October of 1996 saw the opening, by Sir Chris Bonington CBE and Mrs Ada Hillard, of a new, purpose-built, state-of-the-art Headquarters.
It must have been late in 1991 that suddenly, we found that our old HQ on the road by the Central Car Park, was becoming far too small for a busy team. Parking was a pain, suggestions were being made that the Car Park was going to be developed, we couldn’t store all the gear, we had nowhere to train indoors…something had to be done. The Team agreed that we should start looking for somewhere, and in the meantime, we also considered what it was likely to cost. A “ballpark figure” of £200,000 seemed to be the sort of target. As we then had precisely £7,000, it seemed a daunting task. Lo and behold, a fairy godmother appeared in the shape of Mrs Ada Hillard, who made a sizeable donation to start things off.
Finding land in Keswick is not an easy task. Our first choice was somewhere on the Lakeside Car Park, but the local planning officer’s view was “Over my dead body….” There were some in the Team whose view was, “Well, if that’s what it takes….” But we managed to restrain them, and in total over three years, researched 37 possible sites, all of which had drawbacks of one sort or another. In many cases, we were thwarted by the planners, and in the end, we submitted an application which we were fairly certain to be turned down. It was – but the councillors concerned at least told the planners that they had to work with us to find a site. In the end, we ended up – back on the Lakeside Car Park!
The building was conceived in 1992, work started in Jan 1996 and was completed October 1996.
The design by ADK, a firm which actually had someone on the staff who had been in a mountain rescue team, convinced the planning authority. Through the good offices of Allerdale District Council, who offered to lease us the land, we found somewhere absolutely right for our busiest area, Borrowdale. The planners put stiff conditions on, such as the building being stone-faced all the way round (unlike the Theatre, which was built later), but we had a site.
In the meantime, the fundraising had been going steadily, and had reached somewhere in the region of £145,000. The project went out to tender, and a local company, Lakeland Stonecraft, put in the lowest bid, but we still didn’t have enough in the bank to start work. We went to see our sponsor and mentor Mrs Hillard, who had been exhorting us to get started. We were completely stunned when she took out her chequebook, and wrote a cheque to cover the starting figure. “Now get it built,” she said, “cos I want to see it before I pass on!”
In early January 1996, Sir Chris Bonington CBE cut the first sod, and the building was underway. Suddenly, the money started coming in again, and we found ourselves in a position to install some features which we thought we would not be able to afford. A classic comment came from one fairly regular visitor to Keswick, who asked the Chairman whether “the old barn being converted down on the Lakeside was anything to do with the Team”. Ten years on, it looks as if it’s always been there, which is a credit to the architects, and the builders.
We moved in on October 26th, 1996. Ada Hillard and Sir Chris Bonington CBE performed the opening ceremony, and the first callout was the next day.
Since then, there have been few modifications. Extra storage has been built into one end of the rope training area; an equipment store has now been constructed into what was the old office; and various additions in the electrical provision and heating have made the building better ventilated and heated. Plans are afoot to revamp the Control Room with more up to date IT facilities, but the basic structure and footprint remain unaltered, showing how right the concept and execution were first time round.
For those of us who were involved, whether planning, negotiating, fundraising, it was one of the hardest mountains we had climbed. But there is not a day we don’t look at it, and think, “We built that – and we still think it’s the best MR base in the Lakes – if not in Britain.”