Guest Blog: Wendy Keegan Remembers The Farmer’s Arms (Part 1 of 2)

20th Nov. 2020

As part of our bid to Save The Farmer's Arms and return this much-loved historic institution back to the heart of the Crake Valley's communities, we've begun to uncover a plethora of local heartfelt reminiscings that uncover what is undoubtedly only a small fragment of the memories wrapped up in this special place. 

Wendy Keegan has lived across from the road from The Farmer's Arms all her life. Now in her 70s, she's a bedrock of local knowledge and we asked her permission to publish a two part piece she wrote last year just after the doors were shut by the last tenants:

They’ve shut the pub!

Looking out of the window, the village is in darkness. No brightly-lit signs to welcome thirsty travellers; no car park lights shining through the glass stoppers of the decanters on our windowsill, throwing rainbows round the living room walls. No comings and goings. - Just black, empty silence.

It’s hard to put into words how I’m feeling - the pub has been a big part of my life for over seventy years, and I’ve been wandering across the road since I was about three years old. It holds so many happy memories and has shared in the significant milestones of my life: my first ‘proper’ drink at 18, my 21st birthday party, New Year parties, our wedding reception, and numerous other celebrations with family and friends.

This wasn’t the way I intended to introduce this piece, so I’ll try to get back on track!

I don’t know whether the claim written on one of the walls that it’s probably the oldest pub in the lakes is strictly true - but the central core of it certainly dates back some centuries. It was owned by the Wilson family for some generations, and was originally a small farm and inn, which brewed and served beer to passers-by. Various additions were built in the mid 1850s, about the same time as our house and next door, which were then also owned by the family. After the death of Billy, the last of the Wilson clan, the whole lot, including a couple of fields, was put up for auction about 1930. By pure chance, two brothers and a sister - the Carruthers family, happened to be staying in the area, and unexpectedly ended their holiday by buying the whole thing, quite literally, lock, stock and barrel.

Dan and Bert were an enterprising pair. They ran a business at Old Trafford, restoring furniture and pictures, and they soon set to work altering and extending the pub. In a short while it had changed almost beyond recognition. They created the public bar, with its flagged floor and oak bar, and the quirky “horse box”, in the far corner, up a couple of steps. They converted some of the pig and calf hulls into a tastefully furnished lounge area (now the main bar) where morning coffee and afternoon teas were served. This was decked out with wonderful huge pieces of furniture from the Manchester business, and the walls lined with gilt framed pictures with labels (often wrongly) attributed to many famous artists. My favourite one was of a wrinkled old lady drinking her bowl of tea.

Perhaps their most ambitious scheme was the conversion of the big barn above the lounge, which fronted onto the main road, into a dance hall, complete with huge mirrors and even a glitter ball. Bert, who ran a big old Daimler, used to make several trips to Ulverston and the surrounding villages on Friday or Saturday nights to bring a bevy of young ladies in an attempt to entice the young men of the area to these dances.

The 'spinning gallery' was created somewhere round the start of the war. Dad did the building work, and Uncle John helped with the woodwork - although there was a resident live-in joiner for a considerable time in the early days. Initially the pub was only licensed to sell beer, and when the brothers tried to apply for a spirits license, they were turned down, as no new licenses were being granted at the time. Undaunted by this minor setback, they bought a row of derelict cottages at Backbarrow which included the Ainsworth Arms, and simply transferred the license to the Farmers Arms.

Project by project the pub grew, in popularity as well as size, as extensions and new bedrooms emerged. They even managed to add a large extension to the bar, 'the new end' during the war when there was a moratorium on new development. It secretly grew behind the tall hedges with no clue from the inside, until the grand opening, when two wall panels, complete with pictures, magically parted, and the new room was formally displayed for the first time. Eventually, after several further successful years, the whole enterprise was bought by William Youngers, and the formidable Clem Sutcliffe and wife Clara took over the management.

I loved Mrs Sutt, and from about the age of three, spent many hours sitting with her on the long settle by the fire in the bar while she tried to teach me how to sew and embroider, knit and crotchet - no easy task, as I’m left handed. Now, seventy years later, I think of her often, while I spend my days with my sewing, and thank her for her patience and perseverance. Although I grew fond of him as I got older, as a small child I was quite frightened of Clem, who always seemed to be gruff and bad tempered, so I invariably tried to time my visits for when he disappeared with the car, and shot back home as soon as he returned. When the pub was closed I’d go down the back steps and in at the kitchen door, risking the wrath of the huge cockerel who patrolled the back garden, and always attacked my legs, often bringing blood, on the way down!

On my dressing table sits a little cut-glass trinket box. Open the silver lid, and there’s a piece of paper inside. Written on Farmer’s Arms letterhead, is the following note:

“Dear Wendy,

Many happy returns for your Birthday and party.

I think you will use this little powder bowl when you are more than five years old, and when you’ve decided its better to be a girl than a boy.

Love, Mrs Sutcliffe”

Every time I read it, I’m instantly transported back seventy years to the little girl with pigtails, swinging her legs by the bar fire, being taught to sew by one of the sweetest people you could ever wish to meet - lucky me.

Copyright © Wendy Keegan, 2019