Slicing the Chocolate Box

BY JIM WEBSTER

It’s an interesting question, how soon should we open up the countryside and tourist hotspots to visitors. I thought I’d visit Towngill situated in the south of the beautiful Lake District and ask a selection of people.

First I was chatting to George and Mary. They retired more than twenty years ago when George was sixty. He was something in the City, Mary stayed at home and looked after the children. She also did a lot of charity work. They sold a nice house somewhere down south to buy their cottage. They threw themselves into the local community, and even though they’re both in their eighties, they were stalwarts of church and village hall. Since the lockdown they’ve been very careful, not leaving their garden. They have had all their food delivered from Booths and when not gardening have been glued to the BBC to keep up with what is happening. Mary is perhaps heavier than she should be, but nobody would be so harsh as to call her obese. George had a bypass some years ago and his diabetes and high blood pressure are under control. Frankly they’re terrified of anybody coming into the village bringing the virus, and want the lockdown to last as long as possible.

Then I dropped round to see Christopher and Jacqueline. They were teachers and cleverly managed their careers so that in their forties they got jobs in Cumbria. They saw the way things were going and when Christopher was offered voluntary redundancy he jumped at it. He then took his pension a year later at 55 and Jacqueline followed suit a year later. They both frankly admit that this year has been amazing. The Easter Weekend was unbelievable, the weather was beautiful, the scenery stunning and they had the fells to themselves with absolutely no visitors. Not only that but they can drive into Kendal to do their shopping in half the time it normally takes and life is just so much more civilised. This, they feel, is what the area should be. It’s the best thing that ever happened to them.

Paul and Louise farm just above the village. Theirs is a small beef and sheep farm. Paul’s been busy with lambing and calving, and Louise normally helps out in the village shop three mornings a week. The shop job came to a dead stop, Louise suspects that with the drop in trade, her job is inevitably going to disappear permanently. Certainly she has been told that there’s no point her going in until the tourists come back. On the other hand that’s been something of a blessing. Once the silage season started down in Furness, Paul has been working with some mates on one of the silage teams. Now Louise looks after the farm. In this she’s helped by their son, Harry, who should be at school but obviously isn’t. He’ll be leaving next year and wants to farm. With the agricultural college closing at Newton Rigg, Louise is a bit uncertain about how they can organise an apprenticeship for him. Their daughter Sarah is also at home. She was working full time for the hotel up the road, it does pony trekking. She still works a couple of hours every morning helping clean out the stables. Apparently the hotel is deathly quiet, just the manager and his wife, the other staff are furloughed or still trapped in Spain. Louise and Paul are in two minds about the tourists returning. Paul hopes that if they do come back, it’ll be after he’s got his silage so he’s not fighting his way against the traffic on narrow lanes clogged with traffic. Louise worries about the long term and what will happen to her job and Sarah’s if the tourists don’t return.

Towngill has some holiday cottages. I was asking George and Mary about them. Apparently a couple of cottages are still owned by the children of the last people to live there. The children live and work elsewhere (in one case Manchester, in the other, Sydney.) Two more were, he thinks, bought as an investment opportunity. They’re all managed by a company with an office in Windermere. I thought I’d talk to them and got put through to Terry who lives in Kendal. The company he works for manages sixty or seventy of these cottages. Obviously nothing’s happening and Terry has been furloughed. He does the overall management. His is the number tourists ring at midnight when they’re too drunk to read the instructions to the microwave. He also organises the cleaning. He has a bunch of ladies from Millom. He merely phones them and they turn up, three of them in a battered Ford Kia. The company pays a fixed sum to clean and prepare a house for the next guests and these ladies can do two cottages between children going to school and coming home again. He does worry a bit about them. Two of them at least are the family breadwinners, and of course they weren’t employed, or even had contracts. Millom isn’t a good area to look for new jobs. Obviously if he still has a job after the lockdown is over, he’ll be in touch with them immediately they start taking bookings.

Finally there’s Dez and Tracy. I couldn’t meet them because they weren’t there. They have the second home. They bought it with the money they were left when Tracy’s mother died. Dez was born nearby but left the area thirty years ago to find work. He and Tracy spend their holidays here and hope to retire here. Dez still has family in the area. They’ve had a miserable few weeks. They live in a small flat overlooking a rundown industrial estate. The one bright spot has been the drug dealers haven’t shown their faces down there. Tracy has asthma and hasn’t dared go outside the flat since the end of March.

Now obviously I haven’t actually been to visit all these people. Indeed one thing I do regret is that I hadn’t got a legitimate excuse to go into the Southern Lakes over the Easter Weekend. You’d have thought somebody could have had an emotional or financial crisis and needed help. There again I was still getting over having the virus myself so whilst I was safe to be with, I didn’t really feel like a lot of travelling.

Also you’d struggle to find Towngill on the map. But there is no shortage of small communities like it scattered around the South of Cumbria. Then there are the people. No, they don’t live in the same village, but they all exist. I know them and they all live in the general area. All I’ve done is changed the names.

Then there’s the demography of the village. Well the map above shows the proportion of the population over 65 in various areas.

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So when will we open the tourist spots? Will opening them irrevocably split communities? Will tourists find a welcome or hostility from inhabitants who don’t want them? Remember that Terry and his ladies from Millom won’t even be asked, one way or another.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quad-bikes and dogs) It’s available here.

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