IT WAS my intention to awake bright and early on the last day of my early August walking trip. And technically, I succeeded. I awoke bright and early, turned off my alarm and promptly went back to sleep. As you do.
It was a couple of hours later that I actually surfaced, roused by the persistent sunshine that was streaming in through my hotel room window. I decided to take the sun’s subtle hint — one ignores a thermonuclear fireball at one’s peril — and was soon kitted up, checked out and ready to perambulate. I would be starting my day with north-west England’s one and only proper set of sea cliffs: St Bees Head.
St Bees Head
At 141 m at its highest point (the footpath never gets higher than 100 m), St Bees Head is not exactly a challenge. It’s true the weather was hot, and I did have to dodge a small boy armed with a bicycle and a death wish, but the climb up St Bees Head was leisurely rather than strenuous. The Lake District likes to keep its vertiginous terrain further inland, in case the fells decide to swim for freedom.
While what you can see in the photo above is definitely St Bees Head, it is also, more specifically, South Head. There is a North Head to go with it, upon which perches St Bees Lighthouse. This duly swung into view as I rounded South Head and I paused for a moment to enjoy the scenery, drink some cold water and allow a couple of speed-hiking Scandinavians to overtake me. They failed to overtake me, because they’d stopped too. In fact, they sat down to have a picnic. I pressed on.
St Bees Lighthouse
St Bees Lighthouse was built in 1822 as an oil-fired light. Electrified and automated by 1987, it remains in use today. It replaced what had been the last coal-fired lighthouse in Britain, which was built in 1718 but ultimately caught fire and burnt down. The small grate of the coal-fired light had led to complaints from mariners that it was often weak and obscured by smoke but on its final day at least, it burned really brightly as the whole tower went up in flames.
In passing North Head and St Bees Lighthouse, I was entering the Solway Coast. The Solway Firth is a massive bay and multiple estuary cutting into northwest Britain from the Irish Sea and forming part of the Anglo-Scottish border. Not that you could tell this at St Bees Head. Despite being the southernmost tip of the firth, at this point the firth is so broad as to be impossible to tell by eye as any different from the rest of the Cumbrian coast.
The path along the north edge of St Bees Head ran atop some proper cliffs as it climbed back up from 98 m by the lighthouse to about 120 m as it ran past the sandstone quarry that provided (and still provides) the material from which many local buildings were constructed.
Just past the quarry was the point where Alfred Wainwright’s coast-to-coast walk leaves the west coast and heads for the east via the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors. A couple of young lads, burdened with backpacks almost as large as they were, appeared to be doing just that, striding off with maps in hand towards the village of Sandwith. I, however, was heading in a different direction, following the coastline as it curved round towards Whitehaven.
Descending from St Bees Head
The path down from the cliff side was a little bit overgrown. By which I mean that it was a lot overgrown and that in places a machete might have been useful. Still, I was gratified that the plants and bushes loved me so much that they all wanted to hug me, and spending ten minutes removing seeds, teasels and other bits of debris from my bag and clothing was a small price to pay for this verdant affection.
At the bottom of the cliffs, the path opened out onto open grass meadow and soon met a paved route conveying locals and tourists around the periphery of Whitehaven.
Whitehaven is a town whose history is steeped in mining and whose buildings are largely Georgian, laid out by the Lowther family. The town was first settled by the Norse in the tenth century, on land purchased from the Kingdom of Strathclyde.
Over time, it fell into the possession of St Bees Priory until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. Whitehaven then remained tiny and rural for another century until Sir Christopher Lowther purchased the estate in 1630 and built it up into a coal port. His son, Sir John Lowther, would turn it into a Georgian planned town and today it is the most complete example of such a thing in Europe.
Whitehaven’s history of coal mining stretches back as far as the thirteenth century, when the monks from St Bees Priory supervised the opening of coal mines at Arrowthwaite, just south of Whitehaven Harbour. It came to an end in 1986, when Haig Pit, Cumbria’s last deep coal mine, finally closed.
Today, Haig Pit’s industrial buildings form the Haig Colliery Mining Museum, incorporating the old engine winding house and pit headgear, which were recently restored.
Haig Pit, sunk during WW1, was only the most recent of a series of pits at Whitehaven, many of which achieved some sort of notability or record at the time. At 1,200 ft below sea level, Haig was the deepest by quite a margin but King Pit, sunk in 1750, was the deepest mine in the world when it reached 960 ft in 1793.
Some twenty-one years before King Pit was opened, miners dug for three years to sink the shaft of Saltom Pit —England’s first undersea coal mine. Initially 456 ft (and some 778 ft deep by the end of its working life), its workings extended far out from shore beneath a crushing weight of water.
At the time, it was the deepest undersea mine that had ever been built. This made ventilation a problem and the usual solution of a ventilation shaft was no good unless they wanted all the miners to drown. The engineer, Carlisle Spedding, devised his own solution, using a system of board partitions and doors (operated by boys) to create a circulatory system that kept the air flowing. A massive pump kept the mine free of water.
Carlisle Spedding was not originally a mining engineer but had actually been the steward of the Lowther estate.
Sir James Lowther (grandson of Sir Christopher) was aware that the biggest limitation to his ambitions was the available technology and that significant advances had been made in Newcastle. He was also aware that these advances were a powerful commercial advantage and therefore secret.
His solution was to send Spedding to Newcastle where he took jobs in various collieries under an alias and basically conducted commercial espionage. Eventually, Spedding was burnt in an explosion and his true identity came to light at which point he returned to Whitehaven and thereafter acted as the Lowthers’ chief engineer. He did it very successfully too.
Saltom Pit closed in 1848 having outlasted some of its neighbours and successors (for example King Pit was only open between 1750 and 1790). Today all of Whitehaven’s pits have closed but it is a history that permeates the town.
John Paul Jones
In 1778, while the American War of Independence was in full swing, Scottish-born traitor John Paul Jones decided to attack Whitehaven on behalf of the rebellious colonies. This was a slightly poignant choice, as Whitehaven was where his maritime career had begun — as a ship’s boy aboard the merchantman Friendship — but of course that just meant that he knew Whitehaven well.
Jones was commanding the Continental Navy’s sloop-of-war Ranger but was having trouble with his subordinate officers who were dead set against doing anything as dangerous as, say, attacking British sloop-of-war HMS Drake in the Irish Sea. Attacking a merchant coal port was much more to their liking and Jones led two boats of fifteen men ashore. There, they subdued the harbourmaster and successfully spiked Whitehaven’s guns but more-or-less failed to set the boats in the harbour alight (which would have been a significant economic blow had they succeeded).
Before long, the alarm was raised and a mob of townspeople ran to the quay, saw off the landing party (which fled to its boats) and put out such fires as had actually been started. Other than generating the inconvenience of spiked guns, the raid was pretty much not a success, although the fact that it happened at all had an effect on British morale.
Duke Pit Fan House
I made my way down into Whitehaven with a growing sense of anticipation. It was not so much that I hoped for great things so much as I hoped for a cold drink, some lunch and a bottle of after-sun to deal with my rapidly reddening skin. My sunburn from two days before was starting to worsen with a vengeance. On my way, I passed this:
In 1747 Carlisle Spedding sank the main shaft of Duke Pit, which gained a second shaft in 1819. The building above was a fan house, containing an 8 ft diameter fan wheel which circulated air through the mine. Driven by a high-pressure steam engine, it created an air flow of 23,000 cubic feet per minute. Constructed in 1836, it was the first use of mechanical mine ventilation at Whitehaven.
Far below the fan house, on the streets of Whitehaven’s town centre, I found the things I was looking for. Cold drinks, tasty food and after-sun lotion, the latter sold to me by a sympathetic woman who opined ‘that looks really painful’. It really was. But while I was turning scarlet in the sunshine, others were merely looking bronzed.
The statues of the sailors, who are waiting for crewing work aboard an incoming ship, were modelled by John McKenna and Darren Sutton of Art for Architecture. Elsewhere in the town a statue of John Paul Jones is busily spiking a cannon. The cannon itself was salvaged when repair works were carried out on the harbour (it had been part-buried as a bollard).
Old Tramway Alignment
When I was fed and rested, I headed out of Whitehaven on a broad, level cycle path sandwiched between the railway and a cliff. Though now part of National Cycle Network route 72, I believe that this particular alignment is that of the old horse-drawn tramway linking Parton and Whitehaven.
The tramway conveyed coal to Whitehaven harbour but was put out of business in 1847, when the Whitehaven Junction Railway connected Whitehaven to Maryport. It made for pretty easy going, for which I was grateful as the sunburn was causing me some pain. My map had no sympathy whatsoever.
The old tramway led me to Parton, originally a Roman anchorage. It remained a tiny, local port serving nearby hamlets until the early seventeenth century when it started to develop to serve the local coal trade. This growth in prosperity was killed off almost immediately when Sir Christopher Lowther purchased Whitehaven and that port eclipsed Parton entirely.
Having secured an Act of Parliament in 1705 that broke the Lowthers’ legal power to block the development of competing local ports, entrepreneur Thomas Lamplugh set about trying to replicate their success. This was not easy for a number of reasons and Lamplugh ultimately found him sidelined by his business partners, who sold their stake to the Lowthers.
This seemed at first glance to spell disaster but Whitehaven was operating at full capacity and they were in need of overspill; Parton’s prosperity was (temporarily) assured. For a while the village thrived, taking advantage of numerous nearby businesses, but by the time the 1920s rolled around almost all of them had closed.
Today, it is a faded dormitory town and as I followed the cycle route through it, I saw boarded-up pubs and signs of urban decay.
I also saw, to my surprise, signs for the England Coastal Path.
England Coastal Path
This is a new long distance trail that is currently in development and intended to be fully in place by 2020. It has come about partly because of changes in the law regarding coastal access and partly because English people were pointing at the Wales Coast Path and asking ‘can we have one of those?’
From this point onwards, as I headed up the coast, I would see frequent England Coast Path signs. And almost every one without question had an accompanying diversion notice on account of erosion, landslips or other issues. It was more a statement of desire than a path in reality; mostly the actual path was redirected to follow NCN 72.
A Muddy Bridleway
But not this bit. From Parton, NCN 72 headed inland in search of a disused railway line. The England Coast Path followed a bridleway up over Cunning Point and along the coast to Harrington. I decided to take the latter and picked my way up the surprisingly muddy bridleway as it climbed atop the low cliffs. I had just passed a particularly liquid section of the path when a noise behind me made me squash myself against a fence.
A Land Rover full of grinning teenagers roared past me, turning the puddles that I’d thankfully already passed into great fountains of spray. Churning up mud as it went, the Land Rover sped off into the distance while I, quite literally, followed in its wake.
It’s tricky to say if they should have been driving a car on the bridleway or not. There’s no public right to take a motor vehicle on a bridleway, so generally they would be breaking the law. But the landowner may exercise his or her private right to do so. Personally, I suspect they were just a bunch of lads taking a shortcut because they could. Well, fair enough.
As the Land Rover’s growl receded from hearing I noticed that I was stood beside a sign. It described the shelling of a chemical plant in nearby Lowca by a U-boat in 1915.
U-24 sat in Parton Bay and fired inland trying to hit Lowca’s cokeworks with its 8.8 cm naval gun. As shells began to fall upon the factory a quick-thinking valve operator released a burst of flaming gas into the air, hoping to simulate an explosion. It worked. His actions convinced Commander Rudolph Schneider that his target had been hit and the Germans ceased fire, departing before a response could be mounted against them.
The plant — which was manufacturing toluene for use in TNT — took only limited damage and no human injuries were sustained although a local dog was killed. That’s even less successful than John Paul Jones; at least he sabotaged some guns.
Lowca Wind Farm
A lot has changed since 1915 and Lowca’s 50 m high cliffs no longer support a cokeworks or the coal mine that originally fuelled it. Today a wind farm sits atop the old mine, which had to be partly pumped with concrete to stop the turbines from subsiding, and all that remains of the chemical plant are its foundations.
On the far side of this industrial dereliction was a gate and another bridleway, following the course of the Harrington and Lowca Light Railway, an old mineral railway.
Pig of Utter Darkness
I was just about to open the gate when I became aware of a large shadow under a hedge which looked up at me. And grunted. A large black pig was snuffling happily about in the hedgerow as if it hadn’t a care in the world. Which it possibly hadn’t. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to try and ruin its day.
I’ve walked through flocks of sheep and goats, I’ve pushed my way past cows and I’ve, reluctantly, shared the path with ponies (don’t be misled by the cuteness, ponies are unpredictable bastards). But a pig on the path was new. It was, as I’ve said, quite large. And black as night. Dark enough to suck in light like a pig-shaped black hole; it certainly didn’t photograph successfully. I tried to recall what I knew about pigs. They’re smart but unpredictable. They bite half-moon chunks out of things. They’re either no trouble at all or as dangerous as all hell.
I looked at the Pig of Utter Darkness. My eyes stared into a pig-shaped void. It flicked the dark space where its ear must be and grunted happily as it found something to munch. Apart from being impervious to ordinary light, the pig seemed harmless enough. So I stepped through the gate…
The pig looked up. The pig looked down. That was it really, it was done with reacting. I was already old news.
I left the pig to its own light-devouring business and headed on down the path into Harrington.
Sitting at the mouth of the River Wyre, Harrington is a small town with an Anglo-Saxon name (Haringa + tun: the town of the ‘Harrings’ or followers of Har).
History & Industry
A tiny Cumberland village for most of its existence, Harrington was transformed in 1760, when a quay was constructed. As a coal port, Harrington grew and prospered, branching out into the shipbuilding industry. At its height, it was served by five railway stations (although that is as much a comment on the many competing contemporary railways as anything else).
Unfortunately, as industries consolidated in the late nineteenth century, Harrington saw its benefactors close down or move elsewhere and by 1930 it had mostly fallen silent.
The advent of WW2 saw an unexpected revival in Harrington’s fortunes when the now all but disused harbour was sealed off to become the site of a top secret ‘Magnesite’ plant, one of just two in the country. This was a facility for extracting magnesium from seawater for use in aircraft components and incendiary bombs. Signs near the plant were deliberately wrong, in order to mislead any Germans who might make a landing.
Viaduct & Harbour
Today, the town has one station on its one remaining line, which runs through the town on a viaduct erected in 2004 (the previous viaduct, dating from 1847, had deteriorated badly and needed to be replaced). The harbour is once again a harbour but caters for recreational boats. It was low tide when I saw it and the few boats within it lay stranded on the mud. A foul smell was wafting up from its surface, reeking like something had died that should never have lived in the first place.
Foul stench or not, I decided I wanted an ice cream and I ate it defiantly as I headed north from the harbour. Something like 80% of our taste is actually related to smell, so this was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory on my part as ‘raspberry and rotting sea sludge’ is not a flavour that’s particularly likely to catch on.
Cleator & Workington Junction Railway
The path out initially followed the course of a spur of the long disused Cleator & Workington Junction Railway, which primarily served the ironworks further up the coast. This particular branch ran directly parallel to what is now the Cumbria Coast Line, which sat atop an almost identical embankment just a few metres further inland. While the Cumbria Coast Line embankment remains in use as a railway, the old C&WJR embankment had been resurfaced as a cycle path. This made for excellent going and I rather liked it.
With erosion having reduced the width of the embankment by up to two thirds, the path was quickly forced off it and down to beach level. Thankfully it didn’t drop onto the actual beach, which was mostly made of shingle and WW2 tank traps, but instead ran between the two embankments. In effect this meant that I was walking in a trench.
I escaped from the trench at the point where the C&WJR spur used to cross the Cumbria Coast Line in order to rejoin its own main line. Here a small pond sat beside the path and as I stared out over it, a young couple were bemused to find that their small, yappy dog thought I was the Most Amazing Thing Ever and that it must immediately try to bark itself to death from sheer excitement. It almost succeeded.
‘She’s gone a bit funny with age,’ her owner explained. I sympathised with that.
Moss Bay Steel Works
The path continued northwards on the inland side of Cumbria Coastal Line, while on the far side the derelict site of Moss Bay Steel Works covered a vast area of ground. From 1872, the steel works operated under various owners until the main plant finally closed in 1982. An offshoot producing railway rails remained open until 2006 and many rails the world over still bear the legend ‘Workington’ stamped on their sides.
The small pond by which I met the yappy dog had been one of the plant’s reservoirs. The cliffs on its far side were made entirely of slag.
After the steel works, the path became a tad depressing, with high mesh fences and industrial dereliction on both sides (plus of course the ever-present railway line). This came to an end at a road bridge, where I crossed the railway once more and found myself wandering the western streets of Workington, plodding past retail parks on what was presumably once an industrial estate. A disused level crossing on one of the roads forlornly straddled the old goods branch to the steelworks.
Workington sits on the banks of the River Derwent and I followed the road around to the harbours and docks near the river’s mouth. I was intending to take a bridge across the river, which would neatly join up with my intended route on the other side. The only trouble was, I couldn’t see the bridge. I checked and rechecked my map, sure I must have misplaced myself, and lined up all the other features. And then I realised.
The bridge having gone was a bit of a surprise. I knew that Workington had suffered serious flooding in 2009 and that the flooding had swept away its bridges. But I also knew that most of those had been replaced. Also, pertinently, I knew my OS map was printed in 2011. I double-checked that too. Ah, wait…
‘Revised 1996. Revised for selected change 2011.’
What the hell? Now I freely admit I’m not a cartographer but surely, if you were making ‘selected’ changes wouldn’t you select such practical details as a bridge no longer existing? Apparently not.
Bemused and frustrated by this new development, I followed the Derwent upstream.
Workington has a long history; the Romans built a fort at the mouth of the Derwent as part of the coastal defences extending from Hadrian’s Wall. Later, the Saxons settled the area and gave the town its name (Weorcinga + tun: the town of the Weorcings, or followers of Weorc). The Vikings, highly active along the Irish Sea coast, also settled near the mouth of the river.
Following the Norman Conquest, the manor of Workington was in the hands of the Curwen family (one of whom would eventually also build Harrington quay). In 1298. Sir Gilbert de Curwen rode north with troops to the Battle of Falkirk, where his late arrival reinforced King Edward I and aided his victory over William Wallace. This action gave the Curwens their motto — ‘Si Je n’estoy’ meaning ‘If I had not been there…’
Mary Queen of Scots
In 1568, Workington gained a new association with Scotland when Mary, Queen of Scots, having just lost the Battle of Langside, arrived in the town seeking asylum. Mary was believed complicit in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, after which she had married his suspected murderer, Lord Bothwell. This combined with Catholic–Protestant tensions had led to her forced abdication and the failed attempt at Langside to retake her throne.
Despite having previously also claimed to be the rightful Queen of England (as senior descendant of Henry VIII’s older sister, Margaret, and arguing that Queen Elizabeth I was illegitimate), Mary appears to have expected that Elizabeth would help her regain her throne. But Good Queen Bess had other ideas, reluctant to do anything quite so ill-advised and unwilling to allow Mary to swan about England at will.
Mary thus spent the next eighteen years under house arrest in various castles until she implicated herself in the Babington Plot — a Catholic scheme to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her. This was a step too far and Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. Her son, James VI of Scotland, would later succeed the childless Elizabeth as King James I of England in 1603.
Workington’s subsequent history is much like that of other Cumbrian coastal towns. Coal and iron ore mining were big in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries buts subsequently dwindled to nothing. In its post-industrial form the town became something of an unemployment black spot but has since made something of a recovery.
I made my way towards the town’s centre, confident that the street I was on would meet up with the A597 and that there would be some way across. The exact route was uncertain as the map did appear to show one road bridge as being down. Fortunately, there was a new bridge, opened in 2012. Unfortunately, since this was well after my map was printed, the road layouts no longer matched up at all. Still, I successfully crossed the River Derwent and I managed to buy snacks from a handy supermarket on the way.
The flooding that swept away the bridges followed heavy and concentrated rainfall that swelled the Derwent into a torrent. All four of Workington’s road and pedestrian bridges were either destroyed or so badly damaged as to be unusable, with only the railway bridge still standing. A policeman, PC Bill Barker, was killed when the Northside Bridge collapsed.
With the bridges down, crossing from one side of the river to another required a fourteen-mile detour and Network Rail constructed a temporary station, Workington North, so that people could use a special hourly shuttle train to cross the river via the railway bridge.
I crossed over the new bridge, passing a plaque in memory of PC Barker, and went in search of the path onwards. In theory there was an England Coast Path route but in practice it was diverted along NCN 72. I thus set off along a tarmac cyclepath running parallel to the railway, leaving Workington much as I’d entered it. Behind me a dull buzzing, like the Mother of All Bees, indicated that the speedway track was in use.
The cycle path was initially unremarkable, flanked on one side by the railway and on the other by bushes. But it soon spat me out into a dead end street in which several lorries had parked up for the night. The way onwards was directly behind one of the lorries but I didn’t know that and so I followed the road round to join the A596.
Siddick Wind Farm
The A-road was pretty much what you might expect — roaring with traffic and not a great deal of fun. Fortunately, I spotted a link back onto the cycle path soon after and breathed a sigh of relief for the relative quiet. As it happened, NCN 72 conveyed me just a short distance, revealing a forest of wind turbines ahead.
The road might well have been long but the separate cycle path wasn’t. Immediately after the photo above, NCN 72 rejoined the carriageway, which meant I was back on the A596. I would be plodding along beside this busy road for the next two and a half miles, methodically counting off the wind turbines as I passed them. The Solway Firth lay off to my left, beyond flat fields. And beyond that…
In addition to wind turbines, the inland side of the A596 had a chemical plant and a shoe factory to show me, the latter owned by US shoe manufacturer New Balance. There wasn’t much else in the way of buildings until I reached the village of Flimby, about two thirds of the way towards Maryport.
Flimby (from Old Norse Flæminga bý—village of the Flemings) is pretty small. The Romans built a signal station there and subsequent arrivals, such as the Vikings and presumably some Flemings, didn’t build a whole lot more. It used to have a colliery but that’s long been closed.
The statue is by Colin Telfer, an artist based in Maryport who tends to use resin mixed with mineral dust as a medium. Thus, in iron mining areas his statues are red with haematite. That this one is grey makes a lot of sense given they are coal miners; no doubt he used coal dust instead.
At the northern end of Flimby, I left the A596 as a separate cycle and footpath veered off between road and sea. The last mile and a half of the day was walked amid evening silence, screened by bushes and cooled by a stiffening breeze. Then, suddenly, I was walking round a regenerated dock and crossing a bridge into Maryport.
Origin as Alauna
Founded as Alauna, a Roman supply and command base, Maryport sits at the mouth of the River Ellen (as ‘Alauna’ has become over time). Although reduced in importance when the Romans left, it was later refortified with a twelfth century motte and bailey castle at one point overlooking the town.
Known for centuries as Ellenfoot, the town was extensively redeveloped in 1749 when local landowner Humphrey Senhouse (1731-1814) obtained an Act of Parliament to establish a new port. Senhouse’s wife was named Mary and he renamed the town after her because he could.
Carlisle and Maryport Railway
As the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed, the Cumberland coalfields erupted with mines and the new port of Maryport thrived. The 1840s brought the Carlisle and Maryport Railway, connecting Maryport with the county town. The railway’s engineer was George Stephenson (of Rocket fame).
Trade & Tourism
Maryport managed to retain steady trade through the industrial consolidations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries only to see its fortunes plummet overnight in 1927. A new deep water dock had been opened in Workington and all of Maryport’s trade transferred over, rendering it a ghost town. It never recovered. The docks were closed to cargo ships in the 1960s and today cater only for fishing boats and leisure craft. Tourism is now the main economy.
While bad news for the town this was good news for me as it meant that the town had some decent hotels. I was just wondering where I might find the one I had chosen when I looked up from the bridge across the Ellen and saw it directly ahead.
To all hotels everywhere that make sure to write their names in really big letters on the side: I thank you; it really helps.
The Walk Concludes
Food, drinks and sleep all followed. The following morning I ate a hearty breakfast in a room where George Stephenson and others sat and planned the Maryport & Carlisle Railway in 1836. I then made use of that very same railway to whisk me off to Carlisle, where I changed for a train to London; my trip was over.
This time: 21½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,176½ miles