The Vale of Nightshade, Furness Abbey

Tucked away on the Furness Penninsular in West Cumbria, the crumbling glory of Furness Abbey’s red sandstone is a glorious sight. It sits in beautiful countryside, known as the Vale of Nightshade, and despite its proximity to the towns of Barrow-in-Furness and Ulverston, it was as quiet and peaceful as I imagine it to have been in medieval times. It’s pretty easy to conjure up images of robed monks walking these grounds.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey was founded in 1123 by a group of French nobles, including Stephen, Count of Boulogne, who would go on to become King of England in 1135. By the time Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537, Furness Abbey was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Cistercian monasteries in the Kingdom, second only to Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.

The Abbey owned vast tracts of land across northern England, Ireland and the Isle of Man. They owned mining rights, fishing rights, built castles, ran farms and dominated trade in the region. They even built their own ships, on which they exported wool from their farms and iron from their mines. It was an enormous ecclesiastic money making machine, with a monopoly on industry, agriculture and trade. No wonder Henry VIII wanted to get his hands on it.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Crook from an Abbot's crozier, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Crook from an Abbot’s crozier, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Much of what you see today dates from the 12th and 13th centuries, and even in it’s current state it doesn’t take much to see that this was a powerhouse of a place. Its graceful decline and picturesque location have proven to be inspiration for writers and artists. Turner made many sketches of the abbey and Wordsworth wrote a moving stanza in his great masterpiece, The Prelude:

Of that large Abbey which within the vale
Of Nightshade, to St. Mary’s honour built,
Stands yet, a mouldering Pile, with fractured Arch,
Belfry, and Images, and living Trees,
A holy Scene!

The really helpful and informative woman who sold me a ticket gave me a quick update on the conservation of the building – a necessary conversation as scaffolding is supporting one of the tallest parts of the building. The story of why was fascinating. Several years ago, English Heritage investigated the leaning walls of the main tower, what they found was both a major problem and a major archaeological discovery.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Tomb, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Tomb, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

The monks’ 900 year-old ingenuity was the problem. They had built this enormous structure on marshy land. Their solution was to lay strong oak foundations upon which the abbey stood. Providing that the wood remained completely submerged in water, it wouldn’t rot and weaken. Then they diverted a stream for their own use, which can still be seen today, and by doing so they exposed the wooden foundations to the air.

This weakened the foundations and the ruined Abbey began sinking into the soft ground. Major engineering works were needed to prevent collapse. The upside of this was that during excavations to assess the extent of the damage they discovered the grave of an Abbot. Undisturbed since the Middle Ages, he was found together with his personal possessions, a hoard of medieval treasures including a silver Crozier and monks ring.

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Mason's mark, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Mason’s mark, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

They also found the remains of the monk inside, it turns out Abbey life was pretty easy if you were in a position of power. The good life can have serious consequences though, the monk was described as a well-fed, little exercised man in his 40s who suffered from arthritis and type 2 diabetes. I doubt this is the same monk who is said to appear as a headless ghost riding a horse through one of the arches in the abbey.

Neolithic adventures, Birkrigg Stone Circle

On a whim, I left Swinside Stone Circle behind and headed to the other side of the Duddon Estuary to unearth a second stone circle, Birkrigg. Found near the village of Bardsea on the Furness Penninsular, it’s smaller than Swinside but Birkrigg still has a dramatic location on a fell overlooking Morecambe Bay. Thanks to the stone circles, it’s easy to imagine the connectedness of the communities that lived here around 5000 years ago.

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Stone Circle, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

In fact, it was probably much easier to locate the stone circles 5000 years ago. Today, local authorities don’t make it easy to find these Neolithic monuments. There are no signs from the road and no arrows to point you in the right direction once you arrive in the general area. Were it not for a chance encounter with a local dog walker, I would probably still be wandering around the fells looking for it.

Birkrigg was originally much more impressive. It once had a concentric, double ring of stones with a ditch in between. This is quite rare in Britain, Stonehenge being the most famous example, and may mean Birkrigg had some special status. The outer ring had up to 20 stones, which have been scattered over time; the inner ring has between 10 and 12 stones depending upon who’s counting. You’d think this was an easy riddle to solve, but it’s more difficult than anticipated.

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

There is a superstition, attached to many stone circles, that it is impossible to count the number of stones. Every time someone tries they reach a different number. I’ve been to Birkrigg, have photos of the circle, and still can’t make my mind up if it’s 10, 11 or 12 stones. I’m pretty sure this isn’t Neolithic magic but, since we have little knowledge of the people who built stone circles, anything might be possible.

This area seems to have been highly populated in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, and although I didn’t see any, Birkrigg Common has several burial mounds from the period. Excavations in the centre of the stone circle in the 1910s unearthed human remains. Five people were buried there, all cremations, ashes from one was found in an urn that is now in Carlisle Museum.

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Birkrigg Common, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

After I’d wandered around the stones for a while, I went for a walk across the fell. I’ve never been to this area before and it’s a beautiful place, with tremendous views over the estuary and towards Ulverston. I eventually found my way back to the car and drove down to the coast. The tide was out so I decided to take a stroll on the sands. The vast panoramas from the sandbanks were spectacular.

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Morecambe Bay, Furness Penninsular, Cumbria

Back to the Bronze Age, Swinside Stone Circle

Cumbria is a surprising place. Well known for the natural beauty of the Lake District, and its association with Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, there is a wealth of history and culture just waiting to be discovered beyond the obvious. The region might be a bit of a backwater these days, but in the Neolithic and early Bronze Ages, around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, this was the centre of a thriving civilisation connected by trade to the rest of Europe.

Proof of this lies in the fact that Cumbria is home to an incredible number of stone circles. They may not be as well-known as Stonehenge or Avebury, but what they lack in size and grandeur they make up for in number and location. Little is known about the extraordinary structures that are dotted dramatically around the Cumbrian mountains, but they are the key to understanding the culture that flourished here millennia ago.

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

During the Neolithic era the central Lake District was the centre of a European-wide industry making stone tools. There were several axe ‘factories’, most famously in the quarries of Great Langdale and Scafell Pike, which made polished stone axes and other tools from green volcanic rock. They were prized items traded across the British Isles. For the time, the scale of the industry was huge, so much so that the quarries are easily identifiable today.

The same people who made stone axes in the Langdales, built Cumbria’s stone circles. If you find yourself in the neighbourhood, it’s well worth the effort to track down the site of these ancient monuments. I’d spent the morning in Millom, and Swinside Stone Circle is only a few miles from the town. I visited here in early 2015 on a cold winter’s day, and decided it was worth another visit on a bright sunny day.

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Known locally as Sunkenkirk – the Devil is said to have pulled down stones of a church that was being built – Swinside is one of the most important Neolithic monuments in Cumbria. It consists of 55 stones set in a near perfect circle, and sits on a flat, man-made area on the eastern flank of Black Combe. You can see the appeal of the site, there are spectacular views over the Cumbrian mountains, and access to the Irish Sea at nearby Duddon Estuary.

Although it’s slightly more accessible than many Cumbrian stone circles, Swinside’s position in the west of the county places it well off the tourist trail. On my previous visit I had the place entirely to myself and, apart from a couple of ponies and a lot of sheep, so it proved today. There’s a majesty to standing in this ancient place, admiring the views with only the sound of the wind and an occasional sheep bleating.

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Estuary near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Estuary near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

Landscape near Swinside Stone Circle, Millom, Cumbria

I spent a some time drinking in the views, and imagining the rituals that may have been performed here during the summer and winter solstices, before walking the couple of miles back along the track to where I’d abandoned the car. I’d not seen it on the way here but, as I reached a point where the track went downhill, the Duddon Estuary was shimmering in the sunlight before me. Truly beautiful.

A place of despair? Misunderstood Millom

I have to be careful what I say about Millom, after all I was there to visit a good friend who grew up in the town. I think the kindest thing I can say about this West Cumbrian outpost, is that it is blessed by extraordinary natural surroundings. To the north are the hulking mountains of Black Combe and White Combe; to the east lies the picturesque Duddon Valley and the otherworldly Duddon Sands; and to the south lies the beautiful Hodbarrow Nature Reserve. Everything west is Irish Sea.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

The town wears the suffering of a long and not very graceful post industrial decline like a shroud, something underlined by my visit to the tourist information office. On my map the tourist office was in the library, but had recently relocated to the train station. The station is the sort of place that would make you question whether you’d made a mistake by getting off the train.

The tourist office consisted of racks of leaflets, none of which were about Millom. A friendly woman came over and asked if she could help. “I’m just wondering what there is to do in Millom,” I said. It quickly became clear that this is not a question people ask very often. She half-heartedly looked at the racks of leaflets, in her heart knowing that there wasn’t any point. To break the tension, I picked up a few leaflets about other places and politely made my exit.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

I walked back through the town and bought a delicious homemade steak pie (they do a good pie in these parts). I stopped to read a dilapidated board advertising day trips to my home town of Kendal. When Kendal seems like a good idea for a day trip, things must be bad. I was beginning to think a former Mayor of Copeland had hit the nail on the head when he described Millom as “a place of despair”.

I don’t want to be unfair though, so let’s just say that it’s not a place that lends itself to conventional tourism. Millom has an interesting history, built on deposits of high grade iron ore, and the Hodbarrow Nature Reserve is a truly wonderful place. I know this because I’d just spent a few hours walking around it and the Duddon Sands. It’s this area that explains why Millom exists at all.

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

Wild flowers, Millom, Cumbria

In 1855 large deposits of iron ore were discovered around Hodbarrow. In a very short period of time, what had been a few small hamlets and farms was an industrial boom town of 10,000 people. At its peak, this was one of the largest iron ore workings in Europe. All the more remarkable then that almost no trace of that history exists today, except for some structures around the nature reserve.

I walked around the reserve, now an important haven for bird life, and marvelled at its beauty. Millom was framed by Black Combe and to the east were the majestic hills of the Lake District National Park. The view from Duddon Sands was even more dramatic, and, as I walked out as far as I could without ending up in the water, the view just kept expanding. It was magnificent, and the whole area was illuminated by wild flowers.

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

Duddon Sands, Millom, Cumbria

The strange thing about Millom, is that they make almost nothing of the fact that one of Britain’s finest 20th century poets spent his entire life here. Norman Nicholson was a literary giant to rival W.H. Auden and Ted Hughes, although he’s not nearly as well known. Nicholson took his inspiration from the people of this area, he narrated the industrial decline of West Cumbria, and he wrote of the landscape in a way that is the polar opposite of that other Lakeland poet, Wordsworth.

On the way out of town I stopped at the 12th century church of Holy Trinity, which sits next to the ruins of Millom Castle. This was a reminder of a different, earlier history. There may not be many reasons to visit Millom, but spectacular views over the Duddon Estuary, Norman Nicholson’s ghost, a 12th century church, and a glorious nature reserve, all stake a pretty strong claim for half a day of anyone’s time.

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Holy Trinity Church, Millom, Cumbria

Whitehaven, the American War of Independence and a question of ‘What if?’

Cleopatra’s Nose Theory argues that chance plays a big role in historical outcomes. The theory goes that had Cleopatra’s nose been bigger Mark Anthony wouldn’t have found her physical charms so irresistible, and the whole course of Western civilisation would have been different. Putting aside the inconvenient fact that Mark Anthony was at least equally attracted to Cleopatra’s intellectual charms, this is the ultimate historical ‘What if?’

The last pharaoh, Cleopatra and her nose

The last pharaoh, Cleopatra and her nose

While it may only merit a bit-part in the annals of history, the small Cumbrian town of Whitehaven is home to a less well known ‘What if?’

Had things been different, George Washington – Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American War of Independence, one of the Founding Fathers and first President of the United States – might have been raised near Whitehaven and not in Virginia. Washington’s grandmother, Mildred, was from Virginia. When her first husband, Lawrence Washington, died she married George Gale, a tobacco trader from Whitehaven. Mildred moved to England with her new husband, dying in Whitehaven in 1701. She is buried in St. Nicholas’ Churchyard in the town centre.

St.Nicholas' Church, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

St.Nicholas’ Church, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

St.Nicholas' Church, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

St.Nicholas’ Church, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Had Mildred brought her son, George’s father, Augustine Washington to England with her, the course of Washington’s life and, quite possibly, the course of the American War of Independence might have been different. A Cleopatra’s Nose Theory for modern Western civilisation. Mildred died following childbirth, she was buried alongside her baby daughter and a woman called Jane, Mildred’s African slave servant. It was illegal for an African to be buried in a British graveyard at the time; for Jane to be buried in the family plot alongside Mildred speaks volumes about their relationship.

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Gale house, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The connections between this part of England and the United States are many, largely due to trade and emigration. There were particularly strong links with tobacco plantations in Virginia, and Whitehaven became the preeminent centre of imported tobacco. Many of the town’s wonderful Georgian buildings were built from the profits. Its no surprise that Washington’s family lived in Westmoreland County, Virginia, named after the County of Westmoreland, England, close to where Whitehaven is situated. The town of Whitehaven, Maryland, was founded by George Gale, Mildred’s second husband.

Another connection with the American War of Independence is non-other than ‘father of the American navy’, John Paul Jones. Jones was Scottish but moved to Whitehaven as a boy, he began sailing from the port when he was thirteen. He regularly visited Virginia, where his brother had settled, sailing on various trade and slave ships. History has been favourable to Jones, but his reputation as a fighter for American Independence can’t erase his reputation as a violent ship’s captain. He once flogged a man so severely he died, another time he killed one of his crew in an argument.

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

18th Century watchtower, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Jones had serious disputes with the High Command in America and was dispatched to France. Sailing from here, acting more like a pirate than a war commander, in 1778 he attacked and attempted to sack his former home of Whitehaven. He planned to set fire to the ships in the port – over 200 vessels were moored there – and burn the town to the ground. His men came ashore and spiked the main harbour guns, but the attack was bungled from the start. He might still have been successful, but his crew went to a pub and got drunk. The townsfolk were alerted and Jones fled.

Gunnery sculpture, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Gunnery sculpture, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

It’s hard to imagine today, but Whitehaven was a vital British port and a justifiable military target. Although its easy to believe there was something personal in Jones’ attack on the town. I’m glad he failed to burn the town, it would have destroyed some wonderful architecture. Today the attack is commemorated by a sculpture on the harbour. A sailor, defending the town, is firing a cannon towards the ocean where Jones’ ship would have been. The cannons are originals from 1778.

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian architecture, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

For a small town, Whitehaven has seen its share of historical incident. I wandered the streets as the winter sun set and darkness descended, and found myself in a small square where a plaque caught my attention. This recounted a bizarre incident. It transpires that Jonathan Swift, the legendary Irish satirist, lived in the town as an infant. A little more research into this uncovered a genuine mystery. His nurse essentially kidnapped him and came to Whitehaven where Swift lived in her care for three or four years.

Jonathan Swift's house overlooking Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Jonathan Swift’s house overlooking Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Plaque to Jonathan Swift, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Plaque to Jonathan Swift, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Debate rages about the importance of this experience for Swift, but some biographers believe his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, was influenced by witnessing the activity around Whitehaven harbour. The house Swift lived in still stands, and has exceptional views over the port. I imagine the young boy watching the activity around the port. Seeing ships coming and going to destinations all over the world, and exotic produce being unloaded on the docks, must have left a strong impression.

One biographer has even claimed that Swift was born in this house…another Cleopatra’s Nose Theory, perhaps?

Rum and the slave trade: Whitehaven’s ‘Dark Spirit’

Whitehaven, a small town on England’s north west coast, feels a bit down-at-heel. In rival towns people refer to those from Whitehaven as Jam Eaters, supposedly because they can’t afford meat in their sandwiches. Yet, walking around the town centre, it’s clear that there is something extraordinary about Whitehaven. Here, in this unlikely spot, is the largest collection of Georgian-era buildings outside of London. Ignore the cars and modern shop frontages, and the town is like a Georgian theme park.

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

Candlestick Chimney, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Candlestick Chimney, Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

The story of Whitehaven is the story of a powerful aristocratic family, the expansion of global trade throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries, followed by stagnation and decline in the 20th Century. It is also the story of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and the role of British trade in shipping millions of Africans into slavery in the Americas. Whitehaven grew rich from trade that depended upon slavery: tobacco from Virginia and, most famously, rum and sugar from slave plantations in the Caribbean. The Rum Story, a museum telling this history, was my destination after walking from St. Bees.

Pub in Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Pub in Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Georgian building, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven was owned by the Lowther family – Earls of Westmoreland and the county’s wealthiest aristocratic dynasty. It was built on a grid system designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and has been described as the first ‘company town’ of the Industrial Revolution. The Lowther family made a fortune from exporting the region’s huge coal reserves to Ireland. This trade made Whitehaven wealthy, and released a vast amount of money for ship building and trade with the New World.

Jefferson's 1785 Dark Rum, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Jefferson’s 1785 Dark Rum, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

One of the most important ports in the country, Whitehaven had extensive trade with the colonies in the United States and the Caribbean, and was a major departure point for emigrating Scots and Northern English. The major port for tobacco from Virginia in the 17th Century, it is a town with intimate links to the slave trade. In the 18th Century, rum distilled from molasses on slave plantations in the Caribbean would become synonymous with Whitehaven.

Rum and sugar became Whitehaven’s driving force, it’s ‘dark spirit’. Ships sailed from Whitehaven loaded with manufactured products, including rum, to be traded for African slaves; they were shipped in appalling conditions to the Caribbean and traded for sugar and rum; which were shipped to Whitehaven. One of the region’s most famous products, Kendal Mint Cake, was the result of Caribbean sugar arriving in Whitehaven. Yet, the town became a centre for opposition to the slave trade and ended its role in the ‘human trade’ around 1770.

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story museum explores Whitehaven’s rum and slave connections by tracing the story of local wine merchants, the Jefferson family. Rum was first discovered by slaves working in sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Despite having a reputation as being “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor”, rum soon became popular, especially on the boats which plied the trade between Europe, Africa and the New World. The Jefferson’s owned a slave plantation in Antigua, which produced sugar, molasses and Jefferson brand rum.

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Slavery exhibit, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The museum is fascinating, it does a good job of explaining the brutality and brutal economics of the slave trade, and the terrible working conditions slaves faced in the Caribbean. It also shines a light on little known aspects of Whitehaven’s history. One of the least ethnically diverse places in the country today, in the 1770s and 1780s there were a large number of free slaves arriving in Whitehaven. Some were servants of families returning to England during the War of American Independence; others were slaves freed because they fought for the British and emigrated to England after the war.

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Rum cellar, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

The museum benefits from being housed in the original Jefferson buildings. You walk through the 18th Century Bonded Warehouse, the original cellars and even the office as it would have looked in the 19th Century. There are exhibitions on the traditional use of rum in the navy – which paints a terrifying picture of general drunkenness; a section on the island of Antigua; and a section dedicated to rum and prohibition. Perhaps best of all, they offer you a taster shot of rum as you leave.

Giant barrel, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Giant barrel, The Rum Story, Whitehaven, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven Harbour, Cumbria, England

A few hours spent in Whitehaven was enlightening, I discovered a history that I never imagined existed before. A history involving an American President, his mother-in-law and an American War of Independence hero…

Above the roaring ocean on Cumbria’s Heritage Coast

Leaving the tumultuous crashing waves of the Irish Sea behind, and narrowly avoiding ‘a furious devout drench’*, I headed north over the three hundred foot-high red sandstone cliffs of St. Bees Head. This is the first (or last) segment of the 192 mile-long Coast to Coast walk, which after a few miles turns inland towards England’s East Coast. One day I’ll do the whole route, but this time my ambitions were more local. I was on my way to the Georgian-era town of Whitehaven, six and a half miles from St. Bees.

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

The giant fissured red sandstone cliffs make this a dramatic segment of coast. They also make it one of the most important, and largest, seabird colonies in North West England. Much of the area is an RSPB Nature reserve: cormorants, guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, white throat herring gulls, fulmars, rock pipits, whitethroats, linnets and stonechats all live here. I mention this array of our feathered friends because, as you walk along the cliff tops, there are times when the smell of fishy excrement is almost overpowering.

Reaching the top of St. Bees Head, you are greeted by breathtaking views north across the cliffs and south along the beaches of St. Bees. On a clear day you can see the Isle of Man and both the Scottish and Irish coasts. From this vantage point, its easy to understand why this is the only section of the English coast between Wales and Scotland to be designated as a Heritage Coast. It is truly beautiful. The pounding waves below adding a suitably melodramatic soundtrack to accompany the visual treat stretching ahead.

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

View north from St. Bees Head, Cumbria, England

From St. Bees Head you can clearly see the St. Bees Lighthouse, a speck of brilliant white surrounded by green fields on top of another cliff top hill. This is North Head, which has the distinction of being the most westerly point in Northern England. Following the path downwards, the route passes through farmland before reaching a natural gap between the two headlands.

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

This is Fleswick Bay, where its possible to walk down to a sandy beach nestling underneath the towering cliffs. At least, its possible when the tide is out. When I was there, an unusually high tide was most definitely ‘in’, waves thundering into the bay. Clambering back up the other side, I was soon in front of the lighthouse. There has been a lighthouse here since 1718, but the original one burnt down in 1822 – until then, it was the only surviving coal-powered lighthouse in the country. The current lighthouse replaced it. Today, electrified and automated, its beam of light can be seen 21 nautical miles away.

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Lighthouse, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Walking around the headland of North Head, you soon see the town of Whitehaven in the distance. There were still three miles of walking left to do, but at least I could see my destination. The sun was illuminating the two small lighthouses at the entrance to Whitehaven harbour and the Candlestick Chimney, a former ventilation shaft built in 1850 for one of the region’s many coal mines.

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

At the point where the Coast to Coast route heads east, the path to Whitehaven starts a long, gradual descent back to the sea. The route is mainly farmland, but it does pass a sandstone quarry still quarrying the rock which has been used for building in this area for centuries. Eventually the route reaches the historic port of Whitehaven, the main part of which dates from the 17th Century when Whitehaven was one of the most important ports in England…

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

View of Whitehaven, Cumbrian Heritage Coast, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

Whitehaven harbour and Candlestick Chimney, Cumbria, England

* A line from Philip Larkin’s poem Water

Fact or fiction? An ancient Irish Princess on the Cumbrian Heritage Coast

Stepping off the tiny, two carriage train in the picturesque village of St. Bees, the roar of the ocean is audible long before you see it. At least today, a day of high winds and high tides, the noise of the Irish Sea crashing into the mighty sandstone cliffs of the West Cumbrian Coast, easily carries the half mile inland to the train station. Even at this distance I can tell that the sea is rough, and my planned walk along the Cumbria Heritage Coast might be wetter than expected.

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

West Cumbria is often overlooked by visitors to the region, overshadowed by the nearby Lake District National Park. It has been a long time since I visited and, although the weather can be terrible, this is an area full of natural beauty with a history as surprising as it is fascinating.

This region has suffered significant economic decline, with communities gutted as industries closed. For years this was one Britain’s most depressed and deprived areas; a status seemingly at odds with the beauty of the landscape. The transport infrastructure doesn’t help. The train route meanders along the coast, cutting inland around bays and estuaries. It’s a beautiful route, but even the relatively short journey to St. Bees takes over two and a half hours. A day-trip on public transport is an endurance test.

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

From the early 17th Century onwards, shipping, mining and trade with the Americas and Caribbean were the drivers of the economy. A predominantly rural region, West Cumbria was remarkably industrialised, connected to far flung corners of the globe through trade. This has left an industrial and cultural legacy that is only just beginning to be exploited for tourism.

There are many small towns and villages worth a visit, but one that already attracts thousands of visitors annually is St. Bees. This pleasant village is the start/end point of the 192 mile Coast to Coast walk, popularised by Alfred Wainwright. Its proximity to the beautiful and rugged coastline, and the beach which sits beneath the cliffs, draws visitors; but it is the former Benedictine Priory of St. Bees, and the legend of St. Bega, that sparks the imagination.

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

Norman doorway, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Norman doorway, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Celtic cross, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Celtic cross, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

The name St. Bees is a corruption of St. Bega. Reputed to have been a beautiful and virtuous Irish Princess, St. Bega fled Ireland to avoid an arranged marriage. She lived the life of a hermit, in isolation and poverty in St. Bees. Fearful that Vikings, who were pillaging along this coast, would rape her, she fled to Northumbria leaving behind her one worldly possession, a bracelet. Naturally, St. Bega, and her bracelet, became the focus of worship at the Norman-era Priory built in St. Bees in the 12th Century.

There was a thriving cult dedicated to St. Bega by the time the Benedictine Priory was built around 1120. The cult was still going strong in the early 16th Century, when records show a large amount of money being donated to ‘the bracelet of St. Bega’. She is credited with several ‘miracles’ and in Bassenthwaite, only a short distance away in the Lake District, there is a church dedicated to St. Bega. This is fine, but there’s evidence to suggest that St. Bega didn’t exist.

The legend of St. Bega, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

The legend of St. Bega, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

It’s argued that St. Bega is a Christian invention based on pre-existing pagan beliefs. This is why her bracelet is important. The local word for bracelet is ‘beag’ and there may have been a sacred pagan bracelet that took human, and Christian, form as St. Bega. In a world where Christianity was encroaching on pagan beliefs, apparently this isn’t improbably. An alternative theory is that chroniclers confused her with an entirely different person. There seem to have been quite a few Irish women living as hermits who later got canonised. These and other theories are explained here.

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Priory, St. Bees, Cumbria, England

Stained glass window, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Stained glass window, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Whether she existed or not, in 2000 the local council decided to commission a sculpture of her. Not everyone is a fan. The woman I asked for directions said, “She’s supposed to be an Irish Princess, but she looks like a chubby fisherwoman.” To be fair, the sculptor didn’t have any pictures to work from. The sculpture depicts her arriving in a small boat. I’m no expert, but if she sailed that boat across the Irish Sea she deserves her own cult. Then again, since she’s probably fictional, I’m not sure it matters.

Sculpture of St. Bega, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Sculpture of St. Bega, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved stones found at the Priory of St. Bees indicate that Gaelic-Scandinavian settlers lived in this area in the 10th Century. This community probably lived in relative isolation until the arrival of the conquering Normans in 1092. It was William le Meschin, a Norman Baron, who extended the existing religious site into the Benedictine Priory. The Priory functioned as a religious institution – a wealthy one at that – until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. It continues to be used as the parish church, but many of the original buildings have disappeared.

The Priory has seen much history and has many secrets. In 1981, during excavations of a 14th Century burial site, a mystery was unearthed – a coffin containing a six hundred year-old male body. Known as St Bees Man, remarkably his nails, skin and stomach contents were found to be in near-perfect condition. The body has been identified as either Anthony de Lucy, a knight who died in the Teutonic Crusades in 1368, or Robert of Harrington, buried here in 1297. It’s all a bit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and the carved Norman doorway and coffin lids inside the church add to that feeling.

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Carved coffin lids, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

Walking away from the Priory towards the start of the coastal path, I could hear the ocean getting louder. Suddenly, the headland and ocean came into view – giant waves were pounding into the cliffs and onto the beach with a ferocity I’ve rarely seen. Above the ocean I could see the track that would take me over St. Bees Head and onto the beautiful route that follows the cliffs to Whitehaven. The wind was blowing hard at my back and the sun had decided to shine for the first time in weeks. Onwards and upwards…

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England

St. Bees Head, St. Bees Priory, Cumbria, England