The Cumbria Coast is one of the three case study sites on the Irish Sea in which we are researching ‘the cultural value of coastlines’. We focus on the coastline from Whitehaven to Barrow-in-Furness, an area which has become known as Britain’s ‘energy coast’, as it combines some of the country’s most extensive wind farms with the largest nuclear complex in Europe at Sellafield, and was once home to some of Britain’s largest and deepest coal mines. It is also renowned for its military associations, with the Ministry of Defence’s large ordnance testing facility at Eskmeals, and the nuclear submarine shipyard at Barrow. However, the coastline also boasts some important sites of natural beauty, including St Bees Heritage Coast, just south of Whitehaven, the Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve on the Duddon Estuary, and the North Walney Nature Reserve on Walney Island, off Barrow. The red sandstone cliffs of St Bees Head are important breeding grounds for black guillemots, and, on clear days, offer wonderful views of Irish Sea coastlines extending from Galloway to North Wales, and including the Isle of Man. Sandscale Haws has been designated a site of special scientific interest because of its rich dune system and associated diversity of wildlife.
Historically, this area of West Cumbria has been associated with mining and heavy industry, especially coal, steel and shipbuilding. It has a long history of industrial innovation: Saltom Pit, for example, was the first undersea coal mine in England, sunk in 1729, and Calder Hall at Sellafield, was the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, opened in 1956. But such innovations have also contributed throughout the industrial age to social and environmental deprivation.
Cumbria is the second most sparsely populated county in England, and the Cumbria coastal communities have not recovered from the loss of the steel, mining, shipbuilding, and nuclear industries which once brought people to the region, with the controversial reprocessing plant at Sellafield one of the few remaining large employers in the region. The coastal communities also benefit little from tourism, despite being just a short distance from the Lake District, Britain’s most popular and most often visited national park, the boundaries of which even extend on to this coastline between Ravenglass and Silecroft. Our research here focuses on post-industrial coastal communities, and the legacies left by declining or departing industries for the cultural value of coastlines.