6th June 2013Special guest blog: Wandering into Whitehaven by Charlie Brown

Sailing across the Solway Firth from Kirkcudbright Bay to Whitehaven the West Cumbrian Fells rise in the background. Whitehaven, in the Western Lake District, is to be our new home port. We are excited and looking forward to being in a place from where we can explore the cruising grounds of the Irish Sea. Where else can a cruising yachtsman be that offers the opportunity to visit four countries and an independent island?

Whitehaven, the Western Lake District

Coming into a new port for the first time always gives a little frisson of excitement. Not exactly an “Are the natives friendly?” frisson but a more general “We hope we like it” sort of feeling. As we close on the port in a slight chop pushed up by a freshening northerly wind the outline of the fells gets bigger and we start to make out features on the shore and the harbour entrance. Two towers either side of the entrance and a large tower on the cliffs give us our guide into the outer harbour and across to the lock.

Safely into the inner harbour and secure in our new berth we go ashore for a walk and an exploration. My wife decides to look at the town while I take the dogs “up to that tower”. This turns out to be a structure that is called “The Candlestick”.  Aptly named it is too modelled, I later find out, on a candlestick from the dinner table of the Lowther family home. The Lowther family have obviously been very influential in this town. The main street is named after them and successive generations exploited the area’s coal resources exporting huge amounts through the port, particularly to Ireland. The Candlestick itself is the ventilation shaft to the Wellington Pit - sunk in 1838 and working until 1933.

Coal mining and the port have shaped this town and the more I wander the more I realise that to feel the pulse of Whitehaven I have to get to know more about these two things. Fortunately I don’t have to look far because coming down from the Candlestick it is literally written in the pavement!  Every few steps there are recollections carved on the stones, every bench along the Waterfront bears an inscription telling of significant events in the town’s history and memorials are all around.  The pit story reads like a social history of industrial Britain. In over four hundred years of mining there were some notable firsts, some disasters and a lot of grind, sweat and sorrow. A plaque besides the cliff path tells of the Saltom shaft that was sunk in 1730 to a depth of 456 feet. At that time it was the deepest in the world and went three quarters of a mile out under the sea. A memorial on Wellington Terrace tells of an underground explosion in 1910 that claimed the lives of 136 men and boys.  In the aftermath of this incident - the worst of a number that occurred in this coal field – 64 medals for gallantry were awarded.

Whitehaven, the Western Lake District

Further down on the Quayside a life size sculpture of a man spiking a cannon commemorates the visit to the town in 1778 of the American privateer John Paul Jones. As well as giving his name to a dance and a public house near the water front John Paul Jones raided Whitehaven during the American War of Independence and caused a bit of mayhem and burning. It is said that the raid got off to a bit of a dodgy start because, after landing, his marines headed for the nearest hostelry to get stuck into the local brew!  After this imbibing they did succeed in burning a couple of merchantmen but only at the second attempt – apparently their candles blew out on their way to the first try!  

With this piece of derring-do on his curriculum vitae John Paul went on to become the founding father of the American Navy. He is interred in The American Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis. To the Americans he is a hero and to the British something else. He was formally pardonned by Whitehaven, in the presence of representatives of the American Navy, at a ceremony in 1999. The irony of JP’s actions is that he was raiding a town where his future President’s paternal grandmother had been buried 77 years before, but of course he was not to know that.

So that’s a bit of Whitehaven past - what of Whitehaven today?  I meet up with my wife in Anna’s – a café and creperie opposite the Marina gates – to compare notes.  She reports that it’s a “matey sort of place”. The people are friendly and welcoming, talk to you in the shops and seem keen to show you the best side of their town. There are supermarkets on the outskirts and a mix of shops, cafes and pubs in the centre. Restaurants, eateries and take-aways abound.   

Moon’s bookshop is a treasure trove. There is a butcher, a fishmongers, greengrocers, hardware store, off license and dress shops all I am assured, at prices that won’t make the purser cough too much. As with any town centre today there are also plenty of betting shops and charity shops.  So what? – at least the purser can bargain in those!  There will be enough money left over for entrance to The Rum Story, the Beacon and the Haig Mining Museum – enough to satisfy even the most ardent history buff!

Whitehaven fishmongers, the Western Lake District

What was the old port has now become the new marina!  Surrounded by some fine architecture and a wide waterfront beloved of walkers, cyclists and runners it is the perfect place to relax while admiring the craft on view.  In the Marina itself the staff have a friendly and helpful attitude, the facilities are clean and tidy and the clientele have that “we’re all on the same sea” approach that is characteristic of boaty people generally. The Marina currently holds just under 300 boats and work is going on to expand this number to 400 or so.

Whitehaven Marina, the Western Lake District

On the way back we take a circuit around the Waterfront and spot a free house called the Vagabond. The candlelit tables look inviting, they are dog friendly, they have local ale, we salivate over the menu. We have guests coming next week – could this be the place to meet eat, drink and yarn?  With inns like this around no wonder old JP’s marines were a bit slow off the mark!

The Vagabond, Whitehaven, the Western Lake District

For more information about Whitehaven Marina please visit:


Whitehaven - the perfect day out
Millom & Black Combe

Brian Sherwen Photography

Many images on this website have been supplied to us by Brian Sherwen.