Lying beside the Cumbrian iron ore field, Workington always had a smelting trade, but that blossomed into a heavy steel industry via the trailblazing Bessemer process in the 19th century.
If you take a train in the UK there’s a good chance you’ll be travelling on rails manufactured in Workington, even if the industry has now been wound down.
For visitors Workington has a wide choice of high street shops at the Washington Square Shopping Centre, an excellent local museum in a Georgian town house, as well as the enigmatic ruins of Workington Hall.
You’re also no more than ten minutes from the western edge of the Lake District and William Wordsworth’s childhood home at Cockermouth.
1. Helena Thompson Museum
In a refined Georgian town-house, the Helena Thompson Museum is named for the wealthy woman who lived here and assembled some of the museum’s collections.
Helena Thompson (1855-1940) was engaged in the Workington community, distributing food to the poor, but also becoming the town’s first woman magistrate, president of the District Nursing Association and a member of the Archaeological Society.
In the museum’s galleries you can view the costume and textile collection that Thompson put together, as well a host of family possessions.
Added to these are an agate cup that Mary, Queen of Scots gave to Sir Henry Curwen of Workington Hall, as well as a model of the now ruined mansion and a sideboard containing remnants of the bed that Mary slept in during her stay in 1568. Lastly, the museum’s Victorian parlour is decorated as if Helena is expected for high tea.
Around the back the gardens are perfect for a moment of repose.
2. Workington Hall
On high ground in tranquil parkland near the Helena Thompson Museum are the eldritch ruins of what used to be one of the region’s grandest manor houses.
Workington Hall was developed in the 15th century as a fortified manor and witnessed a seismic historical event in 1568 when Mary, Queen of Scots spent her first night in England here, seeking the protection of Elizabeth I after being forced to abdicate the Scottish throne.
Still with a lot of late-Gothic flourishes, along with additions by the 18th-century architect John Carr, Workington Hall burnt down in the Second World War after it had been requisitioned by the War Office, but most of the historic stonework is still in place.
3. Lake District
The celebrated region of lakes and mountains, protected as a national park and home to the highest mountain and the largest lake in England, is so close you can see it on the eastern horizon.
The Lake District has captivated generations of English cultural figures, from the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, to the influential Victorian writer and artist John Ruskin, and the cherished children’s author Beatrix Potter.
There are museums and dedicated trails for all three, but Hill Top (Potter) and Brantwood (Ruskin) are obligatory house museums.
At Workington you’re a breeze from the delightful market town, Keswick, one straight drive on the A66. From here you can hike up to magnificent viewpoints over the lake Derwentwater, traverse the Catbells on the lake’s west shore and visit Castlerigg, a Neolithic stone circle with an astounding backdrop.
After Keswick you can access the rest of Lakeland on the A591, praised as the most beautiful drive in England.
Travelling back along the River Derwent, Cockermouth is ten minutes at most on the A66. This town is just within the boundary of the Lake District National Park and a gateway to the dramatic Bassenthwaite Lake, where you can hike through woodland to scenic lookouts, one of which gives you a view of nesting ospreys that fish in the lake from April to September.
As a priority you have to check out the National Trust’s Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, the birthplace and childhood home of the poet inextricably linked to the Lake District.
There’s a gorgeous riverside garden with centuries-old varieties of flowers and herbs, a multimedia exhibition that also includes personal possessions like Wordsworth’s ice skates, and things to keep kids on board like dress-up costume, games and replica toys.
Cockermouth can also be a springboard to the giant fells in western Lakeland, like Grasmoor and High Stile, as well as the impossibly beautiful Buttermere lake, owned by the National Trust.
5. Portland Square
Workington is at its prettiest on the streets west of the Helena Thompson Museum, which warrant a quick walking tour.
Here the stuccoed Georgian and Victorian houses are all painted in lively colour schemes, lining the windows and doors, as well as quoins on the corners.
Most charming is the cobblestoned Portland Square, which was formally planned and has rows of pollarded trees along its pavements.
At the centre stands an 1881 memorial obelisk for the physician, Dr Anthony Peat, who served the Workington community for 30 years and was clearly held in high esteem.
6. Jane Pit
Reminders of Workington’s heavy industry are never hard to find, at Workington Dock where steel tracks and iron ore were exported to the world, and the old British Steel railmaking site at the Derwent Howe Industrial Estate.
Right by the latter at the junction of Mossbay Road and Annie Pit Lane is what is left of Jane Pit, a 19th-century colliery (closed 1875) with whimsical Gothic Revival architecture.
There are two castellated chimneys and a castle-like steam engine house.
Also fascinating is the circular earthwork mound for what used to be the horse gin, from the time when literal horsepower was used to lift coal up the shaft.
Always attracted to the industrial landscapes of northern England, the artist L. S. Lowry drew Jane Pit in the 1960s.
7. Carnegie Theatre
Opened in 1904 following a donation by the Scottish/American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, this theatre on Finkle Street is billed as the top performing arts venue in West Cumbria.
The Carnegie Theatre can seat 330 and puts together a crowd-pleasing programme of dance, plays, stand-up comedy, spoken word events, musicals and live music by local and touring performers.
The venue also encourages lots of community participation, scheduling classes and workshops for musicianship, acting, singing and all sorts of dance, while community groups also use the building for meetings, seminars and coffee mornings.
8. Sea to Sea Cycle Route
Thought to be the most ridden cycle route in the UK, the Sea to Sea (C2C) begins in Workington or Whitehaven as it courses through the North of England’s most awe-inspiring landscapes on the way to Tynemouth or Sunderland.
The route is 140 miles long on mostly traffic-free tracks and quiet country roads, entering the Lake District and then descending into the Lush Eden Valley before crossing the stark moorland of the North Pennines.
If that sounds like too much of a challenge you could allocate a day and cycle far into the Lake District, visiting Keswick and basking in the views of Derwentwater before turning back.
9. Workington Golf Club
The fabled Scottish golfer and course architect James Braid (1870-1950) designed the 18 holes at Workington Golf Club, which was founded in 1893. The course is rambling parkland, and as you play you may be surprised by views to the Cumbrian Fells and the Solway Firth, as well as occasional sightings of pheasants and hares.
There are some testing differences in elevation which can punish even seasoned golfers, but you can start your round equipped with some insider tips from the club’s friendly staff.
Visitors are welcome every day of the week, and green fees are £35 on weekdays and £40 on weekends.
10. Workington Comets
From March to September you can catch pulsating bike racing action at Workington’s 12,000-capacity Derwent Park, shared with the local rugby league club.
This is the home track for Workington Comets, who compete in the SGB Championship, the second division of speedway competition in the UK.
They won this league in 2018, along with the Challenge Shield and Knockout Cup, in a historic treble season.
For the uninitiated, Speedway involves up to six riders racing around an oval dirt track on one-gear bikes with no brakes.
Approximately every other Friday or Saturday you’ll be able to watch the Comets battling against teams from around the UK, either in the league or one of the cup competitions.
The makeup of the team changes by the season, and in 2018 included two English riders, two Australians and three Danes.
11. Washington Square
Workington is West Cumbria’s prime shopping destination, as you can tell at this £50 million pedestrian mall that opened in 2006. With more than 60 stores the mall has been a success, and is peppered with eye-catching public like the Andy Plant’s interactive Workington Clock.
Now well into its second decade Washington Square is one of only a few shopping centres in the UK with 100% occupancy rates.
As for stores, you’ve got lots of big UK and international retailers like H&M, Laura Ashley, Next, River Island, Clarks, Clintons and WHSmith.