Ambleside as it really is: The Gruff Guide

Locals don’t usually read, or need, a guidebook to their home town. But here’s a very unusual, factually fascinating and hugely entertaining book which will be loved by Ambleside residents and visitors alike.

Ambleside: The Gruff Guide to a Unique Community in the Lake District is the work of Paul Renouf, who’s lived there long enough to fall somewhere between several of the categories he described, neither purely local but surely more established than offcomer. What’s beyond doubt is that he knows the place, the people, the pub, the paths intimately, and is able to bring them all to life on the unusual “handwritten” pages.

In this he’s assisted by artist and cartoonist Sarah Waterhouse whose burger-van illustration features badger bake and chips, and squirrel stew; and by local GP and tri-athlete Paul Davies who adds statistics and insights to the picture of the town today.

Renouf tackles the myths and the legends; here you will find the REAL history of the Bridge House, and some home truths about famous residents. He recognises conflicts of interest but doesn’t resort to making a drama out of them: “If you own a hotel, guest house or cafe, there are not enough tourists. If you are retired, or a farmer, or a street cleaner, there are too many. In many ways these opposing views result in a kind of uneasy balance, enabling the town to retain its identity as a community rather than letting it degenerate entirely into a soulless marketable resort facility.”

Ultimately you have to love the tourists, because they are the lifeblood of the town, and ask wonderful questions such as: “Is this the ferry to the Isle of Man?” and “Where is Peter Rabbit’s grave?” They also have a tendency to want to know exactly how far they’ve walked, given that the hills add such a lot of time to their efforts, and here Renouf obliges: the Fairfield Horseshoe, at 10.1 miles, with a total ascent of 3100 feet, is equivalent to the distance of 16.4 miles. Even Wainwright didn’t work that out.

But Wainwright didn’t include the delightful lower-level walks which Renouf describes here, though he’s scathing about one of my favourite training runs, Under Loughrigg and Rydal Park: “This is a really soft walk with virtually no ascent. It is ideally suited to those recuperating from heart attacks, violent hangovers or loss of a leg.”

What’s really gratifying is the tribute he pays to our most successful independent entrepreneur, Derek Hook: “His stylish enterprises, including Zeffirelli’s five cinema screens, his restaurants, and latterly his guest house Ambleside Manor, have surely done more to popularise Ambleside as a visitor destination than any amount of public money poured into official promotions. And yet this modest man seeks no limelight, no recognition, no power or influence.”

By way of recommendation, I quote the author’s own epilogue: “If you already know Ambleside we hope you have found new things here. If you haven’t been to Ambleside, we hope you will have been tempted to visit us. If the book has completely killed any desire you may have had to come here, you wouldn’t have liked it anyway.”

Ambleside: The Gruff Guide is available from, £9.99 and from Fred’s Ambleside Bookshop


1 thought on “Ambleside as it really is: The Gruff Guide

  1. Jonathan Humble

    I have very fond memories of Zeff’s in the eighties (with the oriental decor), when studying at Charlotte Mason in Ambleside. Great place for pizza with Zeff sauce, a side of their excellent coleslaw, followed by a movie … watched Out Of Africa there and then pestered Fred Holdsworth for the poster advertising the film in his bookshop when he’d finished with it … 🙂


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