WHEN two schoolfriends got together to create a "cool place" they’d like to go to in Cockermouth, little did they realise that three years on they would become one of the biggest hospitality employers in the town.

Many people thought they were "slightly crazy" when they opened their hospitality business the day after the Covid lockdowns lifted in May 2021.

That didn’t deter former actor and model Mark Varty, chef friend Jake Malloy and a third, silent business partner.

The three of them form Wilde Raine Hospitality Group which now runs four hospitality businesses in and around the town, including the Old Mill, Dearham, the Tithe Tap in Cockermouth, Hunters on Cockermouth Main Street and their most recent, Tilia in Station Street (in what was Fredericks restaurant).

Mark says he believes the outlets - which they lease from two local families - should achieve a turnover of £2million in the next couple of years.

Mark was born and bred in the town but moved away for more than a decade. A few years after he returned to Cockermouth, he was approached by a property developer friend during Covid who had bought the Tithe Tap.

“We fell in love with the space and thought it would make a great speakeasy gin and cocktail bar.

"Our ethos is: ‘Where would we like to go and drink?’”

They set up the company and leased the space, bringing his old schoolfriend Jake Malloy into the business as a partner and executive head chef. “It needed a complete refurbishment so we used our savings.

"We were being asked by everyone why we would open a bar in the middle of the pandemic. But we really believed in what we were doing,” he said.

The second in their portfolio was Hunters pub, which Mark’s father David used to own. They turned it into a sports bar in 2022 with late night opening at weekends. “We had already signed on the Old Mill Inn so that was next.” The company has now turned it into a gastro pub.

Last year they opened Tilia in the former Fredericks restaurant building which had been a stalwart in the town for more than a decade. “Fredericks was a real staple of Cockermouth.

"I had a conversation with the owners and they asked if I fancied taking it on. We loved Fredericks and we worried if we could take it and make it our own… it’s been amazing since we opened, Cockermouth people have been so supportive,” he said.