Daily Mail Article about Cartmel
19th August 2015
How sticky pudding turned the sleepy English village of Cartmel into a tastier hotspot than Venice By Robert Hardman for the Daily Mail
There used to be a local joke that if you weren’t praying, gambling or drinking, then what the hell were you doing here in Cartmel?
With a cathedral-sized church, a Victorian racecourse and a string of pubs serving a remote community of just 2,000 people, it’s certainly an eccentric little place.
Sitting prettily in the middle of nowhere, it is not really on the way to anywhere. Almost – but not quite – by the sea, it is almost – but not quite – part of the Lake District.
Administratively, it’s in Cumbria but most people round here still seem to think they are in Lancashire. Cartmel has always been on the margins.
But if they might have felt a little neglected in the past, the locals don’t feel like that now.
For thanks to a run of good fortune – and a little help from Britain’s favourite disc-jockey – the village has enjoyed such a surge of interest that it has received international recognition as one of the nicest spots on Earth.
Coping with all this new-found fame is another matter, though. Just this week, a special meeting was convened to think the unthinkable: might Cartmel’s tiny roads be about to see the first yellow lines in their 826-year history?
Yet it wasn’t so long ago that this village was on the slide, its decline hastened by the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic, which did so much damage to this region.
Fast forward to the present day and the latest New York Times list of the world’s top travel destinations.
There, in 44th place, is Cartmel, just behind the Seychelles and Ecuador but ahead of Nepal, Vienna and Belize. Venice doesn’t get a mention.
“We couldn’t quite believe it. Us ahead of the Himalayas!” says Richard English, landlord of the village’s Cavendish Arms pub and hotel. It’s a far cry from the day Richard took over here in 2001, just after foot and mouth.
He still keeps a framed copy of his first day’s takings in his office – the princely sum of £5.68. “I remember going upstairs that night and saying to my wife, “I think we’ve made a mistake”.
So what’s the secret of Cartmel’s sudden success? It’s a very pretty, medieval village, of course.
And it has some influential fans, including BBC Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans.
One morning last summer, out of the blue, he began musing on the joys of Cartmel, telling his ten million listeners that it was a ‘thimble full of diamonds’. Hours later, the place was heaving.
But what has really elevated this place to the status of international destination is the nosh. From its £120-a-head ‘mutton with turnip, mead and nasturtium’ to £4.45 sticky toffee pudding — not to mention Britain’s highest-rated cup of coffee and an award-winning sheep’s cheese — it’s now a foodie fantasyland.
Every week, thousands of walkers heading to or from the Lake District make a detour to Cartmel to fill their faces. Some never even reach the Lakes.
Looking at many of today’s visitors, I suspect the only walking they have in mind is a short stagger from their car to the restaurant and back.
Here I am in Wainwright country – the ramblers’ laureate lived just up the road – yet there isn’t a single shop selling outdoor kit and Ordnance Survey maps. Designer kitchenware? No problem. But you won’t find a cagoule.
At the root of this upwardly mobile gastro revolution is an unorthodox Southerner who is so wedded to local produce that he’s opened his own farm here to source ingredients for his restaurant empire.
Hampshire born and bred, Simon Rogan had worked for several famous chefs but had always dreamed of his own place. A chance introduction led him to the old blacksmith’s forge in Cartmel and L’Enclume (the French word for ‘anvil’) opened in September 2003.
It was a hard slog but, after several rave reviews, word soon spread. At one point, the BBC devoted an entire episode of its road trip comedy series, The Trip, to L’Enclume.
It went on to win two Michelin stars in 2013 (one of only 21 two-star joints in the UK). And having been named Best Restaurant in Britain by the 2014 Good Food Guide, it retains the title in the 2015 edition too.
All the while, Simon was expanding with a 2nd restaurant in Cartmel-Rogan & Company.
Along the way, he has opened award-winning restaurants in Manchester and London but the hub is still Cartmel, where 100 people are now employed by the apron-clad squire.
No wonder some call this place ‘Roganville’. Sound familiar? Haven’t we seen the same thing in Cornwall? Not for nothing is Padstow known as ‘Padstein’ thanks to the impact TV celebrity chef Rick Stein has had on the fishing town over the past 40 years.
Is Cartmel just the Padstow of the North? Or perhaps it is modelled on Bray in Berkshire — now full of restaurants owned by another award-winning celebrity chef, Heston Blumenthal (of snail porridge fame).
As I sit in L’Enclume working my way through Rogan’s £120-a-head, 17-course tasting menu, it certainly reminds me of a trip to Blumenthal’s flagship restaurant, The Fat Duck, in Bray.
The melt-in-the-mouth ‘oyster pebbles’ (think seafood meringue); the ‘smoked eel with ham fat’ on a nest of straw beneath a dome of dry ice; the brilliant ‘beetroot slate with apple marigold and cobnut’ (a densely-flavoured cross between Turkish delight and an After Eight); it’s all beautiful, rather bonkers and served up by a Sandhurst-slick platoon of waiters padding silently around a packed dining room.
But what sets Cartmel apart from success stories such as Padstow and Bray is that it’s not just down to one man and his scoff.
For a start, Simon Rogan is not your average celebrity chef. He’s appeared on a few shows such as Great British Menu but, unlike his rivals, he has never much enjoyed the cameras.
Having recently decided to turn down all further telly offers, he says he’d rather be remembered for his restaurants. “I’m quite shy, really. I find all that celebrity stuff rather embarrassing,” he tells me.
And he is quick to acknowledge that the Cartmel phenomenon is down to a much broader cast of characters, including a wine-loving car mechanic, a flock of sheep and a sweet-toothed shopkeeper.
It was 25 years ago that Howard and Jean Johns gave up running the King’s Arms to take over the village shop and Post Office. And it was a struggle.
“They were trying to sell baked beans and toilet rolls and a new Asda had just opened half-an-hour away,” explains their son, Simon Johns, 48.
So, to boost takings, Jean began making a few ready-meals for the summer tourist trade.
They were a hit, particularly her sticky toffee pudding. “Once the season was over, Mum started getting calls from people trying to find her puddings. So she made some more and my father went knocking on doors.”
When they got a regular order from Booths, the local supermarket chain, the couple had to extend the kitchen. Then their fairy-godmother waved her wand once more as the phone rang and a voice uttered the magic words: “Hello, I’m from Waitrose …”
Orders were rising from 100,000 puddings a year to half a million and the poor Cartmel Village Shop couldn’t possibly keep up.
At the very same time that Simon Rogan was opening his bold restaurant, the Johns family were building a new bakery down the road.
It was just as well, given the many celebrity endorsements which followed – including one from the pudding goddess herself, Nigella Lawson.
“Most prepared food is disappointing,” she declared. “Cartmel Village Shop’s Sticky Toffee Pudding is an exception. In fact, it is dangerously easy to warm one in the oven and slather it with cream.”
Today, Jean and Howard are enjoying a well-deserved retirement – they celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this weekend – while their son Simon runs the bakery.
It’s now producing a million-plus puddings a year and exporting as far afield as Dubai and South Korea. It’s another astonishing local success, employing 30 local people, yet the family are still very much hands-on in the Cartmel Village Shop.
It’s a similar story down the road, where David Unsworth has converted his family’s ailing petrol station into an Italian-style piazza full of artisanal shops.
There’s David’s wine boutique, brother Simon’s thriving microbrewery, a sourdough bakery and Ian Robinson’s cheese shop.
Among the best-sellers is an award-winning local stinker called St James, which Ian’s son-in-law Martin Gott produces from a single flock of Cartmel sheep.
Round the corner, Cartmel Coffee Shop is one of only ten in Britain to earn an exalted ‘five cup’ rating from the Beverage Standards Association.
And the racecourse is on the up, too. It might be miles from anywhere but on Bank Holidays it regularly draws crowds of 20,000, making it Britain’s favourite National Hunt venue after Aintree and Cheltenham.
Managing director Jonathan Garratt proudly points out that the 2015 fixture list will be the busiest in Cartmel’s history, with eight full days of racing. And so it goes on.
Over at the Priory, I find the vicar, Nick Devenish, hosting the guild of local traders as they plan a huge autumn weekend of medieval jousting and pageantry to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (Cartmel’s founding father was one of its architects).
You should get to Cartmel before it’s too late.