The Port of Workington
It's a warm, sunny day; the Firth is sparkling blue and calm; the distant columns of the Robin Rigg turbines glisten white in the sunshine; to the North, Criffel and the houses along the Scottish coast are sharp and clear, and the Lake District fells are a soft blue-green to the South, their tops free of cloud.
It's low tide, and green weed is plastered to the pier across the River Derwent, sticky brown mud glistening on the exposed banks and in the marina opposite, where the yachts are ungainly, waiting for the tide to return. But the gates of the Prince of Wales dock at the Port of Workington have been closed to retain the sea, and the water in the harbour is barely ruffled by the breeze. It's a perfect June day in West Cumbria.
The Harbour Office is a red sandstone Victorian building, which originally housed the Harbour master and his family. In the renovated interior, Jeremy Lihou's office is a bright business-like place which, this morning at any rate, has a calm and efficient air. A young man from the office team looks in, twice, throughout our discussion, to bring water and mugs of coffee.
Jeremy, the Port Manager, is from Guernsey, but "came over in 1990", to join the British Fuel Company; during the coal-miners' strike in 1984, he was moved to Workington because it was the only place exporting coal to Europe.
"Then in 2000 I became Port Manager. And I stayed here ever since. You can't beat it, it's a lovely place to be."
Later, as I walk round the Port with Colin Sharpe, the Business Development Manager, Colin reiterates this view, "Not a bad place to work, is it, Ann?" although he does add, "But it's a bit different on a February day when the wind's blowing!"
Colin grew up on Walney Island. He did a degree in accounting & finance at Lancaster University and after a period working in London and Manchester, returned to the area to set up a retail and property management business. He’s happy to be in Cumbria again – "cities are not for me, I was glad to get back to the county" – and worked with Camelot, the National Lottery operator, and then Cumbrian Newspaper Group, before being appointed to his job at the Port in 2005, "to develop the business portfolio and investment."
"In the shop-window"
"Without Colin's input we wouldn't have achieved what we have – all the networking, getting ourselves in the shop window. It's a good-news story," Jeremy says. Given the Port's and West Cumbria's recent history of industrial and manufacturing decline, there was a lot that had to be achieved. "During British Steel's time in Workington, the Port shifted one million tonnes of iron ore annually, but after British Steel went into decline, the Port suffered badly and eventually the local authority, Cumbria County Council, bought the Port for £1 in 1975. Local manufacture of steel, coal, and chemicals all decreased until the early 1990s. By 2002, all traditional traffic had disappeared – it was a dedicated coal terminal."
Colin continues the story: "In 2005, the Port needed to convince the local council to diversify – the County Council, the Borough Council, Workington Harbour Board, together with NWDA [North-West Development Agency] and public-public partnership funding – they needed to make the port 'fit for purpose'. That started to turn confidence around – it provided a firm platform on which to build future business."
One of the main thrusts recently has been to set up a container terminal. "The business case showed there was volume there for a regular sea-based connection with Europe. The plans were firmly in place, but then the funding suddenly vanished because the NWDA was removed. Fortunately the nuclear partners stepped in in 2005 with £2.5m, administered through BEC [Britain's Energy Coast™], to create the infrastructure, new plant and so on, so as to have a 'ready to go container terminal'."
"The local community had got used to looking at the port as a failing entity," Jeremy says. "They say things like, 'You used to be able to walk across the dock on ships.' There were approximately 150 people working here at its peak, as a core workforce. Now, we've diversified. We have tenants as well, and we're supporting the local community."
There are now about 20 full-time staff, involved in cargo handling, warehousing, the marine side, maintenance, and management, and some part-time such as the two shipping-agents. "We have about 50 acres on site, so they also do the 'house-keeping', they look after the roads and so on. They've all got great capabilities and skills. We're pretty much self-sufficient – there's very little we have to contract out."
Both he and Colin are obviously very enthusiastic about the Port. They're clearly well-practised in explaining its new raison d'etre, and in 'selling' its current activities and future potential; each listens while the other speaks, and each contributes from his own expertise. But they listen to my own questions as well, and are prepared to explain, without condescension, and with humour, too; they are engaged and engaging.
'Trains, and boats and (cranes)'...
The Port's great value is as a 'Multi-modal logistics hub', according to the website: when I arrived, the various types of transport had been immediately obvious – the railway lines, on which a chain of trucks, each shaped like a flattened V, stood waiting; a laden road wagon in glossy green livery driving past the cranes; and of course, the harbour ...
"We needed to diversify, to non-port-related activities," Colin explains."A mix of sea and rail, but not necessarily connected to sea-borne traffic." For example, calcium carbonate comes in by rail and is transferred to slurry tanks on the dock; it is then loaded onto road tankers and taken to Iggesund at Flimby, to be used in their paper-making process. The Port, then, is a useful place to collect, store, and transfer goods from one type of transport to another. "We're the only marshalling rail yard in the area, and Iggesund is a great example of how we positioned our business case – we're primarily here to support the local industrial base."
Jeremy reiterates this support for local business and the community as the Port's main aim. There is now "significant investment" from E.On, who run the offshore wind-farm and have committed to be here for the next 25 years. "We punched well above our weight in attracting the E.On centre and all the resulting activity" – there are now three boats servicing the wind-farm, with the recent addition of the twin-hulled Solway Challenger – "It's regeneration at its best, we're attracting the shoots of new business'.
West Cumbria, Britain's Energy Coast™: a major part of the area's economy derives from the nuclear industry at Sellafield and its spin-offs at Lillyhall and Whitehaven. "The nuclear industry is very supportive with regard to more sustainable forms of transport. The nuclear agenda is large, what with new-build, de-commissioning, re-processing – there are the three long-term strands. Construction requires raw materials which are shipped in. There have been beach landings at Seascale during major de-commissioning projects –Evaporator D was presented in modular form and sent down the coast by sea. And for the Vault 9 [low-level waste] construction – the Port was the marshalling point for the materials, which could be re-delivered by rail. It kept all the cargo off the A595 – it provided a bit of peace and quiet for Drigg!"
Wood-pulp being discharged from a ship - the Cumbrian fells can be seen in the distance (thanks to Colin Sharpe for this photo.)
What about other shipping activity? Iggesund imports wood pulp for its board-making process. For example, eucalyptus pulp directly from Spain, and from Chile via Flushing in the Netherlands. Iggesund's share is brought into Workington about once a month, in a small, 3000-tonne, coaster.
I comment that there are only two small ships in the harbour today – the tug and pilot boat, Derwent, and one of E.On's service boats.
Colin laughs: "It's feast or famine. We get about 250 cargo vessels per year. But if you add in the offshore vessels, such as E.On's and related, it's nearer 750 movements a year. You might get three on one tide, then nothing for several days."
Acronyms and jargon
In a couple of days' time the Port is expecting the arrival of a vessel to take a cargo for Latvia. Outside the Harbour Office is a massively long and high 'bund' of cylindrical objects, identically wrapped in pale green plastic – as familiar in appearance as silage bales. I poked one with my finger on the way in, and its contents, although firm, 'gave' a little.
"Ah – SRF," Jeremy says, and laughs. "There's another acronym for you! Solid Recovered Fuel. You have to bear in mind that local authorities have to pay for landfill, so they have to find more cost-effective ways of dealing with household waste."
Cumbria has two MBT – mechanical biological treatment – centres. Recyclates are removed from the waste, and the rest is treated and dried, to give a "fluffy, combustible material. UK Cement are using it to fire their kilns. There's an over-supply, so the SRF is exported to Latvia, for example, as an alternative fuel. It's more cost-effective than paying penalties associated with landfill. It's shipped out from here once a month – it takes about a day-and-a-half to load."
We had been laughing about acronyms and jargon a little earlier, because I had had to Google the meaning of 'dwat' (dead-weight, the weight of cargo, stores and water). When Colin took up his job as Business Development Manager, he had an immense amount to learn: "The work has a language of its own. There's a plethora of ways you can contract with a ship, and it's all couched in acronyms which you have to translate into understanding contractually who is responsible for the cost elements along the whole end-to-end supply chain. Luckily, Jeremy is a fund of information about all matters marine."
Jeremy smiles at this. "You have to find where the responsibility lies. Last year we had a ship-strike"—(for a moment the jargon confuses me – we're talking about a ship hit not industrial action)—"the vessel carrying gypsum was coming into the dock and didn't stop when it should, so it damaged the North jetty." He crosses the room to show me the place on the large aerial photo on the wall. "You then have to recover the cost of repairs." "You find the insurance is in layers," Colin adds, "one on top of another, and getting to the bottom of it can be slow and difficult."
The Port of Workington is a member of the BPA, the British Ports Association (the body that oversees and is the lobbying voice for ports that are municipally-owned, trust-owned, or privately-owned; compare Silloth, which is owned outright by the confusingly similar-sounding ABP, Association of British Ports), and charges a fixed tariff for vessels which use its facilities, based on the vessel's laden weight. This fee, paid to the Port Authority, is for berthing, and "providing a safe haven" while discharging cargo. The Port also receives a fee from the Receiver, for receiving or loading cargo. As at Silloth, shipping agents are the main interface between the ship's owner and the port.
Containment and containers
Some of the expense of running Workington, about £300,000 a year, is due to the necessity of having the harbour approaches dredged. Whitehaven and Maryport, Workington, Silloth – all have to have dock gates. At ports like Liverpool, a vessel can enter as soon as it arrives, and its turn-around time is potentially a lot faster. Jeremy explains, "We say, 'make the ship fit the port'. We're constrained by vessel size. The port is tidal so we have to manage it round High Water. The gates are open for three to four hours around this time. At Low Water we have to shut the gates to maintain the water in the dock." The largest vessel to enter has been the 13,000 dwat Cumbrian Fisher. "There was about 200 mm each side," Colin grins, and Jeremy nods in agreement.
Before we go outside to walk around the dock, Colin tells me more about the planned container terminal. "There are the two sides, business – and shipping. One side is saying 'show me the volume', the other is saying 'show me the ships'. But we're very close now"—he holds up his hands, inter-meshing his outstretched fingers—"hopefully it will happen within the year. From the Mersey to the Clyde, we'd be the only facility doing it. And it would then be possible to push our business further afield."
Cement, gypsum, trees ...
We don hard hats and hi-vis jackets and walk out into the sunshine, passing the 'bund' of green SRF bags; passing one of the two Nelcon cranes, formerly used to lift the 36-metre railway lines from Corus onto waiting ships; now, with the demise of Corus and rail-making, they are used for "hooking and grabbing" cargoes.
Jeremy had shown me an old print of the original Lonsdale Dock, and Colin and I stand at the dockside and look at the lattice-work of pilings that make a 'false quay', aimed at preventing undermining when the dock was extended back in 1927. Re-furbishing these quays will be the next project to be undertaken.
A couple of men in yellow hi-vis jackets and hard hats are working by a small crane, and they nod hello. Gulls are racketing from a roof-top.
We stroll past the 'tank-farm', tall grey, rust-stained cylinders that were once used to store phosphoric acid for Albright & Wilson – another industry that has gone. But now Cumbrian Storage uses the tanks for recycling of domestic oils: road tankers collect domestic waste oil, which is piped into the storage tanks, then offloaded into ships to be taken to Denmark or Germany.
At the western end of the dock we walk across a large area that has recently been levelled and concreted ready for container traffic and storage. "We can 'stuff' the container, as they call it, or we can de-van it," Colin says – and the new Liebherr crane will do the job, loading and discharging containers to and from the ships. It is a 'lo-lo' crane – load-on, load-off; the harbour can deal with 'ro-ro' traffic too. The Liebherr is a big bit of kit, purchased, like the concrete storage area, using the money administered by BEC; it has a very large, 18-cubic-metre, bucket grab, and can also do one-off heavy lifts of what Colin terms 'project cargo', such as equipment for E.On or the nuclear industry.
Piled on the concrete nearby is a greyish pile of gypsum (CaSO4.2H2O): brought in by ship, it will be loaded onto road vehicles and used in plaster-board manufacture at British Gypsum at Kirkby Thore.
We walk round to the back of a large warehouse, Thomas Armstrong's cement shed. Cement is blown through a pipe from the ship into the shed; the whole operation can be controlled by one man.
To one side of the warehouse is one of the biggest piles of tree-trunks that I have seen. Nearly all of these will be used for fuel in Iggesund's combined heat and power plant, which uses a half-million tonnes of wood a year. Further on, near the Port's entrance, a machine is grinding away: a giant chipper, turning trees into wood-chip, which is being loaded onto lorries.
There may not be wall-to-wall ships and dozens of workers, but the Port's facilities are certainly being used in a multitude of ways. "Our two biggest challenges are the amount of available land we have," Colin says, "and the other limiting factor is connectivity – how we connect to the outside world."
Wherever we go, I am surprised, sometimes touched, by small things. The single operator of the cement shed is sitting by a console reading a paper; he has opened the door to let in the sun. The tree-trunks come from the Western Isles. The gypsum glitters slightly. There are huge slings outside the RNLI's lifeboat station, for lifting and dropping the boat into the sea. A wind turbine beyond the tree-trunks makes a hiss-hiss-hiss as it turns. And there are the dock gates ...
Colin is especially enthusiastic about the refurbishment of the dock gates, which took place in 2007 at a cost of £900,000. We stand and look down at them, seeing how their curved baulks retain the greenish, slightly oily water. There is only a single set, no double gates as in a sea-lock: "They're a fundamental piece of kit!" What is especially surprising, and interesting, is that the mitred joint and the timber at the hinge are made of green-heart timber. "A man came to make them by hand. It was a pleasure to see. He's one of the only gentlemen in the country doing it – he was there with a spoke-shave and plumblines ..."
I would have liked to have seen that. I would also like to go out on the Derwent to watch a pilot being delivered to a ship, and I'd like to see the Nelcon lifting the bales of SRF. And it would be especially good for the Port, and for West Cumbria, if we could all see container vessels making regular trips up the Firth to Workington.