BACK IN THE mists of time, when Cumberland was still Cumberland and not part of some amorphous entity called Cumbria, a visit to the 'Wild West' was an event to anticipate with a blend of excitement and dread. The 'Wild West' in question was the county's odd little coastal strip, wedged between the Lake District and the sea, taking in Maryport, Workington and Whitehaven - buzzing, idiosyncratic ports devoted to beer, rugby league and pigeons.

The docks still hummed with freighters in those days, and all their associated trades. On the little Victorian streets around the wharves the callow newcomer could make the acquaintance of West Cumberland ladies of an outgoing nature, with a strangely common habit of leaving their timepieces on the mantelpiece at home, judging by the frequency with which they needed to inquire of passing strangers: 'Got the time, luv?'

If you had inquired of the Workington ladies of yesteryear what they thought of the west's chances as a tourist area they would have furnished you with a reply as colourful as it was succinct. Yet here we are in 1993 and little tourist offices grace the streets of the area's old, now quiet, ports, packed with bumf to tempt the visitor away from the better known towns of Ambleside, Kendal and Windermere.

Unlike the Lake District, West Cumberland is a tat-free zone. If you turn up expecting Beatrix Potter son et lumiere shows and Wordsworthburgers, you will be disappointed. On the other hand, some of the countryside is as gorgeous as the Lakes, and without the crowds, while a surprising measure of interest can be gleaned from the odd nooks and crannies of industrial England.

The west divides into two halves, the top industrial one, with Maryport, Workington and Whitehaven, and the lower, rural area of fells and broad, green countryside.

If you are going to Maryport you may as well press on inland a few miles to Cockermouth, one of Cumberland's most charming towns, set on the north-western fringe of the Lake District. There are tourist sights here but they are not overdone. The Printing House is devoted to the inky trade and fascinating if you like bits of old lead and type. There is also a toy and model museum for Scalextric and Hornby freaks, and Wordsworth's birthplace. After that, the tour of Jennings' brewery should offer some relief. The Campaign for Real Ale can be snooty about Jennings' beers, but normal human beings will welcome them in an area not noted for its ale.

A little further on, through some rather dull countryside, lies Maryport, once a tall-ship harbour, now gradually, very gradually, being converted into a marina and heritage park. It's worth an hour for the old, untouched, harbour buildings and a good Roman museum, but there is a touch of despair about the place.

Down the coast lies Workington, which though good looking is devoid of interest except for the Helena Thompson Museum - about the best insight into the west's once bustling industrial world of ships and iron and coal. A few miles further on and you meet the border between the commercial west and the rural, at Whitehaven. Of all Cumberland's industrial coastline, this is the part best deserving of preservation. The largely Georgian port is now a conservation area, but do not go expecting middle-class prettiness.

South of Whitehaven, the landscape changes and you can sense the presence of the lakes further inland. If you want to see one of the least-visited of all the lakes, hack off into the hills behind Cleator Moor and head for the car park at the foot of Bowness Knott. A walk from here will give you the best view of deserted Ennerdale, a valley untouched by modern roads. On down the coast is St Bees, an old village set back from a bare, red sandstone headland that is home to fulmars, kittiwakes and razorbills. This is the nearest the west gets to a seaside resort; there is a little beach and some shops but nothing to ruin the atmosphere.

Further inland lies Egremont, on the banks of the Ehen, with its ruined castle. Then it is here, on the right, and not far from the popular beaches of St Bees and Seascale, that you find the area's one blight on the landscape. Most of us have an understandable reluctance to frolic too near places such as Sellafield and its enormous nuclear processing complex: a warm glow after a cold dip is one thing, a fluorescent glow quite another.

Sellafield's busy PR machine will welcome you into a nuclear information centre - entrance free: well, would you pay? - and tell you how safe everything is.

The track up Wasdale, with its remote youth hostel, runs to a spectacular dead end past Wastwater; back on the main road, a few miles will find you at the estuary of the Esk, and the one-time Roman port of Ravenglass. The countryside which runs into the mountains, through Eskdale, is the west's most beautiful part, quite captivating and surprisingly unknown to the average Lakeland visitor. A trip on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway (The Ratty), now a century old, can convert the hardened railway hater. The little steam trains wind their way from Ravenglass almost 10 miles into the valley.

There are still sights to visit on the coast: a Roman bath house and, around the corner, Muncaster Castle with its jolly little owl centre. Then you can motor back into Eskdale, stopping at the tiny villages of Eskdale Green and Boot for a second look, before tackling Hard Knott pass, a single track stretch of public road that must count as one of England's hairiest.

The Romans built a fort halfway up Hard Knott. You can still see its remains today and feel enormous sympathy for the poor imperial squaddie who one day found his posting switched from a nice spot of sunbathing in Brindisi to Hard Knott's icy heights. Even in summer, these one-in-three climbs around hairpin bends are best avoided by anyone with a nervous disposition or a car with a dodgy radiator. To your left, rise Sca Fell and Scafell Pike, the two highest mountains in England; to your right, the Old Man of Coniston. Behind you snakes the pass itself, winding down to the coast.

At Cockley Beck you can turn back to the coast, following the River Duddon to emerge at Broughton-in-Furness. But no one thinks like that - you see the mountains beckoning and you press on, into another steep, beetling pass, Wrynose. Plan a day for this entire exercise, with sporadic walks, pauses for breath and a picnic, and you will only be doing it half justice.

Finally, the road winds down into Little Langdale, with its photogenic tarn on the right. Straggles of walkers greet your entry into Lakeland proper. Here, you will come upon the Three Shires Inn, an engaging old pub, with wonderful views and bedrooms, too. If my toothpaste hadn't been sitting on the other side of Sca Fell I would have fallen into one on the spot.

Accommodation: Bower House Inn, Eskdale Green (09467 23244, double rooms from pounds 53.50, weekend break rates available). Marvellous country inn with good accommodation and excellent, imaginative food in the bar and restaurant. Low Hall, Cockermouth (0900 826654, from pounds 50 for two), 17th- century farmhouse in a lovely rural location. Queen's Hotel, St Bees (0946 822287, pounds 40 for two), 17th-century pub in the village's main street. Three Shires Inn, Little Langdale (05394 37215, from pounds 66 for two). Inexpensive B & Bs are available through the Tourist Information Centre.

Activities: Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway runs from Ravenglass through Eskdale to Dalegarth, return fare pounds 5.40 for adults (0229 717171, trains daily until 29 October, then weekends only). Muncaster Castle, Ravenglass, a memorable medieval castle with an owl conservation centre (0229 717614, castle open end of March to 31 October, gardens and owl centre open all year round). Muncaster Water Mill, Ravenglass, working water- powered corn mill (0229 717232, open May to 31 October). Jennings Brewer, Cockermouth (0900 823241), guided tours of one of the north's best independent breweries. Senhouse Roman Museum, Maryport (0900 816168), recent Roman museum in an old Victorian battery overlooking the coast. Sellafield Visitors Centre (09467 27027). PR for the nuclear installation on the coast.

Information: Whitehaven Tourist Information Centre:

0946 695678.

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