Thank you to Novus Lectio for tagging me. The lovely sunny town she shows in her post could not be more different to the grey depressing dump that I grew up in!
Barrow-in-Furness – England’s answer to Mordor.
You may have gathered from the above that I have no fondness for the town I lived in for the first 37 years of my life. But I shall give you a potted history of the place anyway. (Technically I lived in nearby Millom until I was four as this is where my family were living. Millom is well known for an, ahem, ‘agricultural’ approach to romance and there are likely to be various accommodating farm animals in my family tree, the rest of which resembles much of the cast of ‘Deliverance’)
Barrow did not exist prior to the 19th century, hence the term ‘good-old-days’. The area had a number of small farming villages, some of which no longer exist, and the ancient Furness Abbey, now a ruin, albeit a beautiful one. Indeed there are references to a lost village called ‘Hole’, which seems fitting for the area.
The town is situated at the tip of a peninsula (The Furness peninsula) that extends out from the Southern part of the English Lake District into the Irish Sea. Most of the towns on the peninsula are pretty and rather genteel places now (e,g. Ulverston, where Stan Laurel was born).
Barrow owes its origins to the industrial revolution, which is to blame for many other things too.
The discovery of iron ore, coal and limestone nearby, coupled with a natural harbour sheltered by Walney Island, made it the ideal place to build ships and an ironworks and generally buggering up the local environment for everybody. The town expanded massively around the start of the 20th Century, with housing being built in Barrow itself and across the channel on Walney Island. This boom continued effectively until the 1970s when productivity eventually dropped when people found it hard to move due to the effect of gravity on flared trousers in a wet area.
During the 1980s the shipyard was building the Trident nuclear submarine fleet, resulting in the construction of one of the world’s biggest sheds, which still dominates the skyline today. (As an aside – the photographer at my wedding was later arrested on spying charges for innocently taking photos that had this shed in the background!)
This obviously meant that the town became a potential nuclear target during the cold war. Visiting the town last week I speculated that maybe it actually did get nuked and the rest of the country failed to notice. It would explain a lot.
The boom inevitably ended. First the Ironworks closed, then the shipyard was massively cut back in the late 1980s and 1990s. My own workplace since 1984 closed in late 1991. By 1992 both my wife and I were commuting out of the town each day for work, eventually moving away in 2004. Many others were not so willing or lucky and the town went into a decline which continues to this day.
In 2014 a survey by the UK government identified Barrow as the least happy place in the country:
I can confirm that the town is a miserable place. The sense of isolation (40 miles from the nearest motorway), the permanent wind, boarded up shops and disused docks. In fairness, there are areas of great beauty nearby (the two nature reserves on Walney Island for example).
The town has a twisted sense of hard-man pride in the ‘Gaza Strip’ – the local nickname for the street full of pubs and clubs that was notorious throughout NW England for its violence on weekend nights. Even this is now largely closed, derelict, and boarded up – arguably this counts as gentrification.
Well, she did ask!