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Published: September 8th 2014
The UK certainly packs a lot of scenery - with enormous variation - into a small space. In a couple of hours today we travel from the English high country to the Cumbrian coast, traversing the great Settle-Carlisle railway. The scenery is classic dales - dry stone walls, small hamlets clinging to the side of steep valleys, high country sheep (small and cute, not the 'businesslike' Aussie bush ones), green hills and babbling brooks. Very peaceful.
Switching trains at the great English/Scottish border city of Carlisle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned briefly in 1568, we find our next rail conveyance is a single car - an indication we are heading 'off the beaten track' as far as a tourist routes go into the quieter county of Cumbria. Our destination is Whitehaven, a seaside town midway along the Cumbrian coast.
This is a very different railway to the Settle to Carlisle line. In contrast to the former's immaculately maintained stations, the Cumbrian coast line has seen better days. The stations are unkempt and overgrown and while basic facilities like a modern bus shelter and toilets are provided, that's about it. Unlike the major city
hubs (and even smaller regional towns) we have passed through to date, there's very little in the way of the shops which seem to have sprouted on stations like mushrooms everywhere else - Costa (coffee) and WH Smith (newsagents) the most prevalent. Most of the stations on this line are unstaffed and generally look unloved. But the on-train staff are friendly, and a conductor (long vanished from both buses and trains back home) checks our tickets and stops for a chat.
The line winds its way south almost literally on the beach. Last year portions were washed away in some of the worst storms for a decade, closing the line for more than a week. Only a single line has been rebuilt in places and our 'train' meanders slowly along these sections, clinging to a rock ledge cut into the cliff. Across the Solway Firth we can see Scotland, and not far from here is one of the only places in the UK it's possible to see three countries from the same spot - England, Scotland and the independent Isle of Man, less than 20 miles off the coast in the Irish Sea.
Cumbrian Coast line is filled with places with bucolic place names - Bootle, Seascale, Flimby, St Bees and Drigg (which is home to a nuclear waste dump, but more on that later). We alight at the small halt of Corkickle (yes, a real place I feel embarrassed to ask the train guard about, not to be confused with a popsicle). Quaintly, you have to tell the guard in advance if you want to get off, and when catching a train from there you must stand close to the edge of the platform and wave it down, just like a bus. But in a sign the modern world has reached even this out-of-the way location, the bin on the station is simply a clear plastic bag in a supporting ring, to ensure a bomb can't be concealed in a public place.
We walk up steeply cobbled streets to our B&B, with a view of the not too distant sea before heading out to explore Whitehaven. With Dad's interest in ships and the sea, we head further south to the great former dockyard and ship building town of Barrow-in-Furness.
Our mode of transport is an even
more ancient rail bus than our single car train to Corkickle. On the way south we pass within throwing distance of Sellafield, the UK's most (in)famous nuclear site and home to the UK's first atomic research program and power plant. When it was being built, one of the chief engineers insisted on a filter system for the chimneys through which excess air and heat is vented. Everyone thought he was mad - until the reactor caught fire in 1957, the UK's largest nuclear accident to date (hopefully ever - according to the spin 'everything changed' after that point). This was the UK's version of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, although allegedly less serious. It still took hours to put out the fire by drowning the reactor with water, and much of the surrounding farm produce from the region was destroyed 'just in case'. The reactor was not used again, sealed until the late 80s, and it will take until sometime in the 2030s to decommission and decontaminate the building.
The site is still very active, with other reactors still at work and a busy programme of nuclear waste reprocessing on behalf of other plants in the UK
and Europe. The 6km square site houses 1300 buildings, as well as the world's largest outdoor and uncovered waste holding pond, which we can't see from the train behind the very high and very serious looking security fence. The place even has its own police force - the British Civil Nuclear Constabulary. (Not sure if they are affiliated with ACPO 'Manda...)
We can see the plant's internal rail system and the special locos and waste wagons, used for moving low and high level waste around the site, down the coast to the aforementioned waste repository at Drigg, and further afield for international transport under tight security. The integrity of the containers was tested spectacularly in the early 80s when a locomotive was driven at full speed directly at a waste container, destroying the loco in an explosion of flame but leaving the container intact. Worth a watch on YouTube here if you like big crashes - also interesting to see how the BBC did newscasts back then. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY446h4pZdc
Whatever you think about nuclear power, Sellafield is Cumbria's largest employer, with more than 11,000 staff. Without it, the areas would be severely economically depressed, despite
the tourist influx to the nearby Lake District each summer. Second is BAE Systems, which (not co-incidentally, one thinks) builds nuclear subs in Barrow just an hour away and is the only major employer left in that once proud dockyard city. Its facility towers over the town and the old docks, including the Barrow Docks Museum which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays - a problem for us as today is Tuesday!
Undeterred we make our way back along the coast on the stopping train, skirting a great estuary of sand and mud which stretches out to the horizon. It wasn't far from here, at Morecambe Bay, that more than 20 Chinese cockle packers drowned when caught on the sands by the returning tide after dark in 2007. Commercial cockle picking is now banned, more due to a shortage of cockles than for safety reasons.
I don't often associate Britain with spectacular sunsets over the sea, but with around half the country having a west coast, this probably shouldn't come as a surprise. The evening light is (almost) as spectacular as you get in Broome, Darwin or other points west. Something you only notice
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