It’s been a long, long time since I last did a coastal walk. Five months in fact. A third Covid lockdown interrupted things greatly… although in Manchester the second and third lockdowns pretty much merged into each other. Anyway, I’ve finally managed to restart my walk, and like (nearly) always it starts at the same point it left off last time. This time it’s Harrington harbour. I get the train from Maryport railway station down to Harrington, and trudge down the hill from the station to the railway viaduct, rebuilt in 2004 to replace the decaying structure that once passed over the harbour.
Walking into Harrington last time out, I took a photo of the harbour from the top of the hill, with rolling green parkland in the foreground. In the meantime I discovered that this used to be the site of a Magnesite plant in the second world war. You can slide the arrow thing in the middle of the photo to see the old and new.
It was set up in top secrecy during WWII by the Ministry of Aircraft Production to produce magnesia from seawater. The magnesia paste produced was turned into magnesium oxide powder before being sent to the Magnesium Elektron Company in Manchester for use in aircraft components, flares and incendiary bombs. There’s very little trace of the works now, although plenty of photos seem to have been taken of it… seems it’s a lot more secret now than it was at the time!
The harbour today is infinitely busier than it was the last time I was here in December… there is now one fishing boat in it. One more than last year. It might not represent a major upturn in the fishing industry of Harrington, but it’s better than nothing I guess.
I walk north of the harbour towards the coast, along a rough sandy path, and arrive at the beach. It’s not the most appealing beach.
To be fair, this area was once home to a massive steel works, the Moss Bay Hematite Iron Company, the site of which I’ll shortly arrive at, and the waste output of this old plant is strewn everywhere. On the beach itself, iron boulders mingle with more natural ones. Some seem to be a hybrid of rock and iron, and even wood.
Although the beach itself isn’t that pleasant, the walk along the top of it is fine enough, with short grass and wildflowers bursting in their full summer glory. There are some I know – hawkweed, bluebells, buttercups, sea campion – but plenty I don’t (most found out thanks to PlantSnap). The new ones go on my wildflower collection page.
The path at the top of the beach follows the course of the old Mineral Railway Line from Workington to Harrington. It’s bordered on the left by curious cone-shaped blocks. They look like they’re made of slag from the old iron-works, but why they’re here I don’t know… perhaps anti-tank blocks from the war, or simply coastal defences?
As the only remaining railway line closes in towards me on my right, I have a choice to make. The official path passes underneath the railway and continues up a road away from the coast. However, I have a feeling that I might be able to stick much closer to the sea and walk through the old Moss Bay Hematite Iron Company site which is over the next hill. It looked to be fenced off when I planned this walk, but you never know. I like finding new routes closer to the sea that previous coastal walkers have missed, but I have a pretty measly success rate doing it.
At the top of the hill I find a convenient spot to take a selfie. One important new addition to my walking kit since my last walk back in December is my new ‘Fresian’ bucket hat. I wasn’t happy with any of my previous walking hats – they tend to have brims that are too wide, catch the wind and get blown off. This one stays on, and will also camouflage me when walking through fields of killer cows.
Over the hill and there’s the site of the old Moss Bay Hematite Iron Company. Not a trace of any building remains. This was once a huge site, exporting steel products all over the world. Now there’s a barren wasteland, with a new housing estate slowly encroaching from the north.
This “before and after” picture tells a sorry tale…
I trudge down the hill, and as I suspected, the site is protected by a tall spiked fence. However, the local kids have clearly heard of my epic adventure and pre-arranged to clear a route for me. Thanks guys.
The floor of the old factory is still littered with the debris of a hundred years of steel manufacturing. The site opened in 1882, and made steel using the Bessemer process until 1974 when the last two converters were scrapped. It continued to make railway tracks until 2006 when the whole site was closed.
A couple of ringed plovers (thanks RSPB identifier) are running around me on the rubble-strewn floor of the old factory, shouting and tweeting. Strange birds that seem to want to distract me, perhaps from their nest? After several attempts I manage to get a picture of one…
At the northern end of the site, the fence barrier is even easier to negotiate, and the route continues through old industrial areas reclaimed by plant life, past crumbling cliffs and small bays made from two hundred years of spoil, and skeletons of fences that can only keep ghosts out of long-demolished buildings.
I’m lost in gloomy contemplation when a nearby oystercatcher shouts at me to bugger off. I wake up and duly oblige, hopping over a nearby style which leads me onto slowly rising grassland, and into coastal walking perfection.
From the top of the hill, I can see a small trace of industry remains where once grand furnaces burned. A concrete factory, an engineering works, and various small businesses employ just a tiny fraction of the workforce that once laboured here.
Ahead in the distance is Workington harbour and the lookout post on the breakwater. Between me and there are pleasant rolling green hills…
…at least that’s what I thought. Actually there is an aggregates quarry in between.
The luscious grass quickly gives way to light, crunching, white aggregate that constantly shifts underfoot. I worry about the integrity of the cliff opposite, at the top of which is the official footpath! I reckon it’s a lot safer skirting the quarry here on the coastal side, where the drop on either side is less severe, although I don’t think I’m really meant to be here.
Old maps of this area show a “John Pier”, which sat at the end of a multitude of railway tracks. Today only a crumbling short stub remains. I don’t think I’ll add it to my collection of British piers…
A quarter-mile further on I arrive at the barely more impressive pier that is the Workington harbour southern breakwater, with its unloved lookout tower. Just for completeness I walk to the end of the breakwater and around the beacon light, without any intention to add either to my collections of lighthouses and piers.
On the way back I notice this vivid patch of greenery. I’m sure this is samphire. Last year I spotted some and tried it, but it tasted awful, so I don’t risk it.
The locals look on at me, daring me to give the samphire a go…
It’s a shame, I like samphire and there must be a tenner’s worth here at least, but I’ve learnt my lesson!
Next comes the walk into Workington, where the sea gradually becomes the river Derwent. Across the other side of the water are the cranes and trains and hustle and bustle of Workington docks.
A boat chugs into the harbour, with some sort of pulley mounted on a pole at the front. Many of the boats in the harbour have the same arrangement, I’m not sure what they’re catching with it.
A series of large signs sit on the land on my side of the harbour, tall so that incoming ships can clearly see them. I’ve tried looking up to see what they mean, but I can’t find any of them online. I think they’re called “day markers”. It’s frustrating as I like to know these sort of things when I’m walking along. Anyone have any clues….?
The harbour soon gives way to a more serene yachting marina, and then to wharves where the fishing fleet are moored up. These fishing boats are mostly the same small type I saw earlier, with pulleys on poles.
The route eventually swings round the bottom end of the harbour, past a late 18th-century iron foundry with a tall square chimney (the old Joseph Pirt and Co Engineering Works apparently, the building is now disused)…
…and up the drive to Derwent Park, the ground of Workington Town rugby league club. Workington Town was one of the original clubs in the Super League back in 1996. The original idea of Sky Sports TV was that Workington Town would merge with Barrow, Carlisle and Whitehaven to form a Cumbrian super side, an idea that was always doomed to failure by its complete lack of appreciation for the history and local rivalry of those clubs… imagine the thought of merging Manchester United FC and Manchester City FC! I was a Wigan RLFC fan then (well, I still am) and remember beating Workington 72-0 or some crazy score like that. They only lasted one season in the league unfortunately/predictably.
The path passes just to the left of Derwent Park and over an old canal, where the latest Workington RLFC squad in their resplendent white shirts are doing some summer water training. I ponder what their chances are against Wigan this year…. better than 1996 I reckon.
The path winds through thick vegetation next to the railway line, past occasional bridges over small spurs of the waterway, over which the railway runs.
I see a glimpse of the large St Michael’s church looming over the rugby stadium, then the path dumps me at a large Tesco store. Fantastic, just in time for my lunch, which I scoff with distasteful haste in the car park, luckily out of view of the sensitive inhabitants of Workington.
Beyond Tesco’s car park the route takes me to the A597 and the new bridge over the River Derwent. Upon this bridge is a memorial to PC Bill Barker.
During the twenty-four hours before Friday 20 November 2009, rainfall of over 12 inches was recorded in Cumbria. Flooding along the Borrowdale and Derwent Valley meant that some areas were up to 8 feet deep in water. The surge of water off the fells of the Lake District which flowed into Workington down the River Derwent washed away all four road and footbridges, leaving only the railway bridge intact. Seeing the danger, PC Bill Barker stood on the Northside Bridge to prevent any traffic from crossing and potentially being swept away by the onrush of water. He stayed on the bridge until it collapsed, and swept him away with it.
Quite a hero. I stand on the bridge staring downstream for a while, failing to imagine the scenes on that day.
At the northern end of the bridge a set of steps leads down to a roundabout, and an exit road heads west, over the railway line, and past the big Vertellus factory. The road is currently closed for resurfacing, but pedestrians can still squeeze through. I get an approving comment from a passerby for my Fresian hat. Clearly people with taste around here 😊.
Just over the bridge I spot a path leading off to the left. This would clearly hug the coast closer than the road does, and so I optimistically follow it, confident that I’ve found yet another route closer to the coast than my predecessors. Buoyed by my success with the ironworks and quarry routes earlier I feel like I’m really improving the coastal-route-nearest-to-the-sea database for coastal walkers today (don’t go hunting for that database, it doesn’t exist).
I’m in a really good mood. The river glints in the strong sunshine, geese and ducks are relaxing in bobbing waves beside me, and I’ve discovered yet another great route…
Bugger. Forget all that bumpf above.
At least on the half mile walk back to the road I get to see a couple of little blue butterflies. They’re nice.
Apparently it’s a Common Blue (thanks butterfly identifier). I’m not sure I’ve seen one before, so they can’t be that common.
Back at the road I pass the entrance to Workington docks, and the biggest pile of wood I’ve ever seen. The smell of pine coming from the logs is strong, and reminds me of Christmas.
The road swings round to the right past a gipsy settlement, then a track to the left leads up a slope to a wind turbine, and finally back to the proper coast again.
A few hundred yards along I get to see a spectacular cliff with a hole right through it…
…however, it’s looks are deceiving, when I get close I realise it’s only about 30 feet tall! Still, it looks good.
The path continues along grassy plains, through the majestic forest of wind turbines, and along ex-industrial tracks that made up St Helens Colliery. On this site on 19th April 1888, 28 men lost their lives in an explosion in the mine. Today there is nothing here to mark that event or the loss to the community. How sad.
The path climbs a short steep incline, and suddenly I arrive in Christmas-land. This is really quite weird. I’m surrounded by Christmas trees of several different types. Many of them are starting to flower, with tiny red flowers atop ‘candles’ at the end of the branches. To add to the weirdness, a pheasant waddles around the corner, sees me and scarpers off.
Ahead in the distance I can now see Maryport, my destination today. The railway line winds snugly around the arcs of the coastline, ensuring the best view of the sea for passengers.
The path snakes along between the two, sometimes squeezing into the narrow trough between sea defences and the railway.
Eventually the path takes a sharp right, passing over the railway. Taking a look at my map this would force me to go along a road a few hundred yards from the sea. I’m not having that, so divert off to the left and onto the beach, which is unfortunately quite shingly, the worst surface to walk along – apart from small boulders. Another ringed plover runs along in front of me, scared to come close, but not enough to take to the wing.
A flock of oyster catchers are perturbed by my visit, and fly off squawking in disgust, cursing me for interrupting their afternoon nap. Behind them, across the water and partially hidden by a sea-mist, lie the mountains of Dumfries and Galloway.
Occasionally a path appears at the top of the beach, which makes for much easier walking than the shingle, but then peters out onto the beach again.
I pass the village of Flimby where the path cuts through a pleasant patch of grassland, but again get dumped back onto the shingly beach.
On my right low colourful cliffs gradually rise up from the surrounding land. Reds, oranges, blacks and whites swirl around each other. These have been described as “The Volcanoes of Workington” in another blog.
Looking at my map there appears to be a pathway at the top of these cliffs, which would make for much easier walking than this bloody shingle. However, there’s no way up. Even though they’re only 20 feet high or so, they’re so crumbly they’d fall apart if you tried to climb. Huge crevices and holes have been eroded in them, leaving the grassy top-soil sagging into the voids underneath, ready to fall if some unfortunate animal or person wandered too close.
Round a corner I see a young guy, shifting uncomfortably just at the base of the cliff, and greet him with a cheery hello. He looks nervous and asks me “Is safe around here?”.
I’m a bit perplexed, but my eyes wander upwards to the shale cliff towering over his head and say “I shouldn’t think so, no”. He looks at me even more nervously, and asks me what I’m doing. To my explanation he says “Is it safe from being attacked”.
A very strange question that I wasn’t expecting, given we’re the only two people on a deserted shit beach, miles from anywhere.
“Oh,” I reply, “you mean safe in that sense. Well I should think so, wouldn’t you?” He reluctantly agrees that I probably don’t offer any kind of threat, and wishes me well. “I’d get a bit more safely away from that cliff if I were you though” I suggest, unhelpfully, and carry on my way.
Round the next corner I can see in the distance the breakwater pier at the southern entrance to Maryport harbour, although still a couple of miles away. Luckily the cliff gradually gives way to lower ground, and I can get off that bloody shingle and onto a firmer surface.
I make good time and soon arrive at the harbour wall. The breakwater isn’t exactly a pier, but it’s close enough, and good enough to make my list of piers, which according to my rules means I now have to walk to the end of it. Beforehand, I take a photo of the ornate signal light at the base of the pier, generously called Maryport Lighthouse. It being a favourite of L S Lowry and appearing in a few of his scribbles, the lighthouse makes it into my collection of lighthouses too.
From the end of the pier, looking back the way I came is a picture of serenity.
Maryport harbour is filled with the leisure boats of the rich, and not quite so rich. Huge catamarans and big motor yachts sit next to yachts and small leisure fishing boats.
Round the corner from the yachting marina is the fishing harbour. This contains some quite large fishing vessels, although mostly in fairly poor looking condition.
At the sea end of the harbour, a large metal globe called the Alauna Aura pictorially describes the history of Maryport. I inspect it and learn nothing (that’s fairly normal for me), but luckily a board next to it has a thousand words to make up for the picture.
Essentially, and cut down a bit as you can imagine, it says…
Maryport, like most toilets (and I’m not in the least describing Maryport as a toilet – there are other towns near here that fit that description much better) was nothing until some Romans turned up in 122AD to sort it out.
When the Romans went back home after their holiday, many different uncivilised tribes spent quite a long time swapping the town between them, in the most uncivilised of ways, although some French lot did build some pretty churches roundabouts. Then, because it lies at the mouth of the river Ellen, and suffering from body dysmorphia, they called the town Ellenfoot.
In 1749 some rich guy called Humphrey Senhouse turned up, and to gain some brownie points with his wife Mary, built a lot more of the town and named it after her. Lacking any more imagination he laid the town out in rectilinear blocks, and named Fletcher Square after her as well.
Shortly after, a few ironworks were built, several shipbuilding yards, and coal mines opened nearby, and the town became very commercially successful.
Local celebrities include Fletcher Christian (who didn’t get on with his boss very well), Thomas Ismay (who didn’t like his boss either so started his own company, the White Star Line, owner of the Titanic), and Edward Benn Smith, recipient of the Victoria Cross.
On crossing the River Ellen, a statue called “A Fishy Tale” by local sculptor Colin Telfer sits on the plinth made from a previous bridge.
The remaining few hundred yards takes me across Maryport’s tiny beach and onto the promenade where I parked several hours earlier.
Throughout this walk the hills of Dumfries and Galloway have been tauntingly visible over the water. Earlier their base was clouded in mist but the sun slowly burned that away to reveal them in more detail. They remind me that shortly I’ll be arriving in Scotland and will have to decide whether to continue along this coast, or swap over to the other side of the country and work southwards from Berwick. I’m really in two minds about it. I have five more walks to decide anyway.
This walk was completed on 29th May 2021, and is about 13.1 miles long. Here’s the map:
And here’s a real-time recorded map of my actual route, which you can pan and zoom around…
Read some other coastal walkers’ write-ups for this section, just click on the image…