Dalton-in-Furness has a wild side

Marauding Scots, mass killers and the Plague can't stop the music in this attractive market town. Roger Borrell reports <br/>Photography by Kirsty Thompson

If you have ever doubted the antecedents of the bonny market town of Dalton-in-Furness, then just have a look at the mayoral chain of office.Around it is a string of roses as red as the iron ore they once mined inthese parts. Despite what the bureaucrats and a few poor, deluded souls might tell you, this is one of the far-flung but cherished outposts ofthe Lancastrian empire.

That mayoral chain is currently worn with considerable pride byretired teacher Liz Young. She moved to Dalton in 1968 when her fianc�got a job at the Glaxo plant in nearby Ulverston.

‘This is an area that really grabs you,’ she says. ‘We came here straight from college and, although we’ve moved house, we have never considered moving away.’

Liz, who brought up a family here with husband Mike, adds with a laugh: ‘You’d never have an affair in Dalton - people would find out straight away.’ No doubt one or two have tried over the years, but we know what she means.

‘It’s also one of those places were there are a lot of families who have been here for many generations. It’s the people who make it a nice, friendly place to live and we are keen to attract more visitors.’

The town oozes history and there are many fine properties, especially around a Market Place dominated by Dalton Castle, a 14th century pele tower. Nearby is the striking red sandstone church of St Mary’s. It was designed by the eminent Victorians Paley and Austin and the graveyard contains the slightly less impressive tomb of the portrait painter George Romney, born here in 1734.

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Like most towns, Dalton has its fair share of empty shops and closed � pubs but the reputation of Dowdales School has made it a popular placeto live.

It wasn’t always so. The plague killed more than half the 600-strong population in the 1630s. It was brought in by a man from London who helped to bury the dead and then stole whatever he could find in the homes of the victims. Worse still, he then committed mass murder by administering poison to the terrified locals who had been told it was a medicinal cure.

These days, Dalton has a more welcome reputation, especially on the educational front. Dowdales School,  which received glowing Ofsted reports, now specialises in performing arts.

It is currently planning to build a 350-seater auditorium with studios for recording, dance and drama for use by the school and the community.Music is so popular in this town of around 12,000 that it sustains two shops - Tony Drummond’s Violin Shop and the Full Octave, run by John and Liz Metcalfe, their daughter Amy and her husband Richard.

John’s father was a piano tuner often seen cycling from job to job across the region. John trained as an electrical engineer but hated industry and went to work with his father until disaster struck.

Kidney failure put his life on hold for more than a decade but 21 years ago he had a transplant which allowed him to resume his passion for music and open the shop in Market Street.

‘I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool businessman and I know we’ll neverget rich doing this,’ he says, ‘but I just love music.’ The Full Octave is a rarity for two reasons - it restores German and England pianos, specialising in grand pianos, and it is renown for selling sheet music.

‘The town has quite a quirky history for its music,’ says John. ‘As well as the school, we have a well-known brass band with a junior section and a madrigal group.’

John is trying to build on that tradition by installing a large, moveable canopy covering part of Tudor Square with space for up to 200 to enjoy weekend events such as concerts, fashion shows and food fairs.

One attraction which is long past the planning stage is the South Lakes Animal Park on the outskirts of town.This substantial complex attracts over 250,000 visitors a year, who can see everything from tigers to giraffes.

It was the brainchild of David Gill, who was born and bred in Dalton. His keen interest in farming and animal nutrition developed into a passion for wildlife conservation.

Marketing manager Karen Brewer says: ‘The whole ethos here is driven by David Gill’s passion for conservation and the majority of our animals are here as part of international breeding programmes. We also work with many charities helping with animal conservation in the wild.’

With peak season employment levels of around 100, the park has become important to the local economy and it’s about to become more vital with plans for a major expansion which will triple the size with more animals and better facilities.

Dalton’s gone from iron ore to lion’s roar.

Still standing proud

The history of Dalton and the nearby Furness Abbey are inextricably linked - the town even has its own ale taster, a role harking back to the days when the Abbot tested the quality of the beer sold locally by sitting in it. If he stuck to his seat, it was the correct strength.

Work begun on the abbey in the wonderfully-named Vale of Nightshade in 1127 by the Sauvignac order. It was taken over by the Cistercians and it survived marauding Scots and the Black Death but not Henry VIII and the Dissolution in 1537. At the time it was second only to Fountains in wealth.

More recently, there has been a new threat to the beautifully haunting remains of what must have been a hugely impressive complex.

Parts of the abbey are slowly sinking into the soft ground and without urgent conservation work on the 15th century presbytery, it will fall down.

Restoration experts Iain Whittick and Ian Merritt are overseeing the work for English Heritage and they point to large cracks in the masonry. Where once you couldn’t place a finger, you can now get your hand between the stonework.

It has all happened relatively quickly and urgent action was required as the outer walls moved perilously eastwards and downwards. The sight of a 100-tonne crane beside the abbey may seem incongruous but it has put in place large steel supports which will keep the structure in position until a massive new concrete foundation is laid.

This replaces the old wooden foundations laid in medieval times. These suffered through ageing and the more recent weather variations swinging between very wet and very dry - fluctuations which have destabilised the ground.

Iain points out the intricately-carved stone sedilia which is worryingly close to the cracks. ‘It is noted for being one of the finest in the country, and the preservation of this is as good a reason as any for propping and repairing the walls, as well as our duty of care to the monument for future generations.’

Colleague Ian adds that this major project and its eventual success will be part of the Furness Abbey story and they hope it will attract yet more visitors to this historically important site. During the work the museum is open at weekends with free entry but parts of the site will be cordoned off until work is finished.

Where is it? It’s at the far end of the A590 just before you get to Barrow. Put LA15 8RQ into your satnav and you should find the town centre

Where to park? There’s a couple of small car parks off Market Street and some on-street parking - not easy on a busy day

What to do? Plenty - there’s the wild animal park but don’t miss the abbey, the pele tower and St Mary’s Church. At the end of May each year they close the main street for a Medieval Market Fair and in June there is a carnival

Refreshments There are several pubs - the Black Dog and the ancient Brown Cow have found favour with beer buffs, a couple of cafes and Hartley’s restaurant in Market Street were recommended by locals

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