When we said we were going to Barrow-in-Furness, people could not understand why. When we said we were going because Owen Hatherley has written about the town with remarkable insight, people were even more puzzled. After all, isn’t Barrow-in-Furness the epitome of the land that time forgot? You had better read on. Here IS an unusual destination, but a destination with considerable rewards for those with an open mind. We are already plotting a return, sooner rather than later.
Barrow-in-Furness is a revelation. Although Walney Island, Barrow Island and the streets leading off Abbey Road and Duke Street have many interesting structures, you cannot ignore, simply because it is so large and centrally located, the vast modern shed (Devonshire Dock Hall) in which the Trident submarines are built. Barrow-in-Furness is a town famous for making munitions, and BAE Systems is the largest employer for miles around. The vast sheds owned by BAE Systems (Devonshire Dock Hall is merely the most obvious such shed) overlook Walney Channel where small vessels, old and new, add to the visual interest (as do the concrete pillboxes). Walney Island has beaches facing west, but, in some respects, far more interesting are Vickerstown (where, to the south of the settlement, houses and other buildings have arts and crafts embellishments. In places, Vickerstown feels like a garden suburb), and the birds, the sand and the grass of South Walney Nature Reserve. About a mile south of Vickerstown is Biggar, a small settlement that has existed for hundreds of years. At its most southerly and northerly extremities, Walney Island is so low-lying that it merges imperceptibly with the sea that surrounds it. At the south end of Walney Channel is Piel Island with its castle dating from 1327.
An interesting bridge connects Walney Island with Barrow Island (the centre of the bridge lifts like Tower Bridge in London to allow large ships to sail upstream or downstream), but an even more impressive bridge, the High Level Bridge along Michaelson Road (note the views up and down the waterway), connects Barrow Island with the town centre. Barrow Island should be examined in great detail, for the views from the island, for the port and its related industrial facilities, and for its remarkable Victorian and early 20th century architecture. At first, the large sandstone factories, warehouses and tenement blocks dominate your attention (your first impression of Barrow Island is that you have somehow strayed into a Glasgow that barely still exists, or a Hanseatic city that still does exist, thankfully, beside or close to the Baltic Sea), but you then notice the unmodernised, family-run shops, an old school and, perhaps most interesting of all, a white stuccoed concrete church, St. John’s CE, built by Seeley and Paget in 1935. St. John’s Church comprises of bold geometric forms with curves, straight lines and sharp angles that cannot do other than impress.
Barrow-in-Furness as a whole, but Barrow Island in particular, has an other-worldly look and feel, a look and feel partly dependent on its location at the end of the longest cul-de-sac in England. But its other-worldliness is also due to the fact that the town still makes things, and that its people are overwhelmingly white and working class. In summary, it feels as if you have travelled back in time to the 1980s. Resilient but friendly people seem to live in the town (visit one or two of the pubs, most of which remain unmodernised. The beer and the spirits remain cheap to ensure customers still call in, and food is largely confined to crisps, nuts and other bagged snacks full of salt and artificial flavouring. In one pub, the juke box has an outstanding selection of popular music. When we called in to escape from a very heavy shower, two or three people were singing to the best tunes from the 1960s and the 1970s), but today money is in short supply. The lack of money is very obvious when you walk through the modern covered market, where, by about 3.30pm on a Saturday, business is so slow that some shops and stalls are packing up. The main shopping area along and near Dalton Road manifests all the signs that the UK remains in deep recession. There are empty premises, charity shops, a few betting shops and stores where most items are heavily discounted. But along Abbey Road and Duke Street, and on Barrow Island itself, you feel as if you have strayed into a large city with a proud industrial and commercial heritage (believe it or not, Barrow-in-Furness was once compared to Chicago, and without a hint of irony). Note the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel (1875), for example, or the Town Hall (1887), or the old office blocks on Barrow Island that were once the nerve centres for the manufacturing and the shipping companies, or the many other landmark buildings such as the large, stone-built Public Library (1874), the elegant brick and terracotta building on Abbey Road now used by the Salvation Army, or the Devonshire Public House (1874). Note also the Sloop Street Tenements (1884), the Steamer Street Tenements (1884), the Ship Street Tenements (1884), Nan Tait Centre (1903), Oxford Chambers (1875), Ramsden Hall (1872), Alfred Barrow School (1888), Victoria Hall (1888), Trinity Church (1875) and St. Mary the Virgin CE Church in Vickerstown (1908).