Why Milnthorpe has something for everyone
- Credit: Archant
Milnthorpe is on A6 but don’t hesitate to stop there - it has many attractions and places of interest, as Martin Pilkington discovered. Photography by John Cocks
Approach Milnthorpe from the north and you can take in Levens Hall; from the south you’ll pass Heron Corn Mill, a working watermill, and on every side expect the watery west you’ll travel through rolling agricultural land. Exactly the sort of things you expect of rural corner close to the border between north Lancashire and Westmorland.
The tiny market town also fits the bill: old limestone structures grand and humble, plenty of shops – though it’s lost a few and a couple of banks of late – and a fine market cross. But Milnthorpe holds some surprises too.
‘The business started in the town centre in 1996, which is ancient history as regards website design,’ says Chris Ward, operations director of Big Fish Internet, ‘We’re reasonably sure that, of all the other pioneering website companies in the UK from the early days, we’re the only digital specialists still in existence.’
‘Back then, it was hard just trying to explain what the internet was, and finding the people with the skill-set for the work wasn’t easy either,’ recalls Managing Director Rob Holden, with Big Fish since the very early days.
Recruiting and retaining staff in the South Lakes remains tricky, though escaping cities for a more outdoorsy life attracts some. Another problem is internet speeds, but Big Fish is part of the B4RN project spreading broadband through the rural North, as Chris explains: ‘We’re digging trenches currently. In Preston today you may get 100meg if you’re lucky, here it will soon be 1000meg.’
Those speeds will help neighbouring company Run + Rock, suppliers of specialist equipment for mountain enthusiasts, even earlier to adopt the internet than Big Fish. ‘We had shops in Ambleside, Sheffield and Manchester, but then got onto the net in 1994,’ says Andy Hyslop, who owns the business with wife Pat. ‘As that side became most important we dropped the shops, though we’re now fitting out a showroom here again.’
Andy chose Milnthorpe for their operation because of a shortage of freehold commercial premises in the Lakes, where many of their customers do their rock climbing and fell running. The choice has worked well. ‘The Lakes are now just so busy our customers don’t want to be there at the weekend,’ he says. Climbing and fell running are both growing rapidly, Andy is happy to say.
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John Dobson Limited has been established for rather longer – 1704 to be exact. They started making hair combs in York, but long since moved to Milnthorpe, manufacturing in what was once a rope mill. ‘My dad bought the business in the mid-50s, and we started making injection moulded combs in the 1960s,’ says director Andrew Dickinson. ‘Long ago horn was landed at Arnside and turned into combs here,’ he says. You’ll know their brand name – Duralon- from racks of combs and other necessities seen in chemists and supermarkets around the country, and from TV. ‘We get plenty of free advertising on telly,’ says Andrew, ‘The name’s often seen on Coronation Street.’
In a town of about 2,000 people you’d perhaps not expect to find a music shop, but Milnthorpe has a fine one in Penwarden’s. ‘We decided to focus on sheet music which is poorly represented in most music shops,’ says Ian Penwarden-Allan, co-owner with his wife Tracie. ‘And ukuleles, which are huge now thanks to musicians like Ed Sheeran – the old association with George Formby has gone.
‘In half an hour kids have the three basic chords needed for pretty much every song in the universe, and they can sing at the same time. We recently sold 30 orange ukuleles to a local school. They’ve taken over from recorders – thank goodness!’ There speaks a former music teacher - in the background the faint sounds of Tracie giving a singing lesson accompany our chat, and the couple teach brass and piano too.
One thing that Milnthorpe offers that you’d definitely expect of a north west town is good pies, but even here there’s a bit of a twist. ‘Our chicken and ham-hock pie won British pie champion in Melton Mowbray in 2014,’ says Rod Smith of Stuart Smith Butchers, ‘We didn’t expect to win anything and came back with a gold award. This year we’re going to enter our steak pies and large pork pies too.’ It would only be right for us to dominate the steak pie field, but a locally-made pork pie winning in the home of that delicacy? That really would be a surprise.
A surge in people wanting to enjoy the region’s outdoor attractions is helping Lakeland Leisure Homes, who build lodges used for holiday homes and as main residences.
‘We came from a building background, and used to refurbish lodges, then we decided to build our own having learned from other people’s mistakes,’ says Andrew Jenkinson, senior partner in the business, ‘Milnthorpe is handy for the Lakes, anyone interested by a park there can visit us easily.’
‘People don’t want something off the shelf,’ he continues. ‘It’s their home, so they can spec it out with us. We name our models after places in Italy, but of the 100 or more we’ve supplied no two are exactly the same – so we’re worried we’ll run out of Italian city and town names!’
A National Leader
Another surprise is that Milnthorpe is home to a national party leader - Tim Farron of the Lib-Dems has lived in the town for 15 years. A keen fell runner, he recommends two routes for the fit and hardy:
Milnthorpe to Heversham Head, for the beautiful view, and the seven-mile run from Milnthorpe to Beetham’s Fairy Steps and back, a personal favourite.
Did you know?
Where is it?: Milnthorpe sits on a crossroads on the A6 midway between Carnforth and Keswick
What’s to eat? No17 in Park Road is a modern cafe and restaurant serving some very good contemporary dishes in relaxed surroundings
What to do: The market, in the Market Square (where else?) is held on Fridays and gets good reviews for the variety of goods on offer.
Where can I park?: There is a pay and display and there is some free parking in the Market Square except on market day.
Quirky facts: The Fountain is a natural spring that supplied water until the mains arrived in 1906. The plaque on it reveals it was covered in stones in 1880 after a Miss Rawlinson fell in on her way back from evensong. The fountain was concreted over in the 1940s when a circus elephant slipped in and injured itself.
Guitar Maker Jake Lamb has his workshop yards from the town’s central crossroads; Milnthorpe has its own steel band; Lakeland Wildlife Oasis is two miles south of the town, noted for its ‘look-and-learn’ approach. Dallam Outdoors, providing activities for children and adults is nearby; the man granted a market charter here in 1334 was named Alexander de Wyndesore – don’t know why, but we like that name.