Barrow

Barrow, Walney Island, Barrow-in-Furness, windfarm, wind turbine, sunset, BarrowAFC, Bromley
“Along Central Drive, the Irish Sea soon fills the skyline. The horizon looks as if it is ring-fenced by turbines”

Barrow people must be heartily sick of seeing their town stereotyped. A couple of days before my visit Barrow happened to appear on the ITV News. The reporter was flogging a ‘Death of the High Street’ horse. Boarded-up premises and proprietors with stiff upper lips were prominent. If ITV found anything attractive to point their cameras at, the editors chose not to show it.

Barrow, Walney Island, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Lake District, sea
“On the natural skyline, brooding promontories slope down to the sea”
Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Barrow Town Hall, sunrise
Barrow Town Hall: “Above the town’s streets, dramatic Victorian towers and spires soar”

Where might they have looked? The snowy uplands of the Lake District, perhaps. Or the Walney Island seashore, barely 20mins walk from the town centre. To get there you’d pass the Dock Museum and cross a bridge with views Constable might have painted, in either direction. On the natural skyline, brooding promontories slope down to the sea; above the town’s streets, dramatic Victorian towers and spires soar.

Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Devonshire Dock Hall, Abbey Road, boulevard, Baron Haussmann
“A number of the thoroughfares are so wide you’d wonder whether Baron Haussmann did some moonlighting here.” In the background, Devonshire Dock Hall: “the six-pack on steroids that butts into the town’s southern horizon like a theatre flat”

Barrow is a town of sweeping vistas and unexpected panoramas. In part this is a result of Victorian town-planning. The town centre’s grid system carries the eye down otherwise ordinary streets to horizons improbable distances away. A number of the principle thoroughfares are so wide you’d wonder whether Baron Haussmann did some moonlighting here. They tend to flow into each other at elaborately decorative roundabouts.

One such boulevard is Holker Street, which older readers will recognise as identifying Barrow AFC’s ground in days of yore. Holker Street runs from the railway station to the Progression Solicitors Stadium and has pavements that must be 10 or 12ft wide. If these are not the widest pavements expediting the movement of large numbers of people to or from an English football ground, I’d be very surprised. (As if to compensate, the Wilkie Road pavement running along the north side of the ground is so narrow you’re more or less obliged to jaywalk.)

Barrow is also a town of unexpected squares, many of them given over to car-parks. During the last war the German bomb-aimers were notoriously inaccurate, hitting the town as often as the docks; if these squares are the result at least some good came of it. Even where there are cars there are generally also encircling trees. In the absence of cars, you’ll find grass and an occasional memorial, often complemented by statuary, plaques or other features. Barrow is a town of oddly shaped benches: some commemorative, some sponsored, some just expressive of a bench-maker’s joie de vivre.

The statues also vary. In the middle of roundabouts and outside the magnificent town hall there are conventional frock-coated Victorians. Elsewhere monuments of different characters recall Barrow’s industrial, nautical and sporting past. Emlyn Hughes is one of the first you’ll encounter if you arrive by train.

Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Spirit of Barrow, public art, sculpture
The Spirit of Barrow: “From some angles the four shipyard workers have a Soviet-era look…”

In the centre of the shopping district a bronze grouping called The Spirit of Barrow is particularly wonderful. From some angles the four large shipyard workers have a Soviet-era look, and the words ‘Courage’, ‘Labour, ‘Skill’ and ‘Progress’ around the base reinforce that. But the quartet suggests Pride in and Affection for the town and it lifts the spirits.

There’s more Barrovian baroque at the Dock Museum. This occupies an old dry dock close to the Walney Island bridge. On the day I visited, the Significant Form exhibition of the South Lakes Art Collective opened in the atmospheric space at the lower level of the dock. Above, there are displays celebrating Barrow’s history – natural and industrial. Not surprisingly, the models of vessels built in Barrow are sensational (and in the case of one submarine in particular, quite chilling). Equally sensational and not at all chilling was the flapjack in the museum café.

Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Sir James Ramsden, facial hair, mutton-chops, benefactor
Sir James Ramsden: credited with bringing industry and prosperity to Barrow. “He also brought the most remarkable pair of mutton-chops.”

Notable buildings (aside from the Town Hall) include the one now occupied by the Citizens Advice Bureau. This was formerly the bath-house presented to the town in 1872 by Sir James Ramsden, the town’s first mayor and the man most regularly credited with bringing industry and prosperity to it. He also brought the most remarkable pair of mutton-chops.

Next door on Abbey Road is the Nan Tait Centre, now an arts centre but originally in 1900 Barrow’s Technical School. Redbrick, terracotta and vast panels representing Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Labor Omnia Vincit – what more could you want?

Devonshire Dock Hall sounds as if it could be another Victorian palais, perhaps where Music Hall breathed its last in 1914. It is, certainly, one of the most prominent buildings in the town: it’s the six-pack on steroids that butts into the town’s southern horizon like a theatre flat. Occupied by BAE Systems, it is an indoor shipbuilding complex.

The sea-front is well worth a detour. Apart from anything else it’s a pleasant walk (or a short bus ride). It takes you through Vickerstown, a UK example of a phenomenon more common – and notorious – in the USA: the company town. The provision of housing for employees sounds enlightened but it could equally represent self-interest as companies sought to discourage unionisation, offset wage rises by rent increases etc.

Along Central Drive, the Irish Sea soon fills the skyline. The horizon looks as if it is ring-fenced by turbines: what you’re looking at is the Walney Wind Farm, the largest offshore wind farm in the world according to the BBC. Opinion will vary about whether it’s unsightly: I’d say No, and I’d offer in support the decision of ITV not to show it. The turbines are far enough away to be matchstick figures on the horizon and you could make a case for them providing points of interest in the view.

Barrow, Barrow-in-Furness, BarrowAFC, Bromley, Morecambe Bay, Lake District, Furness Line, railway
To the east is Morecambe Bay: go by train along the scenic Furness Line

The beach here is of pebbles. I’m told you’ll find sand further along the front in both directions; behind Walney there are mud-flats and to the east is Morecambe Bay. In other words, the variety of marine environments is wide. And in the background is the Lake District. It’s quite a place.

* While I was taking a photograph of The Spirit of Barrow, a couple of buskers offered a spirited version of Wish You Were Here. They were worth a contribution but I was less sure about the sentiment. Did I wish You were here? If I’d invited You to Barrow, in January, You might think the magic had gone. But I was guilty of the stereotyping decried at the top of this piece. I withdraw the remark and apologise. Don’t let anything discourage you from going to see Barrow, at any time of year – and go by train.

Barrow 2 Bromley 0
Progression Solicitors Stadium, 18 January 2020

Woking

Woking Lightbox sculpture Kitty Canal Cruises art Basingstoke Canal
Lightbox moment: a weathered bull watches the canal cruise boat preparing to disembark

Visiting supporters who approach Woking from the M25 are directed by road signs towards the carpark at Heathside. Why? Who knows. Heathside is not close to the ground. Nor is it particularly convenient for the town centre. Perhaps for these reasons (and if my experience of Heathside on a matchday Saturday is anything to go by) you’ll have a wide choice of parking bays.

Price may be another factor that puts parkers off Heathside. If you arrive early enough for a cursory tour of Woking before the game, you may be in the carpark six or seven hours. That would be £10. And the Pay & Display machines don’t take cards or notes. Another dubious point in Heathside’s favour, then – if you arrive with pockets full of cash you’ll leave a great deal lighter.

I hedged my bets with £4.20 for up to three hours. False economy, I know, but that left options open: at around 2.15pm I could top-up and walk to the ground, or I could take the car and look for somewhere closer to Kingfield Stadium, home of the Cards (short for Cardinals).

Basingstoke Canal, River Wey Navigation, Kitty Canal Cruises
The Basingstoke Canal: reopened in 1991 after a 25-year restoration project

Woking was being rebuilt that day. The many cranes stood idle, peering into the town like paralysed insects. Hoardings lined walkways, and low-level plastic barriers helped pedestrians to avoid blundering into roadworks. If, discouraged and disorientated, you headed north reckoning to find the Basingstoke Canal crossing your path, you wouldn’t go far wrong.

It’s a green and shady corridor and it will lead you to Woking’s better side. The canal was formally reopened in 1991 after a 25-year restoration project. For a restful 1¼hrs, a cruise from the town wharf is an attractive prospect.

Sir Alec Bedser, Woking, Bedser Bridge, Basingstoke Canal
Sir Alec Bedser: opening the bowling from the Town End

The canal is crossed at the wharf by a footbridge dedicated to the legendary Bedser twins. They grew up in Woking and their statues stand at either end of the bridge: Alec bowling, at the Town End, and Eric batting a little over 22yds away. The borough council offices are fielding at long-on and halfway up the wall is a sculpted cricket ball, as though hit for six.

Eric Bedser, Woking, Bedser Bridge, Basingstoke Canal
Eric Bedser: looks to me as if he’s clipped it over midwicket…

Statuary and street art is a Woking speciality. The town’s association with HG Wells provides several instances. Wells lived here while he was producing The War of the Worlds. A dramatic Martian tripod dominates a small crossroads that glories in the name Crown Square, and nearby a space-travelling cylinder is embedded in the pavement. The canal cruises go past Horsell Common, featured in the book as the site of the first Martian landing. A statue of Wells himself, holding (and surrounded by) references to his work though not notably melancholic, sits outside the town’s Victoria Gate, on the Woking Heritage Trail.

Woking Borough Council, Woking, Bedser Bridge
… but the ball is picked up over long-on by the Woking Borough Council offices

Not all the town’s public art is as straightforward. ‘The Space Between’, celebrating The Jam, is mystifyingly modern – three tall chunks of timber. In the Wolsey Place shopping mall three willow-bound cyclists ride across metal waves that may represent hills or the roof of the Sydney Opera House. Painted bronze statues by Sean Henry, born in Woking, lurk around the town standing, seated and reclining.

Formal art provision is in a building called the Lightbox, close to Bedser Bridge. The architects, Marks Barfield, were also responsible for Brighton’s i360 tower – well, we all have our off days. The Lightbox grants free entry to a museum called ‘Woking’s Story’, to a gallery named for the Art Fund Prize, sculpture, second-hand books, a good shop and a very good café. Upstairs, galleries and special exhibitions cost £7.50. The main attraction on my visit was ‘Burning Bright: the Scottish Colourists’. If £7.50 sounds steep for a provincial art gallery, consider: a few hours in a carpark, or the opportunity to spend as long as you like in front of JD Fergusson’s Villa Gotte Garden?

War of the Worlds, HG Wells, Martian, Woking, Ebbsfleet United
‘A dramatic Martian tripod dominates a small crossroads’

Woking’s Story, it transpires, involves a surprising amount of spirituality. The town has the 1889 Shah Jehan Mosque, the first mosque to be built in northern Europe.

To the west of Woking is Brookwood Cemetery, the largest cemetery in western Europe and, indeed, in the world when it opened in 1854. Until 1941 it was served by a rail service known as the Coffin Express, running on the Necropolis Line from Waterloo. According to one story, golfers used the service to get to Brookwood Golf Club but had to wear mourning; since golfers are notorious for their lack of fashion sense, that can only have been an improvement. The 220 hectares are used by Woking people as an extended and presumably rather poignant park on their doorstep. Brookwood Military Cemetery, the last resting place of Commonwealth and allied victims of two world wars, lies adjacent.

A little way east of town, on the other side of the M25, is Brooklands Museum. If you were to take this in as well you might need to set aside a weekend. Motorsport, aviation and latterly Concorde are all associated with Brooklands. In 2018 it was one of the five nominees for Art Fund Museum of the Year, beaten eventually by Tate St Ives.

Woking 2 Ebbsfleet United 2
Kingfield Stadium, 14 Sep 2019