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THE LARGEST ROOM IN EUROPE

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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.

 
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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If you search for 'largest room in Europe', the top current result is the 14th century Grand Council Chamber of the Doge's Palace in Venice

SEO trumps fact: the Grand Council Chamber is 53m x 25m, Devonshire Dock Hall is 260m x 58m (and Dockerhalle 2 is 504m x 125m). 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Walking past the temple down through old gardens of medicinal plants brings you to the shore of Morecambe Bay. This stretch of coast has sombre beauty, wide views, shifting light. And it's empty – why walk here, in the mud when you could be up with everyone else in the picturesque lakes? Empty except for the birds and fishermen, who are here for the same thing: the plentiful cockles and other shellfish. Who are here in turn because of the plankton, who are here because of the mineral richness of the terrain.

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In Venice, the industrial raw material was wood, got from a private forest in the nearby Montello hills whose expelled original inhabitants, hunters and woodsmen, became vagrants known as the bisnenti ('twice have-nots'). You grow the wood, you chop it down, you make ships, you can kind of do it anywhere trees and forests can be planted. What is vital and intrinsic to Venice was its location at the top of the Adriatic: the place where a very ancient sea trade route for natural and manufactured products that starts in China and the Spice Islands of Indonesia meets its mainland Western Europe customer base.

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Venice faces outwards. Its secrets are about routes, trade winds, harbours. Barrow faces in and down. Here the industrial raw material is the metal and other resources the land and sea is packed with. What once mattered in Barrow and the rest of rugged remote western Britain was the matter: intrinsic elements you have to dig for, that scars and uglifies the land to get at, that some people once knew and did everything for, the ancient sources of power.

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These are Langdale axes: huge highly polished, possibly ceremonial axes from Langdale, in the middle of the nearby Lake District. Found all over Britain and Ireland, they date back 6 thousand years and are so plentiful and identifiable that their high-up quarry is known as the Langdale Axe Factory. Organised, mass-produced industry happened here, with international distribution, six thousand years ago. Not bad for a bunch of cavemen.

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As you walk on down the shore towards Barrow, unusual structures come into view. 

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pipe: industrial remnants

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The hard greenstone the axes are made from is volcanic, because all the mountains and hills here in the Lake District near Barrow (and up and down Britain's west coast and the Isle of Man and Ireland) are a dormant seam of the cooled plugs of what were once undersea volcanoes, at the tectonic heart of what is now called the Atlantic Ocean, which is always getting pulled apart and squeezed together. And hence volcanos bubble up. West Britain is basically one big scab.

 

When volcanos erupt they bring up goodies from inside Earth: liquid metals, minerals and superhard igneous granite and marble that cool and set. This is material to rule worlds with, different from the clay and limestone and other non-volcanic, sedimentary rock you get in most places. Britain is rare. You can't build swords and cellphones and submarines and hard-to-shatter axes out of sedimentary rock, which is layers of dead organic matter piled on top of each other on Earth's surface. The raw ingredients of dominance get cooked up inside.

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Some people have always known this: that you go to mountains to get the tools to control others.

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And some people have always known that Britain is a good place for that kind of thing. If you know where to go. 

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18th century Barrow ironworks

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And once you know how and where to dig for metal, and how to turn it into tools and weapons, you start to know how to build other tools: to help you dig, to help you forge. And then you start building other machines, and having industrial revolutions, and getting that ever-greater edge over people who don't know what you know about how to use the world.

And if you know how to find metal in one place, you can find it elsewhere. Until recently, for example, 80% of the world's gold was mined in countries of the British Commonwealth.

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Asante gold mask, Ghana, C18 

© The Wallace Collection, London 

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As you walk further down the coast, away from Conishead Priory and the temple, towards Barrow, other unusual structures come into view.  

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At the end of the coastal path is Roa Island, once an actual island, now connected to the mainland by what was a railway line and is now a road. There are various islands along the coast here, a place of great blank beauty.

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Standing here just before Roa Island, where the path runs out, if you turn towards the sea a large dun cube is visible across the water on the facing shore at other side of Morecambe Bay. This is Heysham Nuclear Power Station. It lights up at night.

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If you look right you can just about glimpse the fringes of the world's largest offshore wind farm, where one hundred and two 190m turbines cover 55 square miles of the Irish Sea 19 miles away from where you stand.  

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Walney Wind Farm 

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Down where the road ends you see the small settlement of Roa Island: houses to the left, boats to the right. And beyond it: the ruins of Piel Castle, out to sea beyond Roa, on its own island.

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This was built by those busy monks from Furness Abbey, to ship their iron and other goods, and to travel between here and their estates and buildings in Ireland and the Isle of Man. It was built on top of earlier buildings, the bases of those who controlled this trade and area before the Normans came. That would be, in reverse order: the Scots, the Kingdoms of Strathclyde & Northumbria, the Romans, the Brigantes, a Celtic tribe led by women with holdings in the Isle of Man and Ireland, and whoever came before the Brigantes, and controlled the Langdale Axe trade. 

The Normans, incidentally, followed the exact same route as the Romans one thousand years later for their invasion of Britain: securing the south of England then speeding west and north to Wales and these remote areas to conquer the "ferocious tribes".

Almost as if they came for the same thing. 

Using the same maps.

Those popes with Greek and Roman maps got from Vatican basements or Arab translation libraries seized in Spanish reconquests or Middle Eastern Crusades.

And where did the Romans and Greeks get their maps from?

And where do you hear any of that?

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The Tabula Rogeriana world map, drawn by Muhammad al-Idrisi for the Norman king Roger II of Sicily in 1154

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They say those Furness monks cut tunnels into the limestone from Piel Castle underwater and underground to Furness Abbey and other buildings in the Barrow area to travel more freely, secretly and efficiently with their heavy goods. Or perhaps they took over tunnels built by someone else. No one has ever found those tunnels but the story persists. And it is certainly true that in Lindal near Barrow in 1892 a train fell into an abyss that suddenly opened up beneath its tracks. A disaster perhaps caused by subsidence in the aftermath all that mining. Or an Ice Age sinkhole, which are common here. Or something else.

The hole was so deep the train has never been found.

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The railway which used to join Roa Island to the mainland once led to Barrow, a relic from the old trade route linking Barrow and the Isle of Man. Most of the track is now a nature path, skirting the coastal mud from behind a pub in Rampside up in to town. If you walk up there past the trees and birds you will see flames jetting up from gasworks, and maybe hear the strains of disco wafting over the mudflats from the huge international cruise ships that dock in Barrow to bus passengers away fast for day trips to the more scenic Lakes.