Coniston Stonecraft: A company whose heritage of handcrafted products using stone from Lakeland quarries goes back 40 years, has a new owner…
Cumbrian-born businessman Brendan Donnelly believes he may have just bought one of the greenest enterprises in the Lake District. Coniston Stonecraft, which makes hand-crafted signs in its workshops on the fells above Coniston Water, has the tiniest of carbon footprints. Power comes from Church Beck, running by its front door and into the tiny Hydro Electric station that has generated electricity for Coniston, for more than a decade. Water from Church Beck, running by the back door, is used as a substitute for oils to cool the machinery that cuts and grinds Lakeland slate, in the company’s workshops. “We’re about as environmentally-friendly as it’s possible to be,” said Mr Donnelly
“At the moment we still have to send out some of our slate orders in bubble-wrap – but we have plans to stop that soon.” Mr Donnelly may also have the finest view from any office, anywhere in England. He ‘came home’ to take over Coniston Stonecraft in February, when there was still snow on the peaks that tower over his workshops. The views are truly stunning. But the business has been producing signs, clocks, cheeseboards and wine racks for more than forty years – all made from slate quarried just down the road. The workshops use three types of stone; Westmorland Green slate, Brathay Blue/Grey slate and Baycliff Creamy Limestone. Westmorland Green in particular catches the eye. Every piece is individual. It can’t be copied. The slate, with its unique ‘grain’ and weathered texture, was first discovered in the 18th century by local quarrymen – having been created 450 million earlier by erupting volcanoes
“It’s a fantastic Cumbrian stone,” said Mr Donnelly. “In my opinion, the Lake District’s finest! “There are grains of feldspar mineral running through it, so every house sign, wine rack or cheeseboard that we make is slightly different. “They’re all unique and they’re all Made in Coniston. The staff who craft them are very, very proud.” Mr Donnelly grew up in Brampton but, after he graduated from university in Lancaster, work took him south to Staffordshire. His extended family are still in Cumbria – and he regards himself as a proud Cumbrian, through and through. The rest of the company’s four-strong workforce were all born and bred in the Lake District and are time-served with Stonecraft. Links with the Coniston community are strong. The company produces hundreds of slate medals every year, for traditional Cumbrian fell runs. Even one of the Coniston signs, on the road into town, was made by Stonecrafts.
Office manager Laura Whitworth, who came back to The Lakes after studying for a degree in Cornwall, has been with the company for nine years. She said: “I love it here. People in the Lakes have a well-deserved reputation for taking genuine pride in what they do. “It’s a great feeling to be part of something so local.”
The company makes everything in its rustic workshops, in the shadow of the famous Coniston Old Man that attracts thousands of walkers and hikers every year.
The workshops were originally built in the 19th century, as a Victorian sorting site for ore from the now-disused Coniston Copper Mine, further up the valley. The place reeks of the Lake District’s rich industrial heritage.Today, beautiful Westmorland Green slate place mats and cheese boards can be found in up-market restaurants in cities all over England. But orders come in to Coniston Stonecraft from far and wide, for all manner of hand-crafted products, including:A personalised table top, with carved signatures, for a well-heeled customer in America; A bespoke lid, for a firepit in the garden of a Surrey mansion; A Private Parking sign, for outside the officers’ mess on a Lincolnshire RAF base. Much of the business is from holidaymakers and day-trippers, looking for a memento of their time in the idyllic English Lake District. Hikers can order the personalised slate sign at the workshop, on their way up Coniston Old Man – then collect it two hours later (maybe more, if the weather is challenging) on their way back down. “It’s the ultimate in personal service,” said 58-year-old Mr Donnelly.
“Visitors like to buy something that has been hand-crafted, almost in front of their very eyes. “It gives them a certain satisfaction. They recognise that it helps the local economy, but also that it’s good for the planet.”It also provides yet another boost for Coniston Stonecraft’s environmental credentials.
*This article was first published in the June 2020 edition of Cumbria Life.