Writings and Proposals

A Cultural Hub for Cumbria in the South Lakes
A vision in perpetual development

Several years before I moved from London to Ambleside in 1992, I had a vivid and incredibly lucid dream. In my dream I had made the move and had been resident for long enough to have made the Golden Rule my local pub. I was propping up the bar one evening and soon fell into conversation with a previously unknown suited gentleman, anonymous in all respects but friendly and seemingly keen to hear my views on the Lakes. As the pints sank our conversation flowed. He asked me a raft of questions such as why had I moved here, what did I do, what did I think of the so-called traffic problems and the impact of tourism. We talked all evening and throughout he asked me if I had any thoughts, ideas or visions for the future of the Lakes. My response surprised me but in retrospect it seemed very obvious that such an idea had been gestating for many years and had simply been waiting to find the right time and a sympathetic ear. I had found both.

With such a platform I launched into a completely formed idea, and to me, what seemed to be an obvious yet magical proposal. Firstly I commented that it seemed strange and sad that, given the enormous influence that the Lakes has had in shaping our cultural evolution through the works of Wordsworth and others, there is no graduate or post-graduate level educational institution in the Lakes. Admittedly there is Cumbria College of Art up in Carlisle, but in the heartland of English cultural development, there is nothing. I then went on to provide a history lesson to back up my ideas, it went something like this … Given that the Lake District, specifically the South Lakes around Ambleside, Grasmere and Rydal, has inspired and informed some of the most important figures in English cultural history, it seemed to me that their legacy and the environment that helped mould their ideas, was not only being poorly served but also their potential as models had been ignored. As an asset to fuel possible futures, Wordsworth, Ruskin, Tennyson, De Quincey, Martineau, Matthew and Thomas Arnold, Kurt Schwitters and the rest, were seen and promoted only minimally and only from a purely historical perspective – nostalgic, cosy, dusty and mute to our and future generations. Their ideas and works have shaped our understanding of so many areas of learning from ecology to art, theology to pacifism, from literature to archaeology and human rights – to name but a few. And yet the numerous groups who make up the ubiquitous Heritage industry, hand in hand with the various Planning and Tourist Boards, the National Parks Authority and the so-called arbiters of taste in the county, have effectively condemned the Lakes and its cultural icons to exist in stasis. Progress and the new are seemingly viewed with extreme suspicion and cynicism. Or maybe the councillors and planners are scared of the implications and ramifications of allowing new precedents to be introduced? Any suggestion of possible new ideas and new futures might threaten to expose their conveniently and conventionally safe and limited remit or undermine their knowledge? To take on board any thoughts of a more democratic, inclusive and progressive approach to the future of the Lake District would necessitate their undertaking a massive programme of learning and cultural re-evaluation. Scary. The powers that be have ensured that our cultural legacy has been embedded in amber and drowned in aspic. This fossilisation seemed to me to be incredibly shortsighted. History is after all, a continuing process, not just the past. The past was once the present. Another pint.

I remembered and spouted a list of axioms devised by an environmental group called Common Ground that seemed perfectly apposite. "Demand the best of the new", "Our imagination needs diversity and variegation. We need standards, not standardisation", "Work for local identity. Oppose monoculture in our fields, parks, gardens and buildings. Resist formulae and automatic ordering from pattern books which homogenise and deplete", "No new building or development need be bland, boring or brash", "Quality cannot be quantified. You know when something is important to you. Make subjective and emotional arguments. Don’t be put off because the professionals have marginalised all the things they can’t count. Make them listen and look", "Exile xenophobia which fossilises places and peoples. Welcome cultural diversity and vive la difference". There were more but I think I made my point.

It seemed to me that the main obstruction to progress in the development of the Lake District as a healthy, vibrant and working community, rather than an environment which is almost wholly dependent on tourism, is perfectly illustrated by the problems thrown up by any "new build" proposal. Under such seemingly archaic, draconian planning regulations, any such proposal is doomed. What is permitted, no, what is required, is that any building should merely emulate a randomly selected and erroneous architectural style, that of a16th century Langdale farmhouse.
The paralysis of nostalgia syndrome. The premise underpinning the ludicrous criteria at work is false to begin with. Buildings and communities in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries were not designed, choices were not stylistic, and their development was not governed by bogus rules invented by so-called architectural advisors. Individual buildings and communities evolved organically, driven by the needs of the people. The decisions behind these admittedly picturesque buildings are far more prosaic and everyday. For instance, when children were born and an extra room was needed, the room was added, or when a farmer needed more stabling or housing for animals, it was built to fit the ergonomic needs of the farmer. Also the need for careful economics in the building process followed simple rural canniness and common sense, - the close proximity of and ease of access to the necessary materials dictated the eventual make-up and appearance of the structures. The building techniques and crafts employed were the simplest and most effective possible given the circumstances at the time. Shelter and space were paramount, aesthetic concerns were not.

I then talked of other places, here and abroad, where new ideas, brave proposals for radical buildings, had been successfully integrated into environments and communities, where local economies had drastically improved and local inhabitants had benefited. I talked of buildings that were so astounding, so ambitious and yet so thoughtful and appropriate, visually and contextually, that in their own right they were attracting visitors from all around the world. Their appearance was as astounding as the contents and the activities within. The Eiffel Tower was objected to and planned as being merely temporary. When Constable exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1824, the public were so astounded by his then radical approach to painting, that they rioted in the streets. Now he is erroneously considered to be the darling of the English art world by even the most staunchly conservative art-haters. The Pompidou Centre building in Paris was opposed and derided and yet it regenerated a whole section of Paris and continues to attract visitors from around the world. Also the benefits to the local economy that accompany such bold visions cannot be ignored. I wondered forlornly why England in general and the Lakes in particular stubbornly resisted the move into the 21st century.

Having briefly outlined some of the admittedly somewhat gushing and awkward reasoning behind my grumbles, I then went on to describe in great detail a vision for a new cultural hub to be based in Ambleside. Ideally this Cumbrian Centre for Curiosity, this University of the Lakes, would be based at what was then the Charlotte Mason College site and which is now St Martin’s College. Its centrality, its contextual cultural relevance and the fact that there is a healthy supply of restaurants, pubs, hotels, shops and traffic links on the doorstep would decide the choice of site and location. This centre of excellence would be unlike all other educational institutions. It would not offer degrees although its teaching and learning would surpass that of all other educational institutions. It would be inclusive encouraging cross-fertilisation rather than being exclusive and overly specialist. It would be ‘staffed’ by the most innovative thinkers, practitioners, do-ers, theorists and communicators as mentors, guides, and muses. It would be radical, appropriate and would attract and produce the best and most innovative creative talents in the world as students. Its activities would produce influential models for creative thinking and would actively involve the local community. It’s success would engender a new sense of pride in the local residents and it would attract not only tourists, academics and businesses but also financial investment and new industries which would benefit the local economy as well as the University / Centre.

I asked my new-found companion to suspend all prejudicial or preconceived ideas and to imagine. Imagine a place where, say for six months of the year, the Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney is a resident tutor. At the same time, the inventor of the wind-up radio, Trevor Baylis is also in attendance. As are the influential musician, producer and cultural theorist Brian Eno, the leading German artist Anselm Kieffer, the writers Iain Sinclair, Jeanette Winterson and John Berger. Imagine them being joined periodically by the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, the scriptwriter Stephen Poliakoff, the video artist Bill Viola and the founding director of MIT’s Medialab, Nicolas Negroponte. The theologian and writer on ethics and art, Denis Donoghue is persuaded to visit for 2 weeks. Throughout and for varying durations, this galaxy of minds is complemented by the likes of the environmentalist and ecologist Johnathan Porritt, top botanists, chemists, physicists, the industrial design guru James Dyson, James Gleick, the most respected voice on ‘Chaos Theory’, the American polymath Stuart Brand and Estonian composer Arvo Part. Imagine these brains meeting, exploring the Lakes, its environment and its history, developing and sharing ideas and notions with some of the brightest students from around the world. Imagine. Top practitioners and leading experts in archaeology, history, ethics, theology, philosophy, economics, architecture, literature, drama, dance - all the arts and sciences, would be invited to come and teach, to talk, to share ideas. Its activities would generate new ways of seeing and thinking and extend the cultural horizons of all users and visitors and become trusted as a centre for discovery. Imagine what ideas might emerge from such meetings, in such a unique and stimulating environment.

Innovative centres for creative learning such as the Weimar Bauhaus, Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Medialab and Dartington College in Devon would be researched and referenced as models. Close links and collaborations would be forged locally with the Wordsworth Trust, Rydal Mount, the John Ruskin Museum, Brantwood, Kendal College, the Armitt Museum, Abbott Hall Art Gallery & Museum, Blackwood and Kendal Museum. Other links would also be made further afield, with universities, colleges and museums in Manchester, Liverpool, Preston, Leeds, Carlisle, Lancaster, Glasgow, London, New York, Tokyo, Dehli, Berlin, Paris, Toronto, Sydney, Moscow. The possibilities are endless. Imagine.

The University / Centre buildings could be as distinctive as they are beautiful, designed so as to respond elegantly, intelligently and sensuously to its rural location. The buildings would be flexible, capable of adaptation to varying needs. Its spaces would flow freely and unexpectedly between interior and exterior where walls may be translucent, transparent or become windows. It could be an architectural chameleon, altering its appearance from day to night, ethereal in daylight adopting varying characteristics as the day progresses and become an ever-changing light work at night. Ideally it would be a world class building, a landmark, an icon and a symbol of local pride.

Internally it would be full of state-of- the art facilities maintained by helpful, engaged and equally inspiring technicians rather than the usual "jobsworths". The best computers and software programmes available would be installed throughout. Film making equipment, studios and editing facilities would sit alongside recording studios for music, sound design and radical approaches to radio. Imagine. Generous, light filled studios for the arts, drama and dance would be matched by several lecture theatres of varying sizes, from the intimate to the international, equipped with plasma screens, interactive connectivity to the web and outside broadcast facilities. A library and resource centre with extensive IT facilities and connections to the web would be the envy of all other educational institutions. Laboratories crammed with all the necessary equipment would gleam. It would house and run a publishing imprint to disseminate research papers, a bookshop, a gallery with constantly changing exhibitions, a café, bar, restaurant and crèche, all open to the general public. The hum of energy emerging from the centre of Ambleside would reverberate around the world. The innovations and awe-inspiring ideas that would develop here might change our world irrevocably.

I continued to spin out my vision, thrilling myself with the growing list of possibles. Finally I stopped and apologised for ranting on for so long. My companion responded with generosity and thanked me for sharing these interesting ideas with him. He was impressed and excited and he agreed with my vision and the need for such an amazing place. He then informed me that he was Head of Planning for the South Lakes and he was going to immediately instruct his team to start researching a viability study, generate the necessary funds and instigate major, radical changes to the planning regulations in order to realise this dream. He would take this to the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the European Commission if necessary. At last, my vision was in the bag.

Then I woke up.


Sadly in the intervening years since I had this dream nothing has happened to bring this plan any nearer fruition and the planning laws in the South Lakes are seemingly as backward looking as ever. Elsewhere, thankfully, attitudes and approaches to architecture, culture and planning in the UK have changed dramatically as evidenced by the massive regeneration projects in Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Glasgow as well as, inevitably London. Individual visions have also been successfully realised. Beautiful and innovative new buildings have been built and whole areas of localities have been regenerated and invigorated. For one the remarkable Eden Project in Cornwall (which is not in a National Park) has gone from strength to strength. I quote from the maverick visionary behind the Eden Project Tim Smit: -

"Cornwall is on the verge of a Renaissance. Tourism is simply a by-product of a beautiful place in which we are privileged to live. Environmental technologies and the earth sciences have a natural home here, and if I were to advise anyone of the most exciting place to be in Europe right now, it would be here. Within five years, there will be a superb new university here and a pioneering technology cluster that will represent the Silicon Valley experience for the 21st century"

Replace the word Cornwall with Cumbria or the Lake District. Add to this vision the legacy of Wordsworth, Ruskin, De Quincey, the Arnolds, Martineau, Coleridge, Tennyson, Keats, Turner, Schwitters, et al, and ponder the wonderful possibilities for the future of Ambleside and the South Lakes if we were brave enough to aspire to having such a place in our midst.

The idea of a University of the Lakes or Cumbrian Centre for Curiosity is a vision that satisfies all the criteria needed to stimulate the Lake District as a new and successful cultural hub. It encompasses and promotes art and culture, education and the leisure industries, learning and practice, heritage and research. It would provide much needed employment in the University / Centre itself and in the service industry that would be required to support its running. As a big idea it is irresistible and yet I suspect that those arbiters of so-called ‘change’ and progress within the Lake District, the planning boards, councillors and those who profess to have the best interests of the Lakes in their hearts, would all find it impossible to countenance. I suspect they would find ways of throwing money at bogus consultants or yet more contextually inappropriate festivals rather than dare to support such a bold venture.

To realise such a vision would require a real effort of co-operation between all responsible bodies. It would also mean that they develop the capability to envisage an over-arching and integrated scheme, which would include a serious re-assessment of how best to tackle and accommodate the effects that an over-reliance on tourism has produced. The ever-increasing traffic and dire need for adequate car parking facilities in the area should also be addressed. The lack of new occupations and low-priced first homes for young locals, which is obliging the young to move away, leaving an increasingly elderly population, is also a major concern. All such issues deserve to be included in any such re-thinking of a future for the Lake District; these problems are linked and need addressing together, not as separate, unrelated issues.

There is a proven correlation between how receptive a region is to art, culture and culture and its potential to create wealth. A thriving, creative community indicates a tolerant, diverse, pluralistic society; which in turn attracts the sort of entrepreneurial thinkers who power contemporary economics.

Some projects in the UK that have been successfully achieved in recent years include: -

The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia; the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in West Sussex; the Create Centre and the Bristol Exploratory; in Newcastle Anthony Gormley’s the Angel of the North sculpture (when built this was considered by many to be an irrelevant and inappropriate extravagance, even though it to cost a penny of council tax money, today it is a landmark icon, a symbol of local pride and a statement of coming intent); the Baltic Centre, The ‘Blinking Eye’ Bridge and the Sage New Music Centre and Concert Hall; the Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex; extensions of the Natural History Museum in London’s South Kensington; the London ‘Eye’; the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh; ‘Silicon Glen’ in Irvine, Scotland; the Belleden Road Project in Peckham, South London; the Lowry Museum and the Imperial War Museum in Salford; the Museum of Modern Art in Walsall; Faith House in Dorset; the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, Horniman Museum in South London; Museum of River and Rowing at Henley; the American Air Force Museum in Oxford; the Landmark Pavilion in Barnstaple; the Aldrich Library at Brighton University; the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester; the Urbis Building, Commonwealth Stadium, Aquatics Centre and the Castlefield area of Manchester; Saltaire Mill near Leeds; the Magna Centre, Rotherham; the Tate and the docks in Liverpool; the Lighthouse in Glasgow; the Dance Base in Edinburgh. There are many other examples in the UK and even more abroad of such visions being realised i.e. the astounding Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Temple Bar area of Dublin, and are proof that cultural regeneration of an area brings wider benefits.










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