Monday, 21 March 2011

Urban Trawl: Barrow-in-Furness

Urban Trawl often hears the question 'but why on earth would you want to go there?!' I don't think I ever heard that so often as with Barrow-in-Furness.

So, why Barrow? Well, apart from the short answer – because people live there – for two main reasons, for two things that make it most unlike any other comparable town. First of all, the urbanism. Not only is it a rare planned town, but remarkably, for a place so small, much of its Victorian centre is made up of hard, big city architecture; specifically, the kind of speculative tenement flats found more often in Scotland or Germany and practically nowhere else in England. Second interesting thing - the fact that unlike practically any other northern industrial town, Barrow still makes stuff, and it makes stuff right in the centre of town, right in your face; especially extraordinary given what unpleasant stuff this is. And Barrow's sheer remoteness has a certain intrigue – it's probably the most geographically obscure large town in the UK, its 60,000 people squeezed into a peninsula and two tiny islands in a protrusion (a 'cul de sac' or an 'armpit' depending who you ask) at the edge of Cumbria, although in both history and accent Barrow is indisputably part of Lancashire.


Barrow is also one of the towns in Britain least architecturally affected by the 20th century, and the 21st has made only the slightest inroads, once inoffensively and once atrociously. The prospect from the station centres on a red brick and glass swoopy-roofed office block and some predictable Blairboxes, both fairly uninteresting - but there's far worse in other, larger towns. That's about as far as the Urban Renaissance model reached in this most dense of industrial towns, though a dockside scheme, 'The Waterfront', promised to roll out the more depressing form of marina dromeage, only to be indefinitely shelved a year ago, with little more than some paths completed. There's a possible reason for this failure. While most of these dockside schemes have little more than some ornamental cranes and a grain silo or two for company, this one would have been in the shadow of what is indisputably the most impressive industrial monument of post-1960s Britain, though competition may not be fierce.

This is BAE Systems' Devonshire Dock Hall, better known here as the Trident Shed, or alternately 'Maggie's Farm', due to her role in getting it built in the mid-1980s, perhaps the only major example where her politics led to the opening rather than closing of a factory. We're in the territory described in Robert Wyatt's heartbreaking song 'Shipbuilding' – what would otherwise be a stone dead industrial town is kept on life support by perpetual warfare; and no doubt 'someone got filled in for saying that people get killed in the results of the shipbuilding'. As here is where the submarines that carry the British 'nuclear deterrent' are built; one submarine will be rolling out of 'DDH' the week that this goes to press. Architecturally – if that's the word – the Devonshire Dock Hall is genuinely astonishing, a Death Star clad in corrugated metal, visible from as far away as Blackpool, the size of several Unites d'Habitation stacked end-to-end. Its white cladding is filthy with grime, and would already stick out in what is otherwise a redbrick and red sandstone town, even if it wasn't so colossal. Adjacent is the relatively Lilliputian 1994 Dock Museum, bland on the outside but with a multi-level interior that rewards some exploration.

The only area where 'defending jobs' was ever really invoked by the governments of the last twenty years was in Defence, so the preponderance of actual working – if minimally staffed – industry shouldn't be that surprising, but it comes as a shock nonetheless. Mostly, industry today is hidden in the exurbs, or obliterated, or, if possible, made into luxury flats. Here, we're so far away from where media might be looking or the middle classes might think of moving, that the suburbanisation of industry never happened. The centre of Barrow industry is on Barrow Island, reached by a high level bridge from the centre. Residentially, this is an extreme landscape. The first reference for its tall, symmetrical sandstone tenements might be Glasgow, but venture round the back of Michaelson Street or Schooner Street and the feeling is more Hanseatic than Scottish, and the rubble stone and peaked roofs are Baltic in feel.

Drop someone blindfolded here and they'd never believe they were in so small a town. These blocks are approximately as unforgiving as they are impressive – in terms of public space, playgrounds, or any alleviation of the general hardness, the crappiest system-built estate of the 1960s is superior, but the tenements' power and urbanity are still bracing. It might have been company housing for abominably treated workers, but it at least assumes its tenants are adults. Yet they're a fragment, a bizarre relic of a time when observers could call this place 'the English Chicago' without smirking. On one side, the tall flats subside into two-up-two-downs and then end at the bay, disappearing into a mess of works, boats and World War Two Pillboxes strewn around at random. On the other side, the impossibly strange rendered concrete of Seeley & Paget's St John's Church, a Norse-Arabic mirage.

At the entrance to Barrow Island is a handsome sandstone office block, the terminus of the immensely long sandstone shed built in the 1890s for Vickers, the engineering corporation who were responsible for much of Barrow's late Victorian development from steeltown into shipbuilding port. The sandstone bases of earlier factories form the ground floors to BAE Systems' immense new sheds. Just opposite the tenements, you're flanked by jagged-roofed yellow and grey sheds and cannot fail to notice a building that proudly tells you it produces 'Global Combat Systems Weapons'. I'm amazed when I come out the other end of the BAE works that nobody has tried to impound my camera. Men in high-vis jackets look unconcerned. Nothing could better sum up the place's ease with its function as producer of instruments to kill and maim.

This is of course what it always was, and the town has always thrived on profiting from war - although once that at least went alongside an intent to build a town of some distinction out of the whole sordid business. Railway entrepreneur James Ramsden, Barrow's de facto founder, produced a town plan in the 1860s centred around grand squares (now entropic roundabouts) and sponsored a Town Hall competition whose result, designed by William Henry Lynn, is first-rate, its turrets and towers in a red sandstone northern Gothic that is perfect for the place's atmosphere, light and topography.

On Walney Island, reached via the spindly Jubilee Bridge from the Trident Shed, is Vickerstown, a Garden City by the water built under the influence of Bourneville; half-timbered arts and crafts houses, some not much bigger than back-to-backs, lead towards more standard, eerily spacious 30s and 60s low-rise housing which contrasts outrageously with Barrow Island's ultra-urbanity, a sharp retreat from the idea that this could ever be a 'Chicago'. Finally there's a beach, the Irish Sea, an epiphanic view of the Lake District, and the Round House, a council-built midcentury modern flight of fancy now housing a Chinese restaurant. At Barrow's northern edge, the head of Vickers got Lutyens to design his house, a stark dry run for Castle Drogo. Can the era of BAE Systems boast of a similar architectural legacy?

Well - Barrow might not be Chicago, but on the site of the Hindpool steelworks is 'Hollywood Park', one of the most dispiriting retail developments in the British Isles. The wipeclean Pizza Huts and PC Worlds are not so much an affront to the redbrick context as blissfully unaware of it, and the vast car parks break into what is otherwise a refreshingly compact town. And that's about it. BAE make enormous profits in Barrow – the town's airport basically exists for their use - but as an indicator of Barrow's future, in the centre a training agency advertisement declares to the young, 'EMA stops soon. Sign up now!'

There is nowhere in England quite like Barrow-in-Furness, and that surely counts for something; in an alarmingly short space and time you can walk through some of the most unusual architectural terrain in the country, and find the unique persistence of city centre industry. That said, the boarded-up shops, the derelict pubs, the empty streets, all tell their own story. It's probably more comfortable to be poor here in 2010 than in 1910 – but should that excuse the brain death in anodised aluminium that is Hollywood Park, or the complete failure to plough at least some of the money extracted from this town into it? Architecturally, Barrow today is nowhere. Yet once, this minuscule town was compared with megacities like Glasgow and Chicago, and that ambition can still be dimly detected.

Originally published in Building Design, 13/1/11


  1. Norse-Arabic mirage... nice one.

  2. Fascinating read, and for me curiously nostalgic. I haven't set foot in Barrow since I left in 1982 after spending one season as its evening paper football-writer. I was there at the outbreak of Maggie's Falklands adventure, and thereby did indeed become that fellow filled in for saying that people get killed in the result of this shipbuilding - felled by a pool cue on expressing in a pub my view of the Belgrano sinking. As I recall it, the Belgrano was just about the only ship involved in the war - on either side - that wasn't built in Barrow.

  3. Nice read, some points very well made.

    Barrow was not built on shipbuilding and warfare - it was actually built on iron and steel - a fact that has been largely lost because of the focus on submarine building.

    Barrow was home to the world's largest integrated iron and steel works, and remains the place where the most successful and common method for making steel - the continuous cast process - is still used around the world.
    Steel rails rolled in Barrow were used on most of the rail networks around the world, from the USA to Russia, South America and Australia - some examples still exist today.

    The engineering and shipbuilding industries designed and built some very famous ships - and employed the notable Barnes Wallis in the production of airships.

    It is sad that it is known today primarily for building the vessels to carry the nuclear deterrent provided by the USA.

    Most of the local population detest the tin sheds and 'modernist' structures that have been thrown up - notably in its apalling town centre area. Where it used to have two public swimming pools and an open air lido - for example - these have been replaced by a tin shed in the public park!