If there was a corner of the UK that felt the sharp impact of recession first, it was the tourist honeypot of lake Windermere. Visitors disappeared overnight, just as shops and bars were readying for the booming spring and summer months.
Nearly 19,000 workers in the area were furloughed – 40% of the eligible workforce – earning South Lakeland the unwanted title of “furlough capital of the UK”. The neighbouring area of Eden had the country’s second highest furlough rate, at 39%.
But on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon, as the UK officially entered the deepest recession since records began, the streets of Bowness-on-Windermere were once again thronging with visitors.
“This is like August 2019 busy,” said Jennifer Cormack, 38, the sales director at Windermere Lake Cruises, surveying the crowds of day trippers along the jetty.
But its tours could now carry only 500 passengers a day along England’s biggest natural lake, compared with 5,000 before coronavirus, she said. Trade was increasingly busy, but it was “infuriating” they could not sell more seats because of Covid-safe measures.
The company put more than 100 members of staff on furlough when lockdown struck, but has taken every one back.
“This is brilliant but is it only going to last until September?” she said. “Our profitable months are March through to October and that carries us through the winter. We need to ensure that we’re getting people through [winter]. We hope this staycation effect will last but we’re waiting to see.”
Bookings for campsites and self-catering accommodation appear to have surged in this part of the Lake District, where one in five of all properties is on Airbnb. Hotels seem to be taking as many guests as they can. Holidaymakers who would have gone to the continent, or on cruises, are instead flocking to the countryside. Some are spending £400 to hire a small boat for two hours, Cormack said.
But foreign visitors, who traditionally have the deepest pockets, are being missed. Visitors from China, Japan, Germany and the US account for a big chunk of the £1.5bn spent in South Lakeland every year, half of all Cumbria’s tourist revenue.
“The foreign tourists are good spenders. British tourists have returned nicely but we’re missing the foreign tourists,” said Andrew Clayton, 60, who opened Cooks Corner hardware store 37 years ago. All of his nine staff were furloughed but are back at work. He said it was difficult to say how the business would cope with the revenue missed earlier this year: “We’ve got three months to do well. I’m optimistic.”
Some lakeside shops were advertising vacancies on Wednesday. The often-younger seasonal workers who come here each summer, many from mainland Europe, are staying away, perhaps because of safety concerns about travel or accommodation. “There’s not that many people wanting to work,” said Joanna Biernat, 40, the manager of Driftwood restaurant.
Biernat was hopeful that the business would survive – “everyone loves our fish and chips” – but said it was not possible to recoup the earnings lost. “We had to spend a lot of money for people to stay safe,” she said, pointing to the screens separating outdoor tables.
At Huttons Chocolates, business was “booming”, its joint owner, Kay Forsgardh, 59, said. “Every day now is like a really good Saturday. It’s unprecedented busy.” The family-run chocolatier, which supplies many local hotels, was devastated to have to close on the eve of Easter, traditionally its busiest period.
The hundreds of unsold chocolate eggs were melted down to make truffles and the 18-year-old firm is doing well, doubling its staff from two to four. “It’s absolutely tremendous. We’re hiring more staff because I think this will be the trend – people are nervous to get on planes,” Forsgardh said.