Golden Oldie – Whitehaven

On the 2nd June 2010, Derrick Bird made my hometown of Whitehaven internationally famous by shooting dead 12 people and injuring 11 others in the worst mass shooting in Britain since Dunblaine in 1996.

My wife, children and I, being 5,000 miles away from our friends and family were in an awful state as we followed the news until confirmation of Bird’s death and then began the long checking to make sure all we knew we unharmed. Bird almost certainly drove past our house and definitely killed one man while he stood next to our friend and neighbour.

At the time, Whitehaven was considered a ‘sleepy town’ and it was us that were in a ‘dangerous’ land, so the fact that we were safe in Bangladesh while friends were locked into the local library to save them from a crazed gunman was not something we took lightly.

I was inspired to write this post as one of my very first blog publishings on another site and offer it again here, one year after re-starting my blog writing on wordpress, edited and updated to include my thoughts nearly two years on. The key focus of the post was not to dwell on the awful event but to give my impression the people of Whitehaven…

This post is dedicated to the memory of the victims of 2nd June 2010, their loved ones and to the good people of Whitehaven and area.

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Isn’t it odd that inevitably, as we grow up, we dislike the place in which we live? I remember a student, when I lived in Cambridge, who had lived all her life there telling me it was a dreadful place because ‘there was nothing to do’. Cambridge! One of the most incredible places in the world!

Wherever I go I find much the same thing with children and young adults. The place of their birth is deadly dull in comparison to…well, anything really. But Whitehaven is considered so remote with so little going on there that when I was interviewed for a teaching post at the local school I was grilled by a committee of three about exactly how I would spend my free time. All three of them were ‘foreigners’ to the place (in that they didn’t come from Whitehaven and actually didn’t even live there! They just worked at the school).They were worried I would find the place a terrible bore and leave very quickly. The truth, as they say, could not have been further away.

I fell in love with Whitehaven not long after I fell in love with my wife.

We were studying in Cambridge at the time so I had no idea, other than her accent, that she came from the north. As it was, when I found out – like most of the population of England – I had only the vaguest idea where it was.

“Is that in Scotland?” I asked rather apologetically. Having lived there over 10 years now I secretly curse when someone asks me that these days, but back then I was young and foolish. I soon learned from my soon-to-be-wife that there was a huge difference between being in Scotland and almost being in Scotland.

And that, I guess, is one of the major reasons I love Whitehaven. Not so much the scenery, the harbour, the hills, the lakes – beautiful though they are – but the ‘in your face’ nature of the people there. Like my wife.

It is not so much that people in Whitehaven will call a ‘spade a spade’, as that they will call it a ‘bloody great shovel’ and I love that. It is one of the reasons I have taught children for 20 years. I still get as excited now being with a student as I did back then because I love the honesty. Children don’t know what they ‘should’ or ‘should not’ tell you. They just say it with brutal honesty. Cumbrians, like most northerners, are not known for being genteel and polite. But they are honest. Cumbrian children all the more so.

I know that it is difficult to generalise about people and you have your good and bad wherever you go. But in Whitehaven, perhaps more than anywhere else I have ever lived, the people tell you how it really is. If you look a total idiot they will tell you. If you paid too much for something they will tell you. If they disagree with you they will tell you.

That all sounds negative doesn’t it but no, believe me, it is refreshing.

Because Whitehaven people also know how to tell you when you are getting it right. And if you need someone on your side there is no one I would rather have than a Cumbrian who believed in me fighting my corner. They will sing your praises to the far corners if you warrant it and they are not backwards in coming forwards with telling you when you have got it right. I can’t think of a single time when someone from Whitehaven has paid me a compliment that didn’t sound like it was the God’s honest truth. There was no buttering up. Just the facts, as they saw it.

Is this some kind of nostalgic longing to be back there now I live in Bangladesh with a very different kind of society? No not all. For two reasons:

Firstly, I love being here too. The people are different but they are every bit as special. I’ve written of this many times now. I do get homesick for Whitehaven at times but usually I am content with my lot here. I write then, not with sorrow but a deep swelling of pride in Whitehaven, a place that I have come to appreciate all the more now that I am separated from it.

Secondly, because actually I have been saying all this ever since I first stepped foot in the town. I was attracted to the place because of the woman I knew best from there – my wife. So I already had a pretty good idea of what to expect. It was me, not the Cumbrian in our marriage, who decided we should leave Cambridge and move back to her hometown.

Whilst Cumbrians will be critical of each other at times, they take great pride in their town as they work together to make festivals the envy of any place. What dogged persistence when the infamous Cumbrian weather ravages every rooftop. Far from being beneath those of us who are ‘foreigners’ (I come from the south after all) and have found shelter in this noble town, I think they have much to show us about what we have lost that was precious to England all but a few decades ago. Certainly in all the years I have been there, I have never failed to be amazed by the courage and love this town has given my family and I.

For a brief moment, Whitehaven got some bad press because of the actions of a man who had lost his sense of right and wrong. Unbelievably, the people were accused of being ‘uncaring’ and ‘cold’ and all they had been doing right was forgotten or ignored. Just recently, whilst in the UK last year, I watched a stand up comedian live and he used me in some banter for his act. When he found out I was from Whitehaven he fired out a string of jokes about serial killers. I don’t blame him, a comedian’s job is to pick holes for the amusement of others, and he was actually a very funny man. But at the same time I was saddened that long after that day of the shootings, this is still what people think of the town.

Despite this, when I returned to Whitehaven last year I found business as usual. The festivals took place, the partying in the street at Christmas, the locals putting on a pantomime – the celebration of life in fact. Nothing gets a Cumbrian down for long and nor should it. They have nothing to be ashamed of.

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About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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22 Responses to Golden Oldie – Whitehaven

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  8. Rinth says:

    Wow! Looks like a gorgeous town!

    Like

  9. kidswhogig says:

    Brilliant Ken! – I think everyone has known about a sleepy town with a wicked past – but the townspeople bring all the positivity back over time! It’s the foreigners that bring it up and other than honor the memories of those lovely souls lost ,they dwell on – “it can happen anywhere” attitude. My hometown was plagued by the KKK in modern day. Something that even tho is was back in the 80s, is still remebered now. (Thanks to a newscaster looking for a story to sensationalize at the time) You have given your home town a painted picture of a place I would like to visit! Even tho – I don’t remember this news piece from across the pond – what I hold in my mind is the honesty that comes from speaking from the heart. Just like our spouses due to us – when we need it! Thanks for sharing your place with all of us.

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    • Some good connections there, thank you! I’m glad I gave you a good impression of the town. Actually it is a lovely place and the area is fantastic – we have all the lakes and mountains that are best in the UK – it is a very beautiful place to live and I do miss it 🙂

      Like

  10. Bindu says:

    That was a wonderful post, though I am not at all familiar with the place or people mentioned here. But one thing attracted me is the honesty of the people. I too adore such people. I prefer those who silently perform their duties and never come to chat with me (I head the girls’ wing of a school) to those who frequently drop in to ‘butter me up’ in their struggle to cover up their laziness.

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    • Yes I know just what you mean. The Cumbrians I know don’t tend to be quiet about things necessarily but they certainly won’t ‘butter up’. They prefer to tell you just the way it really is.

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  11. What a lovely post..I remember those shootings..it was terrible..I go to University in Bradford, and at the time was offered a year long placement at Pirelli Tyres, and the interview was in Cumbria..I was so scared to visit..I will be honest..and ended up declining the position. Then months later..we had the Crossbow Cannibal incident in Bradford and that was it..and I instantly felt terrible at the way I’d reacted..because then when people asked me where I went to school and I said Bradford..they either laughed and asked if I knew the guy..were scared..or made terrible jokes. It’s a devastating thing for cities/counties to go through..and it’s sad that people only remember the bad things.
    I’m yet to visit Cumbria, but it’s definitely on my places to visit list..the train ride from Bradford to Cumbria is one of the most beautiful I’ve been told.. 🙂

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    • Thank you for your wonderful honesty. I really appreciate your comments.

      As I make a hint of in the post, I was knocked by the fact that I could have been there at the time had I not chosen to go to the more ‘dangerous’ place of Bangladesh. I could have been with my two children at the time as Bird drove past our house. You just never know where tragedy will happen or when madness will grip someone. All you can do is be grateful for each day that is given to you.

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  12. susanshay says:

    Thanks for visiting Writingsluts, Ken. I enjoyed your blog! I’ll have to visit your world again.

    Like

  13. Alex Jones says:

    I like concrete thinking people. Is this trait of calling a spade a spade universal in the north of England?

    Like

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