‘Are you looking for the old port?’
The man seemed to have appeared from nowhere, yet he was tall and strongly built, white hair sticking up straight, not easy to overlook.
‘Port?’ I was bemused – I’d been poking at pink Corallina fringing a pool.
A wet black labrador jumped up at me, whining, tail thrashing, a long stick protruding each side of his mouth. I took the stick and threw it, my hand slipping on the glutinous slobber.
‘There was a port here in the 1700s, it was built to take the coal from Parton to Dublin. If you go down there across the rocks—‘he pointed to where a flat tongue of sandstone jutted into the sea, ‘you’ll just be able to see some remains of the walls. And there’s a few dressed blocks of stone lying round down there, too.’
Until then, I had had no idea that Parton had been a port. The man then told me about fossil plants in the mudstone, and how he and his daughter had picked up about 20 specimens in half-an-hour. My husband joined us and told the man about a large ‘trace fossil’ – feeding marks possibly made by a sedentary worm – that we had just found in a boulder by the car-park. I had been collecting sea-weed, and the man told me about the channel wrack on the rocks nearby. He was a retired zoologist; we chatted some more, shook hands and said ‘Well met’, and the man and his dog strolled away across the shore.
Parton is just to the North of Whitehaven, where coal has been mined for at least three centuries. In the late 17th century and early 18th century Parton was apparently a busy and thriving town. There were two tanneries, a glassworks, a saltpan, and also considerable business associated with coal. All this I discovered later when we left the shore for the Wagon Way, where there is an information board and an audio system that will not be silenced after you have pressed the button; its calm, reasonable voice continues to echo from the cliff even after you’ve bidden it goodbye.
The rocky shore that edges the village is a mixture of the geological and industrial past so common on this stretch of coast, where coal-mining and steel-making once guided the economy and peoples’ lives. In places the sand and shingle have been washed away to expose hard banks of ash and embedded coloured, gaseous pebbles, the slag from the Bessemer converters which was poured onto the shore. Piles of limestone boulders, brought from inland quarries, have been mounded at the shore’s upper margin to protect the land from the sea’s battering; the curved fossil shells within them – bivalves, brachiopods – show the marine origin of the rock.
And the ‘country rock’ of the shore is old, Carboniferous sandstone, both purple and creamy-yellow, in flat plates and ridges, bored into by the waves to form deep alga-fringed pools. Surfaces and crevices are coated with barnacles, mussels, gaggles of Littorina, and the tall-shelled limpets indicative of an exposed, wave-pounded shore.
This rocky shore-scape is so different from the sandy expanses further up the Cumbrian coast. Here at Parton are algae of all colours coating the rocks and pools, providing a richness of habitats for intertidal animals. There are encrusting patches of tubes of the honeycomb worm, Sabellaria. Foot-marks and ‘teeth’-marks on the smooth rock betray the wandering, feeding activity of winkles and limpets when the tide comes in: incipient ‘trace-fossils’.
There are other rocks, too, sea-smoothed pebbles and boulders: different-coloured sandstones, Carboniferous and New Red, coal, and slate. There are more clues about former lives and endeavours: the sea sorts them into bands along the shore – fragments of decorated china and lumps of thick green glass scoured by the sand, the base of a bottle with ‘WHITEH’ in raised glassy letters, cloudy green marbles from bottle-stoppers.
As so often, a chance encounter – this time with one man and his wet dog – brings questions, this time about the vanished port. The main players were Lamplugh, Fletcher, and Lowther, then as now a major land-owner: Lowther already had a suitable port and quay at Whitehaven, but feared the competition from Lamplugh’s proposed quay at Parton.
What a long psychological and verbal battle was stirred up between them by the necessity to export coal – coal from coastal pits like Lowca and Moresby and Saltom – easily and cheaply by sea. There had previously been a small harbour at Parton which was damaged by storms and barely usable. Lamplugh arranged for the pier to be ‘re-built’ between 1695-8, and – of course – the re-built pier was considerably bigger than before, and a certain amount of dredging and re-arranging of the outlet of a beck was required to improve the harbour. In 1705, the First Parton Harbour Act was passed in Lamplugh’s favour; followed by Acts 2 and 3 in 1724 and 1732, all of which permitted the raising of funds for the continuance and upkeep of the harbour by the levy of dues on ships. The twists and turns, the Acts and weasel-words, are recounted in delightful detail by David Bradbury in the online background material for his book, Parton Part One.
But in the end, it was the Solway’s wild waves that eventually finished off the harbour and the export business. In February 1796 a tremendous storm thrashed the West coast of Britain, and Parton’s port was totally destroyed, its sandstone quay swept away, the bay’s sandbanks and shingle shifted and redistributed. Where there is now a piece of flat ground and the War Memorial, on the village side of the railway, there was once a harbour.
After the man and his dog had left, I looked for remnants of the harbour wall, but the sea had already covered them for there was nothing to be seen beneath the silty incoming tide.
With the loss of the port as its hub, it seems that Parton went into a decline. The village, hidden at the base of the great red cliffs, is unseen from the main coastal road, and the shore is hidden from the village behind a high red wall that is punctuated by a few low tunnels through which a car, or horse and wagon, might drive, carefully, to the shoreward side. The clues to the reason for this wall are high above, spiky silhouettes of gantries with signals, and warning signs: the embankment carries the coastal railway on which Parton is a request stop.
It’s Sunday and several men in high-vis jackets are chatting, and clattering with metal tools, on the line. Later, we watch the two-coach train creeping round the foot of the distant headland and then, unrequested, passing through the station, continuing quietly to Whitehaven.
We pass through another tunnel under the railway, back into the village. There are more high sandstone walls, some of the stones show cross-stratification, the lines of intersecting underwater sandbanks; square holes are inhabited by jackdaws who turn their heads to peer down at us; two rusty hinge-supports give away the presence of a bricked-up door, behind which there is the sound of rushing water. These stone walls are the artificial face of the cliff, built to restrain the soil and shale from slipping down onto the street.
From a higher vantage point we look down onto the roofs of houses and into their backyards, a view that takes in the railway, the bay, and distant Moresby church and Hall, and that is still – with notable absences – recognisable from Percy Kelly’s paintings and drawings. Author Chris Wadsworth records that in an interview in 1964 Kelly ‘said there was an urgency in drawing and painting [Parton] because it was disappearing as he worked. In fact the council were demolishing a lot of the old houses which were unfit for habitation and relocating people to the new housing estate on top of the hill.’
Kelly was born further up the coast at Workington in 1918, and his extraordinary story has been told by Chris Wadsworth, who as a former gallery owner in Cockermouth has done more than anyone to bring Kelly’s works and life to our notice. He was a difficult man – paranoid, narcissistic, hypochondriac, arrogant, twice married, befriended by the rich and famous, cross-dresser (long before Grayson Perry, and while living in a rural area in less-tolerant times) … He was a man who inspired many unflattering epithets, but whose works, including his now-famous illustrated letters, have become highly sought-after and enormously admired.
Kelly was also, for a while, a friend of Millom poet Norman Nicholson; the dwellings, works and harbours of the industrial coast of Cumbria inspired them both. His drawings and paintings of this area are visual echoes of Nicholson’s 1943 poem Whitehaven :
‘… suburbs like a waking beast
Hoist their backbones to the east,
And pitheaps at the seaward gate
Build barricades against the light.
Deep as trenches streets are dug
beneath entanglements of fog …’
Parton isn’t on a ‘tourist route’. While we are there, the shore is busy only with locals walking their dogs; a lone fisherman waits for sea-bass.
But a new guide to Parton, one of several ‘Percy Kelly Trails’ researched and designed by Chris Wadsworth, might persuade enthusiasts for the artist’s works and life to visit the village and search for the buildings and views which inspired him.
Our intention – the reason we have come to Parton – is to search for those plant fossils that the man had mentioned. We head South towards Whitehaven along the Wagon Way, a smooth track once used by horses hauling coal and now ideal for cyclists, walkers, buggy-pushers.
We are distracted by more red walls: low walls against the cliff’s base, and a waist-high wall above the railway embankment, curving around the headland in the distance.
The walls demand our time, our attention; they are so perfectly constructed of blocks, some as much as a metre long and 300cm high. Red sandstone, St Bees’ stone, probably quarried from the cliff between Parton and Whitehaven, then transported to where it was needed; the block faces cut and dressed and worked to almost perfect squares and rectangles.
Mica flakes glitter, green algae smear the surface; here and there the exposed surface has been deeply eroded. Imagine the difficult and unsafe work that went into the quarrying and transporting of the stone; the cutting, the dressing, the lifting and placing of all those stones. There are holes in the blocks that would have been used for swinging them into place. How many men, how long, did it take for the walls of Parton to be built?
Guttural quacking draws attention to pairs of fulmars, raising their necks in bonding display, high above on rocky ledges. The site we are looking for is part-way up their cliff, a dark patch of shale-y mudstone, formed millions of years ago when a stream in spate burst its banks and deposited metres of fine mud onto surrounding vegetation. To get to it we must climb over a wall and fight along an indistinct muddy track, up through brambles and briars and last year’s pale nettle stalks. But we are Prepared: we have secateurs and an old piton-hammer that has found new use as a geological hammer. And then, several metres below our objective there is a landslip, a talus slope of mudstone flakes, within some of which are embedded smooth dark shapes – single perfectly-preserved leaves, stems fringed with leaves, straight ridged stalks.
Each tiny plant is as delicate as gold-leaf that has been stroked onto a substrate with a paint-brush.
Later, as we walk back along the Wagon Way, the narrowing strip of shore below is empty of people, but as we turn the corner onto Main Street a wolfhound as tall as a miniature horse ambles towards us. He is neither wet nor carrying a stick. His owner tells us, ‘He’s lazy, he’d rather lie on the sofa all day.’