LEISURE - Part One

An evening spent in front of the flickering screen with a favourite video and can of lager, and we actually think we're having a good time! Our great grandparents could be forgiven for thinking that we simply don't know how to enjoy ourselves any more.Memories of enjoyable times are particularly colourful; and from what elderly people have told us about the fun they used to have, it looks as though they could certainly teach us a thing or two about having a good time.

Turn the clock back eighty years in any Lakeland town or village, and some weeks it would be hard to find a free evening at all. Without the indoor attractions of wireless, television or video, people went out of their homes to make entertainment for themselves. Every hamlet had its own small hall or reading room for games, billiards and whist drives; a town like Ambleside with its spacious Assembly Rooms boasted no less than four grand balls each winter, and countless dances, parties and "sixpenny hops" as well; and there was great enthusiasm for drama and music, with lavish productions of plays, operas and tableaux.

Nobody had any need to feel left out; there was also the town band and the choir, bell ringing or country dancing. There was never a dull moment.

This month The Way We Were looks back on the various ways ordinary people used to enjoy themselves in their spare time, starting this week with a glimpse at what went on in village reading rooms, and the sort of simple homespun entertainment available any night of the week practically anywhere.

"In the winter time they'd social evenings, a bit of everything; you'd intermittent dances, and people singing and reciting. Social evenings were going on the whole time, most organisations ran them, the YMCA, the Conservative Club. You'd go, and there'd be a band there, bit of a band, somebody would play on the piano and there'd be a bit of a dance - or an accordion. They'd have a dance or two and after a bit they'd stop and then somebody would do a bit of singing, or a comedian, all that sort, and then a few more dances and then there'd be a bit of a bun fight, tea in the interval and then somebody reciting dialect, a bit more singing or a conjuror. Everybody had a bit of a party piece, and these dos would start about eight and finish about eleven. They were regular all through the winter at places like Rydal Reading Rooms."

In Langdale they used somebody's newly built garage to hold whist drives, and two or three times each winter, the school was packed out for a social evening - "school children, adults, anyone who could play a fiddle or tell a joke."

No doubt the first function of a reading room was to provide enlightenment for those who couldn't read. Newspapers were expensive, rare, and usually well out of date by the time they reached remoter places, so the local reading room would provide one for everybody to share, or to have read aloud to them. Although many elderly people have been asked about the origins of "penny readings", nobody can remember exactly what they were, though this lady was prepared to hazard a guess:

"I've heard my father talk about these Penny Readings at Caldbeck, years ago they use to have them. I think perhaps people who couldn't read got together and somebody read to them. And you would contribute a penny every time.

"In the Reading Room at Rydal there was a Bagatelle table and a few card tables, and there used to be some good done in there, we used to have little concerts and all sorts of things, even dances...but there was no beer, oh no."

Every small village had its Reading Room or Institute:

"The Institute, we used to call it the Reading Room, had the daily papers and the local paper and the Daily Dispatch was provided for you to read, and there was one at Brathay, the Institute at Brathay's just been made into a joiners' shop, and there was one at Wray which has just been made into two houses, there was one at Sawrey, all these little villages had their institute or reading room."

"I used to go there to communicate and to play dominoes, cards and billiards and then when it came to Christmas we used to have competitions there with Sawrey, Wray and Satterthwaite, billiards, whist and dominoes were the three main ones."

Reading Rooms were usually preserves for the working man, and women only went in for special occasions:

"The only time I ever remember women going in was when they used to have dances there and my mother used to play the piano...four or five hefty lads would carry the piano from my grandmother's house and then there'd be a dance or a sportsnight or a wedding. And I can remember going there as a lad and having the jelly and all the goodies that kiddies like."

The proximity of the nearest pub helped lubricate a dry evening in the unlicensed Reading Room:

"The Institute was never licensed, but the pub wasn't that far off. I had my first drink in The Outgate Pub and I can always remember Mrs Walker had it, and when it got to nine o'clock she said, 'Now Lad, you've got to be going, its nine o'clock, your Dad'll be coming.' And then I had to make a quick exit up to the Reading Room. I was alright there!"

The price of the ticket at the door of a village hop largely determined the quality of entertainment on offer. A dance, with a cup of tea thrown in at the interval, might cost about one shilling and sixpence. Anything more elaborate would cost more:

"The bigger dances, they were about three shillings and sixpence - some for that price, you just got tea and biscuits, but the Ambulance dance you got the lot all in. Some people just went to the whist drive in the basement, it was absolutely packed, and then they could come upstairs for a bun, I think that was three and six all in. They also got tea and biscuits, and perhaps an eight piece band as well. They were really good dos, wherever you went."