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Talking Location With author Katharine Swartz – WHITEHAVEN and the LAKE DISTRICT

16th July 2020

#TalkingLocationWith… Katharine Swartz, author of The Widow’s Secret, set in Whitehaven and the Lake District

Whitehaven gets a bit of a bad rap sometimes, a little too far from the lakes and accompanying attractions to cash in on the lucrative tourist trade, yet with a stunning coast of its own, and a fascinating history as well. As remote as this part of the country might seem, cut off from the motorway by the massive Lake District National Park, about two hundred and fifty years ago, Whitehaven rivalled major cities such as Manchester or York for both society and trade.

Now, if you squint a bit and picture yourself sallying forth in another age, perhaps in a periwig or a gown with wide panniers, you can still see the gracious Georgian lines of the buildings beneath the modern shops and neon signs and imagine what the bustling town might have once been like. In fact, Whitehaven’s history is far more impressive than you might think—the city of Manhattan, New York, based its grid-like structure on Whitehaven, which was also the burial place of George Washington’s grandmother, Mildred Gale, and where she lived with her second husband before the United States’s first president was born.

Katharine Swartz

When I was writing The Widow’s Secret, I wanted to hearken back to Whitehaven’s glorious past—the assembly rooms (there were two), the busy harbour (second only, some said, to Liverpool), and the wealthy merchants who made their fortune on the seas, trading tobacco, rum, sugar—and slaves. I wanted to explore the little-known and terrible darkness of that glorious past—the fact that Whitehaven, along with the better-known cities of Liverpool, London, and Bristol, had a prosperous slave trade.

The Rum Story is Whitehaven’s museum dedicated to the triangular nature of the slave trade—brandy, guns, and pots and pans were exchanged for West African slaves, who were taken to the West Indies via the dreaded middle passage—a voyage of disease and death across the Atlantic—where they were then sold in order to purchase rum and sugar to take back to Britain. Wander through its rooms and learn about the sordid history of some of Whitehaven’s wealthiest families, as well as the origin of rum as a sailor and then a soldier’s tipple of choice.

Although Whitehaven’s part in the slave trade was much smaller than in the other cities, you can still see the remnants of it today—the Sugar Tongue Quay, where the sugar was once unloaded, forms part of Whitehaven’s manmade harbour. The harbour itself is a gracious curve of blue, with views out to the Isle of Man, usually no more than a purple smudge on the horizon. Bought by England in 1765 to discourage smuggling, the isle offered storm-tossed crossings to Cumberland, as this part of Cumbria was formerly known, before a steam packet was set up for safer journeys to Liverpool. The wind and waves of the tempestuous Irish Sea caused many shipwrecks, whose remnants can still be seen today, in the shallow waters.


The Widow’s Secret centres on one of those shipwrecks, although admittedly an imaginary one, a slaving ship lost to the ages. There are plenty of real shipwrecks to explore, however, visible in the water or washed up on Cumbria’s windswept beaches-sometimes as whole iron shells, other times just a few rib-like beams half-buried in the sand.

While Whitehaven has a gracious harbour, the nearby village of St Bees, the start of Wainwright’s magnificent Coast-to-Coast walk, has its own long sweep of tidal beach, perfect for dog walking or paddling in the waves—if you can brave the rather chilly waters! Here you can glimpse history of another sort, with the ancient priory taking pride of place in the small village, along with St Bees School, founded by Archbishop Grindal in 1583. The heroine of The Widow’s Secret spends her days in St Bees (named Goswell in the story) as I once did, living there for four happy years.

Katharine Swartz

Only a stone’s throw (or thirty miles) from Derwentwater and even less from Ennerdale, the Cumberland’s windswept coast feels like a world apart from the lakes most tourists to the area think there is all to see. Still part of the Lake District, with vistas just as dramatic, Whitehaven and its environs surely deserves another look for the brave tourist willing to venture a little bit past the more familiar Ambleside or Windermere, up to Keswick and then across the wild fells, skirting Cockermouth, birthplace of both Williams Wordsworth and Christian Fletcher, to the still-lovely town of Whitehaven.

Katharine Swartz

Catch the author via her website (where she is Kate Hewitt)

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