Most people have heard of Hadrian’s Wall, but the Roman name of Alauna is much less familiar…
But this town – these days better known as Maryport, situated in West Cumbria – was a highly-important frontier settlement during the Roman occupation of Britain, and this fascinating history is now uniquely celebrated by a series of evocative storyboards installed on the bi-directional platform of the town’s railway station. But depicting the days when the legions of Rome marched through the hills and valleys of Cumbria is just part of a much larger picture.
‘The regeneration of Maryport station was a major strategic objective for the Community Rail Partnership,’ explains Dawn McGough, Community Rail Manager.
‘We wanted to create a series of hub stations along the Cumbrian Coast railway to encourage regular rail travel, alleviate local traffic congestion and facilitate much more tourist exploration of our scenic Cumbrian Coast railway. So we collaborated with Cumbria County Council and the Local Enterprise Partnership on preparing the business case and overall strategic approach. From the outset Maryport was a priority. There was very little car-parking space at Maryport station which led to major congestion on the surrounding streets and was a real barrier to persuading people to use the train. Bearing in mind the daily commuting needs for workers at Sellafield and the tourist opportunities in Maryport creating an integrated transport hub with the railway station was the perfect answer.’
Cumbria County Council secured the essential funding for the project – in excess of £1 million – through the Cumbria Growth Deal. Land ownership negotiations commenced with the local rugby club, on whose land the new car parking facilities were scheduled to be built. Running alongside these complex negotiations the Community Rail Partnership ensured the whole project had a strong strategic fit with Allerdale Borough Council’s ambitious plans for the regeneration of Maryport as a prime tourist destination.
Following resolution of all practical issues the transport hub, consisting of a 78-space car park, pedestrian access to the station and associated footpath and highway improvements, was officially opened by Cumbria County Council in April 2018. This was welcomed by the local community and produced immediate results, with a notable upsurge in rail usage.
Attention now turned to regenerating the railway station itself. The Community Rail Partnership engaged with the local community for advice. ‘The station is a very important gateway to the town and we wanted to create something the community could be proud of,’ says Dawn, ‘the large platform areas were an overgrown and unkempt wilderness crying out for transformation and who better to tell us what to do than the people who live there?’
A priority on the community ‘wish list’ was a modernisation programme which coincided with Northern’s own Station Investment plans. Through ongoing collaboration with the community, a comprehensive work programme emerged, including clearance of the garden areas, installation of a new shelter, measures to reduce vandalism and anti-social behaviour, new Customer Information screens and extensive platform resurfacing.
It was during this renovation work that the concept of introducing a Rome theme into the station really came to the fore. ‘We just don’t have the population along the Cumbrian Coast to sustain the usual commercial ventures at our stations’, says Dawn, ‘but we’re also firm believers in the fact that railway stations can be so much more than places to wait for a train. We have very strong links with schools along the line of route and teachers always tell us about the value of learning outside the traditional classroom environment. As a result, we’re developing the concept of using our stations as outdoor classrooms.’
And, with an appreciation of local heritage being so high on the school curriculum, the project known as the ‘Edge of Empire’ was born. The years when the legions of Rome dominated Cumbria are well-documented, and during those times watch-towers and mile fortlets were built to protect the Cumbrian coast from invaders north of the border. Alauna was a hugely important location during the Roman conquest, both as a shallow-water port and a staging post for Roman troops on their way to Hadrian’s Wall.
‘We wanted to create a real focal point on the station,’ explains Dawn, ‘something that was both valuable in heritage and educational terms and also intrinsically different. So we established focus groups drawn from the community and specialists in Roman history to provide the basic guidance on the different themes we wanted to portray. Learning about Roman history on a railway station might seem a strange thing to do but it’s a perfect fit for places like Maryport.’
With financial support from the Community Rail Development fund, administered by the Association of Community Rail Partnerships on behalf of the DfT, the Edge of Empire became an exciting reality. The result is a remarkable display of highly-praised storyboards installed prominently on the Maryport platform. Deliberately sequenced, these intriguing storyboards begin with the chronicles of everyday life before the Roman conquest, how and when the Romans arrived, the many legacies the Romans left behind, and eventually end with the fall of Empire.
‘We set out to provide a memorable experience for children,’ laughs Dawn, ‘but it turns out that adults enjoy learning about Roman history just as much! The final storyboard is a quiz based on what has gone before and people go back to find the answers! The feedback we’ve had from both rail passengers and the general public has been absolutely fantastic. The Roman theme has made a huge difference to the station.’
But the community spirit and local enthusiasm which has made the Maryport transport hub such an outstanding success doesn’t end there. A new station adopters group, called the Maryporters, has been established and plans to extend the Roman theme are already being made.
The last word must go to Dawn. ‘We’re so lucky to have such a huge reservoir of community goodwill here in Cumbria. The Cumbrian Coast railway is a lifeline for so many isolated communities, especially with the cutbacks in rural bus services. And it’s in places like Maryport that community commitment shines through. We’ll make sure it continues!’