Gulliver’s travels to new-look Whitehaven

Alan Cleaver
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The new mosaic at Whitehaven harbour

Whitehaven harbour has been revolutionised in the last 20 or 30 years. Until the end of coal mining in the early 1980s it was strictly a working harbour and not somewhere you would want to visit. But then it had the yuppie treatment and the good folk of Whitehaven woke one morning to find they had a ‘marina’ instead of the old grotty harbour. It’s a pleasant walk – and a bracing one if you take in either of the old harbour walls.

Until this week the footpath along the south coast from the harbour was the path ‘less travelled’. However, it has been tidied up over the last few months and this week was officially opened featuring mosaics, artworks and many features echoing the town’s proud heritage.

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The famous historical picture of Mount Pleasant Steps

The most remarkable transformation is Mount Pleasant Steps. Despite its name, Mount Pleasant was one of the worst slums not only in Whitehaven but in the country. The famous picture (left) shows the famous steps – thankfully the only feature remaining – with suitably Victorian urchins sitting on them.

There’s a delightful account of these steps written by Sir George Head in 1835 as part of his book, A Home Tour Through The Manufacturing Districts of England.

“Excepting at South Shields, I think I never ascended a more uncouth flight of stone steps than those which lead from the docks at Whitehaven to the high land on the southern extremity of the town” writes. “On both sides, all the way up, on the right and on the left, are built small houses for the colliers, where, as is usually the case, in proportion to the size of the dwelling, inversely is the stock of little children: these, at all hours, sit, ten or a dozen at a time, like unfledged rooks, on perilous crags of stone, and crawl backwards and forwards from the little alleys which diverge at right angles from the landing places.

“I observed some with red heads, others with white heads, but all with black faces, alike carelessly clambering up and down, and playing on the verge of precipices quite awful to behold. One little creature, hardly able to walk, nevertheless made his way up without any assistance, and alone – a little boy, covered by one single, very short petticoat, and it was curious to observe how cautiously he crawled on all fours, and as he travelled on the back part of his hands and his feet, carried his hind quarter high up in the air. ‘Do your children never tumble down these steps, and if they do, where in goodness do they stop? said I to a poor woman. ‘O yes, Sir, very frequently,’ said she ‘but they hardly ever hurt themselves, somebody always stops them’.”

But it’s Sir George’s last line which perhaps should still be engraved for eternity on the steps – it’s better than any Health and Safety warning the council could dream up. He writes: “A step one way or the other carries a child to its cradle or its grave”.

Today the steps are a pleasure to walk – though still requiring astonishing stamina – and are even lit up at night.

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A tourist has fun with Jonathan Swift house at Whitehaven

Climb to the top of the steps and walk along the South Coast path and you will pass a solitary house that overlooks the sea. This is Jonathan Swift House, a former Inn that is now privately owned. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, has an intriguing link with Whitehaven. He was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1667 but was abducted by his nurse at just 12 months old and brought to her native Whitehaven, apparently being smuggled on board a ship inside a ‘bandbox’ (a small carrying case). It is Jonathan Swift house that she allegedly stayed in during her stay.

She had heard that a relative of hers – one who was expected to leave her a legacy – had fallen dangerously ill. But she was so attached to young Jonathan she decided to smuggle him across the Irish sea to Whitehaven. Although Jonathan’s widowed mother traced the nurse she apparently allowed them to stay in Whitehaven until he was older and stronger – giving him a better chance of surviving such a long and hazardous journey. During his stay at Whitehaven, the nurse taught him to spell and by the age of three he “was able to read any chapter in the Bible”.

Victoria Glendinning, who wrote a biography of Swift, is sceptical as to the accuracy of this story. However she points out in an article in the New York Times: “Swift was to describe Gulliver, a finger-sized manikin among the giant Brobdingnagians, being parted from his giant nurse-girl, wafted in his carrying-box over the sea by an eagle, and dropped into the water to float on till he was rescued. I think, when he wrote that, the Whitehaven story was in the back of his mind.”

There is a legend in Whitehaven that it was when young Jonathan stood on the cliff overlooking Whitehaven harbour and gazed down on the ‘little people’ below that he first began to dream of a world where a giant wandered among little people. A seed of an idea that would one day evolve into the classic novel, Gulliver’s Travels.

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