Interview with John Dunning, founder of Westmorland Group

As usual, the entrance to Westmorland Services Southbound is bustling with motorists, rushing through its doors to escape the weather and enjoy a comfort break and a cuppa before resuming their journeys. Few seem to notice the smartly dressed gentleman in a tweed jacket which matches the colour of the surrounding moors, as he waits patiently by the door to welcome in-Cumbria for an interview. However, it's a good bet that if they knew who he was many would want to stop and shake his hand, for he is none other than John Dunning CBE, the founder of Tebay Services north and south, as well as Gloucester Services on the M5, and Cairn Lodge Farmshop and Kitchen,on the A74(M) in Lanarkshire.

All of the above are universally acclaimed as havens for drivers, offering an array of local products, with Tebay and Gloucester topping a poll of the UK's favourite service stations last year. This is not to mention the J38 Truckstop, near Tebay, or the Rheged centre with its cafe, gallery, cinema and event space, near Penrith, which is such an important anchor for the cultural life of the local area. John welcomes me with a shake of the hand, a coffee and the modest hope that his story "won't be too boring".

However, it is hard to imagine having a boring conversation with John who, at 89, is evidently as voracious a reader and student of the world as he ever was, able to easily segue from chatting about the pioneers of Lake District rock climbing to Jewish theology and all manner of subjects in between. His forebears were already an influential family in the area long before the Highways Department ever began pegging out the route of the M6 motorway in the 1960s. John's grandfather was a yeoman farmer and cattle and horse dealer and his own father, also named John, was one of the earliest agricultural students at Newton Rigg College before enlisting to serve in Palestine and Salonica during World War One.

He returned to set up a business dealing in cars, trucks and vans, based in Kirkby Stephen, and then invested in an agricultural estate of 550 acres at Orton. John therefore grew up in a farming family but also one with an eye to business and entrepreneurialism. He developed an early love for the "compelling beauty" of the hills and dales, in particular during an ascent of Wild Boar fell in the Howgills at the age of 10 when he remembers clearly being brought to tears by the view from its 708m summit

"I remained there for some time transfixed by the glory that surrounded me," he writes in his book Westmorland: The Changing Hills. "As I returned home I remember telling myself that whatever this life is about it cannot be less than what I had just seen. I have never forgotten what I felt that day as it underpins all my certainties."

The themes of business, farming and a love of nature and the outdoors have been the cornerstones of John's life ever since. He took on the family dairy farming business in 1955, whilst also finding time to get out and indulge his passion for rock climbing in the Lake District. He and his wife Barbara, who he married in 1967, were always aware they would have to diversify their activities, which included expanding the holiday cottage business which she ran from their farm.

The advent of the M6 presented the opportunity for them to diversify even further. "While the pegs in the ground may not have represented the confirmed line of the proposed motorway it was nevertheless a strong possibility," John remembers. "If it came about it would mean change and with change would come opportunity."

As well as making a compulsory purchase of part of his farm 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 John set about researching the viability of opening and running one. "It is difficult to envisage today the intimidating task of trying to determine, on a new road between Lancaster and Carlisle, through the most sparsely populated part of the country, how many vehicles would use it.

"We were also fully aware that with a projected capital cost well outside our ability to fund it, a mistake on our part would ruin us." To try and gauge the potential for the business, he asked every petrol station between Carlisle and Lancaster how much fuel they sold and came to the view that it could be a viable enterprise. "I asked how much fuel they sold and how much was through traffic as opposed to local traffic," he says.

"We were also advised that once it became a motorway far more people would use it." More than 50 years later he has been more than proved right. Tebay Services, northbound, opened in 1972, in partnership with Penrith bakers and confectioners Birketts, almost alongside the J38 Truckstop.

The southbound service area followed in 1992 with farm shops opening at both services in 2003. The company expanded into the South West by opening Gloucester Services on the M5 in 2014 and 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 Rheged in 2000.

From the early collaboration with Birketts, championing local produce and benefiting the community have been embedded in the culture of the business. The group now employs a combined 1300 people selling a range of products from 250 local producers (all within 30 miles of its various sites). John's daughter Sarah became chief executive of the group in 2005 and subsequently its chair, while his daughter Jane oversees the family's farming operation. "You have to find a niche which the opposition don't do, which is what we've done here," says John. "The opportunities are there everywhere but it requires imagination and vision."

The story of business is one that John has told countless times before and it soon becomes clear that what he really wants this interview to be about - perhaps typically - is the future and not the past. Alongside his role running and growing the Westmorland Family over the last 50 years, he has rarely turned down an opportunity to play a wider role in influencing the economic direction of the county - one of the many aspects of his career which earned him the Lifetime Contribution to Cumbria accolade at the in-Cumbria Business Awards in November. This has included sitting on the board of 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 until its closure in 2015. In the 1970s he also represented the Country Land and Business Association on the Confederation of European Agriculture's Mountain Area Group. This gave him the chance to visit mountain areas of other European countries, including Austria, which he says he found particularly inspiring because its government had invested in an economy where farming and tourism - based on mountain and adventure pursuits - could exist hand in hand.

He says Switzerland followed a similar model with local regions - the cantons - taking the lead in how to invest and make decisions in their own regions, rather than having to rely on decisions made by central government. "They had been so intelligent, so incisive and so daring," he says. "During the 1950s and 1960s, the Tyrol (in Austria) had the fastest growing economy in Europe.

It was very, very successful." He has been left with the overriding conviction that it is possible for Cumbria to follow this model by developing an economy that is mutually beneficial for farming, the environment and tourism. However, he believes a level of autonomy and devolution is the best hope of achieving this, via a local body that brings together representatives of all the various interests in the county - whether this be farming, tourism, conservation, manufacturing or others.

He believes diversification and creating an economy where tourism and farming can co-exist is only more essential given the economic challenges that upland farming is facing. "The continuity of a robust agriculture is critical to the success of every interest in the uplands." He says it is also essential to retain talented people in the area and avoid the "brain drain" to other parts of the country.

"We have a huge population, which needs recreation and I suggest that the recreation in the Mediterranean area, in the middle of summer as temperatures rise, will become possibly less, not more, and create a great opportunity for tourism here," he says. What is required to make it possible is vision, says John, a vision which he believes can only be driven by local people with a local interest. He points to the West Midlands Combined Authority and the North of the Tyne Combined Authority as good examples which Cumbria should have an ambition to emulate.

"A model of that kind in a rural area county such as Cumbria could be an appropriate vehicle to strengthen and better deliver both nation's interests in our uplands and the social and economic interests of our communities." The Westmorland Group, he says, is a good example of how development can create a successful business at the same time as benefiting the local economy and respecting the environment. With his 90th birthday approaching next month, John says he and Barbara, who live in Orton, are immensely proud to be able to watch the next generation continue the business into the future.

"One certainty is that it will continue to change.

For Barbara and me, to see a new generation making their contributions to life in their different ways is one of the great joys of old age."