A cord struck in the Dales

Chris Arnot finds a traditional industry that is thriving - without becoming a theme park

The author Jerome K Jerome liked work so much that he could watch it for hours. Plenty of leisure-seekers obviously feel much the same today. While away from their own workplaces there is nothing they like more than scrutinising somebody else hard at it.

At one end of remote and picturesque Hawes, high in the Yorkshire Dales, visitors can watch Wensleydale cheese being made before sampling the finished product in the dairy shop. At the other end of the town they look on entranced while lengths of rope are being spun before their eyes at the premises still known as WR Outhwaite and Son.

And while the public are not prepared to pay money for old rope the shop does a brisk trade in new dog leads, cord pulls, parcel twine and much else made on the premises. Visitor numbers will decline as the winter advances but there are plenty of trade customers to keep business ticking over nicely until the tourists flock back in the spring.

Outhwaites make everything from barrier ropes, clothes lines and macrame plantpot hangers to hammocks, picture cords and the lanyards to hold the whistles of Japanese policemen. Not to mention bell ropes, a mere 5 or 6 per cent of the business right now though the company is already the second biggest producer in the country. And like their three competitors in this field they are hoping to attract some of the pounds 3m grant money given to churches by the Millennium Commission to ensure that bell towers are well equipped to ring in the new century.

"We just hope the clergy don't all leave it until the last minute," says Peter Annison who has run the business with his wife, Ruth, since 1975. They have expanded a one-man operation run from a 400 sq ft shed into a thriving business occupying 10,000 sq ft that employs 22.

During my visit they were in the process of securing their biggest-ever order: for pounds 10,000 of barrier ropes. What is more, they had managed to secure advance payment.

Yet the prospects hardly looked promising when they took over from Tom Outhwaite (son of W R) 21 years ago. Tom had been the last surviving ropemaker in the Dales. He dealt almost exclusively with farmers. One of his last pronouncements before handing over the ropes (so to speak) was: "You'll never go short of business as long as there are cows."

Since then there has been a marked change in farming habits. Far fewer cattle are tethered and, consequently, the number of "cow ties" required is a quarter of what it was two decades ago. "Luckily, we recognised the need to diversify early on," Ruth recalls.

But first they had to learn the ropes, or at least how to make them. Tom spent four months teaching them everything they knew. They had no experience either of running a business.

"Drop-out teachers" was how the local press described them in 1975. In fact, they had been lecturers in Nottingham: he in textile chemistry, she in institutional management. Both came from the north of England and had spent just about every weekend in their beloved Yorkshire Dales.

"We wanted to live there permanently and we were sick of driving up the A1 every Friday night," says Ruth. "But it took us three years to work out a way of earning a living. We also had a vague idea that we could perhaps provide some much-needed local jobs."

From the sale of their house in Nottingham they had enough to buy a home in Hawes as well as Tom Outhwaite's rope-making shed. But the odds were stacked against them. They had no business plan, no working capital and no telephone.

Then things got worse. Peter was told he had cancer. Only after four years of chemotherapy was it finally eradicated. "It certainly sharpened our focus," says Ruth, "and made us very careful not to over-reach ourselves. All the time we had to keep a balance between increasing our product range, taking on staff and maintaining a tight budget."

Leafleting proved a cheap, if time-consuming way of spreading the news that they were now selling much more than cow ties and goat halters. They sent them to every hotel, pub and guest house in the area. "You have to make sure that everyone within a 25-mile radius has heard of you," says Ruth. "It takes a lot of shoe leather but it's worth it."

National publicity came their way when they managed to get one of their bannister ropes into the Ideal Home Exhibition.

Slowly but surely they began to grow and invest. Profits were ploughed back, small loans taken out. In 1978 they became the first company in Hawes and the surrounding area to install computers. No more typing invoices on the kitchen table.

They developed a braid-making machine that could be left to work by itself. They spotted niche markets, like candle wicks. "We burnt hundreds of them before we got it right," Ruth recalls. "We have to concentrate on finding products within our technological capacity where there is a market we can serve."

They have done that successfully enough over the past 21 years to provide a vital source of employment and exceed local expectations of two "drop- out teachers".

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