For over two hundred years each passing decade has left its mark on the town of Workington and with rare exception those marks have been fairly grisly. In every decade at least one architect has come up with yet another gloomy, dispiriting edifice to add to the town's already remarkable collection. One might almost think there was a architectural conspiracy against the town, that in a secretive coven somewhere they award a prize to the architect who has come up with the year's most dismal creation and invariably it's an architect plying his craft in Workington that wins.
Each time I visit Workington, which I do every year or so, I expect the town to be miraculously improved. Surely, it can't still be as bad - but it is. I was there last Friday and what made this visit more desperate than usual was the fact that I had two hours to kill there. The library, which might have proved one place of sanctuary (it is, of course, housed in a forlorn building going back to the thirties by the looks of it) was closed. However the town has one area of relative interest - the docks, so to the docks I headed.
I hold to the opinion that a town which is also a port is always of interest but Workington comes very close to disproving this theory. There is only one dock and one small single storey building stuck beside it. Not a great deal of activity goes on there. Its two tall cranes stood idle, but they do work occasionally as was evidenced by the two huge mounds of scrap iron that stood on the pier. As if Workington wasn't bleak enough, this is what they imported!
It's clear though the area has changed radically over the years. There are remnants of an older port lining the south bank of the river Derwent, the great majority of it now demolished and swept away. For the most part it's the pubs that have remained; pubs like "The Coastguard" and the "Steampacket" now stand in isolation surrounded by waste land - the community they once served, known probably all too accurately as "The Marsh", long disappeared. Goodness knows who their customers are these days.
Backing the remnants of this older port are some pleasant green mounds - they are actually spoil tips created by the adjacent steel works, now much reduced in scale, which have been landscaped and seeded. Its grubby origins are still detectable, even so. Compared to the rest of the town, this is paradise. A good many Workingtonians seem to think so too, as they pull up there in their cars to look at it. Some actually get out their cars and walk; they mostly have dogs - the place is littered with canine excreta and junk from MacDonald's, which I suppose, mostly comes the people who just sit in their cars.
For all that it's not a bad place to be. The mounds are at the very mouth of the river so they also overlook the sea - the Solway Firth. It is a surprisingly panoramic viewpoint; St. Bees Head, the Isle of Man, the hills of Galloway and the hills of Lakeland are all visible - all places infinitely better to be than Workington.
From this vantage point one can get a fair impression of what Workington once must have been like, a not unpleasant place at all before industrialisation took a hold of it. It didn't surprise me then to read afterwards that in 1540 it was described as being 'a prety creke wher as shyppes cum to, wher as ys a lytle prety fyssher town cawled Wyrkenton'. What a pity things changed (and that spelling became so rigorous for that matter, my life as a schoolboy would have been a lot easier had spelling been as lax in 1960 as it obviously was in 1540.)
At the very last point of land on the river's mouth, to hinder erosion, is a heaped pile of massive boulders. On one of the boulders in large letters someone has written "Workington Reds". This is not an allusion to the writer's political allegiance but his support for the town's local football team. It's surprising it should inspire such devotion. For years the team always came bottom of the bottom league in the F.A. - it now does fairly badly in a lesser league though no longer commandeering bottom position.
It must be all of three years ago come November that I saw the then chairman of the Workington Reds in a set of rather strange circumstances; he was running virtually bare chested, his shirt unbuttoned and just in boxer short underwear down a street in Keswick but a hundred yards from where I live. A strange enough sight at any time of year but on a night which was bitterly cold it was stranger still for even the most hardened jogger on such a night would have been wrapped in warmer clothing and this figure was decidedly not a hardened jogger he was very much overweight. Compounding the strangeness were the words he was uttering. "He's mad! He's trying to kill me," he whimpered as he cast fearful looks over his shoulder. I looked in the direction of his backward glances but a demented pursuer bearing down on him came there not.
Of course, at the time I had no idea who he was. After he disappeared beyond the traffic lights I began wondering had it really happened. But in the next few days the story was revealed on local television and not least through local gossip. The chairman of Workington Football Club, a married man, had been pursuing an homosexual liaison with a young man lodged in Keswick. During their last meeting an argument had arisen and he had stabbed the younger man. His feigned flight in terror was an attempt to make it appear that he had acted in self-defence. It did not work: He was sentenced to two years imprisonment, his marriage ended, his social status lost.
I was saying to a friend of mine a few days after my visit to Workington that at least the people there have no airs about them. There is nothing in Workington to give them any pretensions - what you see is what you get. But now thinking of the town's former football chairman that clearly isn't always the case.