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Barrow-in-Furness - the town where industry meets history

PUBLISHED: 15:49 26 January 2018

Furness Abbey

Furness Abbey

Sandy Kitching

Barrow was built on hard graft but there’s plenty of beauty to be found as well, as Mike Glover reports


The Spirit of Barrow sculpture in the centre of the town by Chris Kelly The Spirit of Barrow sculpture in the centre of the town by Chris Kelly

SLAP bang in the middle of the bustling commercial centre of Barrow is a sturdy homage to ‘The Spirit of Barrow’. It was among the first civic sculptures to appear in our town centres and neatly sums up the industrial town and its connections to the defence of the realm.

The imposing depiction of four workers was created by Chris Kelly and installed in 2005. It legends are Labour – Wide as the Earth; Courage – The readiness is all; Progress – everyday counts; and Skill – Craftsmen of World Renown.

The base was donated by BAE Systems Submarines, still by far the major employer in the town. Feminists may baulk at its maleness, but it does encapsulate what makes Barrow a special place, packed with industry and history.

In 1857 Barrow was still little more than a large Lancashire village. Within 20 years it was incorporated as a town with a thriving iron and steel industry and a population approaching 40,000, about half what it is today.

Sculpture of Fredrick Cavendish outside Barrow-in-Furness town hall Sculpture of Fredrick Cavendish outside Barrow-in-Furness town hall

In 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the magnificent Town Hall that dominates the town was opened by the Marquis of Hartington, later to become the 8th Duke of Devonshire, aka Sir Frederick Cavendish, whose statue dominates the garden square in the front of the building.

The front is on Duke Street, but open land to the rear faces the modern commercial centre, and has the street-level space for carriages then motor vehicles. So the back was used more often than the front, leading to the false modern myth that the Town Hall was built back to front.

It is still a working building, with offices crammed into every nook and cranny, but there are areas for ceremonial civic functions with an assortment of plinths and sculptured busts and stained glass windows.

But even this historic building is a Johnny-come-lately compared with some of the borough’s antiquities.

Furness Abbey Furness Abbey

To the north lies North Walney National Nature Reserve, which has been used since prehistoric times, evidence of which comes from the many Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze- and Iron-age finds, including flints, broken pottery and a rare stone axe, all unearthed by archaeologists. The reserve’s 350-acres exhibit a great variety of habitats, including sand dunes, heath, salt marsh, sandy beach, shingle and scrub, which combine to make it a nationally important wildlife site.

To the south of the town lies a gem of history that deserves a visit by the most discerning of students of cultural heritage. In fact Lancastrians have been visiting Furness Abbey since tourism began, making it an original gateway to the Lake District.

Set in the beautiful Vale of Nightshade are the extensive red sandstone ruins of the abbey, founded in the 12th century by Stephen, later King of England. The abbey first belonged to the Order of Savigny and then to the Cistercians. At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, Furness was the second richest Cistercian monastery in England after Fountain’s Abbey in North Yorkshire, which it matches for splendour.

When early Victorians began making use of the newly-built railway system in the 1840s, they used to take the paddle-steamers from Fleetwood, across Morecambe Bay, to Rhoa Island where the railway ran.

Furness Abbey Furness Abbey

The abbey had its own railway station and became a hub, or gateway, for visiting the Lake District. The Furness Railway Company actually ran the abbey as a tourist attraction. The abbey is technically owned by Lord Cavendish but was handed over to State care in the 1920s, and is now looked after by English Heritage. The site manager, Lucy Ronald, has been there for 13 years and delights in describing its history, not least the struggles to keep the ruin on an even keel.

It was originally built on boggy ground with oak tree trunks acting as a sort of raft on which the tons of masonry sit. Over the centuries, as water courses have come and gone, this has shifted the structure so some walls lean like the Tower of Pisa.

There is no need for alarm, however, as this fight with the laws of gravity have been going on for hundreds of years, with current modern techniques having been employed successfully on the presbytery for the last ten years.

‘We hope to finish the stabilisation by the end of 2020, but that is subject to confirmation and everything will have to be double checked before the supports can come down,’ said Lucy.

Lucy Ronald, site manager, Furness Abbey Lucy Ronald, site manager, Furness Abbey

As well as the ruins of the monastery there is a museum and visitor centre, full of rescued carved stones, effigies of medieval knights and rare grave covers.

The collection was further enhanced in 2010 with the finding of a crozier, or crook, in the grave of a medieval abbot. ‘The very active friends group, The Furness Abbey Fellowship, raised £5,000 to enable us to keep it for display,’ Lucy added.

There is also an education room used by school-children to immerse themselves in medieval history, including donning monks’ habits.

And next door to the abbey is the Abbey House hotel, owned by Manchester-based Tim Kilroe, who also owns the Red Hall at Walmersley, Bury.

Barrow-in-Furness town hall Barrow-in-Furness town hall

The Abbey House main building was originally built for one of the owners of Vicker’s Ship Yard, now BAE, but was donated for the war effort in 1914. The land is still owned by Cumbria County Council, and after the war it was used as an old people’s home. It was turned into a hotel in 1986, and has recently gone through a £4 million investment with all 60 bedrooms remodelled.

General manager for the last six years, John Horton, said: ‘We aim to make is one of the top ten wedding venues in the North West.’ It already hosts 150 a year.

Weddings and events dominate the weekend trade, but during the week it accommodates corporate guests from Barrow’s burgeoning industrial sector, such as wind farms, gas terminals and, of course, BAE. Mr Horton is also keen to develop its growing relationship with the stunning abbey next door, where it can already host ceremonies.

So at this hotel industry continues to rub shoulders with history; how typically Barrow.

Furness Abbey is open weekends only, 10am to 4pm, until March 29 2018, after which it will open for the full open season, seven days a week, 10am to 6pm. Entry is free to Barrow residents and English Heritage members. Visit english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/furness-abbey for more information.

A friendly town

One of Barrow’s biggest advocates is Hairy Biker Dave Myers who was born and bred in the town.

‘Barrow was an amazing place to grow up, with the sea on three sides and the Lake District Fells behind. It has got an industrial heritage to be proud and which gave the town its prosperity,’ said the chef and TV personality, whose Mediterranean Adventure with fellow biker Simon King is currently brightening up our screens.

He also praised the beauty of Furness Abbey but it is the friendliness of the town’s people he particularly remembers with fondness.

‘Whenever I come back to the town, which I do at least twice a year for reunions with my school-friends, I am struck how nice and generous people are. You even notice it at the supermarket check-outs. My wife Liliana is Romanian and she found everyone so welcoming.

‘A lot of people are negative about Barrow, but most of them have never been to the town. It is such a healthy place to bring up a family and live, it is hard for Barrow people to ever leave the place.’

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