Hidden Jewel: Cumberland

Cumberland on Vancouver Island checks all the boxes for small-town living: strong community, close to nature, heritage charm. Today, the business community–and housing prices–are growing to meet its newfound popularity.

By Andrew Findlay

Not long ago, people sneered at Cumberland as a low-rent, derelict town of forgotten dreams. Turns out this Vancouver Island Village of roughly 4,200 proud citizens nudging against the Beaufort Range and Comox Lake is enjoying the proverbial last laugh.

Heritage homes that once went for a song are fetching half a million or more, making Cumberland real estate some of the most coveted north of Victoria. Cumberland’s picturesque Dunsmuir Avenue is lined with century-old wood and brick two-storeys that hearken from a coal mining past of near-mythological status. (The story of martyred mining labor activist Ginger Goodwin, who was gunned down in 1918 by a government deputy, still looms large).

Civic pride manifests in a diverse art and music scene, and an on-going citizen-driven effort to buy more land to add to the Cumberland Community Forest, now sitting at 110 hectares. A network of mountain biking and hiking trails, beginning and ending a few pedal strokes from shops and the Cumberland Brewing Company, has placed the community firmly on the active-lifestyle map.

All of these attributes added up to a win for residents like Archie and Briar Pateman, who moved to Cumberland from Vancouver in 2009. “We wanted to buy a house and start a family somewhere and Cumberland checked a lot of boxes. It wasn’t too isolated, was surrounded by beauty and adventure possibilities, and it was affordable,” says Archie Pateman. “We knew it was the right move from the minute we signed the papers.”

Today, with a young family in tow, the Patemans are immersed in community. Briar teaches a nature-based program at Cumberland Elementary school, and Archie, a talented musician and former treeplanter, is a volunteer firegfighter and co-founder of The Cumberland Crate Company, a custom woodworking outfit. The village continues to attract entrepreneurs like Joanne McElroy, who launched the silkscreen clothing company Jipsi Tree in 2014, and before that ran Brick and Mortar next to the historic Waverly Hotel.

If current growth trends continue, Cumberland’s population could reach 8,500 by 2030. But with growth comes growing pains. Housing affordability is now an issue. Taxpayers like McElroy say the village needs to stimulate business growth so that more people will begin to know Cumberland, “not just as a great place to mountain bike and hang out, but a great place to shop as well.”

Still, McElroy says the benefits of Cumberland life outweigh the challenges of slow times at her store. “There is always something going on here and I love the forest that surrounds us,” says the avid trail runner. “Cumberland has all the the necessary elements that have enabled me to create a good life.”