Kendal - The Gateway to Culture

Kendal might be recognised world wide for its energy boosting mint cake but there's a lot more to this historic Lakeland town, as Amanda Griffiths discovers Photography by John Cocks

If the Lake District had its own Capital of Culture it would be hard to deny Kendal the title.

While it is affectionately known as the Gateway to the Southern Lakes, its architectural grandeur and array of galleries and museums make it a gateway to culture, too.

While one of its most famous sons, the historian Dr David Starkey, bemoans the town’s lost architecture, enough remains to make this a memorable place to visit.

The recession may have affected many of our lives, but one benefit has been the so-called ‘staycation’ which has encouraged us to stay and spend at home. It’s a theory supported by Helen Watson, artistic director for the Lakeland Arts Trust based at Abbot Hall Gallery and Museum in Kirkland, Kendal’s historic quarter.

‘The Lakes are generally seen as a weekend destination and coming to Kendal gives visitors a rounded experience in one go,’ she says. ‘They can enjoy the walking, have that country pub experience but also soak up some of the culture which is abundant in the area.

‘People say Abbot Hall is one of Kendal’s greatest assets. We’re known nationally in the arts world for putting on high quality exhibitions.

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‘For a small town like this to have a gallery jam-packed with works you would normally find in Manchester or Liverpool is, I think, fantastic.’Special exhibitions can be particularly popular. The recent Lowry show attracted 18,000 visitors with people coming people from Scotland and London after seeing rave reviews in the national media.

Abbot Hall, a Grade I listed building, is famous for its permanent collection of stunning oil paintings by Dalton-born George Romney as well as a superb collection of pictures by Turner and other watercolourists. But it also has a reputation for its four temporary exhibitions each year.

The plans for next year start with ‘Drawn from Life’, which explores landscapes in the gallery’s own collection as well as featuring new works. A second show features the work of Aspatria-born Sheila Fell, described by LS Lowry as one of the greatest painters of her time. Although she spent most of her life in London she was deeply affected by the Cumbrian landscape, especially the more rugged west coast.

Kendal’s cultural success is also underlined by the renowned Brewery Arts Centre, which sees more than 300,000 people walk through its doors each year. ‘We’re doing OK,’ says Debbie Bond, senior Marketing Officer at the Brewery Arts Centre. ‘You can never be sure what’s going to happen which is why we’re working hard to make sure we’re offering our audiences what they want to see.

‘We have a loyal following, the Brewery means an awful lot to people here. Last season, in particular, we saw theatre do really well.

‘This season our programme doesn’t really start until the end of January. All month we have an exhibition called Alk in the Park by husband and wife team Frances Winder and John Davenport with some fantastic pictures.

‘Then we kick off the season with an exhibition by Eve Wright featuring photographs of art work created on Morecambe Beach.

 ‘I think Kendal does have a critical mass of cultural activities all within a short walking distance. People come from all over the country for specific events like Mint Fest and the Mountain Film Festival which broke all records with 60,000 visitors this year.

‘But Kendal also has some fantastic eateries at the moment and with a good market it also has the feel of a “proper’’ towns.

‘There’s an awful lot going on in Kendal,’ adds town crier, Richard Matthews, who came to Kendal to retire seven years ago. Since then he’s been � busier than ever and now works for the National Trust as well working as town crier.

‘I was at the food festival in Kendal recently which was incredibly successful; also the mayor and I were at the Christmas lights switch on and the streets were packed with people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in the centre of Kendal.

‘The new K Village shows people have confidence in the town - developers wouldn’t be spending their money here otherwise.

‘It’s a beautiful and historic town with fabulous shops and cafes. If there’s one thing you shouldn’t miss on a trip here it’s seeing the yards and the beautiful buildings in the town centre.’

Simon Thomas knows a thing or two about these yards - he owns Staff of Life Artisan Bakery in Berry’s Yard, Finkle Street. ‘I think Kendal is so nice and interesting because of all the little yards, alleys and ginnels,’ he says. ‘It’s about being adventurous and getting away from the main streets. You never know what you might discover.

‘We’re in a little alley with a deli and caf�/restaurant and a cracking hairdressers. All that is down a little alley which you wouldn’t even know was here.

‘We’ve certainly seen a rise in food tourism. What’s nice is they’ll often ask us where to go next so you can point them to butcher, who can then point them to the fishmonger and so on.’

 ‘I also think we’re always just a little bit behind the south,’ says John Barron, director of the famous Kendal Mint Cake. ‘The recession hits there first and then it ripples out. I don’t think business has been too different this year, we produce about 130 tonnes of mint cake a year and that hasn’t changed!’

That’s a lot of sugar, but mint cake is one of the things that makes the name Kendal special.

‘I’ve been brought up with mint cake, but it’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve realised how much people do associate the town with the product - even when I’ve met people on the other wide of the world,’ he says.‘The fact it is recognised all over the world when it’s such a small family business in a small town is great!’

Where is it? Kendal is six miles from the M6. Leave at junction 36 and follow the A591. Put LA9 4HE into your sat nav and you should find it.

Where can I park? There are several pay and display short and long stay facilities.

What can I do there? Visit the Museum of Lakeland life for a fascinating insight into the area’s history and heritage; take in the beautiful surroundings of the parish church; have a stroll along the beautiful River Kent; visit Kendal Museum which includes an exhibition on the history of Kendal Castle in its attractions and might inspire its own visit up Castle Hill. Visit the independent food and gift shops for personal service, attention to detail and a special gift.

What about refreshments? In a place like Kendal it all depends on your tastes and there really is something for everyone, whether you want pub grub, an award-winning restaurant or a tea shop.

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