Jeff Prestridge 

The value of community

Jeff Prestridge

Jeff Prestridge

I have just spent the last few days ambling around in the South Lakes. Both glorious and therapeutic. For all those financial advisers frazzled by end-of-year tax planning, I highly recommend it.

I parked myself in Ambleside, in a tiny cottage called Cosy Nook and did a little running and walking up to the tarn at Loughrigg and then the drop down to Grasmere before negotiating the coffin route back to the warmth of Cosy Nook.

Blue skies for most of my stay and cloudless nights with pollutionless skies for those who enjoy a little star gazing. I gawped at the Plough and smiled. It mitigated the pain of the bill I had just received after enjoying the tasting menu at the Old Stamp House Restaurant. What a divine dining experience. No wonder chef Ryan Blackburn is winning accolade after accolade for his Cumbrian fare.

While I was up in Ambleside, I took the opportunity to have a glass of orange juice with Peter Temple, deputy chief executive of Cumberland Building Society, in The Apple Pie (a bakery and coffee shop doing a roaring trade). 

Sometimes, as a journalist who writes from London, I am too City-centric and get caught up in its febrile atmosphere. It makes you too cynical, thinking everybody in financial services act like the big bad banks – which of course they do not.

Cumberland is a splendid business, operating primarily in Cumbria but with tentacles extending into North Lancashire, South West Scotland and Northumberland.

Although it will do business with anyone anywhere, its emphasis is very much on its Cumbrian heartland. It knows that if it can help the region thrive through prudent lending, then Cumberland will prosper as well. Mutual benefits.

What is going on in Ambleside highlights why it is imperative that the likes of Cumberland survive. Despite the fact that this town is very much the gateway to the Lakes and is bustling for most of the year, the big banks have given up on it. 

HSBC axed its branch in 2012. Barclays then shut up shop in late 2014, blaming a 60 per cent decline in customer visits.

Last year, NatWest gave up the Ambleside ghost as it announced a raft of closures across Cumbria – Cockermouth, Egremont, Grange-over-Sands, Keswick, Millom, Ulverston and Wigton. It kindly left a cash-point in the town.

For the raft of cash generative businesses in Ambleside, they are now largely dependent on the post office (situated at the back of a gift and information shop) to do their banking. The town deserves better.

Cumberland has not given up on Ambleside – and has no intention of doing so. Its branch is thriving. The only competition is provided by a Furness Building Society agency. Indeed, come this May, Cumberland will have eleven branches in communities where it is the last bank or building society standing.

Why is it that this financial services provider can thrive in communities where the big institutions have withdrawn from?