The Lakeland legacy of Joan Rumney Nicholson
PUBLISHED: 16:38 06 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:30 20 February 2013
Generations will benefit from the generosity of a shy Lancastrian, reports Karen Barden
It is a story with all the classic hallmarks - mystery, intrigue and a surprise ending which will help generations.
At its centre is Joan Rumney Nicholson, a shy, intensely private character, whose last act of generosity will benefit Lakeland people struggling to rent affordable homes.
This remarkable lady died last year, aged 87, and she left everything she had - totalling 1 million - to the Lakeland Housing Trust.
Joan was a quiet, scholarly character with a secret past, which friends and members of the trust pieced together when they went through her belongings.
She had lived a solitary life at Cragfoot Cottage in the shadows of Helm Crag and its famed Lion and Lamb summit. After her death, amid a lifetimes papers was a poignant story. Reams of meticulously written notes revealed the real Joan Nicholson.
She had been to at Cambridge and, during her time as wardrobe mistress to the Universitys renowned amateur dramatic club, she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Derek Jacobi and Margaret Drabble.
More surprisingly, during the Second World War she was recruited to join the elite team working at Bletchley Park, famed for cracking Hitlers Enigma code.
From there, Manchester-born Joan spent her career as a teacher in Kendal and Southport, settling into her familys Grasmere cottage in retirement.
Twilight years were devoid of creature comforts - no television, fridge and only a single-bar electric heater for warmth - but she secretly started to amass a fortune.
From the idyllic isolation of Cragfoot she played the stock market and that money will now benefit local people who might otherwise have been forced to move away.
Neighbour Laurence Harwood had told her about the housing trust and he was staggered to find that years later she had kept a brochure about its work. Now, he says, there is a big responsibility to do justice to her kindness.
Joan loved Grasmere and its community, attending church and the reading for pleasure group. Her final act was to try to protect its people.
Cragfoot will be ready for letting soon and options explored for finding other affordable properties. It is hoped the legacy will provide up to three homes.
Trust chairman Charles Flanagan says the state of the property market meant local people had to leave their villages. Rural communities are left coping with the sad realities of school and shop closures, ageing populations and reduced services, he adds.
Of its 33 houses, seven properties have been bequeathed and three given. Others have been bought at well below market prices.
Charles, a retired chartered surveyor, said while he felt privileged to live in the Lakes, he was acutely aware of the struggle faced by many locals.
Not surprisingly, demand for its houses is high and when a tenancy comes up, selection is hard. Its a very difficult process, he admits. The last time I interviewed, all four short-listed applicants would have been suitable.
We look for local connections, people who cant afford private rents, or to buy, preferably with a commitment to the community.
Those turned away sometimes reapply; others are rehoused by the local authority, if theyre lucky, or remain in unaffordable or unsuitable accommodation. Who knows how many are forced to leave?
It was a scenario frighteningly real for Terry and Jane Glaister. Their picture postcard cottage at High Wray, above Lake Windermere, has been home for 11 years.
Both their families have been Lake District dwellers for centuries, but when the electrician and his wife-to-be started looking for a home,
As prospects of leaving their cherished home territory loomed, the trust secured their future, handing over the cottage keys a month before their wedding.
Jane, secretary at the local primary school, says communities like theirs get ever smaller. Our chances of ever being able to buy are very slim. I see the effects at school, where numbers decrease year on year.
The trust has allowed us to stay here and we are very much part of this strong community. I serve on local committees and actively support
Children Holly, 8, and Amber, 4, are being brought up surrounded by extended families and friends.
Another electrician, David Spedding, also has reason to be grateful. His trust cottage in the heart of Hawkshead costs him 260 a month.
Without it, hed be miles from the area, away from work, friends and his parents. Hes on the parish council, the local recreation ground committee and is a vocal supporter of the trust.
Without a lottery win, theres no chance I, or most other average Lakeland wage earners, could buy here, he says. The trust needs to be supported because without affordable housing our communities will disappear.
Sentiments are shared by the Taylforth family, of Skelwith Bridge. Its an old Lake District name; Robert has family roots going back many generations.
He and his South African wife, Santa, managed to get stunning Neaum Hurst cottage five years ago. Maintenance man and waitress, they work up the road in Langdale, where their two infant sons, Dylan, 2, and baby Owen will go to school.
Jobs around here arent paid well and holiday lets make owners more money than having locals as tenants, says Santa.
Paying 68 a week rent, they are grateful beyond words. This is where they want their boys to grow and stay. Its in their blood and the Taylforth tradition.
The trust makes a huge difference to those lucky enough to have become tenants. However, the search for support is relentless.
Laurence Harwood, awarded an OBE for services to conservation, says: People who love this area can make a lasting mark by leaving the trust a property or money.
Its essential to provide homes for indigenous people who are the Lake Districts lifeblood.
Homes in demand
The trust has seen many altruistic acts in its 74 year history. Even in 1937 there was a serious shortage of houses for workers and their families.
As property prices spiralled in the honey-pot hamlets and villages of Englands premier national park, local people couldnt get on the housing ladder.
Second home and holiday markets depleted housing stocks and as council houses were sold off, property at manageable rents became depressingly scarce.
According to Lake District National Park Authority there is demand for 40 affordable homes in the Grasmere area and 842 across the national park as a whole. If you want to find out more about the Lakeland Housing Trust they can be contacted on 01539 721548 or via www.thelakelandhousingtrust.co.uk