Dogs, Arts and Religion - Why more and more people are visiting Keswick

Market Square

Market Square - Credit: Archant

Keswick is already one of the most popular towns in the Lake District and it is set to win even more fans, as Mike Glover reports

Lake Road

Lake Road - Credit: Archant

KESWICK, one of the most successful of the Lake District’s tourist towns, is thriving, which is good news for anyone with canine friends.

Visitor numbers are soaring, the money flows in and changes, both realised and planned, ensure it will continue to flourish.

With just 5,000 full-time residents, the town on the shores of Derwentwater routinely caters for six times that number of human visitors at any one time.

It is no wonder that it has been estimated that 98 per cent of the jobs locally rely directly or indirectly on the tourist trade.

The Moot Hall in Market Square

The Moot Hall in Market Square - Credit: Archant

In 2014 it hosted 6.9 million visitors, a rise of 4.4% on the previous year. More importantly they spent £417 million, up 9.7% on 2013.

‘This year is looking even better,’ said the town’s tourism manager Linda Furniss. ‘The recession is over for us. People are back and they have money to spend.’

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One of the town’s most iconic attractions, Theatre by the Lake, confirms that it is enjoying an increase in patrons, of which there are 130,000 a year.

The theatre was famously opened by Dame Judi Dench and her husband, the late Michael Williams, in December 1999. But theatre has a longer tradition in the town.

In the 1950s a group of professional performers took repertory theatre on the road in a convoy of four vehicles that converted into a 220-seat temporary stage in places that didn’t see live plays.

The Bolton Octagon, Dukes at Lancaster and the Royal Exchange in Manchester all owe their existence to this Century tour, as it was known.

The story goes that the vehicles’ MOT ran out in Keswick in 1975 and the theatre was left on the edge of the lakeside car park, becoming known as the Blue Box. In 1995 it was cleared to make way for the Theatre by the Lake. The year before it opened Patric Gilchrist was recruited as executive director, a job he still has.

There has been much gloom and doom written in the national media about regional theatre, and even in Keswick numbers have fallen back from the peak of 134,000 in 2009, but only slightly.

It puts on 750 performances a year, operating all year round both as a repertory theatre, with its own company of actors, and as a receiving theatre and visitor centre.

It also puts on a variety of events, including music, including jazz, folk, classical and operatic, dance and a 10-day literary festival in March. There are 100 such events in a year.

In August it will be possible to see six plays in one week with its Summer Season coming to a climax. This year it features: an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s 39 Steps; Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams; Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party; the world premiere of The Lady of the Lake by Benjamin Askew; Fallen Angels by Noel Coward; and the regional premiere of Enlightenment by Shelagh Stephenson.

But Mr Gilchrist is quite aware that people’s habits are changing, with more last minute bookings and more short stay visitors. ‘We used to say “come and see six plays”. Now we say “choose from six plays.”’

But this mixed and varied programme ensures that the Theatre by the Lake doesn’t suffer the same fate as other regional theatres around the country.

Two major changes are afoot: Next month the theatre opens a new purpose built and stand-alone café between it and the lake, opening up staggering views of Catbells across the water.

This was partly financed by the Arts Council to encourage the theatre to develop alternative revenues with the public purse strings being pulled ever tighter. The café will seat 100 customers inside, and up to another 100 outside.

The other change is that Mr Gilchrist and his long-standing artistic director Ian Forrest are both due to leave in 2016. Mr Gilchrist, now 68, said: ‘It will be a new era, but it is time for a change. Any theatre needs an injection of new energy and ideas. There is likely to be keen competition for the jobs in the profession.’

Elsewhere in Keswick, there are plenty of attractions, including a new indoor King Kong climbing centre, with both an ice-wall for serious climbers and innovative play areas for youngsters.

At the end of July 15,000 Christians from across the world, who since 1875 have flocked to Keswick for its Convention, make way for the more traditional secular holiday-makers. This year’s 140th anniversary convention majored as always on Bible teachings, worship and fellowship, as well as making the most of the stunning countryside round-about.

This is just one of numerous festivals. One of the most successful, only introduced last year, is the Scruffs Dog Show, in Fitz Park at the end of June.

With awards like “most historic town”, “best drive in Britain” and the UK’s “most dog-friendly town”, there are plenty of reasons for Keswick to look to the future with optimism.

Certainly one major hotel chain agrees.

The family-owned and run Cumbrian hotel group, Lake District Hotels Ltd, this summer completed a renovation and remarketing of former The Queen’s Hotel.

Every part of the hotel has being refurbished, including all 34 bedrooms, corridors, lounges, bar, reception, restaurant, kitchen, and service areas as well as new heating/water system throughout.

Group directors, mother and daughter, Kit Graves and Dani Hope have been steering the design and look of the interiors alongside Frank Whittle Partnership, from Preston, who have worked with the Lake District Hotels Group for the last six years on refurbishments in the other six hotels.

Now named Inn on the Square, the hotel attempts to bring a hint of urban-cool to Keswick.

Guests can chose from two different room types: Herdwick and Town View. The Herdwick rooms feature one wall dedicated to the Lake District’s famous breed of sheep.

Dani Hope, marketing director, said: ‘We wanted the design of Inn on the Square to be completely different to anywhere else in the area. It is important that the hotel evokes a strong sense of place where our guests can unwind and soak up the atmosphere of the Lakes, but with a modern twist.’

And yes, like all seven of the Lake District Hotels, and most attractions and accommodation in Keswick, dogs are welcome.

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