I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the passage of time can be a cruel mistress, especially for fans of the firm, like us. With MG Rover as we know it falling into administration more than 15 years ago, and eventually being carved up, our contact with the company is becoming rarer by the day.
Ask yourself – when you’re out and about, how often do you see pre-2005 MGs or Rovers on the road? The answer won’t be that often. And that’s a shame, but an inevitable consequence of the passage of time. Equally, those landmarks we associate with the firm are being erased from our landscape – Rover dealer totems are pretty much extinct now, while the factories in which the cars were built are disappearing or unrecognisable now.
However, there are still links if you know where to go. And that’s why, recently, Mike Humble and I found ourselves heading to Lillyhall near Workington to look over one of Eddie Stobart’s depot, now downgraded to a fulfilment centre, to seek out the remnants of the Leyland National bus factory. And boy, did we find them.
For most people, wandering around these windswept industrial units on a blustery October day on the Cumbrian coast would have been a chore at best. But for Mike Humble and I, it was an emotional reminder of our lost industrial heritage. And a warning from the past – forcing manufacturers into building facilities hundreds of miles away from their traditional bases is not a great idea.
What is most surprising is that so much of the former Leyland factory is still in place – so much so, that where the more recently-applied white paint is flaking away from rotting window panels and ageing skirting boards, you’ll find Leyland Bus corporate-spec blue proudly revealing itself underneath.
Standing by the management block near the entrance of the site, Mike points and comments, ‘that was Barrie Wills‘ office – and just there is where my father used to take me on his regular site visits to the other side of the Pennines. As a kid, I was fascinated by the place, and you’d have seen me spinning my dad’s office chair, while the wind funnelled in from the Solway Firth battered the building…’
Yes, Mike remembers the site when it was in full action, probably at its peak in the early 1980s, when the factory was churning out its run of Nationals at its fastest. Despite what the naysayers might unkindly opine, our Socialist Bus of the 1970s was some kind of success for the area, with around 7000 produced between 1972 and 1985.
I don’t have the same emotional link with Lillyhall as Mike does, but it makes me pine for what we once had, and resulted in me silently mouthing the words, ‘where did it all go wrong?’. Indeed, my 21st century ramblings around many car factories in the UK have mainly been after the silence fell over the places.
Revisiting TVR’s crumbling former factory on Bristol Avenue in my old hometown of Blackpool had the same effect on me in 2010, as it brought back memories of my own childhood visit to the place as a ten-year old car nut. While nosing around the remnants of Plaxton’s site in Scarborough (where I lived for a couple of years before moving to Blackpool) two years ago, sparked long-lost recollections of freshly-painted coaches out for test drives along Seamer Road.
Today, you’ll find remnants of the now long-lost manufacturing all over the country if you look hard enough, and care enough. But few are quite so intact as this one, and I am pleased about that – even if it’s probably more a reflection of the lack of pace of West Cumbria’s regeneration than its owner’s intention to preserve the place.
Having said that, I found myself wondering whether to email Eddie Stobart and see if any of those mouldering office buildings were rentable. Sad, aren’t I?