A STALWART of the Cumbrian business community was awarded The Robin Burgess Lifetime Contribution to Cumbria Award at the In-Cumbria Business Awards 2023.

Sponsored by BAE Systems recipient John Dunning CBE was handed the award at the glittering awards ceremony at The Halston in Carlisle.

The M6 is such a familiar feature in Cumbria that it is hard to imagine a time before it cleaved its way through the landscape.

However, its opening in the county in 1971 was a watershed moment for the local economy, influencing almost every aspect of business.

But it can have changed few people’s lives more than John Dunning CBE, founder of the motorway’s Tebay Services and the Westmorland Family of businesses. 

John grew up in Kirkby Stephen, the son of a car dealer and mechanic of the same name. He began dairy farming on the land his family owns near Orton in the 1950s.

“I quickly worked out in the sixties that we had to diversify our activities,” says John, who turns 90 next year.

His wife Barbara - who he married in 1967 - expanded the holiday cottage business which she ran from the farm and he grew the dairy herd to 150 and kept a flock of 300 sheep.

However, diversifying into running a motorway service station was perhaps more the result of circumstance than choice.

As well as making a compulsory purchase of part of the farm to construct the M6 the Department of Transport also put out a tender to build and run a new motorway service station at Tebay.

However, the development attracted little interest from the major services operators and a “wild thought” crossed John’s mind to make a bid to build and run the motorway services himself.

“The big operators dropped out because the restaurant possibilities were modest and the retail possibilities were modest,” says John.

“They didn’t believe that many people were going to stop for fuel.”

However, John set about asking every petrol station between Carlisle and Lancaster how much fuel they sold to create a solid estimate of how much trade may be generated and if this would provide a return on the significant investment he was making.

“I carried out enormous research because I wanted to get it right, if I didn’t I was risking my whole farm,” he says.

However, as John writes in his history of the Westmorland Group These Changing Hills:

“It resonated with my view of the need to widen the scope of the upland economy and because we had reached the limits of our farm.”

Tebay Services, northbound, opened in 1972, in partnership with Penrith bakers and confectioners Birketts. This set the tone for the Westmorland Group’s continued focus on championing local produce.

"That ethos is part of the people we are," says John.

"It wasn't a commercial decision. We are that sort of people and that's what we do and we've developed it into a much more sophisticated exercise."

The business built the Truckstop at Junction 38 at about the same time as the first services and added a motel to the northbound services in 1976. The southbound service area followed in 1992.

Farm shops opened at both services in 2003 and the company expanded into the South West by opening Gloucester Services on the M5 in 2014.

Most recently, in 2019, the Westmorland Family remodelled and reopened Cairn Lodge Services on the M74, in Scotland.

In addition to its motorway-based businesses, The Westmorland Family also opened the Rheged visitor centre, near Penrith, in 2000.

The group now employs a combined 1300 people selling a range of products from 250 local producers (all within 30 miles of its various businesses) and its service stations are held in great affection by motorway travellers across the UK.

“Our business has operated in a depressed upland area but has differentiated itself from its competitors in the motorway service area industry,” writes John.

“It would also claim to have brought significantly more employment and an outlet for more local products than other businesses in the same field.”

John’s activities as a farmer, entrepreneur and also a keen hillwalker and climber have given him a wide perspective on the Cumbrian economy.

As well as his own business activities he has dedicated his life to playing an active part in organisations focused on promoting the county and building its economy.

Just a few of these activities include sitting on the Lake District National Park planning board, roles with the Countryside Commission, Cumbria Community Foundation and the Northwest Regional Development Agency and chairing the Westmorland Dales Landscape Partnership.

Alongside others, he also played an important role in founding the former Cumbria Rural Enterprise Agency in 1984, which supplied a variety of local business support.

His dedication to the county’s economy and people earned him a CBE in 1992 and makes him a more than well-deserving winner of this year’s Lifetime Contribution to Cumbria award.

John’s daughter Sarah became chief executive of the Westmorland Group in 2005 and is now its chair.

His daughter Jane oversees the family’s farming operation.

Barbara and John live near Orton and he still takes an active interest in the business, as well as the wider Cumbria and UK economy and still walks up the occasional fell.

“I’ve had a lot of fun and I enjoyed my public jobs and I put as much time into them as I put into my business,” says John.

“Barbara and I are lucky to be able to enjoy our old age together, which has its compensations.”