A Journey into Scotland …. Part 2
The times I spent on Walney Island with my auntie and cousins together with the two years living on a Furness farm were the Pagnolesque periods of my childhood. In his novels Marcel Pagnol captures the beauty and freedom of growing up surrounded by the wonders of nature with the freedom given to young boys to explore the Provencal countryside. They are by no means idyllic which is why they rise above most memoirs of childhood. They show spite and petty jealousies, meanness, boasting and pride that in its provincial way gets close to a charming sort of hubris. What you also get is the revealing of an observant eye and mind; a curious hunger that grows on what it feeds; and an unquestioning love affair with the natural beauty of the world.
I, in my own small way, found this on the beaches and sand hills of Walney and the high fells of the south lakeland. On the former I’d walk for hours in deep conversation with my one day older cousin as we grew in our knowledge of birds; first discerning the difference between a redshank and a sandpiper, a guillemot from a red throated diver. We knew there were natterjack toads on North Walney but I can’t remember if we ever saw them. We saw lizards and slow worms and warblers and blackcaps, whitethroats and chiffchaff. At the other end of the island were the gulls, the gannets, the terns. That was a good walk. Walney is nearly eleven miles long and there and back required a day, a packet of sandwiches and an apple or two.
And we’d sit on the beach and he’d tell me about the military defences. That a German invasion was prepared for; one that would come through Ireland. Barrow was targeted by the Luftwaffe. Some say that preparations for bombing the shipyards were being made as early as 1937 when the Hindenberg Zeppelin flew low and slowly over Walney and the docks. Certainly the bombs rained down in April and May 1941 and many Barrovians died. As well as Britain’s most important shipyards, Barrow was also home to the world’s biggest steel mill. This was a town where night had always been joint labourer with the day. I can’t imagine how you would black out a steelworks.
All along the shoreline he’d show me pill boxes and gun emplacements. There were two forts on Walney and we explored them both. I didn’t know they were only twenty years old. The word fort to me meant the US cavalry, or medieval knights. They were good places to play and explore. I’ve never been the brightest in the class but I’ve always had an insatiable hunger to find things out. I was a nature lover from the start and armed with a collecting jar and a pair of cheap binoculars I became something of a naturalist. A lifelong love of history, geography and the natural sciences was fostered on those seaside walks. Was there anywhere else in Britain where the three came together so naturally and my cousin used all of that one extra day of life to inform me of what I didn’t know.
I arrive at Barrow railway station from a train that has taken me back a dozen years. The bicycle has changed guards’ vans at Birmingham and Manchester and Carnforth and together we pedal down Abbey Road, passed the Lakeland Laundry and into the docks. Over Barrow Island and across the Jubilee Bridge and onto Walney.
I’m well looked after at my auntie’s. I love the house. I’m twenty eight at the time of this visit, and have rarely been there for fifteen years. Before that it was something of a home from home. Many of the happiest times of my childhood were spent in this house. We have tea and talk of those days through the evening. In the morning we stood in her back garden, with mugs of tea, and looked beyond where the ironworks had been to the most glorious view of the Duddon Valley, Scafell and the Langdale Pikes. You could even make out the hills that surrounded the farm where my inland and upland explorer found succour.
I was nervous. I was going to cycle to the north of Scotland and back and the very first pedal turns were about to be made along very familiar streets. All the streets around here were named after northern rivers. I had many rivers to cross before I’d get back home.
Just along from the view of the lakes was something new. The docks had always been dominated by the cranes but they were no longer visible. In their place quite the biggest building I had ever seen now dominated the Barrow skyline. The Devonshire Dock Hall had gone up with indecent haste once the decision had been made to replace the Polaris Submarine with giant Tridents as Britain’s nuclear threat or defence. There is nothing beautiful about the structure but my, it is impressive. No Hindenburg was going to get a sneaky view of how Barrow men made submarines in the 1980s. I head straight towards it.
The channel is full; it’s high tide and it makes for one of the glorious boating sights in the country. All sorts of craft bob at anchor, while the remains of industrial Barrow lines the northern shore and the elegant, purpose built houses of Vickerstown give a more residential feel to the Walney side. Lights flashing as I approach the bridge allow me a quiet rest and one of the treats of being here (provided you are not in a rush). The Jubilee Bridge is hauling itself open. The whole roadway is lifted into the sky to make way for a passing boat. Fears of invasion were such that the bascules were left open every night during the second world war so that anyone landing on Walney wouldn’t be able to get across to the shipyards.
The whole area around the docks and Barrow Island have changed as much as they have stayed the same. Black sheds that always made the area a little forbidding for me as a child have gone and the massive new submarine hall gets even bigger as I ride alongside it.
And on past Craven Park the scene of many of the happiest Friday nights I had experienced as I fell in love with the sport of rugby league and the Barrow team who I followed all the way to Wembley in 1967 as an eight year old. It seems somehow smaller and less glamorous but I’d still stay for an extra day if the team were playing at home. For me, at that time Barrow was the big town. It was to me then as Manchester and London became. When I lived there it was still a part of Lancashire. It was a real Lancastrian industrial town with its low terraced houses and huge factories. If you mistimed your journey and got caught outside Vickers as the shift finished you could be there for twenty minutes or more as literally thousands of shipyard workers poured forth through the gates. It seemed quieter now but every brick of every building brought memories flooding back.
I had a pretty glorious childhood and much of the best of it was spent in Barrow and on the Island of Walney.