Grasmere's rural renaissance

We meet the people reinventing the face of this beautiful Lake District village. Emma Mayoh reports <br/>PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN COCKS

Every year millions descend on the Lake District, guide books in hand, in pursuit of the spectacular panoramas, picture postcard villages and vast expanses of water. In Grasmere, William Wordsworth’s grave, Dove Cottage and Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread are high on the ‘must-see’ list. Some may even arrive in the hope of spotting Sting, who has a house nearby.

Far fewer will know the man responsible for opening many people’s eyes to the charms of this region was an artist from Bolton. Watercolourist Alfred Heaton Cooper spent many years of his life illustrating A & C Black’s travel guides to Britain and Europe, including several on the Lakes.

He grew up in Lancashire in the 1880s and his artistic talents were nurtured by his mother, Alice, who encouraged him to swap life inthe town hall for Westminster School of Art.

He became so successful his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy and he also became well-known in Norway, where he lived for a while. In fact, the original log cabin he, his wife and four children lived in was transported from Norway to the Lake District plank by plank, and is now The Log House restaurant in Ambleside.

Rebecca Heaton Cooper, Alfred’s great-granddaughter and general manager of the Heaton Cooper Gallery in Grasmere, said: ‘Growing up, I never realised the impact the family had on me or other artists. It was just something that was always there. It was only as I got older I realised the significance of it.

‘I’d never thought of it before, but my family will have had an influence on � people visiting the Lake District. They would have seen Alfred’s paintings and wanted to come here. He’s been a strong influence on this area and it’s lovely to know that.’

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Alfred’s extensive body of work inspired future generations of the family. Several members, including Rebecca, now have careers in the art world.

Alfred started the business in 1904 and his son, William, opened the studio in Grasmere in 1938. William spent years camping out on the fells to catch the best of the light. His wife, Ophelia, was a successful sculptor whose works include a statue of St Bede in Carlisle and a Madonna with Child at St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere. The couple’s son, Julian, is a successful artist of international renown and the gallery also has pieces by Julian’s wife, Linda, as well as others by extended family members.

Rebecca, who produces mixed media art work using excerpts from her great grandfather’s travel guides, was working as a designer for Marks & Spencer and Bella Freud’s fashion label before returning home. She is now gradually taking over the reins from her father, John, who has devoted decades of his life to the studio. She hopes to create more exhibition space to accommodate more of the family’s works and one day wants to have a permanent museum to recognise the lives and works of the family. She is also renovating her grandfather’s house as a holiday home for art lovers.

She said: ‘We are custodians of this important collection and we will do our best to make sure we continue the family legacy.’

Another person involved with big plans for the future of Grasmere is Reverend Cameron Butland, rector at St Oswald’s. When ambitious plans to redevelop Grasmere Primary CE School into a community hub with post office, doctor’s surgery and space for community groups were turned down, thoughts immediately turned to the future. An appeal has been lodged with the Secretary of State’s office and it � is now hoped a compromise can be reached.

Rev Butland, chairman of the school governors, said: ‘We were disappointed but not down-hearted. It was mostly rejected because it was felt the plans were incongruous with the area and that is fine. Architecture is based on opinion.

‘But these plans would not only be good for the pupils at the school, but also for the people who live here. It’s about bringing everybody togetherto create a hub at the centre of the village. A lot of the businesses around here are, understandably, tourism focused. Now we need something that is community focused. Hopefully we can reach some compromise.’

Rev Butland said there are other plans in the pipeline to enhance life in the village. The Grasmere Community Interest Company has been set up to increase the amount of affordable housing in the village. It is hoped the old school, if this new scheme gets the go-ahead, will be used for this.

The group also wants to encourage people with large gardens or unused land to provide plots for allotments or market gardening. If this is a success, Rev Butland said he hoped it would lead to a farmers’ market. The group is also looking at ways they can produce energy and power for the village.

He said: ‘The Community Interest Company has many plans but we are only a small group of people. Now we need the help, support and interest of the community to help make this happen. We are going through a next generation, regeneration scheme, creating a Grasmere for the future; others have called it a rural renaissance. Either way, these are exciting times for the village.’

Where is it? Grasmere is located in the heart of the Lake District, near Ambleside. LA22 9SS should get you to the village centre

Where to park? Can get jam-packed in summer but there are a handful of car parks including Broadgate Meadow and Stock Lane. There is also some limited time on-street car parking.

What to do? Soak up the atmosphere with a stroll around the village, get a piece of Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread, enjoy lunch in some of the many cafes and restaurants (The Jumble Room is a former Lancashire Life Food and Wine Awards finalist), visit the grave of William Wordsworth at St Oswald’s or sample some of the shops in the centre.