Parton. West Cumberland in Miniature


The first week in March I was up in West Cumberland. To Whitehaven rather than Workington. I do have connections in Whitehaven. My Grandfather was born in the ‘Red Flag’ pub, on Prospect, and his father, George Golightly, later, kept the ‘Anchor Vaults’ in the town centre, at the turn of the last century. His sister, Great Aunt Isa, her husband Tom, and his brother, Willie Ramsay, ran Maxwells Bottling Plant, on Scotch Street, and a cousin still lives on Hillcrest. So there are strong connections. But, this trip was to the outskirts, to the village of Parton, following in the brushstrokes of, Workington-born, artist, Percy Kelly.

Percy had been commissioned to produce work for Sir Nicholas Sekers, a mill owner, whose home was in nearby Moresby, and he found inspiration in the, nearby, small, coastal, village of Parton.

His work in Parton, is the subject of one of Chris Wadsworth’s West Cumberland walks, round the sites which inspired him. A must for PKophiles.

Parton appears to have slipped, fully formed, from the cliff top, onto the beach. In the light of the recent wild, British, winter, Parton appears to be, frighteningly, vulnerable to the vagaries of the Irish Sea. Nature has played a huge part in Parton’s history, sometimes tragically.

The walk began on Bransty Road, north of Whitehaven Town Centre, and onto the Wagon Way, now a trail for walkers and cyclists, but once, the route for coal from Parton to Whitehaven, and, at one time, vice versa. The Februarysea looks cold and grey, under a pale, benign sky. It is beneath that sea that nature has wreaked such terrible havoc on Whitehaven, under the very spot upon which I am standing. This is the site of William Pit. The mine was opened in 1805 and, finally, closed in 1955. In its life it claimed the lives of 300 Whitehaven men and boys. There were disasters in 1907 and 1941, but, in 1947, of the 121 men who were working underground, that August afternoon, 104 were killed, in an explosion. The tragedy was heightened by the report that every man killed had children. The shock waves were enormous. Surprisingly, this was not the worst disaster to hit the town as, in 1910, 136 men were killed in the Wellington Pit. In 1922, 39 men were killed in Haig Pit, amongst them, 29 year old Albert Shepard, who lived at 135, Main St., Parton. Albert had been a ‘hewer’, whose Inquest found that he had died of ‘burns, shock and CO poisoning’. The newspapers carried an eye-witness description that chills to the bone.

‘Without warning a series of three explosions occurred within fifteen minutes. The first was described as a ‘rumble’, the second more serious, enveloping the men in clouds of coal and stone dust, while the third was extremely violent, hurling the men off their feet and filling the workings with foul air. Battered and bruised, eleven survivors groped their way, nearly three miles, in the dark, to the shaft bottom, by following the rails and telephone wires. Bodies were sealed in.’

The disaster occurred in a period of depression. At a memorial meeting, in the town, 2000, out of work miners attended. It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage many of those men, a week before, coveting the jobs of those working down Haig Pit. Nature is a cruel mistress. Why wasn’t the mine cleared after the first explosion? I try to imagine where three miles is, whilst staring out to sea. These men were half a mile down, and three miles out into the Solway. This is where the seams ran, out under the Irish Sea.

The site of William Pit is at the beginning of the walk, and from there, along the Wagon Way is a scenic cliff-foot, seaside walk, peopled by dog walkers, cyclists and runners. As a lover of the sea, today, this is scene of great, tranquil, beauty. Gradually, thoughts move from tragedy to how perfect as a subject for both painting and photography this is. As I walk I can see only the physical side, not the industrial side, of West Cumberland. The sea. The beach. The cliffs.

At the end of the Wagon Way stands a mile post. A very bizarre marker. A two metre tall, eccentric, post, topped by a star. It seems it is Number 72, of a series of 1000 erected by the Royal Bank of Scotland. It tells me that I’m 1.75 somethings from Whitehaven and 6 somethings from Workington. A waymarker, erected by a recently discredited Bank? To indicate ‘the right way to go’? Mmmm. How ironic is that? Thank goodness for the walk guide! A track suited female runner, determinedly, jogs, no, she is running, past me. I nod, but she is too intent on concentrating on her running to reply. That’s OK.

The tramway, extended in 1800, ends on Bank Yard Road. There are terraced cottages on both sides of the road, between which the tramway ran. The houses end abruptly and there, to the right, the unmistakeable remains of a pit. Now, the workings are grassed over, and blend into the hillside, with just a few stones still standing to show where the buildings had once been. Originally, a Tannery had stood here, but, in 1817, it became a colliery. This is the end of the Parton Drift.
Drift mining is unlike the hewing method used at William Pit. It isn’t a shaft dropped till the miners met a seam of coal, then following it, but a horizontal tunnel driven into the hillside, allowing the miners to walk in. This is driven inland rather than out into the Solway. The tramway then took this coal to the port. Even today the scene is easy to imagine. A path takes you up the hillside to meet the road, through a set of gate posts, once the entrance to the mine.

Wainwright could have designed this walk! Steep up, steep down, steep up! At the top of the cliff stands Parton’s modern ‘raison d’être’, housing. But on the lip of the incline stands a modest shrine, ‘In loving memory of our Wendy’. She died in 2011, aged 43 and her shrine stands, almost exactly, on a spot used by Kelly to paint the northerly view over Parton to the pit village of Lowca. I do hope that Wendy’s loved ones know that the view from the shrine may, soon, become a famous place. It says that Wendy loved Parton, but the artifacts left at the shrine, amongst them a pink shoe, a white Teddy Bear, fresh flowers, all seem to show how much Parton loved Wendy, even three years on.

Directly behind me a staple of the Cumbrian scene, an allotment. At this time of year it looks a little barren, and rundown, waiting for Spring to bring the gardener out, into his ramshackle shed, his ‘home from home’, with his seedlings. These cliff top gardens must be buffeted by the wind, and the elements, more than most. There is something about the worker leaving his forge, his mine, his bench and seeking the solace of Nature. The scene is almost imagined in ‘black and white’, an integral part of the ‘kitchen sink’ drama of fifty year-old cinema. But I’m not standing on that sort of social history. When Kelly was sketching and painting houses stood here. Fifty years ago these houses would be classed as ‘slums’, even though inside they may have been little, well-kept palaces, they had to go. I can’t help my mind wandering back to Workington’s Marsh and Quay. Parton really is West Cumberland in miniature. One, particular, allotment is home to a brood of chickens, probably best described as ‘a coop with a view’. In my (sad?) quest for obscure collective nouns, I unearth a ‘peep of chickens’. Could this be for very small chicks? Who knows?

My way now takes me alongside a football pitch. For some reason it surprises me that it isn’t a Rugby League field. A nursery for Whitehaven youth, who will develop into players to put Workington Town to the sword! I skirt the new houses and pass a group of three youths ‘hanging out’ on their bikes. Could be any housing estate, anywhere. But why does they always look suspicious? Do I imagine furtive glances behind their hoods? Then I plunge back down the cliff, on a concrete path, back towards the village. All of a sudden Cumberland falls out of character! The steep path is strewn with rubbish, either blown from the houses above, or purposely dumped there. It makes for an ugly sight. An open tip. An old man, he must be 80+, steams up the hill, with his equally venerable Jack Russell terrier. ” ‘Y all reet?” Immediately, I’m back in a Cumberland that I recognise. At the bottom of the path more industrial remains. This is the site of the old brewery, J.Dalzell and Company. Just a few overgrown walls now, but I emerge onto Brewery Brow, and wait for an old lady to pass me. To my left Brewery House. The owners house? More likely the Manager’s. In 1901 it had been William Carmichael’s, who was also Chairman of the fourteen strong, Parish Council, of whom Mr. J. Dalzell was a member, and also the District Councillor, presumably on Whitehaven Borough Council. That pile of stones, a century ago, was an important concern in Parton.

In front of me the Village Hall, where Main Street and Foundry Road meet. In the tradition of Cumbrian non-Conformism, there had been a Congregational Chapel and a United Methodist a Free Church, in the village, holding 300 people. There had also been meeting halls for the Liberals, which held 500 people and the Conservatives, which held 300 people. I can’t find them. The present Village Hall has a small, rooftop turret, possibly for a bell, so I’m guessing that this is the ex-Congregational Chapel. It is closed, but, when open, houses the Copeland Youth Partnership,and a Boxing training establishment. It does have the look of a building erected in 1861. A young woman passes in the direction of Foundry Road, pushing a pram, and crosses a young man pushing his pram in the direction of the school. They both nod a greeting, to each other and then to me. There are people about, the, welcome, change of weather adds to everyone’s sociability.

Next to the Brewery House, on Main Street, stands a house called ‘The Old Postie’. A century ago this was the home of John Litt, who ran the Post and Telegraph Office, there is a modern echo, in that, it was also a grocer’s shop. Village Post Offices could not exist on just the post, all those years ago, either. The house next to the Post Office bears a datestone for 1832, but some of the houses further up the street do look, substantially, older. Main Street is no more than 200m. long, but in 1901 it had a clogger, a news agent, a fruiterer and carter, a mason, a confectioner and four grocers. There are hardly that many houses now!

I take the path down the side of ‘The Station Hotel’, and into The Square. One side a fence, another the railway embankment, the other two have houses, and, in the centre, the War Memorial. The pub was shut, so I can’t guess the welcome inside, but it does look ‘down at heel’. It must cost a fortune to keep it neat and tidy, in the face of the wind off the sea. Its protective wall of sandbags, don’t help, obviously a wise precaution, as the sea is only on the other side of the railway. The Parish Council Minutes report that there was flooding, in December 2013 and January 2014 when the sea defences were breached. ‘The Station’ is one of two remaining pubs. There were once five pubs, two of them, ‘The Station’ and the ‘Bugle Horn Inn’ run by a Carruthers. Brother and sister? Husband and wife? Mother and son? The ‘ Lowther Arms’ is still there, but there is no sign of ‘The Sun’ or ‘The Ship’ or ‘The Bugle Horn’. The five houses in the terrace facing the railway look, decidedly, Georgian, two with an added dormer.
They are numbered 9-15. So where are the rest, particularly 1-7? Perhaps they stood where the fence runs, at right angles to the railway. As always, I’m interested by the, neatly-kept, War Memorial, and, as always, it gives a deal of information about the village. Unusually, it bears a verse :-

They went away to do their duty
Young strong and brave
They gave their lives for others
Themselves they could not save.

But there is an indication of how the population of Parton declined between the wars. The Great War saw the deaths of 45 local men, but only six were lost in the Second War. In the First War, 20 of the dead were members of the Border Regiment, nearly half, and, oddly, 4 were members of Canadian Regiments. In the Second War, again, half were members of the Border Regiment, and 2 were in the RAF. The county regiments were a feature of local life, none more so than the proud Border Regiment. The population had grown from 360, in 1801, to 1 480 in 1901, which is now, roughly, the population of Parton and Moresby combined.
But, the rear gable end of the Village Hall, facing the railway, bears a wonderful piece of street art, a mural based on Parton. The view is across the bay to the north bearing the legend ‘Welcome to Parton’ on a banner being pulled by an aged biplane. On the far headland stands Lowca Pit. There is the line of terraces on Foundry Road, then, out in the bay is a U-boat firing a shell at the village. On the shore a mother waving at her, whey-faced children on the beach. Just beneath Lowca Pit someone has pitched a red, mountain, tent and there is a figure outside it, apparently falling. And then, surely an ‘in’ joke, a top-hatted, monocled, toff and a woman with a shopping bag, standing on the station platform. The Guard, is waving his white flag, dressed in an American engineer’s uniform, and the Driver of the, LMS red, engine is waving a white flag back at him! It’s all being observed by a pink cat. But,what a colourful piece of street art, nonetheless. Someone must be having a quiet chuckle at the ‘foreigner’ who just ‘doesn’t get it’! Wonderful. I just love these murals, highly reminiscent of the magnificent, doomed, gable ends painted by Walter Kershaw, in Rochdale, in the Seventies, before the terraced streets were demolished.

Then, Parton springs to noisy life. The children pour out of the school, and straight into an imaginative playground, a modern version of the slide/swing parks of the Fifties. It’s more than that though. There is the ‘runner’ from the Wagon Way. She’s a Mum. There is the chap pushing the pram. He’s a Dad. And there’s the lady who was coming down the brow. Someone’s Nanna? The park is full of playing children, and parents in animated conversation. This is great. At least for half an hour or so, the community is bound together. For all that schools, and teachers, are criticized and vilified, by this present Government, they are the hub of small communities, just by their very existence. And here’s the living proof! I can only imagine that this is the descendant of the Free School built, originally in 1818, rebuilt in 1886, to house 110 boys. There was also, in Parton, the Mary Robinson School of Industry, enlarged in 1893, which could accommodate 130 girls and 145 infants. That’s nearly 400 children. Parton was a thriving, and confident, place. By the noise from the playground, numbers may be smaller, but the school is still thriving.

There is a tunnel, under the railway, which leads directly onto a Car Park on the seafront. And there is a huge barn of a derelict, building. Four square. It bears a tatty name board, ‘The Beachcomber’. I can only think that this is the site which once held an Ironworks. Percy does provide some evidence to support that theory. He drew a view from close to the station, looking south towards Whitehaven and St. Bees Head. ‘The Beachcomber’ is clearly there, with a furnace chimney adjacent to it. This is the artist as recorder of history. There’s a woman with a dog, but she just thinks that it’s always been a Dance Hall. “You can see through a broken window.”, she tells me. When I look in, sure enough, there is the skeleton of a stage, large enough to hold a band, and a large dancing area. There’s a mural of a galleon on the wall and the skeleton of the superstructure of the stage. So if this was not part of the Ironworks, perhaps it was one of the political meeting halls? I’m settling for the evidence provided by Percy. It’s the Ironworks. But again the Parish Council is on the case, being in contact with the District Council, to determine the hall’s future.

A blue, two-coach, diesel train pulls into the station, slows down, then moves off towards Workington and Carlisle, without stopping. This looks like it is a ‘Request Stop’. But at least the trains still call here. The rail journey round the coast is a delight, one of the most scenic in England. Thankfully, it hasn’t suffered the fate of the Great Western coastal line, at Dawlish, this stormlashed Winter, and collapsed into the sea.

But storms have figured here in the past. Particularly in 1795 when Parton Harbour was almost destroyed. From coal port to fishing harbour. As I look out, over the flat expanse of rocks and shingle, it is really difficult to imagine anything being here at all. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of Harbour walls, or shapes in the shingle that indicate that there was once something man-made there. I suppose that the perimeter of the car park could have been a quay, but there must have been a breakwater. And the Sixteenth century Salt Pans are nowhere to be seen. All Kelly’s paintings, looking south, show the light at the end of Whitehaven Harbour quay, Parton must, at one time, have been similar.

I find a poem published by an ex-Parton resident, Eric Tomlinson, in the a ‘Whitehaven News’:-

Things have changed on the Parton Shore
Nobody sits on the seat anymore
Many a character sat on the seat
Telling tales of their fishing feats
No more so,people flock to the shore,
The beach is now an eyesore
No more coal washing ashore
The big tides don’t fetch it here anymore.

This mournful verse doesn’t capture the shore as I find it. The woman dog walker, who tells me about ‘The Beachcomber’, the Dad with his two sons roller skating on the Car Park, the woman with her three dogs on the beach, one of which finds a dead seagull, and proudly takes it to his owner and the Grandad and his grandson, with his small dog which continually camouflaged itself amongst the shingle. There are plenty of people about and they all talk! I much prefer the colourful optimism of the Parton Mural!

I follow the shoreline past a slipway, and the ‘alleged’ ruins of a wartime mortuary, used for returning the bodies of local men. A doubtful tale. But there amongst the building rubble, and shingle, bricks defiantly stamped ‘Whitehaven’. As I look out to sea before I turn right, under a tunnel, under the railway, I’m looking at the spot where in the early morning light of 16th. August 1915, the U-24 surfaced and began to shell Lowca. This seems as odd as John Paul Jones’ attack on a Whitehaven, during the American War of Independence. But it does make some military sense. U-24 had been loitering around, in the Solway, hoping to pick off ships leaving the Firth of Clyde. But here, at Lowca, a German firm, Koppers, had, before the war, set up a plant to extract benzene, from the coal, for the manufacture of TNT.
A legitimate war target. Lieutenant-Kommandant Schneider surfaced, uncomfortably close to the Harbourmaster and his assistant who were out in a fishing boat, ignored them, and opened fire on the Chemical Works. A worker had the presence of mind to open a safety valve, which fired a plume of flames into the air. Schneider thought he had damaged the facility, submerged and escaped. A dramatic picture of the raid was published in the German Press, a ‘great victory’ it trumpeted. The ‘Daily Mail’ (who else?) published the picture on its front page. The damage? Minimal. But a dog was killed and the Stationmaster had to hold a northbound train, in Parton Station, whilst the attack was underway. A wave of anti-German feeling flooded the area. The local MP, Mr.W.Burnyeat, who was resolutely pro-German, had married a German woman, Hildegarde Retzlaff, and she was arrested and interned in Aylesbury Gaol. And Schneider? A hero’s welcome, and then he was washed off another U boat, into the sea, and drowned, in 1917.

So under the railway. At the end of this tunnel there is a serious sandbag wall. The residents of Foundry Road must have seen this as the main weakness, in their sea defences. It took some climbing !

I’m out onto Foundry Road. This is a typical West Cumbrian terraced street. The houses are not large, but, with surreptitious peeps through curtains , I can see that these are real, well-kept, working class dwellings. I don’t use the term in a derogatory way, quite the opposite, these are the epitome of homely comfort, where real people live. This is the sort of place that I would feel quite at home. There is no sea view, just the railway embankment, which acts as protection from the vagaries of the sea. These were built as the homes of people with a purpose, people who made things. These are not fishermens’ cottages. They were built in the mid-nineteenth century. Foundry Road is all you need to know. Here, there has been good, honest, toil, yes, and hardship too. Kelly would recognise this street, and would still want to draw it. His paintings of the street are now an historical record.

The road drops down towards the site of the former Lowca Engine Works on the left. But, to the right, the road is protected by an impressive sandstone, retaining, wall, built to keep the cliff at bay and there is the remains of a railway bridge which must have carried either coal or ore down, or taken slag up, to be tipped. In a letter to Joan David, Percy recalls that his father remembered the Engine Works ‘functioning’. It did, in fact, build the first locomotives for the Maryport and Carlisle Railway, in 1840, before the railway reached Whitehaven. Ahead of me, and above, is the great grassy mound which once carried the Lowca Pithead, the one that can be seen in the Parton Mural and in Kelly’s paintings. But the area has been emasculated. The site is now the Whitehaven Wastewater (one word!) Treatment Works. The air is filled with what is most certainly not the smell of the sea! The Iron Works had a disastrous fire in 1912, from which it barely recovered and finally closed, for good, in 1927. The Twenties were awful times in West Cumberland, when industry was struggling through Depression, and many industries ‘went to the wall’. Lowca Pit suffered a disaster in 1946, when 15 men were killed, and finally closed for deep mining in July 1968. It closed completely in May 1973. It is now a gentle, green, headland, giving no hint of its industrial past. We need Percy, again, to remind us of the Pithead winding gear.

The path takes me from the cliff bottom, steeply up towards the church. I am leaving one era of Parton’s history and, temporarily,entering another.

The church, like that at Allonby, is a perfect Kelly subject, standing high, stark and isolated. St.Bridget’s was built in 1822, on the site of its predecessor, whose Chancel arch has been erected in the modern churchyard, propped up by a group of old gravestones. The size of the old church can be gauged by the height of the arch, it seems to have been a modest structure. A small flock of sheep accompany me round the churchyard, performing their grass clipping duties, whilst keeping a watchful eye on me! The site of the church had been the site of a Roman fort, Gabrocentum. An Information Board told me that I was standing on the site of the Headquarters Building, with the perimeter wall still visible on the cliff edge. Supply ships had used the shelter of Parton Bay as a, sheltered, anchorage. It was an important place, with its proximity to the Roman Frontier Wall, erected by Hadrian, as a part of the supply chain to the Wall. Unfortunately, at the time that I was there, the church was locked, so the interior remains a mystery. But I was dragged back into the industrial reality of West Cumberland, by a gravestone close to the back gate of the churchyard. The last resting place of Richard Grearson, a 46 year-old man, killed in the William Pit disaster of 1947. Rest in peace, Richard.

From the church it is just a road crossing to Moresby Hall, now an hotel. The original Lords of the manor were the de Moresbys, one of whom, Christopher, was knighted at the Battle of Agincourt. His great grand daughter married Sir Francis Weston, who got a little too close to Anne Boleyn, and was executed by Henry VIII. She sold the house to some Cockermouth merchants, the Fletchers. The building that I’m looking at was remodelled in 1617, by Inigo Jones, most famous for The Queens House at Greenwich and the Banqueting House in Whitehall. It fell into disrepair in the eighteenth century and a Fletcher committed the cardinal sin of dying childless, thus consigning the building to a century of misuse. In 1910 it was restored, as a small manor, until 1955, when it was bought by a local firm, High Duty Alloys. Since 1999 it has been an hotel. It’s most recent claim to fame has been an appearance on the TV programme, ‘Most Haunted’! It is an interesting looking building, but the phrase ‘fur coat and no knickers’ springs to mind, when looking at the elaborately decorated frontage, and comparing it with the workaday stonework on the sides and rear.

It’s the traffic of the A595 for a while before plunging down Brewery Brow. On the right is Moresby Terrace, once the home of the Parish Clerk, an early Victorian terrace. On the opposite side 1930’s semi-detached houses. As I glide downhill, a Whitehaven-Lowca bus struggles uphill. I rejoin Main St. at the bottom of the hill, passing Brewery House, the Old Postie, the school and, the now empty playground.
On the corner of the street are a group of interesting buildings, which talk about the sea rather than coal or iron. The Quay House, a fine two-storeyed, Georgian, house, is tucked against the railway. On Main St., the Georgian, white-washed, Lowther Arms and, then, a short, Victorian terrace of, probably, fishermens’ cottages ending with a fine Georgian two-storeyed, semi-detached, complete with entrance staircase and cellars. This has been the best end of the street, at one time. But now, even the street sign is broken, this is now ‘Main Str….’.

There just remains the walk down Bank Yard Street, on the line of the Wagon Way. To my left, above me, the allotments, to my right a tunnel under the railway onto the beach. The houses here are miner’s cottages. There is one exception, the ‘Chapel House’, this is the Non-Conformist Chapel that I have been looking for, in the shadow of the mine. The last pair of houses are real miners’ cottages. A small terrace, with a row of ‘privvies’ and a group of allotments, for fresh food. Marvellous.

All Cumberland’s history has been compacted into this small village. The once strong industries, the coal, the iron and steel, the chemicals, the railways. The docks and harbours. The coastline which emphasises that beautiful does not have to be green, warm and leafy. The historic houses and churches. The archaeology, ancient and modern. The good, honest, working-class housing. The strength of Non-Conformism. The people, the warm, and generous, Cumbrians, themselves.
As the county of Cumberland has become a backwater of England, so the village of Parton has become a backwater of Cumberland, a dormitory for Whitehaven. But it is nonetheless for that, a proud place. Percy Kelly is part of that heritage. His pictures capture a particular moment in Cumbrian time. He depicts scenes that have disappeared, with an élan that photographs cannot capture. I have enjoyed my day in Parton.