A Journey into Scotland … Part 3
The rumour is that they built Barrow Town Hall the wrong way round. It’s an impressive building and one that would cost many millions of pounds to build today. It took four years to complete, including an extra year when it was discovered that the clock tower had to be demolished and re-built as the contractors had been charging for quality red sandstone and were in fact using much cheaper materials. The plaza is to the rear of the building and, though impressive in its own way, abuts a dreary car park and a square of some of the town’s more modest buildings. Even the Imperial Hotel has seen better days. The rumour is ill founded in fact, but quite truthful in reality. The town hall is one of the best municipal buildings in the north of England and yet its finest aspect is largely wasted and what people take to be the front (as it fronts the main shopping area of the town) is nothing like as inspiring. The building overlooks the docks and shipyards that made the town famous (though it had been the discovery of iron ore that made the town prosperous). Is the building back to front? From the point of view of the original architectural plans, no. In many other terms it most certainly is.
I pedal along Duke Street and turn right at Ramsden Square. Sir James Ramsden served several terms as Mayor of the town and the staue in the centre of the square was unveiled during his lifetime. I’ve always quite liked it; the weathered green statue works well with the well tended garden and the impressive collection of buildings. (I regret to say that the Lakeland Laundries which was not an overly impressive building in itself but which blended well with the trees in front has since been demolished and the whole area now looks out into a modern urban blight of a retail park).
Barrow Library was a treat in the sixties. Downstairs were the books and a rather fierce librarian of the old school. It was upstairs that drew me every time. A tatty and weather beaten stuffed albatross had to be said hello to, and then I’d wander slowly among the huge models of ships that had been built in the town. The skill and accuracy of the models themselves said an awful lot about the quality of Barrovian craftsmanship. They are superb. Many of them are now in the splendid Barrow Docks Museum which is worth a day out of anybody’s time.
I cycle slowly along Abbey Road which was then the main artery of the town. Past the Evening Mail Building and the Abbey Baths where I learnt to swim. They were bombed in the war but were thought worthy of rebuilding. They’ve since been demolished, as has the ABC cinema where I saw Carry On films and was swept away by Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments.
Once past the railway station, Barrow becomes much greener. The park is lovely. Well laid out and always well planted. There are some fine hotels along Abbey Road. I used to wonder who would come to Barrow to stay but the shipyards were among the most important in the world an arguably still are. When people came from abroad to stay in Barrow they were often very high ranking people indeed.
In the seventies the Argentinian navy bought a number of Barrow ships. Senior Officers were brought over for so long, to be involved in the project, that they brought their families. We had one boy in school who soon picked up the most basic Anglo Saxon elements of the language and taught us a trick or two about football. He brightened up what was otherwise a distinct lack of ethnic diversity at the time. The same ships were involved in the Falklands conflict some years later being used against the country that built them.
There are four places where I wouldn’t mind having my ashes scattered (after I’m dead). Westerdale Moor in North Yorkshire, Scarborough beach, a little unknown limestone valley in Derbyshire and Furness Abbey. The first three are places I have discovered during my life and are places where I feel more alive than almost anywhere else. They are also places where the flying ashes of a thoughtful soul won’t do too much harm or cause too much fuss. The latter is a place of stunning beauty and is only a few yards from where I was born.
All of England’s monasteries are in remarkable locations; Furness is perhaps the best placed of the lot. It’s only a mile or two from the centre of an industrial town and yet the setting is not only heavenly (from both a spiritual and purely aesthetic point of view) but is also almost completely hidden. You could spend days marching all over the peninsular and never find it. You can get to within a hundred yards without ever suspecting it is there. That is, if you don’t follow the signposts. At school we were told that the soldiers sent by Henry VIII to pull down the stones failed repeatedly to locate the church. I have found no corroboration for Mr Whitney’s version of history but I still choose to believe it.
The railway line runs by the side and until the fifties actually boasted its own station; surely one of the most perfectly situated on the entire British railway network. Wordsworth visited the abbey while the railway was being constructed and saw how the atmosphere of the place affected the workmen. At rest they fell philosophical; either contemplating higher things in spirit or simply higher things. The engineers of the nineteenth century marvelled at the skills of the monks of hundreds of years before them and how they raised the arch of their abbey church, so high and so magnificent. The railway line runs past the cottage where I was born. I used to wave at the guard and he used to wave back at me. An enormous cross section of my life is contained here; poetry, history, railways, architecture, faith and the happy accident of my being born in such an enchanted place.
WELL have yon Railway Labourers to THIS ground
Withdrawn for noontide rest. They sit, they walk
Among the Ruins, but no idle talk
Is heard; to grave demeanour all are bound;
And from one voice a Hymn with tuneful sound
Hallows once more the long-deserted Quire
And thrills the old sepulchral earth, around.
Others look up, and with fixed eyes admire
That wide-spanned arch, wondering how it was raised,
To keep, so high in air, its strength and grace:
All seem to feel the spirit of the place,
And by the general reverence God is praised:
Profane Despoilers, stand ye not reproved,
While thus these simple-hearted men are moved?*
Enchantment abounds. There are more ghostly sightings here than almost anywhere else in the county. Murdered monks feature strongly. Well, the visuals are so striking! If you can’t manage a murdered monk then a woman in white is always a good bet, especially if she’s mourning the loss at sea of the lover she was kept from. Failing all of these you could always go for the traditional headless horseman; this one with the added cinematic glory of a monk’s habit. The fact that one of the outbuildings has been converted into The Abbey Tavern for centuries and that the line of landlords were noted for the quality and strength of their ale may have helped with a number of the sightings. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a haunted place. The stillness is remarkable, the sound of birds is clear as crystal on one side of the abbey grounds yet no birdsong is ever heard on the other. I came into the world in this place of grace and great beauty. I’d have no objection to my remains resting here for all the years following my death.
*At Furness Abbey: William Wordsworth June 21 1845