THE LARGEST ROOM IN EUROPE
This is Devonshire Dock Hall in Barrow-in-Furness, Britain. The largest room in Europe, when it was built in 1986 for BAE Systems. 'Maggie's Farm', it was nicknamed, for the then Prime Minister. Now it is the second largest room in Europe, after Dockhalle 2 in Germany, where cruise ships are made. In Devonshire Dock Hall they build nuclear-powered submarines that can stay underwater for a year.
Barrow is on Britain's north west coast, a mainly 19th and 20th century industrial town at the end of a peninsula above Blackpool and below Scotland. It faces the Irish Sea, the Islands of Furness and the Isle of Man.
You don't just go to Barrow. It isn't a stop-off on the way to elsewhere, a place to drive through. The road ends in Barrow. You go because you live there or for business. Successive businesses have dominated the town. These have tended to be secretive, for various reasons, all based on location. As in a fairytale, Barrow is a place of impressive natural defence.
To the north and north east: the forests, high hills and small mountains of the Lake District. To the south and south east: the treacherous mud of Morecambe Bay. This mess of saltmarsh and strong tides is a notorious death trap. At low tide you can walk from one side to the other – if you know the routes and when the sea is due to return, or are being led by the Queen's Guide to the Sands, its royal-appointed navigator. Otherwise it's easy to get stuck and drown as you stray to pick cockles or birdwatch or enjoy the wide views. The tide turns quick and fast here.
The Queen's Guide was first appointed in 1548, just after Henry VIII dissolved England's monasteries and seized control of their assets from the pope in Rome. Before then, the people who knew the safe ways through tides and mudflats were monks, who have been plentiful in these parts and whose traces remain up and down the coast.
The monks came here with the Normans, after their invasion of Britain in 1066, which was bankrolled, in part, by the pope. Furness Abbey, another large room, built 57 years after the Norman Conquest in a hidden hill fold just outside Barrow, was once the second richest and most powerful monastery in Britain.
Its founders were a lucky bunch of monks. They came to this wild remote English border zone, built their abbey, then quickly discovered large resources of iron ore in the area, which they mined for vast profit funnelled back to Rome for 400 years until Henry VIII chucked them out and took the business over.
Almost as if some people knew there might be things of mineral advantage in these parts before sending monks off on holy missions. Or before deciding to finance a conquest at all.
Devonshire Dock Hall was built in the late twentieth century as part of government strategy to keep engineering going in what would otherwise have been economic meltdown with the loss of traditional mining and shipbuilding in the area. Diversify: focus on subs and their weapons, for self-protection and international trade. Build a hall to sheath their secrets. A clever strategic choice and also a natural one: Britain is always at the forefront with weapons. There are many reasons why. One is that Britain has ready-access to the raw materials needed to build weapons and ships, needed to build lots of things. The west coast of Britain has been a plentiful source of rare and important raw materials from prehistory. It has iron, copper, tin, gold, silver, lead, coal, gas and more.
There are probably much larger rooms in Europe that we don't know about, datafarms etc. Facebook has built something huge in north Sweden. Then there is the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest known machine on earth, built under Switzerland and France. But that's not really a room.
Venice and Barrow-in-Furness look different but are both cities of the sea, places of skilled craftspeople. Both know how to build big rooms, workshops for their big ships and weapons. The Arsenale in Venice, home to the Biennale, is where ships and cannons were built. It's at least one thousand years old and was probably Europe's largest factory before the Industrial Revolution. They had production lines there and could assemble a ship in a day.
But Venice is beautiful and Barrow-in-Furness isn't. In Venice the ancient industry blends. In Barrow it jars. Devonshire Dock Hall is the wrong scale. There are houses right next to it, small old red-brick homes built for BAE Systems workers of earlier centuries who made ships and other craft and technologies, not submarines.
The colour also stands out: '80s beige formica, almost fashionable.
And because it's so tall, the tallest building in Cumbria, you can glimpse the Hall and its ever-changing shape down roads from far away as you walk round Barrow and neighbouring Walney Island. You can even see it from the end of the pier in Blackpool, 60 miles down the coast.
There is plenty of strange scale in Barrow, because of the flat coastal land and the mountains of the Lake District rising steeply behind it, and the town's heavy industry and its gigantic products.
An efficient and inexpensive look has been favoured, that plonks new builds down without much care for the surroundings. Barrow has been dominated by industry. The housing is secondary, for the workers. And that is part of what gives Barrow its brutal power. Things are out in the open here.
Ulverston, up the coast from Barrow, is a pretty old market town known as a gateway to the Lake District. Tourists come here to put walking boots on and head north for the hills. But if you head south instead, towards the shore and mud, you will pass Conishead Priory just before Bardsea on the Barrow coastal path. The building you see today is 19th century, built on the site of another Norman monastery. It is now (since 1976) the Manjushri Institute, a large Tibetan Buddhist college. The Kadampa Temple for World Peace has been built in the grounds. It contains the largest bronze Buddha statue cast in the West.