The restoration one of the Lake District's oldest pubs
- Credit: Milton Haworth
For 700 years travellers stopped off at The Farmer’s Arms on their way to and from Coniston, deep in the Lake District. Then just two years ago it closed after the sudden death of the landlord and the oak-beamed Grade II listed buildings in which it was housed started falling apart.
But this month sees the first phase of the rebirth of the pub, which was originally founded by the monks from Furness Abbey.
Community action and the special skills of an innovative art group have combined to breath new life into what they call “probably the oldest pub in the lakes”.
'What we are doing here could be classed as a role model for the future of pubs. But it could also be a model for the future of arts organisations,' said Adam Sutherland, director of Grizedale Arts, the group behind the pub’s rescue.
'We are working with the community to create a space that will provide access to the arts, rather than providing a forbidding building to house art imposed on the community,' he added.
Eventually the refurbished Farmer’s Arms will include pop-up shops and creative business start-ups to encourage entrepreneurs to boost the local economy.
Grizedale Arts, famous for their restorations of Lawson Park and The Coniston Institute, will use its network to provide training in a variety of arts from furniture making to film-making and digital design to pottery.
Public spaces will used as micro-museums and exhibition spaces to highlight collections and to document the culture of the Crake Valley. Small-scale experimental agricultural projects, including gardening clubs and beekeeping will be adopted by the local community.
All development will involve commitment to green energy with an ambition of reaching net zero emissions by 2030. But it could well take until the next decade to fulfil the vision of a rural hub. The first step this month is the re-opening of the stable bar.
This will particularly please 77-year-old Wendy Keegan who has lived next door to the pub all her life. She is one of 37 donors who between them raised more than £300,000 to enable Grizedale Arts to buy the pub.
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More than 80per cent of the investors who took up the loan stock offer are local. The others came from Grizedale Arts’ international network of donors.
The community feared that the pub and its site would be bought for redevelopment. Concerns were such that 70 people turned up for a public meeting at Spark Bridge village hall, just before the first pandemic lockdown.
'I was devastated when the pub closed as it was the beating heart of the village,' said Mrs Keegan. 'It was just going to rack and ruin so I was really thrilled with the plans to re-open it.'
Mrs Keegan remembers toddling across the road to the pub as soon as she could walk. She still has a silver top powder ball holder and letter written to her by the landlady on her fifth birthday.
She says the pub has had its ups and downs in the decades she has used it. She particularly remembers the 1970s when acts like Jim Bowen helped make it a star attraction.
'I had my 21st birthday there and my wedding reception. I started my life in the village with the pub and, God willing, I will end my days with a village pub next door,' she added.
As well as the purchase price, Grizedale Arts managed to raise another £300,000 for the renovation, with the help of the Architectural Heritage Fund. But, in-keeping with its philosophy, all the work is being done by volunteers and crafts members using everything they can find and forage on the six-acre site.
Photographs found in draws illustrate how the pub used to look, traditional fittings like locally-made three-plank doors dating from 1780 have been found rotting in sheds, and the pub is littered with antique furnishings from its golden era.
Some of these treasures have had to be slowly dried out before they could be restored and refitted. Cabinet maker and Grizedale Arts member Tom Philipson is in charge of restoration.
He also has a potter’s wheel on which Georgian-style ceramic tankards and tea services are being made for use in the pub, bar and café as they are ready to re-open. Tom is also using his woodwork skills to create wall light shades and other fittings. These are among the skills he, and others from Grizedale Arts, will be teaching volunteers.
The Farmer’s Arms nestles in the Crake Valley, between the villages of Lowick Green and Spark Bridge, on the A5092.
Project manager Emma Sumner said: 'The building needs a lot of love and care. The local parish council has filed it as an asset of community value. There was a six-month moratorium on its sale which enabled Grizedale Arts to raise the funds for the purchase.
'We are looking forward to reopening the pub as the gateway to the lovely Crake Valley. For centuries this has been a space where people can come together to mingle cultures – people from outside the valley meeting the locals to do business and celebrate its history and heritage. We are creating a space where we can support the local community and welcome visitors.'
Inn the history books
As well as being a long-term customer and investor of The Farmer’s Arms, Wendy Keegan has become an unofficial historian of the pub.
A blog post she wrote says: 'I don’t know whether the claim written on one of the walls that it’s "probably the oldest pub in the Lakes" is strictly true, but the central core of it certainly dates back some centuries.'
In fact the pub stands on the site of a watering hole set up by the monks of Furness Abbey to refresh drovers running sheep between the pastures of the Crake Valley and their base near modern-day Barrow.
Wendy takes up the story of its more recent history: 'It was owned by the Wilson family for some generations and was originally a small farm and inn, which brewed and served beer to passers-by.
'After the death of Billy, the last of the Wilson clan, the whole lot, including a couple of fields, was put up for auction around 1930. By pure chance, two brothers and a sister – the Carruthers family – happened to be staying in the area and unexpectedly ended their holiday by buying the whole thing, lock stock and barrel.
'The brothers, Dan and Bart, ran a business in Old Trafford restoring furniture and pictures, and they soon set to work altering and extending the pub. They converted some of the pig and calf hulls into a tastefully furnished lounge, which was decked out in wonderful huge pieces of furniture from the Manchester business, and the wall lined with gilt-framed pictures with labels (often wrongly) attributed to many famous artists.
'They converted a big barn above the lounge into a dance hall. Bert, who ran a big old Daimler used to make trips to Ulverston and the surrounding villages to bring a bevy of young ladies to entice young men of the area to these dances.'
One addition made by the Carruthers was a fake spinning gallery, which, despite appearances, was created by Wendy’s dad in the early 1940s, about the time Wendy was born.
Eventually the pub was bought by brewers William Youngers, who put Clem and Clara Sutcliffe in as managers. It was Mrs Sutcliffe who taught Wendy to sew and embroider, knit and crotchet, as she sat by the fire in the bar while still a young child.
In the 1960s when Britain’s first nuclear sub-marine was being built at Barrow, its commanding officer Peter Sambourne and most of the senior officers rented cottages in the area and used The Farmer’s Arms as their base for 20 years.
In 1986 the pub was taken over for several days by makers of a Sherlock Holmes film starring Sir Ben Kingsley as Dr Watson and appeared in ‘Without a Clue’.