Main streets of Whitehaven
with John Irving
This walk, through the streets of Whitehaven, was done by Mr Irving in August 1999.
WHITEHAVEN'S Loop Road avoids the town centre by cutting across Sunny Hill, so to enter the town you turn off at the Pelican Garage and follow the course of a glacial overflow channel which cuts deeper into bedrock as it approaches the harbour.
This channel, once just a rocky defile, occupied by Bransty Beck, did not become a routeway until the beck was culverted and the New Road constructed over it. Today it makes a wonderful, sylvan approach to the town from the north, a mile of trees growing on steep banks and brightened by thousands of daffodils in springtime.
At the foot of the New Road the traffic actually passes over the Bransty railway tunnel, built by James Dees to avoid laying rails through the streets. About here a branch of the Washington family ran a dyeing business, now obliterated under the bus station.
Ship-building yards occupied the North Shore and coal from the Whingill pits was carted across Bransty Arches to be discharged into ships destined for Ireland.
Townspeople were greatly attached to Bransty Arches, which formed a sort of triumphal entry to Whitehaven, but demolition had to come in 1927 when they were inhibiting the passage of the new buses. A further sad loss was the burning down of the Grand Hotel one snowy day, never to be replaced.
George Street, originally a ropewalk where long ship hawsers were made and stretched, became a crowded working class area, with a smithy and several public houses, all terminating at Whitehow Wall where it abutted against Lord Lonsdale's private grounds.
On the hill above George Street there developed one of the worst slums in the county, as private builders packed miserable little dwellings into every backyard and open space with no regard for daylight or fresh air.
We had a milk round in this part of town, with hundreds of customers crowded into the dingiest, darkest hovels and subject to every infection and infestation imaginable.
Take a Youtube stroll around Whitehaven harbourside.
St James Church, one of Carlisle Spedding's masterpieces, with its plain exterior and exquisite interior, presides over the top end of town from its eminence at the top of Queen Street. The slums are all gone now, having been replaced by blocks of flats which are not very attractive but serve a purpose.
Duke Street is very wide and runs from the old swimming baths on the dockside up to the Castle Park at Somerset House.
There are shops at one end of the street, but for the most part it is residential, with new flats and the Birley Court development which emulates the Georgian style of eighteenth century Whitehaven. Near the park gates is the elegantly porticoed County Court, which served as the Town Hall for many years but was originally a private house - The Cupola - built by a lady bearing the formidable name of Mehetabel Gale.
At the top of Scotch Street was Walker's Tannery, with an impressive chimney and a double-decker bridge across the street which echoed to the sound of the marching clogs of the tanners within the works.
No trace of the tannery remains, nor does the rich smell of the new leather or the stink of the raw, fatty hides being hauled into the factory on a grab-chain.
Lower Scotch Street has some significant buildings, particularly the County Record Office (converted from the old fire-station), and the modern police station with its blank face and narrow red windows.
On the corner of Lowther Street is the magnificent Methodist Church, now sadly redundant, with its textured walls in Eskdale granite. The town's doctors and dentists have claimed some of the finer Georgian houses in lower Scotch Street, near the lovely Trinity Garden which marks the site of the old Holy Trinity Church.
Irish Street has some interesting buildings, such as the Italianate mansion and the fine old Irish Street School, but as a street it has too many gaps and no specific function to give it a meaning.
No so the Market Place at Whitehaven. Every Thursday, weather permitting, the market traders jostle for pitches and set up their booths, offering bargains in every field from pot plants to carpets, fresh fish and picture frames, fancy cheeses and baby clothes, ironmongery and underwear, fresh fruit and Levi jeans, shoes and greetings cards.
The place heaved with shoppers, and people go sauntering up and down, sometimes all day long, for this is the town's rendez-vous, and there are snack bars, coffee bars, chip shops, pubs and betting shops to suit all tastes.
King Street is a street of shops with no residential properties. Pedestrianised and furnished with seats, this is an extension of the animated scene in the Market Place. The arrival of big out-of-town supermarkets has hit King Street hard, and there were too many boarded up shop windows and too high a proportion of building societies and charity shops. Nevertheless, business continued though all the grocers had disappeared and only one butcher survived.
There were plans to install a glass roof over the whole street to encourage speciality shops to open in the evening, but the lottery authorities decreed that this scheme was "too commercial" to qualify for a grant.
Lowther Street is the town's most gracious thoroughfare. Its line was determined by Sir Christopher Lowther's wish to view the shipping in his new harbour from the window of his local seat, Whitehaven Castle, formerly The Flatt.
This uninterrupted line of view defined the base from which the town grew on a "grid" plan to make Whitehaven the earliest modern planned town in England. Actually, many of the corners in the alleged rectilinear plan are not exact right-angles but they give a good approximation of the sort of town more characteristic of America than of old rambling England.
The Civic Hall, the library, the general post office and a series of banks, as well as the handsome frontages of the Dixon Superstore, all line the sides of Lowther Street.
Soon to be opened was the Rum Story, a visitor attraction which commemorates the long connection of the Jefferson family with their sugar plantations in Antigua.
The huge bonded warehouse celebrates Whitehaven's unique association with the "dark spirit" of the Indies and the locally concocted rum butter.
A truly wonderful feature of Lowther Street is the immaculately kept St Nicholas' Gardens, winner of national awards.
Somewhere in this garden is the grave of George Washington's grandmother, a mecca for American visitors.
The church itself was destroyed by fire in 1970, but the lovely red sandstone tower was saved and has become a very popular coffee place, while the floor of the nave has proved to be a splendid venue for a whole range of events and contains the mosaic memorial to local miners. A very special and evocative obelisk lists the names of many Whitehaven children killed in the coal pits.
Whitehaven Castle (actually a grand manor house to which the Lowthers added battlements), was the base from which the Earls of Lonsdale controlled and supervised their burgeoning town of Whitehaven, its profitable coal pits and its busy harbour.
Bequeathed to the town for use as a hospital, in recent years the Castle had suffered serious dilapidation but was shortly to be restored for housing purposes.
Lady Lowther's once beautiful gardens, where she ripened peaches against a high brick wall, is now occupied by the Safeway supermarket, and the tall West Cumbria College has been knocked down to make way for a McDonald's. (What would the Countess have thought of that?)
Flatt Walks, once a popular
promenade in front of the Castle lawns, is now a dreadfully busy
thoroughfare controlled by traffic lights. The traffic entering
town here has to come down Inkerman Terrace where very fine villas
date from the time of the Crimean War.
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