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Many people visit the world famous Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread Shop in the Lake District but few people know of it’s incredible history!
On my recent visit to the Vale of Grasmere with Go Lakes, I was given a special guided tour with the owners and even went ‘behind the secret Green Door’ of the shop to see what it was all about.
Although I wasn’t allowed to see how the Gingerbread is made here, I was able to see the process in how they prepare this delectable treat for so many people every day in their kitchens.
During my guided tour, I learned so much about this legendary local business and how they have been making their famous gingerbread to its original recipe since 1854.
Keep reading to find out some mind-blowing secrets about Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread Shop that you didn’t know before!
What is Grasmere Gingerbread?
Many people will happily argue with you that this is the best gingerbread in the WHOLE world and, now I’ve tried it, I have to agree with them!
Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread is a cross between a cake and biscuit, with a crumbly casing and chewy centre.
Although only one person on Earth knows the exact recipe, there is one thing we know for certain is in it; ginger!
This amazing sugary treat is packed full of spicy ginger and gives you a real kick.
It’s best served warm out of the oven and the team at Grasmere Gingerbread are passionate about you having the finest product.
So, it is advised you visit the shop yourself in Grasmere and purchase some as soon as it comes out of the stove!
Why is Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread SO famous?
There are a few things that are synonymous with Grasmere and I believe those are William Wordsworth and Grasmere Gingerbread.
Grasmere Gingerbread is now a household name in the Lake District but through the centuries has become famous all over the globe too.
Not only is the gingerbread made here completely unique and delicious, but it’s also stood the test of time from its original founder Sarah Nelson.
She had a hard life and sad story, but despite the tragedies, she carried on the business and her legacy is still enjoyed by so many today.
The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop has never steered from their roots or changed for profit. They still continue making this top-secret recipe for people to enjoy as Sarah intended all those years ago.
I believe this phenomenal independent is so famous due to it being steeped in history, it touches a lot of people and their gingerbread is the best you can buy!
15 little secrets about Grasmere Gingerbread you didn’t know before
1. Sarah Nelson’s life story is quite a sad one
The thing that really stood out to me while learning about the Grasmere Gingerbread story was how strong Sarah Nelson was in her life.
It’s no secret that I admire strong independent women that defy gender stereotypes and Sarah Nelson is a textbook definition.
Sarah Nelson was born in 1815 in Bowness-on-Windermere which is around 10 miles away from Grasmere as Sarah Kemp (her Maiden name).
She was born into a poor working-class family and grew up with her widowed mother Dinah and her sister Anne.
Dinah worked in the kitchens and in the houses of many rich aristocrats in the area and passed the skills of domesticity onto her daughters.
Sarah went to work in service for wealthy families from a young age and eventually worked her way up to a cooks position in Household in Kendal.
The upstairs downstairs love story & tragedy
Sarah then moved to work for another house in the market town of Penrith. It was here, in 1844, she met Wilfred Nelson who was a divorced farmhand.
They both fell head over heels in love with each other and got married shortly afterwards and moved to Lancaster. Wilfred had a successful business as a tea dealer and grocer.
A few years later Sarah then gave birth to her son John. Then she had two daughters, Mary Ann and Dinah.
Being in a busy city in the Victorian age wasn’t ideal with diseases like Cholera spreading in busy cities.
Unfortunately, her son John became infected with it and died suddenly in a large outbreak in 1852.
Moving to Grasmere & Church Cottage
Fearing the worst and wanting to protect their two daughters, Sarah and Wilfred decided to move back to Grasmere.
They moved into Church Cottage which dated back to the 1630s, which was perfect as Wilfred took up a new position as a grave digger!
While working at Dale Lodge, the summer home of Lady Maria Farquhar, Sarah continued to whip up a storm in the kitchens. Where she was then encouraged to start her own bakery!
So, in 1854 Sarah opened up Grasmere Gingerbread for business. She would make her treat for locals in the village and tourists stopping by.
More tragedy, death and legacy
The business did so well that Sarah was able to leave her position as Dale Lodge and become an independent business owner which was a bold move for a woman back then.
Where most businesses would have a man at the face of the shop, Sarah was right on the front line to welcome customers and was the face of the business.
However, despite living in a rural area the family didn’t escape illness and her two daughters passed away from tuberculosis within 8 months of each other. Dinah was just 18 and Mary Ann was 22 and newly-wed.
After their deaths, her husband Wilfred turned to drink from depression and couldn’t work. So, it was up to Sarah to continue on the business to keep them afloat. She was eventually widowed in 1880.
As well as working every day to provide gingerbread to her loyal customers, she would also teach local children to read and write with gingerbread letters.
She eventually died in 1904 from complete exhaustion at 88! But, her legacy still lives on today in the form of Grasmere Gingerbread.
2. The Grasmere Gingerbread shop is inside Church Cottage that used to be a local school
The shop that Grasmere Gingerbread is sold in today had its humble beginnings as Gate Cottage in the 1630s and acted as a local village school for boys.
Back then education wasn’t paid for so it was mainly a school for the wealthy boys of the village.
Amazingly, the world-famous poet William Wordsworth taught at the school as well. Imagine having him as a teacher?!
Once more students and girls were allowed to attend school, there was a growing demand for places at the Grasmere school by the churchyard.
So, in 1854 a bigger school was built on a new site and is still called the Church of England Primary School of Grasmere today.
Once the school closed, Church Cottage opened up for rent and Sarah and Wilfred Nelson decided to buy the house for their family.
No attempts were made to change the structure of the cottage from when it was a school, so you can still see the old storage cupboards inside the kitchens!
The cottage and shop today also hasn’t changed much since Sarah Nelson lived in it and many of the original structures, pantries and shelves are still in place.
3. Grasmere Gingerbread was a popular stop for Stagecoaches
Although today, we walk behind the green door and buy Grasmere Gingerbread inside the shop, back in Sarah’s time she would sell it outside her home.
Sarah would make her Gingerbread in the morning and set up shop outside Church Cottage, on a tree stump outside.
During the Victorian era, there was a tourism boom with the North Western Railways and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Many people wanted to explore the Lake District and Grasmere that William Wordsworth spoke so fondly of. However, he stopped the train line every reaching Grasmere! So many tourists made their way over to this part of the world on a Stagecoach pulled by horses.
The Stagecoaches would pass by the Wordsworth Hotel today and they would stop off here for a small break. Sarah would be waiting for them with hot drinks and Grasmere Gingerbread as refreshment.
The word spread about her marvellous creation and more and more people came to sample it. So, you could almost say that the Grasmere Gingerbread shop was a like a historic services on the road!
4. The Grasmere Gingerbread shop still rent lands off the church even today
Something jaw-dropping I found out on my visit was that Church Cottage is still rented by Grasmere Gingerbread off St Oswald’s church nearby!
So, the business doesn’t technically own the property after all these years ever since the time when Sarah rented it with Wilfred.
Even today, with their successful business, they have made the decision not to buy the property and make it their own.
Yasmine, a fourth-generation owner, who I met told me this was to support the church and the local community while preserving the original residence.
But, what does being owned by the church mean exactly? Well, not much really!
They are still able to do as they wish and run their business independently. But, they do have to close on certain religious days in accordance with the Christian faith.
5. The recipe for Grasmere Gingerbread is top secret, hand written and locked inside a bank vault
Sarah Nelson was a pretty smart lady and with her rising success, she quickly realised the need to safeguard her Grasmere Gingerbread recipe.
She started with her ‘None Genuine Without Trade Mark’ stamp and eventually locked her secret recipe away in a bank vault in Cumbria.
Making Grasmere Gingerbread is followed by a handwritten recipe with a list of ingredients and instructions on vegetable parchment.
The same parchment that has been used to wrap the Grasmere Gingerbread since the beginning!
Although the original parchment written by Sarah has been re-written over time by newer owners, it is still locked away in a bank vault somewhere in the area. This is to ensure the recipe is top-secret.
Amazingly, only ONE person in the whole world knows how to make it from this recipe.
Andrew Hunter, who is a partner in the business, is the only person that knows and he mixes up the ingredients daily to make the gingerbread for everyone to enjoy!
6. It’s owned and run by third and fourth generation owners but under Sarah’s original wishes
After Sarah Nelson died she passed on the business to Agnes German and her sister, who cared for her in the last months of her life.
After that, Daisy Hotson purchased the business and joined up with partners Mary and Jack Wilson.
Gerald and Margaret Wilson bought the business after them and it is now run by their daughter Joanne Wilson who is now Joanne Hunter.
Joanne Wilson’s Great Great Grandparents entertained William Wordsworth for tea and her grandfather looked after the fire in Dove cottage!
Her husband is Andrew Hunter is the guardian of the recipe for Grasmere Gingerbread!
Together they are third-generation owners and have three children Yasmine, Eden Rose and Eamont.
Which brings us to today! The shop currently has 16 members of staff and some are celebrating over 25 years of service.
Despite the shop’s growth over the years, they still make every decision with Sarah in mind and what she would have wanted.
Hence why the shop hasn’t sold off the recipe or over-commercialised the business. It sticks to its roots.
7. This shop is the only place in the whole world you can buy Grasmere Gingerbread
Although many people have tried to recreate Sarah’s tasty treat, the only place where you can buy Grasmere Gingerbread is in their shop in Grasmere. Or, specially selected outlets in the area.
Always look for the original trademark stamp created by Sarah Nelson as a sign of the genuine product.
The Grasmere Gingerbread shop is really tiny and, although they have huge queues, you can only fit in around 3/4 people at a time.
But, this adds to the atmosphere and transports you back in time to the Victorian era.
The staff are dressed in Victorian uniform, there are antiques on the walls, etchings and paintings of the Gingerbread shop too. Every inch of this place is used to its full capacity.
Once you’re here you can purchase their incredible Gingerbread and see what other locally made Lakeland products are on offer too.
How much is Grasmere Gingerbread?
The Grasmere Gingerbread is sold by the half pound (six pieces) or a whole pound (12 pieces) and its lovingly wrapped in the original vegetable parchment.
6 pieces of Grasmere Gingerbread will cost £3.75 and 12 pieces will cost £7.25!
8. But, now you can also buy it online and get it delivered to you world wide!
Although the shop is very traditional in its ways, it hasn’t completely forgotten the benefits of living in the 21st century!
So, as well as buying Grasmere Gingerbread in the original store, you can also order the much-loved treat online too.
In the UK, it can be delivered to your door the very next day. Plus, they can deliver to Europe within two days and even further afield like New Delhi!
On the other side of the world and even down under, places like Australia can receive a fresh package from Grasmere in just 4 days.
After I had made my way (quite quickly) through my initial store of Grasmere Gingerbread. I felt quite relieved I wouldn’t need to drive four hours back to get some!
9. Grasmere Gingerbread is baked fresh daily on site and served as soon as possible
Although most modern companies mass-produce cakes and biscuits in factories with a ton of preservatives that can be preserved as long as humanly possible.
What I loved about Grasmere Gingerbread is that they whip up their product in their own kitchen onsite as fast as they can and on-demand for people walking through the door.
So, you can guarantee that gingerbread you buy is as fresh as they could make it and it hasn’t long come out of the oven.
But, not to worry, the gingerbread can stay fresh for up to one week after the day it is baked in an air tight container.
It can also be frozen to preserve it for longer if you can resist munching all of it that is!
Just pop it in the oven on a low heat to make sure it has that gooey chewy texture.
10. Grasmere Gingerbread is 100% vegan!
Of course, the concept of Vegan didn’t exist in Sarah’s time. But, meat was expensive and a luxury not many could afford back then.
Little did Sarah know that she would make a lot of non-meat and anti-animal produce eaters very happy in the future!
Although the recipe isn’t disclosed, there are no ingredients that have been sourced with animals involved at all including eggs.
Plus, having been in the kitchens myself, it’s also not prepared in an environment that has anything other than the staff, baking trays, ovens and the gingerbread itself.
So, its safe to enjoy whether you’re a meat-eater or not!
As I’m lactose intolerant this was perfect for me as there is no dairy in it at all. It is not gluten-free though and they cannot completely guarantee that any nuts have been involved.
11. The Grasmere Gingerbread shop sell way more than just Gingerbread
Although the journey started with just Grasmere Gingerbread being sold inside the shop.
Over the years, the company have decided to partner up and support local Lakeland businesses.
So, you can find different products like their famous Raspberry and Ginger marshmallows, nicknamed ‘pillows of happiness’ which are delicious too!
Along with that, they stock locally made ginger syrup, interesting conserves like Cumbrian Damsen and Gunpowder tea, tea bags and even hand creams.
That’s right, they have produced a whole ginger scented beauty range with hand creams, soap, moisturisers and more. I tried some for myself and the ginger scent is so lovely and subtle.
All of the products are sourced via independent business owners in the local area to be sold under the Grasmere Gingerbread brand in their shop.
12. It has welcomed many celebrities through its doors
Grasmere Gingerbread is word famous and even celebrities haven’t been immune to hearing about it in the Lake District.
Actors like Tom Cruise turned up in his sports car to pop in and buy a few tins of the gingerbread (twice!). Other famous celebrities who have popped in are actors Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger.
Jason Orange from Take That, famous chef Jamie Oliver, and radio and TV presenter Chris Evans. Even Ade Edmondson, one of my favourite comedians.
So, you never know, you may see someone you recognise instore!
13. They hold a monthly ‘Paint a Spoon’ competition where you can win prizes
As soon as you walk onto the cobbled path into the shop, you may see a curious potted garden at the entranceway. But, instead of plants, you’ll find a group of painted spoons!
This is all part of the Paint a Spoon competition that the store hold each month.
It started off to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and they have continued this popular initiative ever since.
All you have to do is take your wooden spoon and paint it in any creative way you like, hand it in or send it over to the shop in the post and you’ll be entered in the competition.
Then at the end of the month, they select a winner who will win a Grasmere Gingerbread goodie box, how cool?!
There are some really good ones in the garden to check out. I LOVED the R2-D2 spoon!
14. You can order favours from here for any special occasion
Something else I didn’t know was the fact that they have hand make favours to order for any special occasion through out the year.
Whether it’s your wedding, a birthday, anniversary or a retirement celebration you can order Grasmere Gingerbread in the bucket load to be served up as a special treat.
Although they can’t go too wild with it, they can organise for the gingerbread to be made into special shapes too.
I think it’s such a cool idea and people would absolutely love it as it’s a classic!
15. It’s now world famous and a bucket list staple while in the Lake District!
Now, this is probably no secret to some, but Grasmere Gingerbread has now become a staple part of any visit to the Lake District!
As soon as you drive into Grasmere, you can smell the sweet smell of gingerbread fill the air and if you follow that smell you’ll find queues out of the door of this small shop.
I wonder what Sarah Nelson would say if she were to see the business thriving today, over 160 years after she first invented it.
Personally, I think she’d be over the moon and thankful there are so many people that are so passionate about her original recipe. Plus, amazing staff on board to cater to the demand as she herself only had two hands!
So, if you do ever find yourself near Grasmere, make sure you pop over to the famous Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread shop and purchase some. You won’t regret a thing.
How to reach Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread Shop
The business was originally created in Sarah Nelson’s home, Church Cottage, which falls off the historic St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere. It has not moved or changed ever since!
So, you can visit the original shop right in the heart of Grasmere Village. If you’re heading to Grasmere by car.
You can take the M6, then take the junction towards the Lake District National Park on the A590. Head on the A591 all the way until you see signs for Grasmere Village.
Unfortunately, William Wordsworth famously stopped any trains reaching Grasmere. But, there are regular public buses run by Stagecoach that head to Grasmere from Keswick, Ambleside and Bowness-on-Windermere.
Once you land in Grasmere village, it’s really small. So, it will take you a matter of minutes to arrive on foot.
Parking at the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop
The most convenient car parking is the three/four parking spaces directly outside the shop in the lay-by. These spots are pretty popular as they are FREE.
But, these are time restricted to one-hour maximum from the hours of 10 am-6 pm with no option to extend.
Of course, before 10 am and 6 pm you can park as long as you like but the shop won’t be open! If this is full, there are two Grasmere Village visitor car parks to use.
The closest being Red Bank Road Car Park inside the village itself behind the Grasmere Garden Village. It’s a 2-minute walk.
There is also the Broadgate Meadow Car Park which is located on the lane as you drive into Grasmere village and it’s a 5 minute walk from here.
Both pay and display car parks are the same prices;
- Up to 2 hours: £3.00
- 3 hours: £4.20
- 4 hours: £5.40
- 5 hours: £6.60
- 9 hours: £8.00
Grasmere Gingerbread Shop opening times
The Grasmere Gingerbread shop is open 7 days a week apart from Good Friday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
It’s open from 9.15 am – 5pm but may have further reduced hours over winter.
Dogs are not allowed inside the shop for health and safety reasons and large rucksacks too!
Other places to visit in Grasmere
Once you’ve finished buying some Grasmere Gingerbread, you’re probably wondering what to do next!
Well, thankfully Grasmere Village is one of the most idyllic, historic and pretty villages in the whole of the Lake District. So, there is plenty to do.
Grasmere is also famous for its renowned resident William Wordsworth so you can follow in his footsteps here to some of the properties he owned in the area.
Dove Cottage was the first property he owned here in Town End with his sister Dorothy and later he moved to Allan Bank once he married Mary.
Also, a little further on you can visit Rydal Mount, where he lived until his death in 1850.
St Oswald’s Church is worth a peek inside with its beautiful stained glass windows and exposed beams and you can visit the Wordsworth Memorial Gardens with a bed of daffodils. Also, his grave and those of his family are in the churchyard.
Grasmere is full of amazing cafés to visit like Hardy’s or the Windermere Tea Gardens.
Plus, there are some historic retailers like Barney’s Newsbox with a huge collection of Jigsaws and Sam Read’s news agents which has been here since 1877.
Heaton Cooper Studios has a huge name around here and you can stock up on art supplies or see their latest works in their exhibition studio.
You’re also on the gateway of many amazing walks to White Moss Woodlands and Rydal Water. Why not visit the famous man-made Rydal Cave that was part of Loughrigg Quarry?!
Where to stay in Grasmere
If you’re looking for a luxury hotel in the Lake District then the Wordsworth Hotel and Spa is one of the best in the area.
Originally built for the Earl of Cadogan in 1850 as his private hunting lodge, it’s now, it’s a 4* hotel. As a bonus, it’s right next to the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop!
In fact, I had a pretty epic view of the shop from my bedroom window and I could see the queues too!
The hotel even gives you Grasmere Gingerbread as a welcome gift (although nothing beats getting it fresh).
As well as having cosy luxurious rooms, they also have an award-winning AA Rosette fine dining restaurant on site. So, you can treat yourself to a delectable meal while you’re here in the evening.
I also had a little bit of a spa day while I was here and enjoyed their heated swimming pool and jacuzzi while the rain was pouring. Plus, they also have spa treatments on offer to indulge in.