Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Fifty years ago Bob Orrell was offered a plate of oatcakes “spread with a thick sugary paste that had a very recognisable aroma”. It was his first taste of rum butter and the farmer’s wife who made the oatcakes told him tales of the smuggling of rum along the Cumberland coast. And then she planted the idea of this book: “You should take a trip along the whole of the Rum Butter Coast, from Millom to the Scottish Border.”
The coast of old Cumberland is a coast that shares a fascinating history from the days when it was at the furthest extremes of the Roman empire to the time, two centuries ago when it was at the forefront of industrial development. It’s a coast that has had its ups and downs, times when it has seen considerable wealth and times when it has faced dire poverty, but it has always been fortunate in its history, landscape and people.
When the mine and the ironworks closed in Millom in 1968, it was “a place of despair, a despair that was to spread north and knock the stuffing out of every major town in West Cumberland.”
Bob finds Ravenglass the “most picturesque of all along the whole Rum Butter Coast”. Thirty years ago, Bob rode into town on his fell pony to open the fair, but the modern Ravenglass has lost its old world charm with its “yellow lines painted along car-choked streets” and its “carbuncles of housing estates”. Murray Hodges used to be the vicar at the time when the church hall and the bank shared the same building. He’d direct the stranger, “Turn right for savings and turn left to be saved.”
Bob once went four miles under the sea “where men scrabbled in the semi-darkness to provide coal for our homes”. Now he takes photographs from the cliff and visits the Haig Colliery Museum.
Further north, at Lowca, Bob remembers interviewing the man whose uncle opened the valve that let out billowing smoke to fool a German submarine into believing it had hit the plant that produced the chemical essential for TNT.
It is just such incidents that characterise Bob Orrell’s account of the Cumberland Coast. He is well versed in its history from the earliest days and well up with the meaning of place names and the great aristocrats and industrialists, but he’s also picked up plenty of anecdotes from people he’s met over the last half century when he’s been in and out of these places as a writer and broadcaster for Radio Cumbria.
His account is a rich fruit-cake, flavoured with smuggled rum, of history and nostalgia and description that brings the coast to life.
At Workington, he would have the council restore Workington Hall. “The room where Mary Queen of Scots slept, her bed and other mementoes would have had paying visitors flocking to the town”.
In the Aquarium at Maryport, Bob was relieved that the chef didn’t reach over and spear a cod, when he ordered fish and chips.
Higgled-piggledy Allonby is another favourite place. He finds that the time when “the grassy expanses above the shore were ablaze with the most gorgeous array of wild flowers” is unforgettable.
That hidden corner of the coast, the few houses that make up the hamlet of Cardurnock on Moricambe Bay is “a place only for a mind that can find peace and contentment in the lonely beauty of a salt marsh and vast flats of tan-coloured sandflats.”
The Cumberland coast is a wonderfully varied landscape. It is good to have some-one with Bob Orrell’s knowledge button-hole us and remind us what riches lie on our doorstep:“I have been saying for years that Cumberland’s Rum Butter Coast is one of the most outstanding places in Britain; and I shall keep on saying it, because I know it is true.”