Kendal turns success into an art form

Kendal's Town Cryer, Richard Matthews

Kendal's Town Cryer, Richard Matthews - Credit: Archant

A feast of festivals, community spririt and a burgeoning art scene makes this Lakeland town a magnet for visitors, writes Mike Glover

Sculptor, Danny Clahane, is the first 'resident' at The Factory

Sculptor, Danny Clahane, is the first 'resident' at The Factory - Credit: Archant

A nyone who knows the market town of Kendal will not have been surprised by a national newspaper including it in a list of Britain’s best places to live. A positive community spirit, good shops and attractive outdoor spaces were cited by The Sunday Times.

When campaigning charity Action for Market Towns chose Kendal for its annual conference a couple of years ago, organisers praised its mix of heritage, culture and festivals, a diverse shopping experience and a strong education offer.

So it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking these attributes come naturally to the town which used to promote itself as the gateway to the Lake District. But like everywhere else, it has had to be fast on its feet and reinvent itself over the last decade or so.

There was a time when big employers like Clark’s shoes, Axa Insurance and Scottish Provident ensured its prosperity. They have all gone, and the agriculture industry that used to underpin the local economy has had its own recession. Yet, Kendal still has an unemployment rate of around one per cent.

Paula Scott of Kendal Futures

Paula Scott of Kendal Futures - Credit: Archant

So how has a town, renowned at different times for wool, snuff and mint cake, managed it? A willingness to use private and public partnerships, a determination to prosper by hard work and not put out the begging bowl and an undoubted entrepreneurial vibrancy all feature strongly.

And what is going on now in the town will only add to the feel-good factor.

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Kendal Futures is an organisation set up in 2007 to address the best ways of ensuring the town thrived and members strive to find ideas to keep things growing.

Manifestations of their work include street furniture, sign posts, maps and displays of pride in the environment around the town. But it is the behind-the-scenes networking and problem-solving which really ensures success.

Debbie Bond at The Brewery Arts Centre

Debbie Bond at The Brewery Arts Centre - Credit: Archant

Outside money has become harder to find, so Kendal has responded in typical fashion by enthusiastically embracing the concept of a Business Improvement District scheme. This means local businesses have voted to pay a levy on their rates to keep delivering the sort of initiatives that will benefit trade and the environment of the town.

Among its priorities will be improving car parking, always one of the big issues in market towns like Kendal, marketing its attractions and crucially supporting events and festivals.

It is these last initiatives which have truly shown Kendal at its best in the last few years. Some, like Mintfest, which showcases the best of street entertainment from all over the world, the Westmorland County Show and Kendal Mountain Film Festival have national if not international reputations.

Others like long-established Kendal Torchlight and newcomers like Kendal Wool Gathering fill niches that directly plug into Kendal’s heritage.

This year’s offerings kicked off at the end of March, with the Kendal Festival of Food which grows bigger and better every year.

This month sees the Freerange Comedy Festival at Brewery Arts Centre from May 12th to 18th. It attracts national figures like Omid Djalili, Lucy Porter and Arthur Smith to South Lakeland.

On the last day of May and the first of June Country Fest 2014 will again bring independent food and drink producers and suppliers from across Cumbria and the North West to the County Showground at Crooklands.

It will be the sixth year of Country Fest which celebrates the quality and diversity of the region’s independent food and drink producers and suppliers. There will be demonstrations in the Food Theatre throughout the weekend and also a Beer Festival marquee.

The event also has canine lovers in mind. It has sheep dog trials running throughout the weekend and on the Saturday, all dogs are welcome to take part in the Companion Dog Show. On Sunday there’ll be the third Terrier Show, with 20 different classes.

So why do festivals matter to Kendal? Paula Scott, Kendal Futures project co-ordinator, says: ‘They bring a buzz and real European vibrancy to the town.

‘Local people and visitors alike can enjoy themselves and there are undoubted economic benefits with accommodation, restaurants and cafes all filling up. And they do a lot for the reputation of Kendal, putting it on the map all the time.’

They certainly seem to be working, helping to keep the town punching way above its weight for attractions and facilities.

A meagre 28,000 residents would never normally support 450 retailers, including Marks & Spencer and Beales department store, one of England’s top regional art galleries in Abbot Hall, the Brewery Arts Centre, the Quaker Tapestry and a resurgent museum with a world class collection of taxidermy.

And how’s this for an illustration of how Kendal’s determination to succeed?

Carpet manufacturers Goodacres left the town several years ago and their factory became derelict near the Lancaster Kendal canal head, off Lound Road. The owners spent time and effort trying to attract Tesco but they pulled out. So did the factory crumble away? Not in Kendal it didn’t.

Paul Procter, director of local developers Meal Bank Properties, and Andy Smith, who runs agency Cactus Creative, got together to set up a ‘sustainable hub for creative industries’ to be called The Factory. Any echoes of Andy Warhol’s New York home are entirely deliberate.

A seven-figure investment in the eight-acre site is now steaming ahead, providing workshops, performance spaces, studios, and offices for a whole range of creative industries.

Most of the units are already taken even though the building won’t be ready for occupation until the summer.

Among the takers are Kendal Arts International, organisers of Mintfest and the International Comic Art Festival, and Brewery Arts who want a large event space for big concerts. There are photographers, sculptors, painters, furniture makers, print-makers and potters.

Andy says: ‘Artists and other creative people were being squeezed out of town by high street prices and lack of space to do what they want.

‘They were working from home or from their garages. By offering them reduced rents and grouping them together we aim to give them somewhere to feed off each other.’

Old textile names for the different rooms will be kept including Yarn rooms, Loom shed, drying room, dyeing room, Old Barn and Workers’ Cottages. Building on Kendal’s past means that its future is looking good.