I got up to West Cumbria early enough that I had time for a busk in Workington, a town I thought I knew well from over a decade ago, when as a naive young musician I’d headed up with Gren Bartley to make our first professional album with Fellside records. It had been hard work, and nervous and inexperienced I’d struggled with the recording sessions. Paul Adams, running the show, had seen it all before, and seeing me flustered had pressed a respectably high value bank note into our hands and ordered us to go and get a pint. We’d set off into a gloomy and depressed former coal and steel town, where what few pubs survived were populated by a handful of unemployed and introspective men in string vests. Workington was going through hard times, and had an empty, haunted sort of feel about it.
13 years later and a lot had changed. I parked my car in the canyon between the two sports stadia, Borough Park and Derwent Park, home to Workington Reds football club and Workington Town rugby league club respectively, twin examples of glorious lower league dilapidation. Plans for a new and modern ground for the clubs to share had recently fallen through yet again, and these venerable old heaps of corrugated iron would continue to be pressed into service, fighting back against the salt sprays that blow in from the harbour and corrode the steel pillars.
So far, so familiar. My favourite building in Workington has always been the oversize bus station, a towering shape made more impressive by the open space before it afforded by the demolition of neighbouring buildings. With a clear sight line at it from the junction, it looked like a slaughtered whale dragged up a ramp. It has a blue plaque that proudly notes that it was the first purpose built covered bus station in the UK, opened 1926. You get your civic pride where you can.
Workington town centre had changed massively, though. Where a smattering of shops had done their best to hold it together on dingy streets, now a smart new shopping zone had been built, airy and spacious and with a good vibe about it. A child in a buggy emerged howling from a cafe through the net of dangling chains like a big reveal on a makeover programme. I picked a spot on a pedestrianised T-junction and played. The sun shone and I did well. One young boy even gave me a fiver, which astonished me. Things had certainly improved in Workington if a schoolboy could spare that kind of cash.
I was facing the ‘Lookout’, a strange combination of clock and sculpture. Shaped something like a crane on top of a big stainless steel ball, the long arm rotates once per hour and gives the time against a series of markings on the floor, before periscoping on the hour to project images onto boards. It was running 13 minutes slow, which troubled me. I’m all in favour of public art, but if you’re going to make one with a practical element it should work properly. It looked to me like something of an overextension of ambition. I imagined it was probably hard to correct and it had just become simpler to let it run to its own timetable. Perhaps this dysfunction was intended, a disguised satire on West Cumbria, a place living in its own time. More likely there just hadn’t been quite enough thought put into the time-keeping part of the design, which would have required both engineering skills and a sophisticated understanding of how a minor public body might be likely to maintain it after the installation.
If I lived in Workington, I know for sure I’d be that guy who measured it every week, and wrote letters to the paper when it wasn’t right, until everyone on the council hated me. Such objects bring out my obsessive side. At 4pm, or 3.47pm Workington time, I packed up and headed out.
Wonky timekeeping aside, the town centre redevelopment had been a success and Workington had the feel of a town getting back to its feet. My previous visits had coincided with the final end of the steel works and the lowest ebb of the economic decline. With a more diversified economy, things now seem to be improving.
But this was just a short visit, as I’d been invited to a really special event, the Cumbria – Rungwe Community Link Ceilidh.
Since 1987, there has been an exchange programme between West Cumbria and Rungwe, a rural district in South Western Tanzania. My friend Mary has been deeply involved in this for many years, and had invited me to the final night’s celebrations at Calderdale village hall. This invitation wasn’t just for my benefit, as she’d organised a ceilidh and was short of a tune player to lead the music, a role I was glad to accept.
The exchange works on a two-year cycle, this year being the turn of a group of Tanzanians to come to West Cumbria for three weeks. The planning had been extremely difficult. Getting visas for the group had been a particular challenge. Mary told me that the application forms effectively acted as filters to prevent poor people visiting the UK, as many of their demands were not easily achievable if you don’t lead a rich, Westernised sort of life. Obligatory boxes like having a personal postal address were tricky to sort. But sort it they had, after the burning of much midnight oil.
Even having got the visas, the group had been questioned at great length and with some hostility at the airport. Valentino, one of the Tanzanian group leaders told me later;
“They had so many questions, why are you here, when will you leave, even though they knew the answers.”
The youngsters had certainly never made a journey like this before, a day across land before the flight, and tired and overwhelmed, were genuinely upset by their treatment.
“Then at last they let us through, we came round the final corner and Mary and everyone were waving Tanzanian flags and we were so happy.”
The ceilidh was a great success. We did a couple of British dances, then the Tanzanians would lead a couple of their traditional dances, in this case step dances, singing the music as they went with the kind of freedom that comes from being unafraid of a few imperfections. In our highly media saturated world, we’re constantly surrounded by flawless, autotuned music and song, and the sound of voices raw and confident, just going for it, is now a rare one. In Tanzania, it seems, music is just what you make with your friends and family and there’s no sense of judgement, perhaps as we might once have gathered round the piano. People here are often afraid to stick their head above the parapet and just play, fearful of falling short of an impossibly high standard. Music retreats from the commonplace and belongs to the specialist, its broad social function lost.
The Tanzanian group sang beautifully, full of passion and rhythm, and it was infectious. Everyone joined in, except the local teenage lads, who stood outside the circle with beers they were just learning to drink.
“Too cool to join in.” I’ve heard it said of lads like this. The opposite is true. It’s a very awkward and judgemental period, being a teenager, and most of these lads would have loved to join in and dance with freedom, but felt unable to. Not cool enough is the sadder truth.
Half time brought another highlight, as Mary introduced a gurning competition. Gurning is a big deal round here, with the world championships taking place in Egremont each September as part of the Crab Fair, an event that has been happening for at least 800 years. The gurning itself takes place through a horse-collar, or “Braffin”, and points are awarded not for the ugliest face, but for the biggest difference between faces before and during. Being naturally ugly is something of a disadvantage then, as the room for improvement is not so large.
We were lucky enough to have borrowed the genuine Egremont braffin for the evening and I felt a little buzz of excitement at being able to hold such a significant piece of English folk culture in my hands, and staring down at the aperture I allowed myself to imagine the countless appalling faces that must have peered back out of it over the years.
I rang my sister for advice. She’d entered the world gurning championships several years previously, and although an also-ran, she’d asked the judges for feedback on how to improve.
“Make a performance of it. Look the judges in the eye with your normal, smiling face, then turn away, compose yourself, and put your whole body into it. The best gurners use their body and the shoulders, arms.”
The judging panel was four teenage girls, two from Tanzania and two from the local area. There was no shortage of entrants. My turn arrived about half way through, and I gave it everything I’d got, using a lopsided face that years of petulantly spoiling family photographs had allowed me to perfect. I fell to my knees before the panel, and was awarded 4.5/5 and a provisional share of first place with one of the Tanzanian lads. Competitors came and went and nobody could beat that score, and I began to wonder if the prize might be mine, a 75cl bottle of Konyagi, the sweet gin-like spirit the Tanzanians like to pep their beer up with. Finally as the entrants dwindled, a young local lad called Jack was persuaded to put down his beer and show us how it should be done. With flowing blond hair and an easy smile, he looked a little like the young Robert Plant. He turned away and composed himself. There was a moment of pregnant anticipation before he violently turned back and advanced with menace upon the judging panel, a distressing figure of pure malice. Quite how anybody could suddenly have so many nostrils I am not sure, but this warped and disfigured horror lurched forward and the judges scattered whilst awarding perfect 5s.
I had a chat with him later on, outside for a spot of fresh air.
“They say it’s a cultural exchange but really it’s just an excuse for a piss-up.”
‘Same difference’, I thought to myself.
Jack was from Cleator Moor, where I’d intended to go the next day.
“The best pies are from Wilsons.” We agreed that whoever’s pies you grew up eating were forever after the benchmark against which other pies are judged. For me it had been Tittertons pies on Mill street in Macclesfield, even though the butchers had been gone well over 20 years. I promised Jack I’d try one from Wilsons.
“What’s the employment like round here?” I asked,
“It’s either Sellafield or drugs to be honest.”
“Will you stay?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
I mentioned I’d be busking in Cleator Moor.
“Take your stab jacket.” Jack replied casually, before heading off to a secret supply of beer for a refill.
The hall was a perfectly normal village hall, except for the wall of big red posters, detailing exactly what to do in all circumstances if the nuclear sirens go off. Just two miles away is Sellafield, a gigantic nuclear waste reprocessing plant, West Cumbria’s kill or cure, forcing locals to accept the choice between the distasteful idea of processing and storing half of the world’s nuclear waste, and mass unemployment. The plant provides thousands of well paid jobs and the area needs it. But as well as the safety concerns it’s also an economic time bomb, and closure would hit West Cumbria with a fresh wave of depression just as it looks like overcoming the last. It’s a tough balancing act, an industry that few would want, but that keeps the area alive.
From inside the hall the African voices cut through, a powerful nasal singing tone. The ringleader of the music seemed to be a young Lady called Martha. She knew the dances and had an energy that took the whole dance floor with her. I wanted to ask her more about it, but neither of us really had enough common language to make it work and in the end, she just offered me a fist bump, delivered with total commitment, a heavyweight blow from a 4ft9 woman.
I later learned that she’d lost her mother young, and was fighting tooth and nail to get an education when much of her family would much rather she was married off as quick as possible.
The night went on. Many cans were consumed. The bar was being run by 18 year olds for whom this was their first attempt at such activity. I went to see what they had and found that all they had was lager and gin. I asked if they had any bitter, which caused some head scratching. Later they found me and told me they’d got a crate of John Smiths in specially, which I then felt obliged to drink.
West Cumbria is a little known place. Tucked right round the corner of the Lake District, far off the beaten track, not on the way to anywhere, the decline of industry has rendered this a forgotten corner of England. Yet it’s one I feel I know very well. Many of my best friends are Cumbrians from this very part of the world, drawn to Manchester for work and excitement, and into my world by the music we have in common. I have friends from Whitehaven, St Bees, Cleator, Egremont.
The importance of exchanges like the Cumbria-Rungwe Community Link example is huge. Mary tells me that in many of the impoverished towns and villages, the kids have never seen a black person, and consider they could never go to London for fear of meeting one. Exchanges like this break that prejudice down in the nicest possible way, without criticising or excluding, but by creating gentle opportunity for people to explore and learn.
Too many of our English interactions with the world, and especially former colonial countries are patronising, and measured in terms of what we can do to ‘help’ or make things better. In this exchange, it is a meeting of equals, where both sides grow and benefit without cost to the other.
The midsummer sun finally set and both sides had danced enough. Things drew to an end. I took my can of John Smiths back into the building which was now deeply fragrant with the smell of teenage BO and allowed myself to watch the scene. Clusters of people were forming and re-forming, full of hugs, selfies, and the knowledge of a precious time come to an end. People young enough to still need to learn about that special kind of grief that comes from knowing that someone you’ve grown to love may be someone you never meet again. Tears happened outside, in private, a little later.
I’d had it in my mind I was going to busk in Cleator Moor, right from the start of this. It’s just not like anywhere else I’ve been. A town few have even heard of, flung up in a few years to supply the iron industry and consequently not really between any two other places. You’d never end up here by chance, and few would choose to go. Disused railway lines converge on the town, viaducts lost under forests, embankments crumbling, sudden bridges, built to carry mineral trains now long scrapped. One line has become a cycleway, a lycra motorway that misses the town by a few hundred yards, and from which not one cyclist ever diverts to see Cleator Moor.
It feels like something of a ghost town now, like the gunslinger has come to town and everyone else is hidden. The rows of handsome shop buildings round the main square are largely empty and hollow, save for the odd hairdresser. The two beautiful civic buildings in the square itself are being refurbished, and the library has temporarily moved out, leaving it even quieter than usual.
“You don’t want to busk there. Try Whitehaven instead, you’ll do much better.” was a common warning. I didn’t care, and wasn’t in it for the money today. I just wanted to get to know this fascinating little town better. My hosts, Bob and Mary had supplied me with a couple of nuggets of information before I’d left that morning. The first was that Cleator Moor had been the scene of mainland Britain’s last sectarian murder. The second was that in the ten minute walk from the old village of Wath Brow along the high street to the 19th century town of Cleator Moor the accent would change considerably.
This seemed unlikely to me, perhaps it might have been true in the 1850s when the Irish community moved to Cleator Moor and built their town on the edge of Wath Brow, but surely not now, or if it did, a subtle inflection here and there, only noticeable to the locals. I parked at Wath Brow and walked the few hundred yards to Cleator Moor, all one continuous urbanisation now, any border indistinguishable on sight. The accents at Wath Brow were as I expected, broad Cumbrian, a touch like the more famous Geordie accent to the untutored ear, but softer and more rounded.
Along the way you pass by the first of several chip shops. A colony of seagulls lined the roof, waiting for opening time. Chip shops in West Cumbria open for just one hour at lunch time. Miss that and you’ll go hungry. The birds knew this well and were alert and ready, like runners waiting for the starting gun.
I made it to Wilson’s for my pie, which was excellent, and was addressed in a clear Irish twang by the butcher, who was tickled by the idea of someone busking in his town, and made me a free cup of coffee. Outside, I was harassed by a small white dog, whose elderly female owner told it to “Behave yer’sel”. Mary was right. In 2019, the town is still so static there’s a considerable accent difference over the course of 500 yards.
I busked in the main square by the bus stop. There was virtually nobody about, and what few people did come all got on buses for the bright lights of Whitehaven and Maryport. It didn’t matter, I played for the fun of it, and slowly a few coins did come, from old men who crossed the road specially, from children passing by. It was enough to buy lunch at least.
Across the way was a Chinese restaurant which proudly displayed an enthusiastic but cringingly patronising review in the window. “Tommy (he has an unpronounceable Chinese name!) does the cooking.” “I know it doesn’t sound too exciting but it was surprisingly good!” I wondered what possible sequence of events could have brought a family from China to Cleator Moor. Alas, the restaurant was closed for staff holidays.
I headed back down to Wath Brow, past Sproaty’s chippy, in search of my afternoon’s entertainment.
Where the town finally finishes, butting up against Dent Fell, the last flat piece of land belongs to Wath Brow Hornets ARLFC (Amateur Rugby League Football Club). Normally thought of as a game for Lancashire and Yorkshire, Cumbria’s deep love of rugby league has often gone unreported, with professional sides in Whitehaven, Workington, and Barrow, and numerous strong amateur clubs. Wath Brow are one of the best sides in the country, and were today entertaining Yorkshire rivals Siddal.
I’ll put my cards on the table. I’m a passionate follower of Rugby League, and have been since a very young age, when my father took me to games all over the North-West, starting at the age of six. I carried my own milk crate through the turnstiles so as to be tall enough to see what was going on. My passion for the game has only increased with age, as I’ve come to appreciate the significance that so many of the clubs hold for their communities. Played almost exclusively in Northern, working class communities, rugby league is frequently the one thing that these communities still have to feel proud of when so much else has been lost to the decline of industry.
I was joined by Bob, who’d cycled over from St Bees, normally a rugby union fan, but willing to give this other code a try for the day. We found a shady spot by the opposition dugout on the far side of the pitch and waited for the start of play. The feeling of community was strong around the ground, as a crowd of a few hundred assembled in the sunshine to enjoy the entertainment. Young girls in club shirts practised their tactical kicking in front of the goal posts. Older lads got a couple of pints ahead so they wouldn’t run out during the first half. All generations were represented, bringing family and community together, and a minute of silence was held for a departed friend.
Siddal started terribly, conceding a try within seconds. From the kickoff, they contributed to the wholesome family atmosphere by loudly shouting “Smash the cunt!” as they charged after the ball. It seemed like a predetermined tactic to intimidate the opposition, but sadly for them, they didn’t seem to have a plan ‘B’, and having failed to ‘Smash’ the ‘cunt’, looked somewhat bewildered and uncertain what else to do. Wath Brow were just too good, with flowing set moves, tough defence, and superior discipline.
It became a procession, and the Siddal dugout became an increasingly agitated place.
“You’re all fucking bent, you three!” yelled the substitute to the referee and both his touch judges, leading me to wonder if a player can be sent off if he’s not on yet.
Behind us, Ennerdale opened up into the West Cumbrian plain, wild open hillsides cascading down to this little impoverished but stunning corner of England, locked away behind the mountains and so rarely visited by the tourists who overwhelm Grasmere and Ambleside. Their loss.
I went for a wee at half time. A cancer awareness poster in the gents suggested that I ‘Check my balls monthly’, in the quaint belief there’s a bloke out there who, if left to his own devices, doesn’t check them hourly.
The second half continued much as the first, and I got chatting to an older lad who told me he’d had a professional trial with Workington Town many years ago.
“We played Salford, back when they were the best. Got stuffed! Loved it though.”
“How much were you on for a match back then?”
“£6 a game. Not much even then! But here’s the thing, they never paid me, so when my trial was up and I wasn’t signed, I went round to the director’s house to get my money. Turned out he’d passed away two weeks prior. Never saw a penny!”
He saw the funny side now, 40 years later.
“Look at them.” He said, pointing to the gaggle of tanked up lads who were ribbing the opposition players for every mistake, winding them up.
“At full time, you watch, they’ll fuck off instantly. They act hard, but they’re cowards! They’ll be gone as quick as they can in case any of those players decide to take it up with them after the whistle.”
The whistle went and he was right, off they ran to the bar. Rugby League is the toughest of games, played by the bravest men and women. There’s a reason why I’ve always preferred to stay in the crowd. With the win, Wath Brow went top, the highest ranked amateur side in the UK, every player a local lad drawn from this little rugby playing village that hangs off the edge of a small and otherwise broken landscape in the ruins of an industry fled, in a forgotten corner of England. It means everything to them and I can see why.
Usually at this point I hawk my tip jar in the hope of a little extra income, but this time, any tips sent in over the next two weeks (21/07/19 – 4/08/19) will go towards the Cumbria-Rungwe Community Link project. I’ll add them up and transfer them over at the end of that period.
Tip jar is in the Blog archive
Accounts available upon request.