Because the Lake District is within its boundary, Cumbria possesses some of the United Kingdom’s most beautiful mountain scenery, but, because of its beauty, the Lake District is not an unusual destination. In contrast, a lot of the West Cumbrian coast is deemed unworthy of visiting, even by British people who live nearby. Hence this post. Why not consider a visit to Cumbrian places a little less obvious than the Lake District (and, if you enjoy this post, track down my earlier post about Barrow-in-Furness)?
Central Whitehaven looks considerably older than Barrow-in-Furness (most of Barrow-in-Furness is a late 19th century creation). Many Georgian buildings survive, but often in a sadly neglected state. The town’s past prosperity was based largely on families exploiting the sea. Some families engaged in fishing, some transported goods to and from Ireland, and some transported raw materials to large industrial cities in England and Scotland. A few wealthy families engaged in the slave trade, others owned plantations on the Caribbean Islands, and yet others mined the coal and the iron ore that once existed in large quantities below the ground in West Cumbria (reminders of the coal industry survive in Whitehaven). Inevitably, given its history, Whitehaven was once an important port, and the harbour walls that remain to this day, and the evidence of what look like stone fortifications along the nearby cliffs, are as remarkable as some of the Georgian buildings that enhance the town itself. Although the inner harbour is now a marina where small leisure craft moor when not at sea with their owners, nothing can detract from the majesty of the harbour as a whole.
Central Whitehaven is said to be the most complete example of planned Georgian architecture in Europe. Most of the Georgian town was laid out with streets running at right angles to one another (the grid system of streets is another characteristic shared with most of Barrow-in-Furness). Some people believe that Whitehaven was the blueprint for the street system in New York City.
In 1778, John Paul Jones led a naval raid on Whitehaven during the American War of Independence. In the opinion of many, this was the last attempted invasion of England.
A lot of money was invested, and effort expended, in the run-up to the millennium to protect Whitehaven’s unusual architectural heritage, and to inspire economic well-being based on tourism. To some degree, the money and the effort have been a success (note the highly regarded Rum Story Museum, the popular marina and the relatively new structures overlooking the harbour), but most of the improvements then made are now thirteen years old. Some parts of central Whitehaven are very shabby and rundown. Businesses lie empty, those that survive rely on local patronage rather than the patronage of tourists, and many of the pubs and the clubs have a seedy air, not least on a wet Saturday night in May when the occasional mooner helps lift the spirits that alcohol suppresses.
Sunday mornings are very quiet in Whitehaven; it is as if the town has a collective hangover.
Most of Whitehaven’s best Georgian architecture now lies along Lowther Street and two or three blocks to the north and the south. Other architectural highlights include Whitehaven Castle, the substantial harbour walls (themselves largely Georgian in origin), the remains of the coal industry, and the back street warehouses that once stored goods landed by ship. A few modern structures overlook the harbour. Externally, some of the modern structures have been designed to resemble the local Georgian style. They work quite well (the windows excepted), but one or two more eye-catching structures are complete breaks with Georgian pastiche. The latter successfully employ concrete, glass and steel and have balconies overlooking the marina. Nearby is the old bus station, a large structure with art deco embellishments. Although most of the bus station is now derelict, part of it has been occupied by one of the pub chains. Sadly, Whitehaven railway station is a non-descript, instantly forgettable modern box which does not bother opening on a Sunday. Next to the station is a dire Tesco shed, a shed indistinguishable from a thousand other supermarket sheds, with a large open-air car park adjacent. People arriving in Whitehaven for the first time by train are likely to wonder why on earth they agreed to come. Another monstrosity exists in the form of a multi-storey car park off Swingpump Lane. To somewhat alleviate its dark and slab-like ugliness, the facade overlooking Swingpump Lane has been covered with rectangles of curved metal, but examine the three other sides of the building for its full horror to be revealed. Return to Lowther, Scotch and Duke streets as soon as you can!
Parton is about 2 miles north of Whitehaven. It is a small, economically disadvantaged village overlooking the Solway Firth. In Roman times, Parton Bay was used as an anchorage. As a consequence, a small Roman fort existed on the higher ground north of the modern village. A salt pan operated during the 16th century. A harbour was eventually built at Parton, but, once Whitehaven emerged as a major port, and after Parton’s harbour walls were badly damaged toward the end of the 18th century, the village declined in importance. Fishing continued for some time, but other industries were more reliable sources of income. Although Parton has had a coal mine, a glassworks, a tannery, a brewery, an iron foundry and Lowca Engineering Works, today it is little more than a dormitory settlement. Once the Maryport and Carlisle Railway extended its tracks as far as the village, communications with the outside world improved significantly.
Just beyond the village boundary is Moresby Hall (now a hotel) and Moresby Church. Today, the grey pebbly beach is Parton’s main claim to fame, but few people visit it. Among the most interesting things about the village are the tunnels under the railway which provide people with access to the beach itself.