Deep in the heart of the Lake District is one of the most scenic co-ops you are ever likely to find. Langdale Co-operative is located in the tiny village of Chapel Stile, about five miles north of Ambleside in the Langdale Valley.
Back in 1884 when the co-op was founded, the Langdale Valley was more industrialised, with quarries, a large gunpowder works and farms. Workers on low incomes, inspired by the Rochdale Pioneers, banded together to form the co-op. The business still thrives, with local custom bolstered by the tourist trade.
Manager Jeremy Lewis started work at the store straight from school in 1980. “I was 16 at the time. I started as a shelf filler then after three years the manager decided he wanted to move on. The co-op committee gave me a chance to run things and more than 40 years later, I am still here.”
The co-op (formally known as the Langdale and Neighbourhood Industrial Co-operative Society Ltd) has been at its current site since 1898, when a purpose-built store was built by members who had previously operated from a row of cottages near the village church. There are two floors, with groceries on the bottom floor and walking equipment, gifts and other non-food items upstairs, alongside the Brambles Café, in business over 20 years and run independently.
Langdale has had an eventful 140-year existence. In 1934 a large warehouse was built next to the shop to supply animal feed to farmers. The outbreak of World War II meant the warehouse was never used to full capacity. But after the war the co-op started to send a travelling shop around the area. And there were twice-weekly deliveries of grocery orders, a coal round and special trips by train to Manchester where furniture and domestic appliances could be ordered from the CWS and home delivered.
“I remember us all going in the 1960s from Windermere station,” says Lewis. “We had so much furniture from the co-op they used to say my mum’s house should be re-labelled CWS.”
The store also looked different back then, he recalls. “The big room downstairs used to be divided up into departments and upstairs was used as the local dance hall and for functions. What’s now the café was once a store room.”
By the 1970s, coal deliveries and furniture trips were no more but the growing popularity of the Lakes for holidays was a game-changer. The opening of a timeshare complex in the vicinity of the Langdale Valley also helped significantly.
“Our business now is much more tourism-based,” says Lewis. “We would still be here without the visitors, but we do rely on them a lot for income and jobs. Back then things were more evenly split between tourism and local sales but we’re not complaining; tourism means everybody round here gets a nice shop.”
The co-op has six full and part-time staff, is open seven days a week all year round and only closes on Christmas Day. Home deliveries are still part of the service. But like all retailers, it had to adjust to the Covid-19 pandemic, which temporarily shut off the tourist trade.
“Obviously we were nowhere near as busy,” says Lewis. “We cut staff hours and made use of furlough, taking orders in our van because at first a lot of people were afraid to leave the house. We did what we have done for the past 140 years and just made the best of the new conditions. Thankfully, gradually everything got back to normal.”
The co-op is fiercely proud of its independent status. “Wherever possible we like to use local suppliers and stock a wide range of locally sourced products. There are beers from Coniston, Langdale and other places in Cumbria; we get local sausages, meat and bread from near Ulverston, as well as specialities like Cartmel sticky toffee pudding, pies and relishes.”
The co-op currently has about 260 members – impressive given its remote location. “Our membership is steady but it’s up and down and a bit transient,” says Lewis. “Hotel workers tend to join and leave when they find a job somewhere else but there are people with holiday homes or timeshares as well as local workers.”
Despite the challenges of recent years current turnover is more than £900,000 and growing.
“We hit £900,000 a year just before Covid and I thought we were about to hit a million,” says Lewis. “Now we are seeing people be much more careful because some prices are through the roof. We sell a lot more own-brand products.”
Langdale Co-op operates a traditional divi for its members, has just had its annual AGM and its six-strong committee meets four times a year.
“Every year we have made enough profit to pay the divi and put money aside,” says Lewis. “The committees have always been prudent, always looking at the bottom line but we also look to the future. All our surplus goes to members or is kept in our reserves for future projects. Last year, we replaced our old fridges with eco-fridges, which wasn’t cheap, but it had to be done. We are now looking to put solar panels on the roof and that will be one of the biggest projects ever.”
At the end of the 1970s several approaches were made by the then Greater Lancastria Co-op to take the society over – but its fiercely independent members said no.
“They kept telling us we wouldn’t survive,” says Lewis, “but we have continued to grow and prosper and serve the local community.”
Given the tough times for retail, this is impressive success for a small outfit. The location helps, says Lewis. “We are five or six miles from any other shops and have a really good range of stuff. You can do a weekly shop here and we are a bit of a destination place so we must be doing something right. I also have a really good team with me and couldn’t do it without them.”
Now in his late fifties, Jeremy Lewis has lived in the valley all his life and has no plans to retire, having outlasted some tough times. “The foot and mouth years were the most difficult,” he says, “then probably the first two years of the pandemic. Trying to enforce the mask rules and get people to wear them was the hardest thing ever as well as limiting the number of people who could come in to the shop. But basically, every day in the last 40 -odd years I have looked forward to coming to work and I want to carry on for at least another ten – if they will have me!”