On the Edge of Beauty
The wind bites with decembercruelty. I’m on the edgelands. But this is not the edgeland of a city, this is the edgeland of West Cumberland. Behind me the misty immensity of The Lakes and, before me, the greysea swell of the Solway Firth. There are all the colours of coldness, out there, stretching between where I stand, and the Scottish shore, the hills of Galloway. I’m looking at the tide mark of the Irish Sea, and out, into a bleak wonder that raises the spirits. This coast is divided into two distinct areas. The one ravaged by industrial desolation, the steel of Workington, the coal of Whitehaven, the iron of Millom, with their harbours, and the silent ports of Maryport and Silloth. All gone. It’s as if time is not a linear thing, it actually stretches out on either side of you, you walk among the living, and dead, past. But, on this spot, the feeling is different. There are no industrial sores here, in the tiny village of Allonby, between Maryport and Silloth. Interestingly, there is a Breton connection in the name of the village. Alein’sby. ‘Alein’ is an early Breton, male, forename and ‘by’ is the Viking suffix for a village or hamlet. I’m closer to home than I thought. The Romans had been here, fleetingly, there is a lookout post, on the shore, between here and Maryport, now just a pile of stones, but a Romanp pile nonetheless. The Vikings who were driven out of Dublin by the warlike Celts, at the end of the 9th. century, settled in this little bit of England, a bit that they had missed in the first place, hence ‘by’ in the village name.
In this, bitingly, cold, December, weather the houses, as well as the people, are hunkered down. They cling together, closely, along the shoreline, there isn’t enough room for the wind to penetrate between them. Houses crouch rather than stand. I have come here with a purpose, to discover some of the sites drawn, and painted, by the Workington- born artist, Percy Kelly, who, for twelve years, lived here, in Glen Cottage.
The stimulus for my visit, was a series of walking books by Chris. Wadsworth, which lead you through some of the sights, and sites, which lit Kelly’s artistic fires. Each an area of West Cumberland.
As I park my car on the exposed Car Park, at the south end of Allonby, ominously, an empty hearse draws up alongside me. We are the only two cars in this, wind ravaged, field, and he chooses to park right next to me. The sombre suited driver smiles mischievously, at least, I think it is mischievously, I cannot bring myself to return the smile! Very ominous. It’s almost like the Lancashire superstition that the night before you die, you hear the sound of a horse trotting on the cobbles, and it pauses, to whinney, beneath your window!
Above, Herring Gulls swoop and soar, this strong wind is made for them to show off their aerial prowess. The sky is full of them, like one of those moving spirographs of starlings that used to entertain, each evening, over Piccadilly Gardens, in Manchester or North Pier at Blackpool. From the church, opposite the Car Park, houses straggle along the coast road, just a single depth of houses, there is nothing behind them, except caravans. If any church can look weather-beaten, yet defiant, this one does. Squat and determined. It was built in 1845 to replace a Chapel-at-ease. It should be called a Chapel-at-Ease again. These chapels were built for parishioners who had a long way to walk to reach the parish church, or for the convenience of the local lord of the manor. I think I’ll go for option one, although a church could be ‘relegated’ if there had been a significant shift in population.
If, within a hundred years, the population had halved, as here, that could be a reason for its forlorn aspect. In common with many rural churches, the vicar, the Rev. Mary Day, lives in Croscanonby, and shares her ministry. Then, along the shore, I have to pinch myself, and remind myself that I’m beside the Irish Sea, not the Pacific, as I pass the Baywatch Hotel and Jack’s Surf Shack. Really! The thought of Pamela Anderson’s goose pimples warms me to the marrow!
There are people about. A woman stops, whilst I’m sketching, and initiates a conversation. We can hardly stand upright, and here I am talking to an Australian ex-pat … desperately … desperately …John Cleese-like, trying not to mention the Ashes! Her choice of conversation? To talk about the chances of the sea overwhelming the village. Recent news is still fresh. She actually lives in a Allonby, but, I think, a true native would have shown much more optimism. There are no sea defences. In a week when the east coast storm surge toppled houses onto the East Anglian beaches, that must have been of concern here. The last great tidal surge, in 1953, started just north of here, off Stranraer, then proceeded to smash its way, murderously, down the east coast of Britain. I thought I’d got away with it, but no, “Your boys aren’t doing so well in the Ashes!” I turned into the wind, and left her to her walk!
Allonby has a rock-strewn beach, a footpath level with the sand, and an expanse of grass, probably forty metres wide, before the totally exposed houses. The only other people on the path, I hesitate to call it a promenade, are wind-blown dog walkers. Oddly, all the dogs look similar, small, short-legged, ‘ I-might-be-small-but-I-can-cope-with-anything’ models. It seems to make sense in this wind. Their masters look the same as well, shrouded in battered-looking, green, anoraks and wearing woolly hats (bobbles optional) But they all speak. Everyone says “Good morning.” No-one passes in silence.
I turn inland, with my back to the sea, past two former inns, ‘The Solway’ and ‘The Grapes. It was outside the ‘Solway’ that the crowds gathered, in 1903, one stormy night to witness the grounding of the ‘Hougoumont’, a ship bound for Liverpool, from San Francisco. The beach was littered with the cargo, and the detritus of a wreck, including crates of peaches, pears and salmon. They were not labelled, so the only way to discern the contents, was by shaking the tin, if it ‘glugged’, it was fruit. None of the 20+ crew, nor the captain’s wife, were lost, but I wonder where all that fruit and salmon went !!!?
There, next to the Post Office stands a Fish and Chip Shop, ‘The Codfather’, I love the imagination that goes into naming Chip Shops.
There is the red, road, bridge, over the beck, that Kelly took so much delight in drawing and painting, rebuilt when a traction engine destroyed the original in November 1907. The engine, en route from Maryport, was dragging three wagons, containing a steam-driven fairground ride. It toppled into the swollen beck, destroying the bridge. The local bobby, PC Richardson,took control, directing traffic. Those were the days, when the police were there for the public good, rather than catching people out and fining them. Glorified tax collection. He directed them through the beck, which was much wider and shallower than today. I don’t think I’d have fancied that in my battered, old, Citroen Xantia! A Mr Twentyman took it upon himself to bring planking from a ship being broken up on the beach, to construct a temporary walkway. Nobody was hurt. I can only presume that this is a relation of the Twentymans who owned the village shop in Percy Kelly’s time, and still do. Ship breaking was a major trade at the turn of the century. Ships were brought to Allonby beach to be broken up. Much of the wood went to the burgeoning local coal industry for pit props. Is that a ‘Green Policy’? Or just common-sense recycling?
Back-to-the-Sea is Kelly’s direction as well. He isn’t drawn by the elemental strength of nature, but by the more prosaic lines of the houses. There is a full,
from-every-angle, view of the bridge area, in Chris. Wadsworth’s excellent guidebook, c/o PK!
I’m drawn by a piece of antique street furniture, by the side of the bridge, a ‘Cumberland C.C. Fingerpost’. Probably seventy+ years old. It feels, timelessly, right, here. Living history. And there, unostentatiously, stands ‘Glen Cottage’, Percy Kelly’s home for twelve years. Well, home till his wife arrived back, one evening, unexpectedly, to find him sat in his chair, wearing her clothes! The bland face of the small, rural, cottage hides it’s ‘dreadful’ secret, without expression. The Fiat ‘Uno’ parked outside, also, seems totally unconcerned, as you would expect from an Italian, used to such ‘la dolce vita’, I expect.
To turn along Garden Terrace, to the right of his home, is almost surreal. To walk along it gives the sensation that you’ve stepped through some, invisible, wardrobe door and entered, a Cumbrian Narnia, or, at least, that you’ve stepped into a Kelly picture. But walking into one of Percy’s pictures will make you, immediately, invisible, his pictures are form and shape, but without people. This is not true of Allonby today. It’s population, in the early 19th. century, was between 700-800. When Percy lived in the village it had plunged to 400, and now, (in 2001), it stands at about 470. It is growing again. Garden Terrace is a cul-de-sac, ending on private property. Returning to the bridge, and turning directly right, heads you down a narrow lane, for Westnewton and Aspatria, and there is ‘Globe Inn Cottage’. Formerly ‘The London Apprentice’, it is for sale. Another facet of the village, opens up, it’s pubs. Most are closed, and are residential cottages, but every other house seems, at some time, to have been a public house. They must have been prodigious drinkers, these Cumbrians of old. Since turning from the sea I have passed three, well four really, if you count the guest house almost next to Glen Cottage. This was, until 1850, the ‘Queens Head’, and then became the ‘Queens Temperance Hotel’. It was owned by T. Armstrong and, on old photographs, boasts stabling and ‘conveyances for hire’ and, there, on the picture, a very smart ‘conveyance’. Allonby was a holiday destination at the end of the nineteenth century.
Almost opposite Globe Cottage is the entrance to ‘The Square’. I use the word ‘entrance’ advisedly. I am looking down a very narrow, cobbled street, once the main thoroughfare of the village. It’s date is given away immediately, on the first house, a datestone for 1679. This is real history, not the ‘stuffed and preserved’ history of the larger tourist traps. This has not been subsumed by ‘Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe’, people live here, as they have for centuries. Allonby has evolved rather than been developed. It lives, and breathes, in its own quiet, understated way. I do like it here. It’s real. There is no room for the wind. It doesn’t whistle through the alleyways, it knows that it isn’t welcome. A cottage bearing a coat of arms, dated 1650, emphasises the street’s age. To my left are two more former pubs. One, unashamedly, ‘The Swan’, is called Swan Cottage but more demurely, almost adjacent, stands the ‘ The Sun’. At the end of Temple Terrace, a neat row of cottages, is a wreck, a ruined farmhouse. I fervently hope that it is not taken up as a weekend cottage, but becomes a home for a local family, people who are going to live here. On Temple Square, named for the family who lived there, rather than any religious connotations, stands the former ‘Greyhound’ pub. How many pubs could this population stand?
Passing Temple Square, there is a break in the housing, on the left, and there over the beck stands an imposing group of buildings. These are the Fishyards. The herring industry had been important here in the late 17th. century and these buildings were owned by the Beeby family, a family of Quakers. Here herrings were gutted, salted and packed. Some were smoked, the gorgeous aroma of Kippers must, once, have filled the air. There was even a cooperage in the complex, to make the barrels, into which the herrings were packed. By 1900 the herring industry had slumped. This being Allonby, there was also a pub in there! ‘The Spirit Vaults’, a grog shop. It sounds an extremely rudimentary ‘drinking den’, and was described as ‘a darksome place’. Old photographs bear that description out! It was run by the Costin family and could have had, as it’s origins, the rum smuggling trade which thrived along the Solway. Alfred Costin, opposed by the Police, and the Temperance Union, lost its license in 1903. Pretty substantial opposition for our ‘grog shop’ owner. The buildings became a stables, and riding school, you can still see the stone, horses’ heads which adorn the gateposts. Now there are some private dwellings and a huge, weatherworn, gable end.
Allonby is a treasure house of architecture, and that facet of the walk is about to unfold. There, in front of me, on the main road, is an Italianate, red brick, building, complete with staircase and tower. It is in the throes of renovation, into a private house, but a sympathetic renovation. It’s character is being retained. This is the ‘Reading Room’ and another door into Allonby’s past is about to open. The building was erected in 1862, financed by a Quaker industrialist, from the North East, Joseph Pease. He was part of the group that started the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company. He was the largest mine owner in South Durham, and bought the land which was to become the port of Middlesborough. A Victorian entrepreneur par excellence. He became an MP, supporting the Whigs ( later the Liberal Party). He was the first Quaker MP and, in common with Quaker traditions of fairness and honesty, without ritual, refused to take the oath, but was, eventually allowed to affirm. Neither would he remove his hat when entering the House, Quakers believing that all men are born of equal worth. He was a prodigious man. At the age of 61 he became a father, for the sixteenth time! At the age of 63 he commissioned the Reading Room and he was to die, in 1872, aged 73.
But this extraordinary man is not the only notable Victorian Quaker associated with the building. He commissioned a young, Quaker, architect to design his Reading Room, the 32 year old, Alfred Waterhouse. Waterhouse had set up practice, in Manchester, in 1853, and was to be responsible for much of the architectural glory of Victorian Manchester, as well as many Quaker homes in the North East. In 1858 he designed the Assize Courts, in 1862, the formidable Strangeways Prison and finally the Gothic, totally irregular, rectangle, that is the marvellous, Manchester Town Hall, in 1877. If you see the interior of the Houses of Parliament, depicted on a television drama, you can bet your life you are really looking at the interior of Waterhouse’s wonderful building. His crowning glory came in 1873 when he designed the Natural History Museum, in London. And here I am, on the banks of the Solway looking at a building designed by Waterhouse. Incredible. Like Pease he recognised that construction was part of the industrial process, but also embraced the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He designed a bold statement on the West Cumberland skyline. The Reading Room actually closed its doors, for the last time, in the 1970s, after more than a century’s service. Well done to its new owners for the, sympathetic, restoration which seems to be going on.
On the Reading Room clock it shows 12.40. Over the road, on the Allonby Hall, it is 9.50. This building was opened on November 9th. 1905, by EH Banks JP., of Highmoor, Wigton. An old photograph shows the event. A large, but orderly, crowd has gathered outside the front door, women on one side, in full Edwardian dress, with required, large, hats. In the centre, the Sunday-suited children and on the right the menfolk, capped or hatted. Almost hidden, standing on the Hall steps, are the besuited, but bare-headed, dignitaries. The Edwardians certainly knew how to take a dignified, and comprehensive, team photograph!
The, current, noticeboard is a document of our times. It should be preserved for posterity. The results are posted for the, uncontested, Parish Council Election of April 2011 ( two and a half years ago, and still there!). Civic apathy, I wonder?
Then, a notice posted on 20.08.2013. ‘Due to austerity measures Allerdale District Council are (sic) reducing the concurrent grant by 50% for amenities and services in Allonby parish. This will cause financial loss to the Parish Council in future.’ Shame on the government for this strangulation of a community! Then we have a meeting of the ‘Over 55s Club’ every Thursday. The Christmas Lights Switch-on will be held, outside the Hall, on Saturday 14th. December, with mulled wine, mince pies and Santa (Blackpool eat your heart out!). Allonby School will be presenting ‘The Stable Boy’ on the evening of December 11th. Bravo Allonby!
At the furthest remove from the parish church, at the north end of the village, is the Congregational Chapel. There is never any doubting that a building was once a Non-conformist Chapel, like French level-crossing houses, they all look identical. Now a private house but still obviously the Chapel. It was built in 1844, and still bears the legend ‘ Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is but exhorting one and other and so much the more as ye see the day approaching – Hebrews X Verse XXV’. Fire and brimstone will have been breathed within those walls. A nineteenth century Sunday morning was a busy time in Allonby.
A little further north is a low cottage, now a private house, but between 1703 and 1991, this was the Quaker Meeting House. A low-key, simple building, for a low-key, simple faith. There are still only 25,000 Quakers in England today. There is so much to admire about their simple faith. I find it so reminiscent, in certain respects, to the beliefs of the Cathars, in Languedoc, whose genocide by the Roman Catholic Church has interested me, for so long. Quakers eschew ritual. As did Cathars. Quakers do not need a priest to intercede between God and Man. Neither did the Cathars. Both suffered at the hands of ‘organised’ religion. The Cathars grievously and brutally. I suppose one major difference is the Cathar belief in reincarnation, wherein a soul moves from body to body until it reaches a perfect state. Thus their vegetarianism. It would not do, to kill and eat a cow. That cow could be carrying the soul of Great-Grandma! Religion is never far from where you are standing, in Allonby.
A skein of geese fly overhead. Arrowhead sharp heading south. Collective nouns are so difficult. It certainly isn’t a ‘gaggle’, that sounds too clumsy for this formation, but it could very well be a ‘wedge’, no, that sounds too solid. I’m settling for ‘skein’. Then I find, a ‘plump of geese’, if they are close together, but is that in flight, or on the ground, or in the water? And what is a ‘nide of geese’, that doesn’t’ fit anything to do with the bird? Earlier I had seen a, ‘what’ of starlings? A ‘clattering’, a ‘chattering’, a ‘cloud’, a ‘murmuration’ or a congregation? Oh dear, I’m on one now. What about gulls? A ‘screech’, a ‘flock’, a ‘flotilla’, a ‘squabble’ or a ‘scavenging’? This is far too reminiscent of trawling through ‘First Aid in English’, by my ten year old self, in my Baines Endowed days, in Blackpool!
Shortly I’m at the the northernmost point of the village, at a very grand building. This is, the gloriously early Victorian, North Lodge. It was built, originally, by, and for, a Quaker banker, Thomas Richardson, in 1830. I wonder how many Quaker bankers there are today? He started as an errand boy, and had a ‘good idea’, when he became a clerk. He, with a partner, started a Bill-broking firm, this was revolutionary, at the time, as it only charged commission to the borrower. Some would say that this was the beginnings of London becoming an international banking powerhouse. He has a lot to answer for, does Thomas Richardson! North Lodge was a holiday home for himself and his wife, Martha Beeby, ‘as was’, a local girl, her of the Fishyard family. Flanking the main house are six cottages, which were for six local widows and spinsters, plus an annual sum of £5. It is still managed by the Allonby Alms House Trust. The main house has been converted into six flats, but the outside has been, faithfully, preserved.
I now turn back, towards my car. Out across the mists of the Solway Firth, to my right, I can see the ghostly shapes of a wind farm. Why aren’t more sails going round? Today is a wind farm day! Isn’t it? It seems to make so much sense to build, if they must be built, these monstrosities, out at sea. Two cyclists hurtle past me towards Silloth, propelled by the strength of the wind. It won’t be as much fun on the way back, into the teeth of the gale. A man comes out of a door to my left wearing a short sleeved, Whitehaven Rugby League shirt. He, merely, nods at this swaddled ‘townie wimp’. Men are men out here!
It was easy to overlook the ordinary housing of the village, when confronted by its grander architecture. But the fishermens’ cottages are equally as important. ‘Moss House’ was built for Thomas and Ann Bouch in 1760. Across the road, ‘JR’ built a cottage in 1746. A little further down ‘DRE’ built a cottage in 1666. In larger towns I have found great difficulty in searching out working class dwellings, amongst the houses of the wealthy and influential. Here they stand cheek by jowl. Unapologetic. They are the houses of the people of Allonby. It’s as if the Quaker belief, in equality, has impressed itself on to the whole town. There doesn’t seem to be any feeling of them and us.
Instead of walking back down the main road, I detour onto The Square. There, facing each other are two magnificent, porticoed, buildings, Allonby Grange and , over the road, The Baths. This bathing venue was built, by the Quakers, in about 1830, with a full, Doric, portico! Here on the Cumberland coast! Sea bathing must have been a major industry in Allonby, in spite of the weather! The sea water was pumped, daily, from the shore into the Bath House. An engineering feat in itself. As I pass, a lady using a Zimmer frame slowly eases her way out of her house. “Bracing day,” she offers,” it certainly keeps the cobwebs off of us!” I can only smile at her fortitude, and yet another local more than willing to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. This is Cumberland at its best.
Of all the things that this place does not need, a blue plaque is one of them. The village is a distinctive, historical place, ‘in toto’. But there is one, there it is, on the ‘Ship Hotel’. Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins stayed here in 1857 whilst writing their book, ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’. ‘The Ship’ seems to thrive, still, as the only pub left in the village centre.
I walk back past Glen Cottage. I love Percy Kelly’s painting, but he just didn’t get the feel of this lovely village. Perhaps his paintings tell us more about him than Allonby. They are a pictorial record, of a moment in time, but only a partial record. The village lives, as well as exists, and Percy didn’t seem to grasp that. He has so much in common with the Cumbrian poet, Norman Nicholson. They could relate to an area but not to it’s people. He was an island, and, if I was to be uncharitable, a rather selfish island. That they were both huge talents is undeniable, although, I rather think, I wouldn’t have enjoyed a pint with either of them. But I do admire both of them for their various, wonderful, creative, talents.
Allonby has been a revelation, in the way it has retained its architecture, the history of its pubs, the great Victorians associated with it, the benign Quaker influence and its sociable people. Oh, and Charles Dickens slept there!
As I made to cross the footbridge, outside Glen Cottage, a woman appeared with a small dog on a lead, a Yorkshire Terrier, I think. He growled at me, in passing. “Take no notice. He’s friendly, just a bit of a grump in Winter. I saw you earlier, drawing my house, didn’t I? Can I see it?” I hadn’t realised that I was being watched, so I showed her my effort. Just a simple pencil sketch. “That’s it,” she said,”mind my house is quite easy to draw.” I was dying to ask her if she had known Percy. Had he drawn her house as well? It was extremely doubtful, I know, forty years had passed. But, in the end, I thought better of it. I didn’t want my fragile ego to become the victim of Cumbrian, friendly, frankness. . . again.