Beaches between the ports that grew in Cumbria’s industrial past
The coastline from Allonby Bay southwards along the western edge of Cumbria is bordered by low dunes and grassland, interrupted by three industrial areas which developed in the 18th century when miners exploited the coastal coalfields. Cliffs surround the massive bulk of St Bees Head, and south of the headland stretch 17 miles of quiet beaches, the only major landmarks being the cooling towers of Calder Hall Nuclear Power Station.
The Romans built their fort of Alauna at Maryport to prevent seaborne raiders from the north outflanking the defences of Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike many Roman forts in this part of England, Alauna can still be identified, sections of its ramparts being visible at the northern end of the town.
Maryport owes its name to Mary, the wife of a local landowner, Humphrey Senhouse, who built the docks and harbour in the 18th century to serve the local coal trade. One of the two docks, the Elizabeth Dock, was named after the Senhouses’ elder daughter. The later Senhouse Dock was used for loading ships with cargoes of iron rails, made in Cumbria for railways all over the world. At one time amilliontonsof cargo left these quays every year.
The town, with its gridiron pattern of streets and terraces of 18th and 19th-century houses, still has an air of elegance, especially in the old cobbled market square. The Maritime Museum on the edge of the harbour contains many reminders of the days when the port was bustling with trade. Over the years the silting up of the harbour has caused business to dwindle to the point where it is now only a refuge for sailing yachts and small fishing craft.
Coal used to be shipped from collieries around Workington to the markets of southern England. The deep-water port is still used to ship railway lines, made in the local steel works, and coal, though on a much smaller scale than before. Workington has several parks, and the hills inland offer good touring and walking country.
The Helena Thompson Museum, on the road to Cockermouth, conjures up Workington’s vanished past. There are a local history gallery, displays of costume, furniture, glass and pottery, and a Victorian period room interior.
On a hill overlooking the River Derwent stands the derelict Workington Hall, noted for its association with Mary, Queen of Scots. It was at Workington Hall that Mary arrived on May 17, 1568, after crossing the Solway in an open boat with 30 fellow-refugees from the Battle of Langside. She stayed a night at the Hall, as Sir Henry Curwen’s guest, before riding to Carlisle and 19 years’ imprisonment before her execution.
In 1566 Whitehaven consisted of six fishermen’s cottages and possessed a single 9 ton vessel, the Bee. Early in the next century the small fishing community, and the estate of St Bees of which it formed part, was acquired by the Lowther family, who developed Whitehaven as a port for shipbuilding and the export of Cumbrian coal. They laid out the town to a regular gridiron pattern, making it the first deliberately planned town in England since the Middle Ages.
By 1730 Whitehaven was one of the major ports in Britain; its population reached 9,000 by 1760 and was to double again by 1860. An indication of the port’s importance in the 18th century is the fact that John Paul Jones, the Scots-born American naval commander, mounted an attack on it in 1778, during the American War of Independence. He knew the port well, having served as an apprentice seaman there before going to America. Although he captured a small fort defending the harbour, his attempt to set fire to the merchant fleet was a failure.
Though the coal and iron trade which founded the town’s prosperity have dwindled sharply in later years, the town’s Haig colliery, which runs under the sea, still supplies local blast furnaces, and the harbour still handles cargo. Whitehaven has also built up a successful holiday trade; it has a wealth of Georgian and Victorian buildings, and its history is outlined in the museum and art gallery in the civic hall.
At the South Beach recreation area stand two of the mines which led the Lowthers to build the town. They are Duke Pit, sunk in 1747, its buildings looking like a ruined medieval castle, and the Wellington Pit of 1840, an even more elaborate fantasy in a similar style.
The village of St Bees lies in a valley to the south of St Bees Head, where the Pow Beck has cut its way through to the sea. St Bee, or St Bega, is said to have been an Irish princess of the 7th century who took a childhood vow to devote herself to God and established a nunnery at this spot. A nunnery established about AD 650 by the Benedictines was later destroyed by the Vikings and refounded by the Normans in 1120.
The parish church of St Mary and St Bega is the much-restored church of the original nunnery, but the neighbouring buildings belong to a school founded by Archbishop Grindal in 1583.
A road leads past a hotel to a car park almost at the water’s edge, close to St Bees Head. From there footpaths lead to the top of the headland, and to the lighthouse at North Head. These are the only cliffs on the coast of Cumbria, and in clear weather give a splendid view of the Isle of Man.
This small town with a broad main street of colour-washed stone houses straddles the coast road and is dominated by the ruins of its Norman castle, set on a hill overlooking a bend of the River Ehen at the southern end of the main street. It was built in 1130 by William de Meschines, and part of the hall and outer wall survive.
Egremont is famous for its annual Crab Fair – so-called because when the fair was founded in 1267 crab apples were given away to visitors. The parade of the Apple Cart still takes place during the fair.
The site of the controversial nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, formerly known as Windscale, also includes Calder Hall, which in 1956 became the first nuclear power station in Britain to generate electricity on a commercial scale. The four cooling towers of the Calder Hall reactors, which are still generating electricity, can be seen from the coast road. An exhibition centre is open daily, and there are organised tours.
Two miles away stand the ruins of Calder Abbey, founded in the 12th century by monks from Furness Abbey but raided by the Scots soon afterwards. The monks fled to set up another community at Byland in
Yorkshire, but Calder Abbey was refounded and soon became a Cistercian house in 1148.
Fletcher Christian, first officer of HMS Bounty and leader of the mutiny against Captain Bligh, was born near Maryport in 1764. Incensed by Bligh’s harsh treatment of the crew, Christian set him adrift in a boat in the Pacific with a few loyal officers. They reached Timor, 4,000 miles away, while the mutineers landed on Pitcairn Island. Christian Street in Maryport is named after the mutiny leader.
Three rivers, the Esk, the Mite and the Irt, converge at Ravenglass, and this dominating position must have been one reason why the Romans built a coastal fort there, at the spot they called Glannaventa. The fort’s bath-house still stands, its 12 ft high walls making it the best-preserved Roman building in the north of England.
The curving estuary, its inner stretches sheltered from onshore winds by sandspits, made an ideal anchorage for fishing boats, and for generations the village of Ravenglass made its living from the sea.
Today Ravenglass makes a peaceful, unspoiled refuge, but bathing is dangerous. The meeting of the waters from three rivers, the curving estuary channels and the sweep of the incoming and outgoing tides create swirling currents and tide-rips fast enough to sweep any unwary bather out of his depth in seconds.
Ravenglass is the terminus of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, a steam railway that carries passengers for 7 miles up the lovely and unspoiled valley of Eskdale. The railway, the first narrow-gauge railway in England and known locally as ‘T’laal Ratty’ (The Old Ratty), was built in 1875 to carry iron ore from the Eskdale Valley down to the main Furness Railway along the coast. A railway museum at Ravenglass records the history of the line and the area.
A fine collection of antique furniture, tapestries and portraits is housed in this castle on a hilltop, 1 mile east of Ravenglass. The house dates from about 1200, but was rebuilt and extended in the 1860s. During the Wars of the Roses, shepherds found Henry VI wandering the nearby fells after the Battle of Hexham and took him to Muncaster Castle. The room in which the king was hidden is still called King Henry’s Room, and the bowl he presented to his hosts on leaving nine days later still remains in the castle. The oak panelling in the billiard room is said to have been taken from HMS Temeraire, one of Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar.
Muncaster Castle is surrounded by gardens, laid out originally in the 17th century and renowned for hydrangeas, azaleas and rhododendrons. The house and gardens are open most afternoons in summer.
Muncaster Mill, 1 mile to the north where the road crosses the River Mite, is an old watermill, recently restored to working order, which grinds and sells wholemeal flour.
This long sandy beach south of Ravenglass is closed to the public when firing is taking place at the Ministry of Defence experimental establishment tucked away among the dunes. The beach is often littered with spent shells washed up by the tide.
These risks apart, this stretch of coast is utterly unspoiled, with wide sea views and, in the opposite direction, an impressive landscape of high fells and moorland.