Rohan a Family Affair

Al and Joy Thorong La Pass 5380m north of Annapurna

It’s 25 years since the first Rohan shop opened in the Lake District.

The Evans family opened the first Rohan Franchise in Windermere 25 years ago, that’s a long time ago. Al, Joy and Ben Evans are very much part of the Rohan family and Rohan Keswick is now the home of the Rohan Originals a fantastic display of the early history of Rohan in the garments that changed the outdoor world for ever.

We have profiled some interesting people on Rohantime over the last few months, Peter Sidwell, Simon Calder, Graham Bell, Mike Parsons the list goes on. This month we have a Guest Interview with Al and Joy Evans. Sharing their business story and the history of the first Rohan Franchise. We also got Al talking about his experiences in outdoor pursuits. This really has spanned a lifetime and is as much part of his life today as it was 50 years ago. We also learned that Al and Joy are celebrating 50 years of marriage this year. That can’t go with out a mention. Al and Joy have included some tips and observations on running a business and family life.

Above all this is the story of a family that many Rohantists, Lake District residence and visitors know well. It spans two generations. The high and lows. The story of a real family business. Trading through recession and booms for a quarter of a century. This story is part of the social and economic history of the Lake District. We are running the interview over four instalments during March ending with the Rohan Originals weekend in Rohan Keswick 1st – 3rd April.  So please check back to catch up with their story.

Q. Al and Joy, before we launch into the history of the very first Rohan Franchise could you tell us  about your businesses before Rohan. I know you have a joint love of design and the great outdoors.

Joy and I were born in North Manchester but shortly after our marriage in Spring 1961 we moved to Langdale. I became gardener handyman at what is now the Langdale Timeshare and Joys first job was cleaner at a local school so although only earning about £12 between us this was the beginning of our life in the mountains and therefore we were as happy as can be.

By 1963 I had progressed to being an instructor at Brathay Hall which was a very progressive outdoor education centre near Ambleside. We ran four long week courses for 16 to 19 yr olds which mixed the usual outdoor activities of mountaineering and sailing with arts,crafts,drama and music. This contrasted with most other outdoor centres of the time which tended to treat the outdoors much more like a battleground where the idea was more of conquering the mountains rather than loving them.

This lifestyle continued until 1967 when we started to think it would be fun to try something ourselves. Both of us being from working class backgrounds we had no idea how we might do this but over the last few years Joy had worked as salesperson/secretary to Frank Davies at his famous climbing store in Ambleside and so we thought that retailing might be something to explore.

The general idea was alright but what could we sell and where could we do it from. We had about £200 which although that might be worth say £2000 at today’s money it was not going to go far in getting a shop, fitting it out, stocking it out then having some cashflow (a word that we had never heard of!). Even in those days the Lakes was expensive so that was out but Lancaster was close by and was full of interest with great buildings and a waterside with great potential plus they had just opened the University.

The choice of products to sell had to be picked from the two areas we knew something about.. outdoor equipment or interior design. Due to my training on a drawing board with our interest in architecture,product design and craft we thought we might manage a small shop with a small amount of stock but with a drawing area where I could try and offer an interior design service… hence was born’ DESIGN design’ in a rented shop in a back street in Lancaster at a grand cost of £2 per week.

1960 Alan prototype design outside first shop Design/design Lanacaster at midnight

How we survived the first twelve months we will never know but towards the end of that period although not selling an awful lot we had tied up the agencies for such great design brands of the 60s like Conran, Marimekko, David Mellor and Hille etc. Then unknown to us Fiona Macarthy wrote a very flattering article in The Guardian design section and people from far and wide came in and bought… we were on our way.

As the years went by we missed the Lakes and so in 1973 we moved our interests to Kendal and formed a business called AE Design sited in a large Georgian building on the side of the river Kent. This business grew very quick and during the 1970s we developed under the Waterside banner a whole series of sections covering areas we felt passionate about AE Design continued with a team of designers working projects side by side to a showroom displaying design classics such as Eames, Le Corbusier, Vico Magistretti etc. Another part of the building housed Waterside Wholefoods and Vegetarian Cafe which Joy developed.

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1974 Queens Rd Kendal House won a Civic Trust and European Architectural Heitage Award 1975

Waterside Kendal late 70s Wholefood Shop and Cafe

The last ingredient was Waterside Adventure Sports specializing in lightweight travel, XC s Skiing and Backpacking equipment plus what would become Pete Bland Sports still the UK’s most important Fell running business. This was the time we first sold that magic stuff ROHAN!

Waterside Kendal spot the Rohan Jacket

This period during the 1970′s and into the early 1980′s were very exciting but by 1983 Joy and I really needed a break from the action, we had never started the business so it could take over our lives but that’s what was beginning to happen so we set about to break it up. My brother Brian stayed to run the design unit, Pete took the sports and Joy sold the Wholefoods. I took a few months sabbatical during which time I was offered the job as assistant to the Head of High Borrans Outdoor Education Centre in the hills above Windermere. I spent the next few years working with Eifion and we had a great time together but as time went on I found my head full of ideas of a new business venture… Rohan!

Next part of the Rohantime interview has just been published  – read the story Why Rohan?

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