A unique shopping experience at The Honest Shop in Coniston
This beautiful town is trying to change perceptions of Lakeland with the help of a very unusual shop. Sue Riley reports
A tiny shop measuring less than 10ft square is changing community life in Coniston. Filled with hand knitted hats, crochet blankets, carved coasters, ginger biscuits and exotic pickles, it relies on the honesty of villagers and tourists to make it a success.
The Honest Shop has been just that since it opened in the summer with people particularly enjoying the fact that it’s not staffed and they have to leave their payment in a tin.
But it’s more than just a nice shopping experience, Maria Benjamin of Grizedale Arts believes it may lead to people viewing the Lake District village in a new light. ‘Visitors see what people are actually doing in the village and it’s more than that - the locals feel appreciated, I think it makes people feel a bit differently about Coniston,’ she says.
Now members of the youth club through to villagers in their 80s and 90s regularly sell items in The Honest Shop which makes about £1,000 a month.
Twenty per cent goes to pay for the refurbishment of the shop’s home, the Coniston Institute, and the rest is taken round to the contributing villagers in small paper envelopes.
‘People remember a little shop, unstaffed, where you can buy really beautiful things. It’s the little things which really are memorable,’ says Maria. ‘More and more people are coming forward. People did not realise that they could make things that people would want to buy.’
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Maria works for Grizedale Arts - which developed The Honest Shop - and is she is keen to promote other things in the village. For instance, their idea to ask Ray Davies, of The Kinks, to write a play for the local school led to a packed house and lots of national publicity.
Last year they were also offered a free stall at London’s prestigious Frieze Art Fair where international artists sell their work. Maria decided that London called for London prices and items like Audrey Grisedale’s knitted pears were priced at £10, rather than the £1 they were selling for in Coniston. They sold out. As did Miss Margaret Procter’s 250 ginger biscuits.
‘It’s been going very well. It’s a home industry bringing out the talent that people never knew they had,’ says Miss Procter, 86. ‘It’s been like a breath of fresh air. I have lived here for 28 years, my roots are here.’
Local mechanic Lee Tarr agrees. Lee, 39, has been selling slate coasters and teapot stands at the shop and can’t keep up with demand. ‘I got a bit sick of it before Christmas, I couldn’t make enough. Every time I went into the shop they had sold out,’ he says.
Born and bred in Coniston where he now lives with his wife, he said the shop was really helping to keep the Institute going. ‘This has brought another dimension…shown how the community can get involved. It has brought a lot of people with different skills together,’ he added.
Despite its success, most people don’t visit Coniston for its shopping though. Its outdoor activities, walking, boating and links with Sir Donald Campbell who died after setting the world water speed record are all major attractions. The Ruskin Museum with its new Bluebird Wing is the main focus for Campbell fans - inside there is a dedicated space for the Bluebird K7 which Campbell was driving when he crashed in 1967 after setting the record of 320 miles per hour.
The boat is currently being restored in Tyneside but volunteer Novie Dzinore believes it will be a long job. Novie, who says he is the only villager who regularly goes to Tyneside to work on the Bluebird K7, said: ‘I have only been here for seven years but I have always admired Campbell as a hero. In the next three months Bluebird will be starting to look like her old self.’
At the Tourist Information Centre they say many youngsters do not know about Campbell’s achievements and it’s the area’s walking and hiking which draws them to the village. ‘We are hoping the Bluebird will come back soon but we do not know when, younger people do not really know who he was,’ says Janine Kilgour. Visitors appear more curious about Coniston Old Man although many don’t seem to have a clue what it is.
‘People come in and say ‘what’s the old man?’ and ‘can we get a bus back from the top of it?’ said fellow volunteer Sue Roberts.
Although second home ownership is high in the village there remains a good sense of community spirit. When the Tourist Information Centre was set to shut a few years ago, volunteers got together to keep it open; it was named as one of the best in the North West shortly afterwards.
Some holidaymakers also decide to retire and live in the village full time and Coun Anne Hall says many of them get deeply involved in Coniston life. ‘New people bring new ideas,’ says Mrs Procter, a member of the many village art groups, country dancing and ramblers.
Yet holiday homes inevitably put house prices outside of most villagers’ reach. Five years ago Coun Hall (Mrs Procter’s niece) was one of the people to address the problem and now 22 houses for long-term local occupancy have been built. ‘We have met the current need,’ she says. A typically proactive attitude from a surprisingly proactive place.
• Coniston Water offers plenty of sailing, kayaking and swimming. For a more leisurely day out try a journey on the National Trust’s rebuilt steam powered Gondola which does trips up and down the lake from April to November. There are also two Coniston Launches, converted to run on solar panels, which traverse the water.
• On the eastern side of the lake you can visit Brantwood, the home of Victorian artist, writer and thinker John Ruskin. He is buried in the village churchard.
• Peel Island towards the south of Coniston Water is said to be the inspiration for Wild Cat Island in Arthur Ransome’s Swallow and Amazons.
• Don your walking boots to climb the Old Man of Coniston which stands at 2,634ft. Or if walking doesn’t appeal there’s pony trekking, camping and other outdoor pursuits in the village. For those who like a challenge the 15km Coniston Trail Race is being held on October 5 2013.
• Pay homage at the Coniston Brewery Company run by Ian Bradley which produces the award winning Bluebird Bitter.
• A display revealing the story of James Hewitson is on show at the Ruskin Museum for the first time. The son of a Coniston farmer, Hewitson went on to receive the Victoria Cross from King George V for his bravery during four years of trench warfare. The lifetime teetotaler received a military funeral at Coniston Church in 1963.
• Coppermines Valley lies behind the village. There’s a gravel path leading up to old disused mineshafts and a quarry where mining for slate and copper is believed to have taken place since Elizabethan times.
• Bert Smith is the violin maker whose instruments were praised by violinist extraordinaire Yehudi Menuhin. Examples of his work can be found in the Ruskin Museum.
• The beauty of the Coniston hills is captured by mountain artist Joy Grindrod who has a studio on the oustkirts of the village and is also a longstanding member of the mountain rescue team. To see her work go to www.joygrindrod.co.uk
Yew Tree Farm on the northern outskirts of the village doubled as Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top home in the Hollywood movie Miss Potter. It’s a also a B&B and sells meat from their herwick sheep and belted galloways.