Barrow in Furness Tips
Furness Abbey is not anywhere near as well known as say Fountains or Tintern, but is an awe inspiring sight. Founded by King Stephen in the early 12th century it grew into the second most powerful Cistercian house in England, controlling the wool trade and the iron industry in the region.
What remains are the ruins of magnificent red sandstone buildings, some still soaring into the skies. English Heritage runs the place, and entrance for adults is £3.50, well worth the price. The woodlands surrounding the Abbey make a wonderful backdrop, especially in the autumn when the red and gold leaf colours almost seem to merge with the ageing stones.
There is room for the kids to run around, but parents need to be aware of the unguarded watercourse and the sometimes slippery stones. And beware of the shop with gear the kids will clamour for – chain-mail helmets and bows and arrows along with some well chosen books and plenty of other stuff. Parking is easy, right outside the door of the visitor centre unless it’s a busy day. The guide book is £2.99 and is gives a good insight into the place.
The Cistercian monks worked for a living, particularly so in the early days of the foundation, and there are some surprising elements of their history – at Piel Island off Barrow there is Piel Castle, which was a fortified storehouse for their wool and other goods, often smuggled by the monk to maximise their returns! And Piel Castle was a defence against the marauding Scots, as was Dalton Castle a few miles to the north of the Abbey. Dalton Castle was also built by these “white monks” (so-called because of the colour of their habits), a place of refuge during the long border conflicts and armed raids of the Middle Ages, when the six-foot-thick walls protected those who made it inside against the reivers and the Scottish armies.
The Furness Line between Lancaster and Barrow-in-Furness
Forget the Blue Train and the Orient Express (unless you have won the lottery or work in merchant banking). There are some great little train journeys all over England, some on private lines run by enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, others on the national system. One of the best is the Furness line between Lancaster and Barrow-in-Furness. Lancaster is easily reached off the M6, or by trains from Manchester and Preston. The Furness line branches off to the west, and takes in some glorious countryside. Or it can be joined at Carnforth on the West Coast Main line. After Lancaster the Furness line passes through Carnforth, famed as the station used in Brief Encounter. Next the line passes behind Silverdale, a quiet little town with some lovely walks by the sea (if you can see it – this is Morecambe Bay and when the tide goes out you wonder if it is ever coming back). After Silverdale is Arnside, another quaint resort without an amusement arcade in sight. And at Arnside the real fun begins, with the first of the line’s two viaducts, this one crossing the Kent estuary, the train’s passing marked by a an evocative and sonorous rattling – the sort of noise trains should make when they go over a bridge or viaduct. Once over the Kent the line follows the shore to Grange-over-Sands, the genteel Edwardian and Victorian resort where it is hard to imagine anyone ever swearing. A little further one and the line cuts across the Cartmel Peninsula from Kent’s Bank to Cark and Cartmel. It is a hike to Cartmel from the station, but the magnificent Priory Church and the lovely old Gatehouse are well worth seeing. The Priory Church is imposing, saved from the dissolution by its use as the parish place of worship. Cartmel itself is a beautiful settlement, the sort of place where you find good bookshops and great pub food (this is the home of the sticky toffee pudding after all) rather than souvenir shops. And there is the racecourse too, possibly the prettiest in the land. After Cark the line has its second viaduct, across the Leven estuary. Sweeping on to Ulverston, home of the famous Laurel and Hardy museum – Stan Laurel was born here, and more spiritually of nearby Swarthmoor Hall, which can claim to be the home of Quakerism. After Ulverston the line stops at Dalton, where the castle can be seen, though this is not anywhere near as impressive a sight as Furness Abbey that the train passes as it heads to Roose and Barrow-in-Furness, the end of the line, though it is also the start of the line for the Cumbrian Coast to Whitehaven, Workington and Carlisle, a route that rivals the Furness line for its scenic nature.