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Cunningham’s Outdoors Celebrating 50 Years in Business

Words by coAdmin

on 24/06/2021 19:39:13


[The article below originally appeared in The Westmoreland Gazette.]

A FAMILY business retailing outdoor gear that has weathered 50 years in business is celebrating this summer in Ambleside.

Cunningham's, a favourite shop for generations of walkers, was able to open again this spring in time to mark the half-century anniversary.

The business, which also has stores in Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales, Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia, and Newton Stewart in Galloway, was established in 1971 by Stewart Cunningham, an Ambleside lad who spent his early years on the fells in the Lake District.

Cunningham's is still a family run independent outdoor specialist with Stewart's children, Ross and Wendy, now at the helm.

mac-2Stewart and Pam Cunningham bought the shop opposite the iconic bridge house in Ambleside 50 years ago. It was was previously cottages and a petrol station. The shop opened offering a small selection of cagoules, Herdwick sweaters, wooden walking sticks, walking breeches and leather boots.

Many outdoor technologies had not been invented and the outdoor industry was in its infancy. Cunningham’s was one of only three outdoor shops in Ambleside at the time.

Increasing numbers of people visiting the Lake District and taking up fell walking, coupled with more leisure time, started to make Ambleside much busier, “though tourism was still very seasonal and winters were very long and quiet,” said Ross Cunningham. “Trading seven days a week was frowned upon. Customers always paid with cash or cheque as the debit card hadn’t been invented.”

Stewart, Pam and Stewart’s parents all helped out in the business, travelling around the north west in a little van buying stock for the shop. Their three children, Wendy, Shirley and Ross, have all played a part in the business since childhood. Wendy recalls: “We grew up working in the business, pricing stock, serving customers and sweeping up. Pocket money was replaced with wages. Working in the family business taught us a lot of life lessons and that if we wanted anything we’d have to work for it.”

Significant renovations and extensions to the Rydal Road site and the acquisition of the next-door property to create offices have taken place over the years. It’s created a bright, modern store over two floors while retaining the original character and charm of the building.

macStewart was ambitious to expand in to other National Parks, in 1975 when a grocery shop came up for sale in the market town of Hawes in Wensleydale, he bought this and transformed it into a spacious, modern shop. Then in 1995 the business took over a former gift shop at Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia. Stewart has always had an interest in the buildings themselves and has undertaken much of the physical work himself during renovations. He moved north into Scotland in 2005, opening a store in a former newsagents in Newton Stewart in the Galloway hills. This area’s outdoor industry was still in its infancy. But as its popularity grew, so did Cunningham’s store in the region.

Stewart is 75 now and still active and still plays an active roll in the business, although at a slightly slower pace.

After dealing with national crises over the years, including the foot and mouth countryside shutdown in 2001, and Storm Desmond in 2015, Cunningham’s at 50 is still thriving after a prolonged period of closure during the pandemic lockdowns. “After many months of enforced closures, along with fear and uncertainty none of which could have been imagined, we’re very glad to be open again and welcoming customers back,” says Ross, proud that the family business remains a well-respected retailer within the outdoor industry. “Advances in technology have created ranges of clothing, footwear and equipment that are lighter, more effective and light years away from the cagoules and sweaters of 50 years ago. It’s been a fascinating journey.”

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