THE HENSONS AT 'LOBSTER POT'
At the invitation of neighbour Peter Graham I spent a fascinating afternoon in John Henson's company, early in September 2006, followed by a visit to his home 'Lobster Pot' to meet his wife Muriel, who provided yet more valuable information about the beach bungalows (plus a very nifty impromptu meal). John, who has spent most of his life in West Cumbria, first moved to the beach in the summer of 1964, and over the years has gained vast knowledge of the shore, its people, and its many surprises. I refer to him above and elsewhere as "John" Henson, but for the rest of this page, I propose to use the name I associate with his stories: ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce Jack Henson.
Actually, I also propose to cheat a bit. This website contains hardly any stories specifically about Jack Henson, because I have a feeling that Muriel will get them written down in a much more appropriate style than my bare summaries. Also, for the time being at least, I am not publishing any of the following tales (although I think you'll find some of them in the local newspapers if you look hard enough):
By way of compensation, some of Jack's stories about Jennett Crouch, his former near-neighbour at 'Seacote' get a page to themselves, as do some very informative photographs which Jack and Muriel allowed me to copy.
- The dog which looked out of the wrong window each morning
- The young man who brought his hands into the pub
- The lady with just a bottle of whisky
- The white van and the mystery fire
- The white van with no visible driver
- Why bottled gas users should get a good weighing machine
To get us started, there's no harm mentioning the aviator who landed on the beach near Braystones railway station, after getting lost on the way to Carlisle airport. Bungalow dwellers turned out in force, and helped turn his aeroplane round so he could take off again into the wind (pictures here).
Somewhat more embarrassing was the arrival of a trawler, apparently left in the care of the most junior crewman. It got very firmly grounded (at a distressing tilt), so once again the locals came out, to see the attempts to refloat it. This nearly turned out to be the most stupid thing they ever did, for as it was being pulled by another trawler, the line being used snapped under the tremendous strain, and it was sheer luck that the free end did not whip back through the onlookers (in the end, the boat was freed, for a suitable fee, by a passing dredger, in the middle of the night when the tide was just right, using a very hefty tow-rope which Jack carried in his boat, also for a fee).
According to Jack, the same trawler capsized and sank in the Firth not long afterwards, after a reckless run which netted a huge weight of jellyfish. The picture here, digitally compiled from two photos taken by Muriel, shows Jack's boat taking the cable out for the first tow attempt.
One small problem of Braystones beach life has always been the level crossing at Braystones station [which may well get a web page to itself eventually!]. When the station was staffed, they were occasionally a bit surly about having to open the gates; now it's an unstaffed halt, people open the gates for themselves. One occupant of Station House did this some years ago when borrowing a cement mixer from one of the beach-dwellers, and, apparently because of the position of the station shelter, failed to notice as he got back into his car and prepared to drive across, that a train was approaching. He lived to tell the tale, and the shelter was moved. More recently the gates themselves have been altered, a decision possibly not unconnected with the curious fact that in recent years this little crossing had the 11th highest rate of near-collisions between trains and vehicles in the entire UK rail network. Unfortunately, Peter Graham is now having to investigate the possibility that the new arrangement may make it difficult for fire engines to get across the line...
On the subject of railway safety, Jack also told the story of the disappearing railway bridge, which gets a separate page. According to Jack's version, the family in the worst-affected bungalow were only saved by their earlier decision to go and play on the beach...
On a happier note, there's the story of Mrs Graham and Mrs Campbell, who had a little business collecting a particular variety of fine, green seaweed from the southern part of Braystones beach near the site of 'Starling Castle', which was sent by train to Wales (at a cost which took up half of what they were paid) to make laver bread. One day Jack met Mrs Graham, the archetypal "little old lady", pushing her bicycle along the beach, with a couple of bags of seaweed (kept wet to preserve it) slung either side. The system was that the ladies would transfer the weed to Mrs Campbell's Land-Rover, then take it to Seascale station for weighing and dispatch. Jack offered to lift the bags off the bike on this occasion- and was staggered to find that despite his very fit lifestyle, he could hardly manage them.
The beach has seen many business enterprises- not least Jack's own activity fishing, pumping for bait, gathering driftwood etc. Mr Wilson of Hensingham (associated for many years with 'Walkmill', a few doors south of 'Lobster Pot', then later with its neighbour 'Beechwood') sometimes used to film Jack when he was out fishing, and on one occasion, having asked for some lobsters, invited Jack to the party where they were going to be eaten. During the preparations, some officials appeared on the beach with signs saying the spring water then used was unfit to drink- upon which Mr Wilson advised them that he had been drinking it for at least fifty years...
[Fish are one of Jack's great areas of expertise, but they have more to do with the waters several miles out into the Firth than the beach itself, so I'm missing out some interesting but not strictly relevant stuff, such as how Jack came to learn the exact position of the above-mentioned sunken trawler]
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr & Mrs Davidson had a large brick oven at the back of 'Plas Isa', the next bungalow north of Jack's, which was used as a communal facility for all the weekend visitors to cook their roast meat and potatoes- the Davidsons also sold pots of tea, and cups (on which a shilling deposit was payable to ensure their safe return).
For those staying longer than a weekend, there were visits from a mobile shop, but the beach also had its own little shop, first built in the early 20th century right below the railway station (plus, apparently, a shop within the station itself, for a short time).
The beach shop has had a long and not uneventful life. At one time, Bigrigg builder Edward ("Teddy") Moorhouse used to hold bonfire parties on the beach just below the station, fuelled with wood from demolition jobs- until the time a spark set light to the shop and burned it to the ground. Still, at least a builder who destroys somebody's premises can rebuild them! (Teddy also, very cannily, took over the former station coal-yard, which used to contain just a rough outbuilding and a water tank, but is now a handy garage site- Jack was more than slightly taken aback when he heard how much it would cost to have a garage there)
Next into the rebuilt shop were a couple of craft workers, Frank and Karen, who had a beach bungalow as a home/workshop, and also sold leather goods on Whitehaven Market. One day the beach was hit by a tremendous storm, in the middle of which appeared at the Hensons' window a friend of Frank and Karen's, the famous glassmaker John Ditchfield. After spending a while drying out in 'Lobster Pot' he went with Jack to see how Frank and Karen were getting on. Finding Karen hard at work, they asked if she'd noticed the bungalow rocking- then took her to the window, where she saw to her horror that her home was very nearly afloat. Jack also reports that the storm cleared nearly all the rubbish from the beach- but left in return a full butane-gas canister, which nobody claimed so he eventually used it himself.
The next shopkeeper was a former bank worker who came from Yorkshire with his teacher wife. Jack once acquired for him some 40 kilos of high-quality sausages, which he sold very successfully at a 100% mark-up, but did not re-order. Jack was surprised at the reason he gave, but having a friend in the shopkeeping line, I'm not- even with that healthy mark-up, any typical sale of a few sausages earned barely enough to make it worthwhile storing, weighing and wrapping them.
One of the most successful shopkeepers, decades ago, was Mrs Annie Nagle, and the Unique Selling Point of her business was parkin- that rich, dark cake which requires a little more baking skill than mere Madeira. So popular was Mrs Nagle's parkin, that Jack (who tried making a bit of parkin himself, and regretted it, though Mrs Nagle and her daughter Anne both assured him it was very nice) reckons the profits were enough by themselves to buy her family the house 'Tarn Bank' just outside Braystones village.
Jack's friend Mr Wilson remembered a tradesman named "old Johnny" who used to deliver fresh milk to the beach, accompanied by an assistant carrying other goods. The milk was in two big churns, hung on a traditional yoke across Johnny's shoulders. To serve it into customers' jugs, he had a big ladle, which he carried in a pocket on the front of his apron. Unfortunately, he had a very runny nose, and while carrying the yoke had difficulty wielding a handkerchief.
Another story which I'll eventually expand from the newspapers concerns Winnie, Harry, Mark and 'The Mount'- the next bungalow north of 'Seacote'. Winnie and Harry were moving in to 'The Mount' after making major improvements, and went to the club to celebrate. On their return, Winnie and Harry went to bed, but Mark fell asleep on sofa, with a cigarette. Result, inferno.
When the fire started, Winnie thought Mark was in the other bedroom, and went to get him- he wasn't there, and while she was in there, part of the building collapsed behind her, so she had to leave by the gable end window, very fast. Mark was OK, and had saved the dog. Jack's was one of the very few phones along the beach at the time, so neighbour Tony came to ask him to ring the fire brigade, who arrived in 11 minutes- but too late to save the building. The fire was very dramatic, with flames reaching high into the sky, and an explosion when the bungalow's gas bottle overheated.
A short distance south of Braystones station in 2006 there's a sad couple of abandoned plots, once the site of fine bungalows. One of these, reckoned by Jack to be the best on the beach, used to belong to the Postgates, who ran the pharmacy in Egremont, then it was acquired by the Rev. Mr. Wilkie and his family. Not only did it have its own electricity generator- there was even a fully-equipped bar. It had a slightly sad history in its later years. Jack, who has done quite a lot of construction work for other beach residents, remembers having to turn down a walling job for Mrs Wilkie because of other commitments- the firm she eventually hired, despite charging her a great deal of money, used lightweight domestic blocks instead of the double-sized agricultural blocks which, as the next storm proved, were essential for this exposed situation. That, however, is not why the bungalow no longer exists- it was burned down by vandals.
Still on the subject of electricity- in the good old days, if you wanted electricity down on Braystones Beach, you simply had to use a generator or bring some very big batteries. There were frequent proposals for bringing a mains supply along the shore, but all ran into the traditional obstacle that although the people wanting the supply had to pay for the installation of the cables from the nearest substation, once that was in place, future customers along its line had only to pay for the connection from the new cable to their bungalows. Hence, unless everybody went in at once, paying reasonable shares of the initial supply cost, the pioneers would pay very heavily, the latecomers very little. Inevitably, there were always a few who claimed to be unable to afford to pay several hundred pounds towards the initial cable cost, so the scheme never got anywhere, despite perhaps as many as eight attempts over a number of years.
Then, unexpectedly, Jack Henson found himself reluctant to spend thousands of pounds of savings on the project for which they had been accumulated, and decided to splash out on an electricity supply instead, not bothering to invite any of the neighbours to contribute. However, his friend Charles at Barbary Bell learned of the plan, and insisted on joining him and paying half. Shortly afterwards another neighbour, Mrs Ettie Elliott, heard too, and swiftly joined in. The electricity company had promised to get the supply in by Christmas, but appalling weather got in the way. Despite the difficulties though, the engineers kept working, and achieved their target. Thereafter, as expected, other bungalow owners tried to get connected for the ordinary household connection fee, but they didn't always quite have things their own way, and Jack didn't suffer quite as much for being a pioneer as he might have done...
Yet more topics for later investigation:
- the ancient fish garths (traps) south of Braystones and near Nethertown station
- the occasionally bitter history of the various caravan sites