We overtake the ghost of winter floods on the motorway North – a lorry with Cockermouth written all over its flanks. Past Lancaster, and the digital boards start shouting about closed bridges. Later, while the night tips fully into black, we see a couple of dented road signs. And that’s all. We wind up staying about twenty minutes away from the high water itself, but actually the flooding stays a kind of miniature 9/11 – something your horrid little brain wants to see first-hand despite knowing it shouldn’t.
We turn up, eventually. Our hosts live in a beautiful terrace in Dalton – part of the in-Furness chain of towns, and not long from the beach. The hosts, they’re a lovely pair, stupidly handsome and very funny besides. You could look at them all night and never get bored. My girlfriend collects friends like these to show me what life could be like with a better personality.
We watch a pirate copy of Paranormal Activity. It’s got an uncomfortable quality of voyeurism — the same you get watching an old relative’s home video collection. You’re always waiting for a boob to flop out. For the tape to click on to some footage they thought they’d recorded over. I suppose that means it’s good.
Too many wines and giggles and cold cigarettes in the rain after that, we fall asleep, get up again and head out towards Barrow.
You can see it’s Barrow from the sign that says BAE Systems. This is where the country builds its wars. The facility complex is a town in itself, slowly assimilating the terraces in all directions around it, growing from the inside out. They’ve built the place so convincingly that Barrow looks like it came second. You get the idea that if this area were to flood, BAE Systems would simply take off.
At its heart is the dockside hangar where they’re making the last of several new Trident nuclear submarines. It’s a pale structure, the plant, and stakes its own claim to size: the doors on the front are the biggest in Europe. Hysterical newspapers would measure them in football pitches. These doors, they sum it up though. This place employs the town, stands sentinel above the town, skylines it.
As we cruise around it, I’m torn between leftish indignation and boyish excitement, and the latter just edges it when I’m told how long it’s taken to build the subs; how many years the subs are on a seawater shelf for tests out the front.
Pulling away, I’m thinking in bulkheads and pressure hulls and warheads. Not how many people they could turn into glass. It’s a fun kind of cognitive dissonance.
A few miles down the road, we’re into Ulverston, and up to the A-pillars in traffic.
By the glance, Ulverston’s another attractive little market town, made quaint by Victorian emblems and a sense that the locals are too proud to let visitors stay long. There’s a pub for every square foot – pubs set into the kind of crooked, leaning buildings you find in all places north of Lancaster; looming over the narrow streets on just the right side of precarious.
We’re here for the annual Dick Fest – the Dickensian festival that is – and it’s pavement to pavement filled with adorable children and people rolling about in carriages and doilies and capes and Russell Brand wigs. Old men who should know better. If it says a lot that there’s a single solitary Asian guy handing out fliers for curry nobody wants, it says even more that the main smells are mulled wine and freshly minted chips. And even though you start to get a kind of quaint fatigue in this kind of place – a sense you’ve seen it all before – it’s got that traditional magnetism; that cross between nostalgia, heritage and self-preservation; the pull of a place fuelled by its own small weight in history.
The main thing is that the people here don’t care what you think of their town. And I really like that.
So we pick at stuff, lanky pigeons around the stalls, dodging horseshit and inconsiderate smokers. We buy a cone of chips, too hot and salty to properly enjoy on account of I’d burnt my palate a few days before. We pootle some more and quaff a load of mulled wine and cashews and other Christmas things. Every stall’s a bit lost in time, selling flat caps and fluorescent leg warmers simultaneously. Eventually we stop to play at one of those stressful games where you’ve got to get a metal ring over a long coiled wire without setting off the buzzer. It’s part of the local Cub Scouts’ recruitment drive.
I win a fun-sized Mars Bar and give it to my girlfriend. Always prepared.
Photo credit: Tom Bullock @ Flickr