Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
West Cumbria: On the Edge by John Scanlan. In Certain Places. £11.99
John Scanlon argues that “West Cumbria – from its industrial past to its nuclear future – has always been on the edge of time.” Unlike its neighbour, the Lake District, a place characterised by geological time, West Cumbria is a place of change, of history. In moving between the two Cumbrias one moves, “From a place where one might encounter something that is greater than human – something spiritual or sublime, the journey through Cumbria leads ineluctably to a place imbued with human history.”
His book is less a history that an evocation of that history. As he drives around West Cumbria listening to the radio, talking to local people, and seeking to explore the layering of history, he looks to capture the varying senses of place that constitute this area on the edge of England, these “places thick with time, history and experience”. He wants to be “open to its spirit”.
Here is a militarised coast. The Roman frontier has been succeeded “by submarine bases, weapons testing ranges, munitions factories and radio communications”.
Millom is a “place that seems to exist in isolation”. “Workington retains an air of grunginess in places.” It was also a place where steel was “shaped into the form of railway tracks that would leave this place to become wrapped around the world, binding together, caressing and connecting it”.
Some of the mining villages around Cleator Moor, with their rows of small terraced houses seem “like some roofless tunnel into centuries past”, “like the remains of some vanished world”. It is “a world in miniature”.
Silloth, with “its Italianate streets and manicured trees . . . could be best thought of as one of those rare early examples of what is called postmodernism”. It is, as one local described it, “an imaginary place”.
Like Whitehaven, many places in West Cumbria retained much that was “historically significant” about them. They represented a past. Sellafield represented the future: “Here in the place that was built over and excavated the energy source of the first industrial revolution – coal – the new future would be built on cheap atomic energy”. Atomic energy implies a future that stretches far beyond the reach of a human sense of time.
Ranging across a wide range of disciplines from history to architecture and aesthetics, John Scanlon offers an individual and challenging view of the distinctiveness of West Cumbria. “West Cumbria, - as a cultural landscape – was also, like Southern California or Berlin, separated from the body of land it formed a part of . . . It had something of the character of an island.” Its remoteness and its facing out to the Irish Sea helped it “to function as part of a British Mediterranean”.
His illustrated essay will cause many people to reassess the character of part of the county that has rich and varied history, that has known huge success and considerable failure, but has “always pushed up against and into the future”.