There are certain famous events and characters in Lakeland history that have almost become legends, so often are they referred to in general conversation. Yet the people who remark on them today were for the most part not there at the time, or not yet born! People often recall events like the General Strike, or describe famous characters like the Yellow Earl - but the familiarity with which they describe the subject depends almost entirely on details that have been handed down, or read in books.
This week, The Way We Were listens exclusively to the first-hand memories of people who were actually there at the time when history was made, and re-live their personal and colourful accounts.
There are few elderly people aged over 75 in the Ambleside or Grasmere areas who could claim NOT to have witnessed the extraordinary arrival of the sports-loving Yellow Earl of Lonsdale throughout the years when he patronised Grasmere Sports. For although he may have been less than a financial wizard, leaving the family fortunes in a very sick state at his death, he was every bit the colourful character his personal yellow livery might suggest. People turned out by the score to see his entourage of yellow carriages and latterly cars stream down Kirkstone Pass; and he had an informal way of talking to the local sportsmen he loved to visit which left behind a wealth of affectionate memories:
"He was called the Yellow Earl and all his coaches were yellow. It was a beautiful show to see them coming down with the horses. You know, the last time I remember Princess Mary was there and we, as (St John) Ambulance formed a Guard of Honour for her coming out of the tent, I remember. Oh gosh, it was quite a thing you know, then, he used to talk to my father like I'm talking to you."
One very well-known Ambleside hound trailer once had such success with a dog that it won the trials three times in a row and was amazed to receive a personal momento from the Earl himself:
"Lord Lonsdale sent him that model of his own dog, for winning three years in the trials. He didn't know he was getting that, and it was the thing my father always valued...we once went to Grasmere Sports and Lord Lonsdale was there and he used to come across and say, 'Now, what's going to win the trail...now go on, into the tent, and get yourself a glass of whiskey,' and he turned to me and said, 'The butler will give you something', and I remember I got a glass of lemonade. But what I remembered about him was his hand, when he shook hands with me, it was just like so soft, and not like a gentleman's hand at all."
The General Strike was a landmark of the depressed 1920s, but the thin support for it in this area was probably due to lack of unionisation in small local businesses, and the fear of losing much-needed jobs, even those that paid low wages. Large numbers of apprentices could not strike anyway, and older men lived in fear of the gaffer. However, interest in the Strike ran high, but it was hard to get first hand news of its progress when even the newspapers were on strike, and the Strike special edition broadsheets probably never circulated outside the major cities. Despite this, people were keen to hear what news they could:
"The Big Strike was on in 1926, and of course in those days we hadn't a wireless or television, there was nothing of that, and things were very disrupted. The miners were out, everybody was out, it was a General Strike, you see. As lads it didn't mean much to us, of course, we'd just left school. Anyway we all used to congregate on The Salutation front at Ambleside, because they had loud speakers out. They could get it - I suppose they had some instruments they could get it with, maybe a good wireless or something like that, and they used to broadcast all news about it, and that was how we got to hear about it. Well, there weren't any newspapers, everybody was on strike. And that's how it was. But we weren't on strike. Apprentices never came out on strike. I will say this, in all my working life of fifty years I never was on strike. Very near, but never on strike. It didn't affect us as much up here."
Many people in the Lakes today can recall the fateful day in 1968 when Donald Campbell crashed his Bluebird on Coniston Water, and was killed. But few could claim to have seen Seagrave meet his end on Windermere in much the same way in 1930:
"I went down to Lakeland Nurseries at Windermere, and got a job there with 32/6d a week - be there at seven o'clock in the morning till half past five...it was 1930, that was the year that Seagrave made his attempt on the water speed records. We could see him go from the Nurseries, up once, down once, up again and that was it...everyone said how unlucky it was, it was a Friday the thirteenth in 1930 - which also made thirteen you see. There were quite a lot of people watching that day. We actually saw the boat come down in to Windermere, Miss England they called it, and we saw that come down to be launched into the Lake here."
Victorian Anglicans in Ambleside had much to be proud of about their new parish church of St Mary's, dedicated in 1854 on a site chosen by William Wordsworth himself; and in addition to one of the tallest spires in the North of England, the church also boasted the heaviest set of bells outside Liverpool in the North West.
Little wonder, then, that townspeople flocked to St Mary's the historic day when the bells, having been restored, were re-hung in the early 1900s. Old photographs show the bells being weightily hoisted aloft; but one young Ambleside girl was so anxious to be there herself to see such a feat, that she ran all the way down from the family home near How Head, leaving the washing in the boiler - not her own personal items, but the washing her family took in from local customers and visitors:
"The wash house was up the back of the houses, you went up the back between the lane and all the washing was done there. And when the bells were rung up in Ambleside my auntie Lucy ran down to see them, and she forgot the washing. And the boiler ran dry. And I don't know how much washing was ruined.!"