There is a certain attraction about the place which gives it a charm and beauty of its own. You cannot put it into words. It is too subtle, too elusive. It may be in the air you breathe, the speech of the people, the quality of the scenery, or the wondrousness of the coast-line, and the glory of its sea. Whatever it is, there does exist an atmosphere – it may be said an atmosphere of undefinable calm and steadfastness, a sort of aura and piety of faith in great things … many carry the spirit of place away with them and it becomes part of them. It probably gives them the courage which enables them to face the world, and the cold facts of everyday life.
The Story of St. Bees 1583 – 1939 (1939) The Special Committee Of The Old St. Beghians’ Club
Living on an island is a double edged sword, especially an island no one else can see. On the Colourful Coast there’s an island mindset of independence and a sense of a separate identity encircled by the Lake District fells ‘over there’ to the east and only bounded across the sea to the west by the mountains of the Isle of Man and Scotland.
250 million years ago west Cumbria lay at a similar latitude to where we now find the Sahara. Rivers flowed across desert plains depositing sand which hardened and formed the sandstone which gives the cliffs their distinctive colour and forming the wild landscape dominated by the towering cliffs we now know.
Just as the ever present tides bring daily change, so the prosperity of the Colourful Coast reflects the ebb and flow of the tide. The coast and its people have taken on the waves of opportunity that the area has been afforded creating an area steeped in innovation and industrial firsts.
In Whitehaven the coastline embraced early industry, with the coast viewed as an asset to be exploited. Easy to work and free from imperfections the sandstone was ideal for building and was quarried and used extensively at Whitehaven harbour, St Bees Priory and school. Coal was found and the mining industry embraced newer technologies to bring ever more coal to a growing market. The port developed to export coal with new piers and quays added. Alongside this Whitehaven also welcomed trading ships bringing tobacco, rum, timber and sugar from across the world. The mining history is long, and has shaped the coast and its communities as a mass employer establishing a settled town while also dumping its waste in the sea and burying the cliffs.
Though shaped by the same seas, St Bees has developed differently to Whitehaven. The long history of the Priory and subsequent school sits like bedrock underpinning much of the village into the present day. The village developed and grew, with quarries making the most of the distinctive local red sandstone. As the railways exported the sandstone they also brought in commuters and tourists helping the village to continue to thrive. Today industry and tourism continue to bring people to St Bees where they are welcomed into the community or waved off as they embark on Wainwright’s iconic Coast to Coast walk.
Remnants and reminders of these rich layers of cultural heritage are still visible clinging to the cliffs today. They combine with striking coastal features across the whole Colourful Coast area to create a strongly defined sense of place, pride and ownership within the local community. The area has a strong and protective feeling of pride in its industrial heritage, but it’s pride in things that are over, finished, gone. This has also left a challenging legacy of deprivation. Many feel they’ve been cut adrift by industry and employment moving on, they’re now disconnected. The dense text of history is to them a lament for a lost glory and pride, it’s a closed book. In Whitehaven the coast is now seen by some as a liability, something to be managed, tamed and kept in check, a dumping ground.
But the coastline itself has remained. Special features have been quietly recognised for their value and uniqueness – birds, flowers, marine life, geology. Escaping to the once busy and bustling cliffs of Whitehaven now gives a sense of peace and tranquillity. An extension to the back garden. A place to visit the beach with the family. A regular dog walk. An unbroken view outwards. A network of footpaths paths allowing you to enjoy and explore. A place where you need to use all your senses to drink it in –bracing wind blowing off the sea, acrid smells of the seabird colony at St Bees Head, flowers dotting the paths edges, salt spray catching your face, waves rushing through the shingle, the crunch of gravel on the paths, cries of birds wheeling overhead.
We want to embrace these natural assets and ensure they are no longer viewed as liabilities. To take pride in the area’s history without this being a barrier to taking pride in the coastline, cliffs and sea. To recognise the accessible natural capital that the area has in abundance alongside the black gold that can still be found underground. As we perch on the peak of another wave of industry coming into West Cumbria we must work to ensure the natural and cultural heritage is not forgotten.