Staycations: Stump Cross Caverns facing uncertain future as lockdown hits Harrogate tourism trade
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The Harrogate district’s tourism and hospitality industry is facing a major battle to recover in the wake of a third lockdown.
Last week the Prime Minister confirmed that spring and summer in England will usher in changes to make lives “incomparably better” as he set out a plan to fully ease the lockdown by June 21.
However, despite predictions of a bumper tourism season amid a huge spike in the number of bookings for domestic holidays, for many the damage has already been done.
The owner of Stump Cross Caverns, one of Yorkshire’s oldest tourist destinations, near Pateley Bridge, revealed she has lodged an official complaint with Arts Council England after her application for a “vital” grant was turned down.
Lisa Bowerman who has owned the popular visitor attraction for 18 years, said she was devastated to receive the letter last month, which said Stump Cross wasn’t eligible to receive the requested £130,700 from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund.
In the letter, Jane Dawson, director of funding programmes for the Arts Council England, wrote: “Your primary discipline is one we do not support.”
But Ms Bowerman argued that she had applied for the grant on the advice of Skipton and Ripon MP Julian Smith following a response from Culture minister Nigel Huddleston, which outlined the eligibility of the support package, including protecting “cultural assets of local importance”.
In her complaint, which she sent this week, Ms Bowerman wrote: “We are of course of cultural significance.
“Stump Cross Caverns is an ancient cave system in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Stump Cross is a frontline tourist magnet. If the local economy loses us, it will lose a lot.
“It’s on the ‘things we need to do while we are there’ of everyone who visits our region. School trips, coach parties, bikers, cyclists, families, OAPs, people from all over Europe visit Stump Cross Caverns.
“If we lose Stump, we all lose so much.”
Ms Bowerman and her family are currently running a crowdfunding campaign to raise vital funds in an attempt to save the business, which has lost around £350,000 as a result of the pandemic and has seen ticket sales drop from an annual average of 60,000 to just 15,000.
She said: “We have spent a lot of time and effort putting a grant application in for the Culture Recovery Fund. I feel so upset we didn’t get anything. Not a penny. At the end of the day we have got a living museum.”
Ms Bowerman said the attraction, which has closed for a total of 10 months, boosted the local rural economy as alongside other venues, it formed part of a “gateway to the Yorkshire Dales”.
She said: “I have written to all the MPs and the Prime Minister himself, to see if there’s anything they can do to help. If Stump Cross closes, we would lose the school visits, the tourism trade.
“I had my heart set on this grant and I admit I cried as I can’t believe that no one is going to help us. I am trying to keep everyone’s jobs safe and try and make sure the attraction is still here.
“You would really expect it to be part of the National Trust. It’s an important historical asset. The grant would have helped us get on our feet and helped us for three months going forward.
“We did have money in the bank before all this happened and all my savings have just gone. In the last year we have just oozed cash.”
Ms Bowerman and her family are now pinning their hopes on their £53,000 crowdfunding initiative, which allows those who pledge their support the chance to win a VW campervan, which belongs to the Bowermans.
Ms Bowerman said: “We can get another campervan when we get back on our feet, but we can’t get another cave.”
If the appeal, which has already raised almost half of it’s target, is successful, the family plans to open Stump Cross’s cafe for a takeaway service on April 12 and the attraction itself on May 17.
Ms Bowerman said: “We need the crowdfunding to open, if we don’t get it we might not be able to, but it’s looking good. We have had a lot of support but it’s sad that we have had to rely on the community to help us.”
Due to its natural and cultural importance, Stump Cross is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Bones of Ice Age creatures have been discovered in the caverns including reindeer, wolverine and bison and some are now on display in the visitor centre.
Its cave system extends well beyond the public access show caves, to an overall length of approximately 6km.
The attraction also includes a recently refurbished 50-seater cinema, cafe and chill out zone.
Ms Bowerman said: “It’s just the pandemic that has crushed us. We can cope for two months, six months even, but not a year, it’s just crazy.
“It’s definitely testing times. We will just have to be really mindful of what is cost effective and what we can do. We can’t just keep running at a loss.”
Arts Council England said the application was rejected because it was ‘ineligible due to the main work of the organisation not meeting the criteria of the fund, set by the Government’. They have urged businesses to review the range of resources on their website pointing to other available Arts Council funding.