JANE RENOUF, chairman of Ambleside Oral History Group, reveals how recorded memories from local residents help to bring the past to life.

  • THIRTY-five years ago, a band of volunteers at Ambleside Library formed Ambleside Oral History Group, to interview older people talking about their lives.

Innovation and technology was changing Lakeland life so rapidly, the group thought it was important to capture living memories of the past which might otherwise be forgotten with the passing of the older generation.

The first interviewee in February, 1977, was 99-year-old Mrs Edith Benson. Her memories as a 12-year-old watching miners in 1890 digging the tunnel for the Thirlmere Aqueduct fired the enthusiasm of the group.

Soon the growing archive was bursting with details of the everyday lives of cooks, housemaids, dressmakers, gardeners, gamekeepers, farmers and landowners.

Edwardian childhood memories were resurrected of the first motor cars, big families, and working lives in the woods and quarries.

Accounts of action in the First World War emphasised its terrible losses and enduring scars, exacerbated by harsh years of economic depression which followed.

World War Two on the homefront brought hundreds of evacuees and a huge flying boat factory to Windermere – and once peace resumed, more prosperous times heralded a new influx of visitors, the loss of old ways and a changing economy.

As new century unfolds, those lively memories of life years ago have become all the more precious – the annual pig-killing, with the black pudding and sausages to make; clipping and hay-timing dances, annual balls at Ambleside, brass bands, May Queen processions, Rushbearing and Sports.

Rydal Hall had 32 staff in 1905 when the Squire was in residence, and at Langdale Chase a staff of 16 served just one lady. At Briery Close, servants had to touch the forelock and stand to attention for the family.

Over the lake at Balla Wray, it took a an entire railway coach from Newcastle to transport two coachmen, two horses and three servants, plus the silverware packed in trunks,just for a holiday.

Yet oral history gathers so much more than mere facts, expressing the emotions people felt - the sadness, joy, triumphs and frustrations.

Events such as the Prince of Wales’s visit to Ambleside in 1927 were reported in The Westmorland Gazette, but the eye-witness account of Alan Capstick tells another story: “The Prince looked bleary eyed – I always remember him go (like this) with his sleeve to wipe his nose… and I thought, Heavens, surely you've got a handkerchief, we'd been taught at school to use a handkerchief!”

Ambleside’s archive now contains more than 400 interviews, and although life now is routinely recorded on everything from CCTV to mobile phones, oral history remains a valuable record.

Recordings recount early watersports on Windermere and the shops and businesses which existed in the area many years ago.

Each Ambleside interview is transcribed as a document, to read or research online at www.aohg.org.uk , click on ‘search the archive’ for access. The interviews can also be read or recordings listened to at Ambleside Library.

The group published an illustrated book called Voices of the Lake District in 2011.