Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, UK

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A shipyard

To get a real understanding of the plight of the Barrovian1, you should consider his geographical location. One of the most significant things about Barrow-in-Furness is that only the most hapless, dazed orienteer could possibly visit by accident - you have to have a purpose to get there. Situated at the end of a sizeable peninsula and a good hour's drive away from a motorway or the nearest city, for many years Barrow's only real claim to fame was Mike Harding's persistent references to it as 'the largest cul-de-sac in Britain.'

In the mid-1980s, an advertising agency saw fit to assert that 'Chewits are even chewier than Barrow-in-Furness bus depot' - but things have changed since those heady days of national importance... the bus depot has been demolished.

The town was savaged in 1999 by FHM magazine2 who put it upon themselves to sample the best of Barrow's nightlife. A month later, they compiled a survey entitled 'Are you a miserable failure in life?', and decided that an affirmative answer to question 17, 'Do you live in Barrow-in-Furness?', was worth two points on its own.

So let's say you decided to go on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of footballers Emlyn Hughes and Gary Stevens or pay homage to Stella Rimington, the first female head of MI5. Perhaps you were chased out of neighbouring Ulverston, birthplace of Stan Laurel, by enraged fez-adorning members of the Sons of the Desert - Barrow often basks in the reflected glory of its diminutive, charming neighbour. You may even be satisfying an insatiable urge to view the hometown of TV's 'Fat Bloke', from Harry Enfield's Television Programme. What would you find?

'Barra'3 developed rapidly in the mid-19th Century around iron, steel, and shipbuilding industries. In a pre- end of Cold War climate, the town could enjoy low unemployment and annual performances from politically-earnest pop stars campaigning against nuclear warheads; but a series of defence cuts coupled with the closure of the steelworks meant financial decline for the town.

Thanks to its former industrial importance and a recurrent feeling that good times were ahead4, the town has a large, handsome Victorian town hall, built from local red sandstone, that could rival those of most larger towns and even cities. Furness Abbey, built in 1127, is another major tourist attraction - it was one of the many great monasteries to fall victim to the whim of Henry VIII after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537.

The people of Barrow-in-Furness are notoriously insular and fiercely proud - a feeling encouraged by the fact that they have their own local newspaper, the confusingly-titled North-West Evening Mail, which comes in two daily editions - a special privilege for a town with only 70,000 inhabitants.

Avid followers of the Unibond League might care to pay a visit to Holker Street, home of Barrow AFC, who have enjoyed little glory since their exit from the football league in 1972... save the legendary FA Trophy victory against Leek Town in 1990.

Barrow's Rugby League side - who in the 1990s changed their name to The Braves in a cynical attempt to cash in on the town's Native American heritage5 - occupy Craven Park. At one stage they were hanging number fives upside down on the scoreboard to compensate for a dearth of twos.

Despite its location between two major nuclear power plants at Heysham and Sellafield, the town (or rather Walney Island, to which it is linked by a bridge) has two nature reserves where you will find:

  • The largest mixed ground resting colony of herring gulls in Europe.

  • The most southerly eider duck breeding colony in Britain.

  • The rare Natterjack Toad.

  • The Walney Geranium, a plant which grows nowhere else in the world.

The sea is good for windsurfing, though the waves aren't exactly what you might call clean. It's also a good place to acquire glassware, thanks to Cumbria Crystal.

Still, if the unique charm of a town struggling with industrial decline and taking worryingly large amounts of pride in a series of new unsightly edge-of-town developments doesn't exactly propel you to its environs with magnetic force, then you could always escape to the beautiful tranquility of the English Lake District, which is a short journey away. Nature compensates.

1As people from Barrow-in-Furness are known.2FHM is a 'Men's lifestyle' magazine, featuring fast cars and photos of young women wearing less clothing than they would be if you were to meet them, for example, in the supermarket.3Pronounce it correctly to avoid confusing the natives.4Barrow has been touted over the years as 'the next big sea port' and 'the next Blackpool'5In the early 1990s, a number of British rugby league clubs inexplicably decided that the only way to revive crowds at their grounds was to rename the teams so that they sounded more like American Football teams (a sport that the UK public has generally resisted).

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