I’m in Cumbria of all places, speeding across the gloriously beautiful Pennines to Newcastle on one of the prettiest train journeys I’ve ever taken. I keep hoping to see a bit of Hadrian’s Wall. One of my greatest ambitions in life is to see one of the relatively intact sections of this mystical monument. We tried to find it as children, but didn’t know where to look.
My next project for the BBC involves working right the way across the top of England... True North, if you like; basically everything between Scotland and Yorkshire and Lancashire. It’s one of those British regions without a name, and I suspect people in Newcastle would question how much they had in common with Cumbrians, Northumbrians, or Teesiders. It’ll be really interesting to see what emerges.
What became immediately apparent in my meeting last week was that I didn’t actually know anything about Cumbria. I must have passed through it several times on my way up to Glasgow, and remember once stopping off for lunch in, I think, Penrith, but I’ve never visited the Lake District, and when people started mentioning places like Barrow-In-Furness, I couldn’t even bring an image of a place to my mind.
Cumbria for me is that slightly terrifying place where Windscale Nuclear Power Station was. I think the nuclear reactors got into trouble at some point in my childhood and I thought the world was coming to an end.
The Lovely Nell from BBC Cumbria offered to give me a special tour of the county and I couldn’t wait to get up there. I am a great fan of exploring new corners of Britain, and the opportunity to be shown around by a local should never be passed up.
The tour started in Carlisle, which I found surprisingly attractive, even in the pouring rain. The area around the Cathedral is particularly pleasant, and I was very taken with a little row of Victorian shops opposite the BBC building there including a hoover shop, which I’m told has the friendliest staff you’re ever likely to find.
From Carlisle we travelled East to Wigton, a market town which seems to have been engulfed by a giant plastics factory, and from Wigton we went to the curiously-named, hugely-isolated seaside village of Silloth, where we ate chips on the beach, and wandered around an arcade with enormous shatter-proof windows which looked out onto the angry brown Irish sea. “Is the sea round here always brown?” I asked. Apparently it is.
Silloth feels like a rather sad little place. It’s absolutely charming. A wide cobbled street and a series of tree-lined parks separate seafront houses from the sea itself. I don’t know if the tide was in, but there didn’t seem to be any sign of a beach. A pathetic little funfair shivered in front of a factory. Two children were spinning endlessly on a waltzer, the fairground attendant no doubt thrilled to have a couple of quid’s worth of custom. A married couple ate chips from the back of the only car parked in the funfair’s car park. When we returned half an hour later, the place was entirely empty. The strange fairground whooshes, bell-tings and heavy-bass chart music continued, as did the enticing and inane flashing lights, but there was absolutely no one there to play. A little piece of me died.
The Cumbrians seem very friendly, if not a little reticent. There’s definitely a guardedness that isn’t present on the East coast. Across the Solway Firth we could see the mountains of Scotland shrouded in mist, hiding secrets which we’ll never be able to access.
We drove south along the coastal road, past mile after mile of empty beach, past little houses with their hatches battened down, chips shops with pink neon signs dancing in the grey sky and windswept sand dunes bedecked in purple and yellow flowers.
Before long we were entering Whitehaven, diving through a Victorian house-lined ravine into the town centre with its smashed church windows, and deserted houses sliding down hillsides. This is where Derek Bird went on his shooting spree and the town genuinely feels like it’s sinking underneath the weight of the pain. Tainted by death, it feels, like a recently bereaved widow.
Sad as these coastline towns may have seemed, there is something filmic and intriguing about the area. It draws you in and fills your head with questions.
350 years ago, and Pepys diary was full of intrigue. Sir William Batten was losing his grip; and potentially his position at the Navy office. Lord Sandwich's spoilt son had taken to fighting duels, and losing them with no honour (usually by running away). Pepys worked late into the night, and was paid a little visit; "writing in my study a mouse ran over my table, which I shut up fast under my shelfs upon my table till tomorrow"