SEA CREST, COULDERTON, AND THE PICKTHALLS
This page is about a family who owned a bungalow which no longer exists, because it got burned down (twice). The story begins three years before contributor Donald Pickthall was born. Some old foundations which remained visible for many years showed that the 'Sea Crest' Donald knew was not the original which had been created for Egremont fruiterer J.F. Woodend. The temporary disappearance of the bungalow from the rate book in 1934 was the result of a fire (possibly due to the fact that, judging from the foundations, it had a traditional fireplace more suited to a brick building, but there were rumours of an insurance scam). Mrs Sarah Woodend, who owned the new bungalow on the site from 1935, sold it within a couple of years:
*"The bungalows then were a community ... a place where you were rich; your parents were rich. They weren't rich, my father was an iron ore miner, but he had the sense in 1937, when that bungalow came up, he bought it... I think he paid £90 for it... To an iron ore miner making £2 10s a week in 1937 it was a lot of money, especially when you've got a family."
It doesn't take much arithmetic to work out that by the time young Don, born that same year, was beginning to understand the world, Britain was at war, and the decision to buy a bungalow was vindicated in spectacular fashion. Petrol rationing was not a problem, the family would simply hire Steele Malkinson to take them to Coulderton beach by pony and cart, with their clothes, bed-linen etc. at the end of July, when the Winscales iron mine where John Pickthall worked began its annual holiday fortnight. The clever bit was, once wartime restrictions were eased, they didn't go home at the end of the fortnight (which was all too often "one week good, and one week flood") but stayed the whole summer. Mr Pickthall would cycle to work from Coulderton and pick up supplies on the way home, then:
"If he'd had a hard shift, he would maybe have an hour, two hours of, you might say, a kip, and summat to eat. But next thing, he's out digging lug, and put a set line out, catch a few cod- or out with't crab hook if't tide was out, over to Crab Island. Come back- two or three crabs, if lucky a lobster, odd time a conger eel. And that was life, and I learned that life- he taught us that life, and as I grew up, that was all part of me."
They didn't eat fish all the time: Don believes that Wallace's shop, next to the Tourist Hotel in Nethertown village, was also an important source of supplies- it certainly was for him, because it sold lemonade as well as more mundane groceries. Day-visitors, or anybody who didn't want the fuss of getting a fire going, could get boiling water for tea from Mr Jones's bungalow, which had a big driftwood-fuelled pot boiler. There was, by the way, something of a tribalism among day-visitors: people from Egremont and northward tended to favour Coulderton, those from Beckermet preferred Braystones.
He remembers being taken down to Coulderton on the back carrier of his father's Rudge bicycle, and though he's not sure when and where he learned to ride a bike himself, he certainly knows where, and how, he learned to swim:
"My father carried us on his shoulders, and he just picked us and just threw us into the sea, and then somehow you automatically dog paddle and try to keep your head up high and your backside goes down like, you know- but that certainly was how you learned to swim."
He also remembers, when he was about seven years old, his father pointing out to sea and saying "Look what's rising!". It was a submarine periscope. At one point in the run-up to D-Day the Solway Firth was full of aircraft carriers, destroyers, landing craft and other vessels. Many years later, having built himself a metal-detector, Don found a large quantity of spent blank rifle cartridges around a stairway up from the shore near St. Bees, probably fired in a wartime exercise. Other finds suggest that the Canadian Royal Artillery spent some time in the area.
An important local feature during the Second World War and after was the Nethertown army camp (later RAF), with its anti-aircraft practice and demonstration facility by the shore. A good thing about the camp itself was that the public were allowed access to its cinema facility. About half-way along the road from Nethertown to Braystones a track led off to the camp's small-arms range, where the targets were backed with railway sleepers, and enterprising boys could gouge the bullets out of the wood to melt down and make lead soldiers. One experience Don was firmly steered away from by his father during the war was a corpse which washed up on Coulderton shore, probably an airman who didn't make it back to Silloth.
There was more excitement to be had after the war at Nethertown Point, the headland overlooking the concrete apron installed on the shore for the anti-aircraft guns. Up on the Green were some surviving pre-war holiday bungalows, requisitioned for use as army offices etc. The first one as you approached from Nethertown village, rather elegant with a veranda, was the company H.Q., which meant it had a telephone (and after the war, it was left littered with official documents). There were also two buildings with attics, in one of which, after the Forces had left, Don found assorted mementoes of its former holiday existence, such as pre-war newspapers- some, he thinks, going back to the 1920s. Definitely never used for holidays was the solidly-built structure, with two guarded doors, in which ammunition was stored (shortly after this page was first compiled, Don met an old man who reminded him that next to Steele's (later Shepherd's) farm nearby also stood a very large shed, constructed from something like asbestos sheeting and fronted by a concrete yard, which was used to house the guns). It was also after the war that Don became aware of the existence of more bungalows down on Nethertown beach, of which the first to the south of the concrete apron was, he recalls, a particularly fine specimen. Further south, he remembers that all the bungalows in the long Braystones row, as far as the station, were made of wood; then at the bottom of the ramp up to the station was the "lovely little shop"- one proprietor being Mrs Graham, who lived near the Pickthalls on Thorny Road in Thornhill (and who had a sideline in collecting seaweed which she sent to Wales to make laver bread). The first bungalow beyond the station belonged to the Postgates of Egremont, and was a particularly upmarket specimen, brick-built and pebble-dashed.
After the RAF departed from Nethertown Camp, navvies building the nuclear facilties at Windscale and Calder Hall moved in. They would rush off the train at the end of the working day, on their way to the Tourist's Hotel in Nethertown to get the evening off to a good start. Bottles which had provided refreshment during the day were abandoned at the station, where youngsters like Don would collect them and claim the deposits at a local shop (on the subject of the station- was the extension of one platform beyond the original sandstone-edged structure made in connection with Nethertown Camp?). By that time, the supplies the "owd lad" brought back on his way home from the iron mine included the Dandy or Beano- or from 1950, the Eagle. Don remembers another simple pleasure from when he was about 10 years old and upward: the opportunity to walk along the shore from the bungalow, get on a train (pulled by a steam locomotive of course) at Nethertown, and go to Whitehaven, getting off at the Bransty station after the trip through the tunnel, and going to see his grandfather who lived at 10 George Street- and always had a tanner [6d / 2.5p] to give to each young visitor. In those days, the last train southward left Whitehaven after the evening cinema performances, so Don had plenty of time to explore.
Another good thing about steam trains: with a little encouragement from bungalow-dwellers passing through Nethertown Station on their way to the Tourists' Hotel, the locomotive firemen (at least of goods trains) would throw lumps of coal down the embankment, for use in the little grates, ranges and boilers many cottages had. One slight catch was that some of the lumps, usually substandard "nutty slack", were rather too large for domestic purposes; on one occasion a particularly big piece bounced the wrong way on the embankment and smashed through the roof of 'Sea Crest'. The main fuel source was, of course, driftwood, though Shaws of St. Bees would also deliver coal to the beach for those who preferred not to go beachcombing, plus 5-gallon cans of paraffin for lighting (some bungalow dwellers even used candles). The Pickthalls were very keen to make best use of the resources the beach offered, and would scour the whole stretch of shore through Coulderton and Nethertown.
The bungalow had also been extended, in a most surprising fashion, to make extra bedroom space for the growing children (two boys, and a girl some seven years younger than Don). The first surprising thing was the appearance of the extension, which was half of a traditional A-frame roof, resulting in a V-shaped profile where it met the original roof- but without properly designed guttering at the bottom of the V, so water sometimes got through and dripped onto sleeping Pickthalls. The second surprise was the material- the extension was built of mahogany, which had floated ashore one day around 1947-8, in the form of 4-metre long beams from the cargo of some unfortunate merchant ship. The "owd lad" had tried to wheel them up to a nearby farm on his bicycle, for transhipment to Gardiners' joinery in Egremont, but had to give up after an accident which left him sprawled on the ground with his leg under a massive piece of timber, causing injuries for which he needed hospital treatment. Still, Gardiners' were able to make him enough planks to extend the bungalow by nearly a third.
Overall, the layout of 'Sea Crest' was: 2 bedrooms at the front; third bedroom at the back; kitchen/living area running through the centre, with a cast-iron grate, a cooking range with an oven (and a stove-pipe up through the roof), and at the back a Belfast sink. The main construction material was pitch-pine tongue-and-groove board (unusually, this covered both the outer and inner sides of the timber frame, making proper interior walls). As the picture at right shows, the bedroom windows slid open sideways. At left is a detail from another happy snap, taken in the 1960s, showing the front entrance and the glazing which by then had been installed on the veranda [both these pictures have been digitally edited to remove stray fragments of people]. Behind the bungalow was a little hut. The sanitary arrangements for this and most other Coulderton bungalows involved Elsan Blue wet toilets, rather than the old earth closets. The trick was to empty them into the sea just as the tide had started to go out, with the wind blowing off-shore.
There was a little unease between the bungalow owners and the local farmer, who wanted to graze cattle on the grassy land north of the bungalows (which had been part of the farm fields before the railway came along) so installed a gate in the archway. There were then, by the way, only about half-a-dozen bungalows north of the archway, extending as far as the present 'Tomlin View', and five to the south: the Turners' at 'Archway'; the Pickerings' at 'Overstones'; 'Sea Crest'; Mrs Todd's at 'Green Bank' and, perched half way up the railway embankment, 'The Knoll' (which Don thinks belonged to Mr & Mrs Key). Gradually, however, increasing post-War prosperity encouraged more and more people to set up on the beach. Following the tradition established in some of the very first bungalows, south of Braystones station, prissy local council notions about acceptable designs were largely ignored. Among the new arrivals were an old-fashioned single-decker bus, a double-decker bus, and the body of a railway carriage, which had to be slid sideways down the embankment on rows of sleepers.
An undated (perhaps mid-teenage) but haunting memory- being woken by the sound of a fog-horn, and looking out from the bungalow to catch a glimpse, through thick mist, of a huge white ship gliding by, that must have missed going aground by a whisker. Less fortunate was the cargo ship which crashed into Nethertown Point a decade or two later, having mistaken Sellafield for Workington while attempting to find Silloth! Happily, there was no problem getting rid of its cargo to help the re-floating effort, for the ship was carrying fertiliser, which the local farmers took away using every means of transport they could lay hands on. Don also remembers that on the front of the concrete platform at Nethertown Beach was painted a big notice advising other passing ships that there would be a "tug arriving 10am tomorrow".
About the age of 12, Don found himself staying at the Braystones end of the beach, camping with the Scouts in a field rented from the Pallings, near the first arch south of Braystones Station. During his later years at school, around age 14-15, Don did some casual work for local farmer Tony Steele of Nethertown, and remembers when Nethertown Camp was (after a long period of official indecision) offered to the local farmers around 1955- Tony didn't want the main camp, but the story of its remarkable development is gradually emerging on other pages of this website. In 1956, Don joined the Army himself, at first on National Service, but he decided to stay on.
To the continuation, three character-building years later:
*Quotations are taken from a recorded chat with Don. It would be nice to include more, but transcribing word-for-word is much more time-consuming than taking notes... [and three dots in the quotations indicate words missed out, usually repetitions]