Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Cockermouth and the Taste Cumbria Festival #MyHomeTown

My home town Cockermouth is a small market town of about 9,000 people on the edge of the Lake District in north west England (we are just 3 miles from the national park border). Cockermouth has been given the prestigious 'Gem Town' label for its beautiful Georgian architecture, vibrant independent shops and cafes and tranquil riverside setting. In my opinion (please don't think I'm biased here, it's not too long ago when I considered my town to be just another boring backwater), on a sunny day this 'Gateway to the Lakes' is actually a pretty darn nice little corner of the country.

Cockermouth is famous for being the birthplace of the celebrated 18th Century poet William Wordsworth (and his lesser known poetess sister Dorothy), Pacific mutineer Fletcher Christian (played by Mel Gibson in the film Mutiny on the Bounty) and one of the early fathers of Atomic Theory - John Dalton, amongst others.

John Dalton refused a knighthood  because he would not bow to any man - even the King!

We are also locally well known for being the town which was almost completely destroyed during a freak, once in a millennium flood, back in 2009. The Great Flood of Cockermouth affected almost a thousand homes and businesses in the area, including my own childhood home which was under two metres of water after two days of torrential storms. The interiors of buildings in the town centre were almost entirely destroyed. Metres of flood water swept through practically every local business ruining old pubs, bookshops, restaurants, cafes, banks, bakeries, pharmacies, hotels, community centres and craft shops.

Watching as the river bursts its banks and engulfs our street
My little brother filling up a skip with our destroyed furniture
In the aftermath, the whole of Cumbria rallied around our little to town to help it get back on its feet, carefully restoring historic buildings, sourcing business essentials such as heating, computers and phone lines and finally, giving everything a fresh coat of paint. Getting the town back to its best was a real communal effort and as this interesting recent BBC report highlights, it's brought this close-knit community of typically dour, pragmatic West Cumbrians, closer together. Four years on, in my opinion, Cockermouth has never looked better.

We now have a huge selection of attractive cafes (at my last count 12), historic pubs (at least 10), art galleries, gift shops, antiques vendours and restaurants. The town centre is a veritable tourist delight, positively beaming with elegant shop windows which nod to the town's historic past and an enticing cafe culture which even the flintiest locals cannot resist. 

Inside the Victorian Ironmongers
They have all the bolts and screws you need
And at last the secret of this long over-looked gem town is out. My revitalised home town has gained renewed interest from the annual tourist hoards who would usually head for the more established tourist areas of Cumbria such as Grasmere (home to Wordsworth's Dove Cottage), Coniston (Beatrix Potter country) and Ambleside (a jumping point for much of the area's best mountain climbing). Exact tourist figures are still sketchy, but simply roam around the Main Street and it is quite clear - quaint little Cockermouth is on its way to becoming a 'must-do' for any visitor to the Northern Lake District.

Taste Cumbria Food Festival

Alongside its genteel small Georgian town buzz, Cockermouth has in recent years also gained a reputation for being a bit of a foodie destination. The town's most popular restaurants and cafes proudly sell food sourced from high quality local farmers. Savvy shoppers buy their groceries from the local fruit and veg shop (which has been at the same location for at least two generations). They queue out the door to pick up freshly made pies from the local butcher and order their Friday supper fish from the fishmonger, who in turn stocks up his shop from local fishermen just eight miles away on the coast.

One of many street cafes in Cockermouth

Arguably this new way of looking at the shopping basket reflects national and even global 'Buy Local' trends and there is certainly no denying the impact it has on this local High Street. Cockermouth's culinary industry has gone from a struggle to survive some 10-15 years ago, to a need to expand into vacant space - and all that despite the existence of four supermarkets.

There was no bigger endorsement of this new breed of foodie shopper than the recent Taste Cumbria Festival, which brought some 25,000 hungry visitors to Cockermouth over the space of three days. The whole of the Main Street of the town was taken over by vendours from across the county selling everything from fresh smoked fish, farmhouse cheddars and traditional Cumberland sausages, to exotic jams, homemade sweets and the ever popular, calorie-packed, sticky toffee pudding.

Famous chefs from across the UK  (many of whom also boast the coveted Michelin star after their name), such as Paul Rankin and Aldo Zilli descended on the town to host a series of sell-out cookery workshops in a most incongruously dramatic setting - the local church.

Salmon mousse and trout fishcakes straight from our river!
Fresh smoked fish
Cumbrians love their sausages and pies
Gingerbread ladies
Homemade sweets from the local traditional sweet shop
Beer lover that I am, for me the best part of the weekend was the craft beer festival held in our very own brewery, Jennings (N.B Joburgers, you can buy Jennings ale in The Griffin!). There were more than 50 brews on offer produced by microbrewers from across Cumbria with names like Fell Ranger, Dog'th Vader, Thirst Rescue and Roundabout (named after a recently opened and much-needed, local roundabout). There was everything from light, refreshing golden ales to dark and moody more serious beers on offer and special local ingredients included everything from blackberries to nettles. 

Live music and some unexpected glorious sunshine rounded things off perfectly. On a weekend like this I found it pretty impossible not to feel rather proud of my home town's spectacular comeback.

The Taste Cumbria Festival takes place annually in the last week of September. Other similar events to look out for in Cockermouth include the Georgian Fair (May 3rd 2014) and the Cockermouth Agricultural Show (August 2nd 2014)

P.S I realise some readers may find the name of my town absolutely hilarious. Good for you! I grew up here so have not had the chance to find it even remotely funny :)

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