Browsing the glossy sales brochure for the soon-to-be Strawberry Grange, I was fascinated to read that Cockermouth is ‘often described as the gateway to the Lake District’. It’s not an expression I’ve ever heard and nor had a straw poll of friends who’ve lived here all their lives. Surely you have to drive through or past most of the Lake District National Park to get to Cockermouth in the first place, so hardly a gateway? Although that does assume you’re approaching from the south.
How wrong could I be? A quick search online and I learn that Cockermouth is simultaneously the ‘northern gateway to the lakes’ and ‘the western gateway to the Lake District’ (edgeguide.co.uk), ‘the gateway to the largely undiscovered Western Lake District’ (golakes.co.uk) and ‘the town regarded by many as the true gateway to the Lake District’ (ukhotel.com). Story’s copywriters clearly have Google too.
Hidden gem town
Oddly, the ‘gem’ word doesn’t get a look in. Cockermouth was designated a ‘gem town’ in 1964, following government concerns that many historical assets were being lost to town centre development and road expansion.
It was hoped, according to ISGAP (Introduction to Standards and Guidance in Archaeological Practice), that ‘through the combination of road planning and heritage preservation… not only historic buildings would be saved, but the skeleton of historic towns would be protected by ensuring the street plan was considered in any planning or redevelopment proposals’.
A list of 324 ‘historic towns’ was drawn up, across the UK. Of these, 51 were considered to be ‘particularly splendid and precious’ and subsequently designated as gem towns.
Back to Mr Google, there appear to be any number of these 51 claiming to be ‘a hidden gem’, ‘a medieval gem’, a ‘true gem’, an ‘architectural gem’, or just ‘a gem of a town’. Neighbouring Whitehaven (one of the 51) styles itself a ‘Georgian gem of a town’. None (that I could find), appear to boast that they actually ARE a Gem Town. Except Cockermouth, where the town council’s elegant website – surely a go-to resource for copywriting inspiration – proudly asserts that this is a’National Heritage ‘Gem’ Town’.
When locals lodged their objections to the development at Strawberry How, a common concern voiced was that such rapid growth and its impact on the infrastructure and roads, might threaten the town’s ‘gem status’.
I’m not sure what we objectors thought came with gem town status. Whether everyone else – like us, I confess – trotted out the words, not really understanding what we were saying. It does, after all, have a nice ring to it. But gem status certainly isn’t a protective measure against exponential growth, as we perhaps imagined, nor is it likely to be ‘lost’ by the town growing larger.
All 51 towns listed in 1964 clearly have ancient heritage – in Cockermouth’s case dating back to the Roman settlement of Dervenitio on the edge of town – but several of the designated gem towns were also cities in 1964. And cities tend to be much larger, usually with a cathedral at their centre. Norwich became a city in 1194, when Richard I granted a charter giving the town rights of self-government. Oxford and Cambridge, Edinburgh and Aberdeen are also on the list, as is Stirling, which became a city in 2002. So, nothing to do with size then.
But I digress. I’m intrigued to know why the ‘gem’ word wasn’t picked up by the brochure writers, along with the ‘gateway’ thing. It’s a USP going begging.
How affordable is ‘affordable’?
I can see how anyone in the market for a new home – and access to deep pockets and a good mortgage broker – might be tempted. They certainly look impressive on paper. Had they been around three years ago, when I was looking to leave Manchester to graze pastures new, doubtless I too would have been interested. But 320 houses in one fell swoop isn’t organic growth (which few would object to). It’s sticking a new hamlet on the edge of a relatively small town. In this case, a hamlet of largely very expensive properties – published costs between £237,000 and £440,000.
‘Everyone needs a home,’ writes fellow campaigner Hilary Tattersall in the Times & Star, (29 July). ‘If the houses on the Strawberry How site went some way to meet real housing need, there might not be the continuing sense of outrage about the development among the Cockermouth community’.
Three years ago, Allerdale council identified that there was a housing need for 1,852 affordable homes in the the area. ‘I wonder’, asks Hilary, ‘which housing priority the Strawberry Grange houses will meet?’
Well, with an ‘affordable’ property’s ‘master bedroom’ measuring 8’6 x 11’11 (in old money), they certainly won’t meet the need for much furniture. There’ll barely be room to swing the proverbial cat.
Mountain rescue calls
‘Hope you’ve had a lovely [newly] married week’, said one friend. But, thanks in no small part to the Climbing Gremlin not having actually left the county, it’s been pretty much business as usual chez nous: him up a mountain or two, me getting on with… well anything really. Over just six days, the team was called to six incidents – a busier week than most. And, during the course of writing and editing this post, they had two more call-outs in the space of five hours!
But we reached ‘peak absent husband’ last Monday, the only evening he hadn’t planned to climb or run or yoga. And had, therefore, dedicated to me. Ha!
The ‘Sorry I’ve got a call-out and it could take a while’ call at 5.00pm was pretty much classic ‘mountain rescue’ – a lady with a head injury following a tumble above Bleaberry Tarn, (between Red Pike and High Stile, high above Buttermere). It was late afternoon, the Gremlin was on his way home from work, nothing to eat since lunchtime, no prospect of food for some time to come, willing to drop everything to run up a mountain with a load of kit, evening gone. Multiply that by 15 or so team colleagues, similarly disposed.
Just after 11.00pm, as they were putting kit back in order at their base, daring to hope a beverage or some food might be nigh, the SMS pings again. This time it’s an emergency search of the River Derwent, after a woman was reported to have jumped off Gote Bridge.
I woke up bleary eyed at one point wondering whether I’d left a fan on somewhere. It wasn’t until next morning I realised an S-92 helicopter had been clacketing overhead, lighting the town up with a ‘mobile sun’. Nothing was found, despite helicopter and crew, rescue team members, police officers, standby ambulance and firefighters from Cockermouth, Workington and Whitehaven being involved. Police were later said to have identified a woman seen in the area at the time of the incident who was ‘safe and well and had not jumped off the bridge’. Make of that what you will. The shiny new husband, meanwhile, ‘jumped’ into bed at 2.30am.
Four hours later he was up and out for work. ‘It’s what I signed up for’, he says. Often. And I wouldn’t have him any other way. So, yes, pretty much business as usual.