In the 17th century the Lowther family, who controlled coalmining in Cumberland, started building a port at Whitehaven to develop the industry.
Over the next few decades the Lowthers would use their wealth to design one of the first post-Medieval planned towns in the country.
Whitehaven remains a Georgian town, inspired by Sir Christopher Wren’s plans for London’s reconstruction after the Great Fire and looking a lot like a city from the “New World”. That is no accident, as by the 1750s Whitehaven was the UK’s second-busiest port, unloading goods like sugar and rum from the colonies.
Lakeland’s first peak is a few miles inland at Dent Fell, while down the coast are the sky-scraping cliffs of St Bees Head, a key nesting site for seabirds.
1. Walk Around Town
It’s impossible to get lost in the centre of Whitehaven as the town was plotted on a spacious right-angled grid.
Leading to the harbour are the broad and grand thoroughfares, Duke Street and Lowther Street.
The latter ran from the Lowther family’s residence at Whitehaven Castle straight to the waterfront.
It is believed that this urban plan, dating back to the 1680s, is modelled on colonial cities in the Americas.
There are some 250 listed buildings in the space of just a few streets, at townhouses, warehouses and merchant shops, almost all from the 1700s and early 1800s.
A later arrival is the neo-Baroque Market Hall, which went up in 1880 and is now Whitehaven’s Tourist Information Centre.
A market has traded on the old street in front on Thursdays and Saturdays since 1660.
2. The Harbour
The landowner and MP, a Sir Christopher Lowther set about building Whitehaven’s harbour in the middle of the 17th century to trade coal.
The Old Quay here, a stone pier first built in 1631-34, is among the UK’s oldest surviving coal wharves.
The harbour was extended over the next 200 years, to the current layout of piers and long moles reaching out to sea.
On the West Strand you can walk past the Beacon Museum and out along the Old Quay, facing back to the town.
Here you’ll find a Georgian circular lighthouse with a sundial bearing the date, 1730. Elsewhere, sugar from the West Indies would arrive on the Sugar Tongue Quay, completed in 1809, while up to 1992 calcium phosphate from Africa was unloaded at the Queens Dock for a local chemical plant.
3. The Beacon Museum
Between the harbour and Whitehaven’s old mines is a museum telling you all you need to know about the town and wider Copeland region.
The museum mixes interactive stations with artefacts like Viking silver and Victorian maritime technology.
A new exhibition on the second floor is devoted to Sellafield and West Cumbria’s nuclear industry, which was rooted in a post-war weapons programme as the UK strove for a nuclear deterrent in the Cold War.
On the floor above you can be immersed in the sights, smells and sounds of the harbour, in a Georgian warehouse and aboard an interactive ship.
Kids can also unearth Roman artefacts and solve a puzzle with a bird’s eye view of Whitehaven.
The top floor has a sweeping view of the harbour, which you can be viewed through telescopes, and there’s a nostalgic trip through the late-20th century displaying vintage toys and a pristine Chopper bicycle.
4. The Rum Story
In the 18th century Whitehaven was the main port for the UK’s rum trade, and this cavernous Georgian wine merchant’s shop on Lowther Street chronicles the country’s riveting and often dark relationship with this spirit.
The 18th-century shopfront has been preserved, as have the cellars and warehouse, while the original clerk’s office has come through a careful restoration.
At the beginning of the museum trail you’ll be plunged into the humid Antiguan rainforest, and from there will dip into the poignant history of the slave trade and sugar plantations, find out about rum’s role in the Royal Navy and discover how this beverage was distilled and transported.
There are also fascinating insights about the Jefferson family, who traded at this building for more than 200 years up to 1998.
5. St James’ Church
Austere on the outside, this Neoclassical church on High Street is graced with a sumptuous interior in the Rococo style.
The respected architecture historian Nikolaus Pevsner described it as “the finest Georgian church interior in the country”. St James’ Church was dedicated in 1753, and has galleries on three sides, supported by Doric columns, and with a Doric triglyph frieze above the capitals.
Another row of Ionic columns rises to the ceiling, which is richly ornamented with stucco roundels portraying cherubs, the Annunciation and Ascension.
A high point is the Baroque painting behind the altar, of the Transfiguration by Guilio Cesare Procaccini (1574-1625). The story goes that this piece displayed at El Escorial palace outside Madrid and looted by French troops in the Napoleonic Wars.
6. St Nicholas’ Church and Gardens
In a long rectangular park in Whitehaven’s grid system stands St Nicholas’s Church tower.
This, along with the portal, is all that remains of a neo-Gothic church dating to 1883, destroyed by fire in 1971. There had been a 17th-century church here before, and the most famous burial is Mildred Gale (1671-1701) the grandmother of George Washington, the first president of the United States.
The graveyard was rearranged many times, before being turned into a garden following the fire, so her exact burial site is unknown.
You can go up the spiral stairway in the tower to view the clock mechanism and see small display about the Gale family.
The garden is lovely against the church ruins, and if you come around to the Duke Street side at the north end you can see some of the older gravestones, mainly for prominent seafarers.
7. Castle Park
There’s a welcoming piece of greenery on the east side of town, where you’ll find a preserved stone bandstand and a newly updated playground for little ones.
These are the grounds of Whitehaven Castle, founded by Sir John Lowther in the 17th century and later given a Georgian Gothic Revival design.
The Lowthers lived here until 1924, when it was sold off to the council to become a hospital and then eventually apartments.
Walking along the park’s twisting path you might notice the ventilation outlets for the 1,219-metre railway tunnel, excavated in 1852 and linking Whithaven (Bransty) and Corkickle stations.
8. St Bees Head
Close to Whitehaven is the only piece of Heritage Coast on the north-western English coastline between Wales and Scotland.
The cliffs at St Bees Head are up to 90 metres high and afford tremendous views of the Irish Sea and back to the fells and pikes of the Lake District.
The first St Bees Lighthouse went up in 1718 and was the last coal-powered lighthouse in Britain before burning down in 1822. Today’s light was first lit in 1867, becoming automated in 1987 with a range of 18 nautical miles.
There’s also a decommissioned fog horn station on the cliff-edge close by, which is occasionally opened to the public by the National Trust.
On Bees Head’s south end is an RSPB Reserve, at a nesting spot for seabirds like puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes, herring gulls and razorbills, and England’s only breeding location for the black guillemot.
9. Whitehaven Coastal Walk
The National Trust has drawn up a seven-mile signposted walking trail along the coast, departing from the harbour in Whitehaven and taking you down to the trailhead for the 192-mile Coast to Coast Walk in St Bees.
At the start of the walk you’ll get better acquainted with Whitehaven’s mining heritage at the Haig and Saltom pits, and the wagon way, a cart track down to the harbour.
You’ll come across remote beaches lashed by the wind, a historic sandstone quarry and a top-secret radar station from the WWII, as well as sights on this list like St Bees Head and St Bees Priory Church.
10. St Bees Priory Church
The enigmatic Saint Bega (St Bees) is believed to have been an Irish princess who fled an arranged marriage to a Viking in the late-9th century to live a pious life on the Cumbrian coast.
St Bees Priory, founded by the Normans around 1120-35 was a centre of Christianity in the region until it was dissolved in the Reformation.
While the domestic buildings were all lost, the priory church has remained intact since the 16th century and is brimming with history.
Check out the Romanesque zigzag pattern in the portal’s archivolts, as well as the vivd 12th-century lintel in the west courtyard showing St Michael fighting a dragon.
Also outside is the shaft of a 10th-century cross, bearing a Viking-style motif.
The “history area” in the church goes into depth on the excavation of a ruined 14th-century chapel here, which brought to light the perfectly preserved body of a knight who died in 1368.
11. Longlands Lake
A little way inland at the confluence of the Rivers Ehen and Keekle is a lake ensconced in broadleaf woodland, scrub and unimproved grassland bright with wildflowers in summer.
Longlands Lake used to be an iron ore mine, opened in the 1870s and then slowly flooded through subsidence in the middle of the 20th century.
There’s a surfaced path all around the banks, and climbing above the trees to the east is Dent Fell on the boundary of the Lake District National Park.
The dense vegetation on the lake’s margins attracts lots of water birds like swans, moorhens, tufted ducks, mallards and coots.
12. Dent Fell
One of Lakeland’s outlying fells is an easy drive from Whitehaven.
At 325 metres Dent Fell is low by the standards of the Lake District, but because it’s relatively isolated as the westernmost hill in the range the views of Whitehaven and the Cumbrian coast from the summit are phenomenal.
You can look across the Solway Firth to Scotland, and out to the Isle of Man.
Turn to the east and the Lake District’s highest peaks, like Scafell Pike and Pillar are on the horizon.
On Dent Fell’s north face there’s thick woodland planted in the last few decades to prevent erosion in an otherwise sparse landscape.
13. The Candlestick
A constant presence on the harbour’s west flank is this stone protrusion on the hillside known as the Candlestick.
Dating to 1850, this is a coalmining artefact as a ventilation chimney for the Wellington Pit.
The structure was designed Sydney Smirke, who was responsible for much of the mining infrastructure around Victorian England.
Accidents were commonplace in Whitehaven’s mines, and in 1910 Cumbria’s worst mining disaster took place right under this spot when 136 men and boys lost their lives in an explosion and fire.
In 2010 the 100th anniversary of the disaster was marked with services and a parade.
14. Egremont Castle
Egremont is a neat little town on the River Ehen about 15 minutes in the car from Whitehaven.
The ruins of a Medieval castle continue to loom over Egremont on a tall natural mound beside the river.
Egremont Caste is a Norman motte-and -bailey construction that took the place of a Danish fort in 1092 after Cumberland was conquered by William II. The stonework surviving today is from the 12th and 13th century.
Considering that Egremont Castle was already a ruin by the 16th century there’s a lot to see, at the gatehouse, the partially intact walls and the fine pointed window openings of what used to the great hall.
The low traffic and stupendous natural scenery in Cumbria help rank it among the best places to cycle in the UK. Whitehaven also happens to be at the western trailhead for the C2C Route, a 140-mile cycleway crossing the north of England to Tynemouth or Sunderland, via the Lake District.
Not only that, Whitehaven is also on two other much-loved signposted trails: The Rivers Route grazes the north end of the Lake District before taking you into the borderlands, briefly crossing into Scotland at Newcastleton.
Hadrian’s Cycleway (174 miles) is how to experience Hadrian’s Wall on two wheels, leading you to Roman forts, camps, milecastles, turrets and museums, all in haunting countryside.