was a bottle of whisky delivered to the shop. This visitor from Bolton just loved the fact that my brother still delivered his meat around the hill-farms and hamlets.'
It is this old-fashioned lifestyle which attracts the visitors, as much as the mountains and lakes.
But Coniston is just the right size to maintain its own bank, petrol station, motor mechanic, five pubs, four churches, supported by the locals and holiday-makers alike.
And while the holiday-makers and second home owners have become vital for the economy, there are still challenges like the inconsistent cash flow for businesses, which can be drastically affected by vagaries of the weather.
This also affects employment, with cafes, shops and others reluctant to pick up fixed staff costs when rain may mean no customers or revenue.
The schools also face regular fights to survive closure threats. The primary currently has just 55 pupils, when it should have around 120 for a village the size of Coniston. The secondary, John Ruskin School, on the other hand is in the middle of a revival, having increased from 160 to 208 in the last three years.
Surprisingly just 28 of these children can walk to school. Its catchment area includes villages and hamlets round-about and even attracts 46 bussed in from Ulverston, which has its own secondary school.
Its recent success is also boosting the wider population with families moving into Coniston to be near the school.
Young people do stay or return from university education to live in Coniston. A survey by the parish council five years ago showed 60 per cent of 16-20-year-olds wanted to stay. One environmental science graduate recently retrained as a plumber to make sure he could work back in the village.
This youthful energy is vital for the fighting spirit. Coniston has a fearsome reputation for keeping control of vital local facilities. It still has an independent Co-op which has been supplying groceries, and still dividends, for 100 years. It is run by a local management committee.
When the lottery heritage fund turned down Ruskin museum twice for financial support for housing of The Bluebird, the ill-fated boat that crashed and killed Donald Campbell in his world water speed attempt on Coniston Water, the village didn't give up.
With typical grit, it raised the £520,000 needed. The building is now waiting for Bluebird to be restored. Then there was the reaction to the closure of Tourist Information Centres across the Lakes by the Lake District National Park Authority.
Local councillors, business people and volunteers got together to open their own, by the Crown Hotel, the day after the old one closed. In the first year there was a 300 per cent increase in bookings for local accommodation.
There is definitely a theme here: the locally managed Co-op, the TIC, sports grounds, the museum, an open-air swimming pool at John Ruskin School, available for visitors in the summer, and manned by volunteers. In fact there are around 50 self-financed, self-run organisations in Coniston.