Time and again, we come across references to market towns. People, guidebooks, tv shows, pamphlets… they all refer to them. Finally, I had to ask, “What is a market town?” The big explanation was, “There’s a market there, isn’t there?” Hmmm Really? I hadn’t heard of London as being a market town. There are more markets in London than we could possibly get to in our 3 weeks there. We gave it a good try, believe me.
So, really, what is this business about a market town? It wasn’t until preparing for our trip to Kendal, in the county of Cumbria, that I finally felt the need to investigate a bit. Twice each week, there are people hawking their products (fish, produce, baked goods, clothing, kitchen gadgets, and anything else you can imagine) from indoor and outdoor stalls, but there’s more to it. The town’s beginnings are very much tied to the markets and, trade in general.
Extensive research (thank you, Professor Google), allows me to tell you that, when the Romans showed up in the 1st Century, they embarked on some very amicable and mutually beneficial trade with the local tribe, the Brigantes. We can assume this was a win-win situation, because that’s how the Romans did things.
Eventually, the Romans left, the Normans showed up, built a castle or two, introduced the feudal system (a little like introducing unions and fair trade, from what I here), and Kendal has never turned back.
Richard I, AKA Richard the Lion Heart, now enters the story. In 1189, Rich needed some cash for his Crusades, so he sold a Saturday Market licence to the Baron of Kendal. The Baron, in turn, collected fees from the dudes running the stalls, and Kendal’s base of trade and commerce was well and truly born. A ha! Market Town!
Another thing that has had me curious is the appearance of little alleyways tucked between buildings, usually in the commercial area of towns. Where do they go? Am I supposed to follow? Several times in Lancaster, I have dipped into them, only to hear Karen calling, “Why are you going that way?” Because I don’t know where it goes… my completely logical response.
These spaces are called yards, and nowhere on this trip have they been more prevalent and more inviting than in Kendal. According to Visit Cumbria’s fantastic website, these yards typically housed anything from factories to studios, shops and other places of manufacturing and commerce. I wonder what took place in this one?
The yards are still vibrant places of business with all kinds of independent and funky shops and restaurants. Thanks to the Kendal Civic Society, the history of many of these yards is posted, giving an excellent glimpse into what they must have been like so many years ago.
Wainwright Yard was named after Alfred Wainwright, author of the many guidebooks and namesake for a society of walkers in the UK. Wainwright loved the Lake District and used Kendal as his homebase, calling it home from 1941 to 1991.
I did try to watch a video featuring Wainwright retracing one of his favourite walks. To be honest, just as there is no way I could do his walk across England, I couldn’t make it through the video; I’m afraid it was back to BBCs Great British Railway Journeys.
In the 14th Century, the wool business took off. Those hills were alive with the sound of sheep and Kendal benefited. Joseph Hardman’s photograph Kendal Rush Hour from 1953 shows the streets filled with sheep and can be seen on postcards, calendars, and other such important historic documents. While spinning and weaving of wool is no longer the basis of Kendal’s economy, that bit of its history is still being celebrated (crafters, knitters, textile artists: don’t skip over that bit…. back up, check it out, book your holidays).
From spinning and weaving of wool, the town’s industry moved to shoe making. Cumbria and Lakelands areas were already producing leather and, eventually, shoe makers seemed to be a dime a dozen in the area. By 1853, shoe making was Kendal’s biggest employer. Eventually, Kendal was home to the famous K Shoes. The rise and fall of the company was pretty dramatic including a merger with Clark’s. Today, Clark’s does feature a K line, but only a warehouse remains in the town.
The excellent Museum of Lakeland Life gives a nod to this part of the region’s history. OK, sewing machine freaks, check out the shoe maker’s machine!
Fear not, I won’t take you on a comprehensive tour of the museum (and, luckily, my partner in crime has announced that she’s getting a little “museumed out” again, so these stunning tidbits may be fewer and fewer). That said, who can resist period clothing displays? Am I right?
The little beauty on the right is a cotton day dress c. 1835 – 1845. Not unlike my casual house frocks for everyday, worn with a corset to cinch the waist and restrict breathing while looking after daily activities.
The tiered wool dress on the left, however, is made of wool (good grief) and would have been worn with the fantastic cage with metal or wooden hoops invented in 1856. It should be noted that the cages were much better than the layers and layers of petticoats previously required to give a lady’s skirts this kind of fashionable fullness. Imaging the relief of simply stepping into a metal cage!
My personal favourite is the lovely watered-silk 2-piece number c 1860 – 1870. The hem of the skirt measures a full 15 feet (4.5 m). Of course, soft grey and mauve were colours of half- or demi-mourning. The lucky gal who got to step out in this beauty would already have served her 2 years in full on black mourning wear. Look out, fellas! Here comes the stylish widow!
I’m going to be up front with you here. As beautiful as I find historic fashions, I always walk away from these exhibits with a greater appreciation for sweat pants and t-shirts.
Comfortable shoes are also key if you plan to visit a castle (did you notice that smooth segue?). As Karen said, “I always forget that we’re going to have to walk up a hill to see these things.” Of course it was important to build your average fortified residence high above the marauding crowds, so you had plenty of time to prepare before guests arrived, but after all these years, would an escalator be too much to ask?
Yes, we started down at the bottom, and that grass looks better than the slippery muck we scrambled up (Mom, I know I am finishing that sentence with a preposition, but I think you’ll agree that this is one of those times when the rules have to bend; I just can’t say, “the slippery muck up which we scrambled.”)
So, on our journey up Castle Hill, I was thrilled when we stumbled upon Kendal Parkside Cemetary! You know that we had to take a little detour!
A long bus ride, checking out the shops in all of those yards visiting the museum, climbing Castle Hill, and stopping off at the cemetary… what better way to build up an appetite?
We’ve dined on pie and liquor (a sauce, not a drink) and stewed eel in London, sampled fish n chips in a few locations, and an Indian take-away in Warrington. We’ve had our fair share of pub grub. This day it was paninis and a shared salad with smoked salmon, orange segments, avocado. Of course, we’d never think of having a drink at noon. That would be far too indulgent.
What a great day in this historic market town. Kendal has changed a great day over the centuries. It is still a market town, but I would say that what it is mostly selling is its location. It is on the doorstep of the Lake District, is beautiful in its own right, and is brimming with history. It’s easy to see why tens of thousands of tourists flock here every year.