Why skip the Lake District and head to humble Barrow-in-Furness instead

lighthouse - John Eveson / Alamy Stock Photo

lighthouse – John Eveson / Alamy Stock Photo

In early August 1914, newlyweds D. H. and Frieda Lawrence were on a walking tour of Westmoreland with three friends when they “arrived at Barrow on Furness [sic]and saw that war had been declared… and Mr. Vickers [and] Maxim calls his workers – and the great announcements on the Vickers gates – and the thousands of people crossing the bridge … and the eerie, vivid, visionary beauty of everything, magnified everywhere by immense pain.

So Lawrence wrote in a letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith in which he captured the contrast and sheer strangeness of moving from the Lakeland Fells to the edge of England, from Westmoreland to Lancashire, from nature’s peace to man’s war industry.

Arms assembly department at the Vickers Armaments Factory in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, circa 1912. By Bob Thomas/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Arms assembly department at the Vickers Armaments Factory in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, circa 1912. By Bob Thomas/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Barrow stands a few miles south of the mouth of the River Duddon, on the seaward side of the Furness peninsula. The town is 35 miles from the M6 ​​motorway and is at the end of what has been called Britain’s longest dead end. However, east of Barrow, in Morecambe Bay, is Britain’s center of gravity, or geometric center.

In many ways it is a separate place from the modern county of Cumbria, but by accent and history it is part of Lonsdale in Lancashire – the ancient Palatinate to which Barrow historically belonged. Coniston water was not introduced to Cumbria until 1974. For centuries, before trains and road tunnels connected things, the Furness and Cartmel peninsulas were accessed by sea or across the Sands of Morecambe.

Aerial View of Piel Island, Cumbria - Historic England Archive/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Aerial View of Piel Island, Cumbria – Historic England Archive/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The name Barrow comes from Old Norse and means “bare island”, Furness means “rump on a promontory”. An Anglo-Saxon earl lived on the island of Piel, later given to monks who built a port to transport and store grain, wine and wool. Their fortified warehouse has been transformed into a castle whose 14th-century ruins are looked after by English Heritage. From spring to fall, local companies Piel Ferry and Piel Island Ferry organize boat trips to the site and the gray seal colony.

“Man, tired of ravages and hasty destruction, has left this Structure to become a victim of Time,” wrote Wordsworth of Furness Abbey, back on the peninsula. Further inland, near Ulverston, is Swarthmoor Hall, an Elizabethan mansion with important links to the Quaker movement.

Panoramic view of the extremely imposing remains of Furness Abbey near Barrow-in-Furness - Nicky Beeson / Alamy Stock Photo

Panoramic view of the extremely imposing remains of Furness Abbey near Barrow-in-Furness – Nicky Beeson / Alamy Stock Photo

Barrow-in-Furness’s industrial past is everywhere. Iron ore was shipped through the port for decades, but the establishment of the Hematite Iron and Steel Works in Barrow in 1859 started a boom; Barrow would later be the site of the largest steel works in the world. In the 1880s, salt was discovered accidentally on Walney Island while drilling for coal, and the Barrow Salt Works became a major operation.

Walney creates a natural breakwater around Barrow, ideal conditions for a shipyard. The shipbuilding industry that developed in the 1870s was later taken over by Vickers. In 1901, the Royal Navy’s first submarine, HMS Holland 1 (aka Torpedo Boat No 1), was launched. The planned Vickerstown estate was built between 1900 and 1906 for workers. Its main thoroughfare, Powerful Street, takes its name from the Barrow-built HMS Powerful.

HMS Holland 1: The Royal Navy's First Submarine - GRANGER - Historical Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

HMS Holland 1: The Royal Navy’s First Submarine – GRANGER – Historical Photo Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Barrow has been nicknamed “English Chicago”, although one commentator described it as “a combination of the look of Birkenhead and a gold-mining town on the edge of one of America’s western prairies”. Nevertheless, the city has several town-like Victorian and Edwardian buildings along tree-lined avenues, including the Town Hall, Customs House, Beaux-Arts Public Library and the revived Gothic Duke of Edinburgh Hotel, built in the 1970s. Grant and Charlie Chaplin were accommodated.

Town hall and town hall clock with blue sky, Barrow In Furness - greenburn / Alamy Stock Photo

Town hall and town hall clock with blue sky, Barrow In Furness – greenburn / Alamy Stock Image

Lancashire is dotted with post-industrial cemeteries. It’s not one. Today, Barrow is home to the Maritime-Submarine division of BAE Systems, an international arms manufacturer that builds and maintains Vanguard-class submarines for the Royal Navy. The city has almost four times more industrial jobs than the national average. One of the UK’s first offshore wind farms opened in Barrow in July 2006. There are now five, including the 56-square-mile Walney extension, at one time the largest of its kind in the world.

Barrow’s population grew from a modest 150 in 1843 to 56,625 in 1901 – certainly a Chicago-style boom. Today there are approximately 67,000 Barrovians. BAE, like Vickers before it, attracts workers from all over the country. In 2008, a survey commissioned by the website locallife.co.uk identified Barrow as “Britain’s most working-class town”, on the dubious basis that it had a fish and chip shop, a workers’ club, a bookmaker, a greyhound track or a trade union office on 2917 inhabitants.

Harbor of Barrow In Furness, UK - Getty Images/EyeEm

Harbor of Barrow In Furness, UK – Getty Images/EyeEm

We started with DH Lawrence and will end on a literary note – actually two. While the Lakes have given us, with over-tourism, Wainwright-baggers and Kendal Mint Cake, the purple poetry and prose of Wordsworth and Ruskin, Barrow boasts its own star scribe: the Portuguese avant-garde poet Álvaro de Campos (1890–1935), pseudonym Fernando Pessoa.

Responding to Duddon Wordsworth’s sonnets, de Campos offers us his Barrow-on-Furness [sic], ostensibly the musings of a traveling Portuguese engineer who sits on a drum at the docks, melancholic and adrift. Pessoa was able to learn about the city after seeing ships built by Barrow docked in Lisbon.

Walney has nature reserves and a coastal path - BRIAN ORMEROD PHOTOGRAPHER / Alamy Stock Image

Walney has nature reserves and a coastal path – BRIAN ORMEROD PHOTOGRAPHER / Alamy Stock Image

The more famous writer associated with Barrow-in-Furness is the Reverend Wilbert Awdry. Said to be the windiest lowland place in Britain, Walney Island was the model for Sodor, which Thomas the Tank Engine joked about with his many buddies. In Awdry’s imagination, the island had grown to bizarre proportions, occupying the vast expanse of the Irish Sea between Barrow and the Isle of Man.

During a visit to the latter, Awdry learned that the name of the ecclesiastical district was the Diocese of Sodor and Man – Sodor being a derivative of the Old Norse term for the “southern” ends of the Viking island possessions, including the Hebrides. In the books, Sodor has its own language, economic wealth that Forbes compared to Silicon Valley, and more railroads than the Indian subcontinent.

Walney has nature reserves and a coastal path. For a more adventurous hike, follow Duddon to its source on Wrynose Fell, near where the boundaries of Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire once converged – making it the defining river of lakes.

Or, if you’re up for a big community-run charity hobo, join the K2B 40-mile walk in May. Then catch the Cumbrian Coast Line train back to Barrow-in-Furness, with slow onward connections to Sellafield, but excellent to Tidmouth, Suddery, Ffarquhar and Vicarstown.

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