An ugly duckling by the sea

The restoration of this Cumbrian town's potentially stunning Georgian homes is helping to make it attractive to buyers. And it's only 20 minutes' drive from the Lake District, says Chris Arnot
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The Independent Online

Bob Pointing, the chief executive of the regeneration company West Lakes Renaissance, had his first view of Whitehaven 20 years ago, when he was hiking around Cumbria. He was not impressed. "There were some fine Georgian houses," he recalls, "but my overwhelming impression was of stucco frontages covered in green slime."

Bob Pointing, the chief executive of the regeneration company West Lakes Renaissance, had his first view of Whitehaven 20 years ago, when he was hiking around Cumbria. He was not impressed. "There were some fine Georgian houses," he recalls, "but my overwhelming impression was of stucco frontages covered in green slime."

Debra Law wasn't impressed either, and she had been born and brought up there. "When I was 18," she says, "I thought it was the worst place in the world." She fled to Manchester and then to Newcastle. Eventually, however, she came back. "My friends have started doing the same, after going away to university," she says. "A lot of small businesses are springing up, started by people in their thirties and forties."

Her own business is in property. She buys up some of those rundown Georgian town houses and restores them through her father, Bill Robson, a builder who's still working at 73. And working very effectively, judging by 10 Howgill Street, which his daughter bought just over a year ago.

For £55000, she acquired two spacious living rooms and four bedrooms. But the building was almost derelict at the time, totally lacking in modern amenities.

Anything recognisable as a kitchen or bathroom was noticeable by its absence. The property now has stylish examples of both, plus a wealth of original features -- staircases and fire places, window seats and a fine, dry cellar.

Number 10 is back on the market for £210,000, and number 11 is also available for a mere £125,000. It's a similar size but is currently split into three self-contained flats and, as it says on the specifications, there is "scope for updating and refurbishment".

Whitehaven seems to be stuffed with Georgian town houses, in various states of repair, at a fraction of the price you would pay in the more central areas of the Lake District.

"Even a two-bedroom terrace in Keswick would set you back between £300,00 and £350,000," says Liz Bolger, area manager of an agency called Your Move. "Whitehaven is only 20 minutes away, but it's less congested, it's by the sea and you can still buy large properties at very reasonable prices. We're seeing a growth in people who are moving into the area and using the internet to work from home."

Which begs the question: why did the town seem so depressing 20 years ago? "It was very rundown," says Pointing, whose regeneration efforts in the West Lakes area started two years ago. "There was a mining tradition here, but coal was on its last legs. Latterly, the harbour became economically dependent on importing phosphorus."

Phosphoric rock had to be ground down for use by a local chemical plant, which tended to make the sea air of Whitehaven a little dusty. It's much cleaner now - on the face of it, anyway. The phosphorus trade collapsed almost overnight in 1992, leaving the town dependent on tourism, fishing and nuclear reprocessing.

Sellafield's brooding presence is evident, 10 miles down the coast, beyond the delightful seaside village of St Bees. More than 7,000 people work at the plant, making it easily the largest employer in Cumbria - for the time being, at least. While the future of nuclear power in the UK remains in the balance, the decommissioning of Sellafield is underway. Cleaning up the nuclear waste could take anything from 10 years to 150, depending on which report you read.

Although the recent leak of highly radioactive fuel through a fractured pipe posed no threat to the public, it is likely to make the clean-up process even more protracted. Scientists, engineers, risk assessors and technical staff have started to move on to the recently created West Lakes Science Park.

And where will these incomers choose to live? "They'll probably be attracted to Cockermouth, which is closer to the motorway," says Terry Ponting, of the Whitehaven Development Company. "But there are lots of wonderful buildings here. The whole centre of town is a conservation area. After all, Whitehaven was the first pre-planned, post-medieval town in the country. And it was laid out by Sir Christopher Wren."

Wide streets sweep down to a harbour where the pleasure craft in the new marina outnumber the fishing boats. "We still get some fat langoustines landed here," says Ricky Andalcio, who runs a restaurant serving modern British cuisine on the road to St Bees. Most locally caught seafood, however, goes abroad or south to Ricky's native London. An East Ender, he says he has no regrets about straying to a place not far from the Scottish border.

Which makes it intriguing to speculate how and why Wren made the journey here. Apparently, he was a friend of the local landowners, the Lowthers, after whom the town's main street is named. There are at least four estate agents here, all of whom seem to be doing steady business.

Green slime on the stucco is nowhere near as common as it was 20 years ago.

10 Howgill Street is available for £210,000 through Your Move, www.your-move.co.uk; 11 Howgill Street is for sale through Grisdale's, 01946 693931

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