Seaside Special - Shifting sands: Cumbria

Is there anywhere finer in England than the Lake District? As a Yorkshire lad, it takes a lot for me to nod such glowing approval towards the west. But without sounding like a tourist office publication, Cumbria pretty much has it all. The region is England’s only genuinely mountainous area. It looked positively Alpine-esque on my first visit here as a callow youth, gazing up at the jags and serrations of Sca Fell Pike, Helvellyn, Great Gable and the like.

I soon discovered the equally beautiful, if less dramatic, fells around Ambleside, Coniston and Grasmere; stunning passes into Buttermere and Eskdale; and sparse, squat villages like Elterwater, Boot and Glenridding.

And the lakes themselves, of course. Swimming in Derwentwater on a summer evening outside the youth hostel. Stone-skimming on Wastwater under the vast bleakness of Whin Rigg. Throwing up on the shores of Crummock water after eating a rotten chicken breast.

It was some while before I fully appreciated the Cumbrian coastline which felt like something of a neglected feature, lying in the shadow of the more vivid attractions inland. Not just neglected in its tourist profile, but also in terms of industrial abandonment and decline. Not all of this coastline abutting the Irish Sea is cast-iron visitor-bankable.

However, I most definitely fell for the beguiling charms of Morecambe Bay way back in 2009. Staying in a holiday cottage south-east of Ulverston, the slickly moving waters of the bay lapped against a shingle bank that marked the perimeter of the land at our property.

Morecambe Bay has a murky reputation. In 2004, a few years before our stay, at least 21 cockle-pickers drowned out on the flats where treacherous tides caught them out. It emerged that there was a much more sinister side to this apparent tragic accident. The group were illegal immigrants from China and were being ruthlessly exploited by a criminal gang of racketeers posing as legitimate traders. The ensuing outcry and investigation prompted a range of impacts. Most immediate amongst them was the passing of new employment legislation in the shape of the Gangmasters Act, which set up a body to licence agricultural agencies and make them adhere to proper labour practice standards.

The tragedy also cast a half-light on the underground problem of modern day slavery and people trafficking. Walking along the embankment from Ulverston to Bardsea that bright May, it was hard to believe that such a shadowy world existed. The wide expanse of Morecambe Bay waters shimmered in Spring sunshine. Twisting currents caused myriad ripples and eddies to blink back bright slices of light. A deceptive scene that effectively masked the bay’s turbulent history.

Where the tide had retreated, the mud was cracked with rivulets and gullies streaming water back to the main flow. Brackish-loving vegetation hung from broken and half rotted breakwaters.

We turned round and headed back to Ulverston. I was distracted by a rush of wind and gurgle of water, and looked down thinking I had stepped over a drain. No. This was the tide sluicing back up the estuary making disturbingly fast, uneven and unpredictable progress. Suddenly it was clear how anyone out in the bay with only a rudimentary knowledge of the tides and lugging a bucket of cockles would get into difficulty. The returning waters overtook us and in no time were creating turbid swirls by the iron pillars of the railway bridge joining Ulverston with Cark on the eastern side of the bay.

There are proper footpaths across this death-trap bay. Ridiculous as it may seem, older maps will vaguely identify a murderous offshore track marked by innocent red dashes marching out into the graduated brown and blue Ordnance Survey shading of the bay from Hest Bank over on the eastern shore, north of Morecambe and running northwards to Kents Bank at the mouth of the River Kent.

If only the route was as hazard-free as those benign dashes would suggest. Robert McFarland’s excellent book ‘The Old Ways’ describes a path “whose route fluctuates and whose walking therefore requires vigilance and improvisation”. He goes on to describe the rushing tides and disorientating flatness, as well as mud that can grip and quicksand that can swallow. Such is the fluctuating nature of these dangers that the official route now starts from much further north at Arnside and the distance is now a mere nine miles. The shifting course of the River Kent is the causal factor. The walk cannot be completed without the services of an official guide, known as the 'Queens Guide'. This position was held until recently by a gentleman called Cedric Robinson. Now retired, he explained the origins of the walk and his unique title in an interview.

"Years ago, before the coming of the railway, it was a necessity. People in one village needed to get to another, so they'd take to the sands. Many lives were lost, so there was a petition put to the king. The first royal appointed guides were in the 1500s. Before then, it was the monks of Furness at Cartmel Priory."

I’ve yet to attempt the trip.

The house in which we stayed on that holiday was vast. There were any number of cavernous bedrooms, a couple of large sitting rooms and a conservatory with a shiny floor on which the girls played bumper cars with the caster-wheeled armchairs. A lovely house, though maybe the furnishings had seen better days. Possibly on account of the dubious behaviour of guests sliding around the posh conservatory on comfy sofas. 

There was a faded photo in a frame on the dining room wall of Take That. It had been clipped from the local rag a few years ago. The story was that Howard and Jason had hunkered down in this house for a few days whilst hiding from the red tops. But they were rumbled, as this story attested.

The house was set in a large landscaped garden with a tennis court at one end and a wood that led to the coast at the other. The front of the house looked towards the Cumbrian mountains and caught the evening sun. This was where we barbecued, overlooking the lane back to Ulverston. I thought I caught a flash from behind one of the trees and a rustle of undergrowth. Bloody papps.

Our gaff, the gardens and the tennis court, plus a barn conversion on the other side of the court formed one lot of a much larger estate owned by Roger Fisher, a local businessman who started out on a market stall in Barrow-in-Furness and went on to make a tidy pile. He also bred and trained a few racehorses. As we spat gravel from the Zafira’s tyres trundling up the drive past his huge, well-kept farmhouse, the businessman’s real passion was revealed by a couple of cast-iron horse heads atop the gateposts.

Cartmel, Cumbria’s infamous racecourse, was just down the road from Ulverston. That weekend, we paid a visit to the famous May bank holiday meeting where Fisher’s horse Mystified won the ‘Sticky Toffee Pudding Selling Handicap Hurdle’. Celebrations in the big house that night, no doubt, though we were happy with the 14/1 returns we picked up in a loyal punt on our landlord’s bay gelding.

Fisher’s estate adjoined, and had open access to, Conishead Priory. The building was ‘a very important Gothic revival country house with few peers in the north west’ according to its guardians, English Heritage. The pile stood out for a couple of reasons. For a start the huge, distinctive twin towers at the front of the priory could be seen for miles poking above the trees.

However, the week we were there, the building’s occupants were more noteworthy than the architecture. Whilst the priory had previously served time as a hydropathic spa and then a convalescent home for miners, for the past twenty five years it had been the base of an international college for Buddhist studies. The Manjushri Buddhist Meditation Centre had raised almost £1,000,000 and invested thousands of hours to eradicate dry rot, bring the building back into use and secure the future of the landmark.

Our visit coincided with one of the main retreats in the Buddhist calendar. The path from our rental to the sea passed through the woods that bordered the priory. We tramped between trees and large shrubs under which Buddhists had set up a temporary campsite for their attendance at the festival. Brightly coloured tents were strewn about the woods like a haphazard collection of makeshift dens that did their best to make Glastonbury look civilised.

 We felt like invasive tourists as we followed the path through the maze of tarps and canvass where convention-goers were abluting or making breakfast right beside us. The scene was very bizarre and ended abruptly at the perimeter of the wood which gave on to the beach. A microcosm of alternative activity, largely hidden from the gaze of the wider world.

The gathering began to disperse by the middle of the week and we took the opportunity to look around the grounds of the priory once they were open to the public again.

Our explorations took us to another eccentricity just down the peninsula from the Take That House. Piel Island was a small community based around a castle at the mouth of the deep-water harbour for Barrow-in-Furness, reached by a causeway at low tide from Roa Island. The landlord of the island’s pub, The Ship Inn, traditionally inherited the title of King of Piel. That afternoon, the setting was very pleasant with the calm waters of the estuary permeating a soft sheen in to the air, giving the castle on the distant island an ethereal glow.

The causeway was covered and though there was an amphibious craft offering a crossing later in the day, we eschewed a pint with the King and instead settled on a drink overlooking the sound in the Bosun’s Locker.

Roa Island was a tiny spit of land linked with the hinterland back to Barrow by a causeway of its own. It was properly the end of the road on flat bit of land hanging pendulously off the bottom of Cumbria and surrounded by the expanse of Morecambe Bay. Remote and a bit austere, but not without a certain tough attraction.  

We drove back across the elevated which road cut across a wide estuary strewn with small fishing boats and pleasure craft lolling on their sides as if abandoned to the seaweed. In reality, they were just waiting for the high tides. 

The empty scene provided a stark contrast with the urban, largely industrial town of Barrow. On the horizon, the corrugated roof of the enormous dock hall siren-called the town’s shipyards and slipways. It was the tallest building in Cumbria.

Naval ships and submarines are still the lifeblood of this isolated town. Even now, after contraction of the industry, there remains a town-within-a-town of shipbuilders’ homes. Vickerstown was a planned residential development to house employees of the naval shipyards which were owned by Vickers at the time of construction in the early part of the last century. Though the industry is way below that peak, there were still 7,500 people employed there at the time of our visit. The Trident replacement programme looks likely to ensure submarine building and maintenance by BAE Systems at these yards for the next generation.

Barrow has a bad reputation, but I’m not sure it’s any more deserved than some other places on this tour. Bill Bryson in his book ‘The Road To Little Dribbling’, described Barrow as only ‘being famous for being forgotten and depressed” and compared the town centre to a prison yard. Harsh. Local politicians took issue with this and told him, in words of one syllable, not to come back.

Heavy industry is – or was – a common feature of this hybrid coastline, interspersed with sand, shingle and low-lying hills. Much of it has not fared so well as the manufacturing and defence shipbuilding in Barrow. When my civil service job took in rural development, I was initially surprised to learn that financial support to combat economic and social deprivation was intensively targeted at a strip of towns and villages running from Barrow northwards taking in Workington, Whitehaven and Maryport. Tourism jobs didn’t permeate as far as the coast in any great numbers and these largely run down towns were some of the most deprived rural areas in England.

The settlements found prosperity during the industrial revolution. Whitehaven was a planned town inspired by Sir Christopher Wren’s designs on a grid-iron pattern and was built on mining – including the deepest undersea mine in Britain at the time – and shipping. Maryport was originally a small fishing village, expanded significantly in another planned development that transformed the place to become a shipbuilding centre. Equidistant between them, Workington grew wealthy as a port for transporting iron ore and steel at the mouth of the River Derwent.

A combination of geography and changing trade eventually did for them. Ships began docking at ports with deeper waters further south; and mining, shipbuilding and heavy industry entered a phase of terminal decline from the 1980’s onwards. At the time of my first visits here as part of that job, the one bright spot (quite literally) in the area was controversial in the extreme. The nuclear industry provided vital jobs at Seascale and Sellafield, the latter having ditched its toxic original name of Windscale after Britain’s worst nuclear accident at the site in 1957. It is currently being decommissioned, but still employs about 11,000 people.

Some of the coastal towns are showing hints of a resurgence. Money has been pumped into regenerating town squares, harbour-sides and warehousing. Business and shopping facilities are springing up. In some places, grand buildings associated with an earlier phase of prosperity are being saved, spruced up and reinvented for new uses. In others, they are being left to decay amongst high streets littered with boarded up shops and peeling paint. If industrial tourism is to prove a belated lifeline for these anachronistic ports, in the shadow of Lakeland visitor honeypots, it will be piecemeal.

Whitehaven, by contrast, hopes to shed the anachronistic tag altogether. In November 2022, the Government gave the go-ahead for the first new coal mine in the UK for 30 years in this town. The move seems like staggering hypocrisy by a Government committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. The mine at Whitehaven will bring investment of £165m and create 500 new jobs. Producing 2.8m tonnes of coking coal a year, the facility will also chuck out 8.4m tonnes of CO into the atmosphere a year. The equivalent of putting 200,000 cars on the road.

Whilst this seems like a backward step to most, local opinion is much less clear cut. The economic, demographic and political landscape is complicated in Whitehaven. There has been a widespread welcome about the mine's go-ahead. Some commentators suggest that deprivation is responsible for this view alongside the promise of economic renewal. Conversely, data shows that wealth exists alongside poverty in Whitehaven (not uncommon with patterns of UK deprivation) and research has found that many of the community’s pro-mine voices are retired/comfortable (if not affluent) residents.

Most interestingly for this blog series and its observations about changing economic, social and cultural circumstances around the coastline, is that other commentators have described a yearning among Whitehaven’s community for a bygone industrial past. One researcher found that the town’s history was often discussed in terms of satisfaction and aspiration. A new mine would for local people be something of a return to the town’s proud industrial heritage.

The similarity between this desire and the reflective nostalgia that powered Brexit views is striking. Arguments about supporting communities like this with a proactive industrial policy based around green jobs are not really fully developed and are probably for another day. For now, this is just further evidence (as if any were needed) of the challenges that face communities in some of the most beautiful and yet deprived and polarised places on our coastline.

Series navigation: Intro and chapter guide

Previous episode: Blackpool Birthday Party - Lancashire

Next episode: Dumfries & Galloway


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