In 2017 drug addicts in the tenements, flats and terraces of Barrow-in-Furness began dying in unprecedented numbers.

Local outreach services and health workers grew steadily more alarmed as 12 overdoses were recorded in the Cumbrian town in the space of four months, a hugely disproportionate number for its population of 67,000.

Those with knowledge of the local drugs scene tend to believe a "bad batch" of heroin was responsible for some of the loss of life, causing overdoses even in long-term addicts with a high degree of tolerance.

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It is unlikely the exact cause of that spike will ever be known, but that is of no concern to the serious organised criminals controlling the heroin trade far away from the struggles of people living in Barrow's most deprived estates.

This kind of misery is the end result of the lucrative County Lines drugs trade, where powerful criminals rake in the profits without setting foot in the town.

The ECHO looked at how the heroin supply lines from Merseyside erode communities in towns like Barrow.

Egerton Court in Barrow-in-Furness, which saw a spate of drug deaths in 2017/18
Egerton Court in Barrow-in-Furness, which saw a spate of drug deaths in 2017/18

End of the County Line

Four of the deaths which raised alarm in 2017, including three between December 10 and December 20 alone, occurred in one notorious tenement block in the town's Barrow Island ward.

Egerton Court neighbours the mammoth BAE shipyards which drive the town's economic fortunes - but few if any residents there work in the sought after engineering jobs which attract many of the town's college graduates.

Locals in Egerton Court have little doubt where the majority of the heroin and crack-cocaine on the streets comes from.

One man, returning to his flat in the claustrophobic square, told the ECHO: "We are used to all sorts of accents here, Liverpool, Manchester.

"Most of it [drugs] comes from Liverpool. My cousin was in the paper, they took over her flat here and were using it to sell out of.

"The lad that came from Liverpool he was only a kid, 15, he was sent here to control it."

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The scenario he describes is a classic example of what is known in criminal justice circles as County Lines dealing.

According to the National Crime Agency (NCA), the term refers to where "illegal drugs are transported from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries (although not exclusively), usually by children or vulnerable people who are coerced into it by gangs.

"The ‘County Line’ is the mobile phone line used to take the orders of drugs. Importing areas (areas where the drugs are taken to) are reporting increased levels of violence and weapons-related crimes as a result of this trend."

'The problem is the Scousers coming through'

When heroin and crack cocaine arrives Barrow, whether simply stashed in a car and driven up the M6, "plugged" in a dealer's backside or smuggled in packages - much of it ends up in Barrow Island and what the locals call 'Eggy Court' or 'Ego'.

Ellie Wilson and Ciara Canpolat, both 16, were visiting friends there when the ECHO passed through.

Engineering student Ellie was raised in the block until the age of 11, and despite her youth was under no illusions what was going on around her.

Ellie Wilson, 16, from Barrow-in-Furness, who shared her experiences of her childhood growing up in Egerton Court
Ellie Wilson, 16, from Barrow-in-Furness, who shared her experiences of her childhood growing up in Egerton Court

She said: "A lot of people here take heroin and crack, and they come here when they get out of prison.

"If you were taking a family and that you would not want to live over here, especially this place."

From her time living in Egerton Court, Ellie said the origins of the crack and heroin making life miserable for many locals was no secret.

She said: "It is Liverpool, Manchester and London. Scousers coming through, they're the problem. They have the kilos and they pass it to the regular dealers.

"I used to see dealing myself, you would see people go up to certain flats and they would be straight back out again. You knew what was going on."

One man, who had recently moved to the area from Leeds, said: "I don't speak to anyone here, it is bad.

"There are fights, I have seen people being bottled, people being thrown through a car windshield. I just keep out of it all."

On nearby Steamer Street, also comprised of brutal, tightly packed tenement blocks, the Liverpool connection is no secret.

Steamer Street, Barrow-in-Furness, where drug dealers from Liverpool have been targeting addicts
Steamer Street, Barrow-in-Furness, where drug dealers from Liverpool have been targeting addicts

The Hippo Line

In an eyebrow raising case that ended with convictions last week, Cumbria and Merseyside Police combined to bring down the so-called 'Hippo Line', a Liverpool county lines operation selling heroin and crack-cocaine to users in Barrow.

Police managed to establish that a boy of just 17-years-old, back in the Walton area, was not only controlling the 'Hippo Line' mobile phone and directing the sale of drugs in Barrow - but had sent a 15-year-old Liverpool boy 100 miles down the M6 to work out of a grimy flat in Steamer Street.

He was later locked up for five years for offences under the Modern Slavery Act and supplying Class A drugs.

One local chatting with neighbours in Steamer Street, 51-year-old Dawn, said she knows of at least three people who have succumbed to overdoses in the past few years.

Dawn, 51, and her partner Nigel, who shared their experiences as residents of Steamer Street in Barrow-in-Furness
Dawn, 51, and her partner Nigel, who shared their experiences as residents of Steamer Street in Barrow-in-Furness

Dawn, who used to run a business in Barrow called Pretty in Pink before falling on hard times, said: "Drugs are a really big issue round here. We're really worried about the f****** drug dealers."

Pointing to a flat nearby, she said: "I have known three who have died off it, one was down there."

"I was walking over there recently and a guy started following me, he had a plastic bag and he was from Liverpool. He kept asking me if I wanted any gear off him."

Dawn's partner, Nigel, described what happened when he first moved to the tenements of Steamer Street.

He said: "I went to view a flat, I got shown around and there was a settee there.

"When I came back to move in it was gone, they said it had been full of needles from whoever lived there before."

Steamer Street, Barrow-in-Furness, where drug dealers from Liverpool have been targeting addicts
Steamer Street, Barrow-in-Furness, where drug dealers from Liverpool have been targeting addicts

Exporting violence

The Liverpool connection is a prime target of detectives in Cumbria Police, such as Detective Chief Inspector David Cooper, who highlights his officers' record in high-profile takedowns of the dealers who bring misery to deprived areas like Barrow Island.

But for the force, the corrosive influence of heroin and crack cocaine on the community is "day business".

He told the ECHO: "Barrow is significantly impacted and targeted by Merseyside County Lines Crime Groups likely due to proximity and local association links made via the North West Prisons network.

"In Barrow, and elsewhere in Cumbria, County Lines is often linked to a consequential increase in related crime such as violence, threats, weapons and harassment but also drugs related deaths and the exploitation and harassment of others in the furtherance of this crime type is also common place.

"Barrow Area Drugs Unit has an outstanding record of disrupting and convicting crime groups operating in their area and in doing so have safeguarded a number of children and young persons used by crime groups who have travelled to Barrow with drugs or to collect and courier monies back to Liverpool."

Back from the depths

One man with a clear-eyed insight into the nightmarish circle of addiction and crime that define the county lines heroin trade is 51-year-old scouser David Higham.

David founded successful charity The Well Communities, which has branches in Barrow, Lancaster, Morecambe and Kendal and helps those hooked on drugs or alcohol stay clean outside of a prison or inpatient environment.

Originally from the poverty stricken streets of 1980s Kirkdale, David was just 14-years-old when he was swept up in the heroin storm that devastated the city.

David Higham, 51, originally from Kirkdale in Liverpool, founder of the Well Communities charity with hubs in Barrow, Kendal, Morecambe and Lancaster
David Higham, 51, originally from Kirkdale in Liverpool, founder of the Well Communities charity with hubs in Barrow, Kendal, Morecambe and Lancaster

Decades of addiction and crime followed for David, who found himself selling drugs county lines style in Barrow and Torquay, while committing robberies and other crimes to feed his addiction.

He told the ECHO: "I was a drug addict from the age of 14, I started using heroin in 1984. When you look at Liverpool we were hit when the streets were all full of poverty, so that became our escape.

"I remember once I got arrested for committing crime and the police officer took me to my mum, and said to her 'do you know your son is on heroin?'

"I said 'no I am not, I am on the gear', I didn't even know what they were talking about.

"I never stopped using for 25 years. All I did was take drugs, commit crime, go to prison, come out of prison, go back in again.

"From 16 to 37 I spent more time in prison than I did out of it. I didn't know how to function normally on the streets.

"When I came out there was no help, no support, nothing to help us function normally.

"So I would always go back to what I knew."

David said people he knew suggested travelling to far away towns like Barrow and Torquay to sell drugs.

He said: "County lines has been happening for a long time in terms of people travelling to different areas to sell drugs.

"I have been to Torquay and Barrow to sell drugs, in terms of what they call cuckooing we would go and use someone's house, and sell drugs from that house.

"At the same time I was taking drugs, I was smoking more than I was selling.

"People will look for escape and one way of doing that is committing crime or selling drugs.

"When we would go to these towns we would spot gaps and opportunities for crime. In Barrow or Torquay you would pay triple what you would in Liverpool.

"In Liverpool what you would pay for a £20 bag you would pay £60 in Torquay, or a £10 wrap in Liverpool would be £25 in Barrow.

"But when you're an addict you will never get ahead. You think you can smoke a bit but you end up spending all the profits on drugs."

David Higham, 51, with his wife Kerrie Higham
David Higham, 51, with his wife Kerrie Higham

Before being released from Lancaster prison in 2007, David was finally able to get clean through a 12 step programme.

From his release, he began working in drug and alcohol recovery and spotted "gaps" in the system for people who are struggling after prison or who are not in rehab units.

Alongside his partner, Kerrie Higham, recently awarded an MBE for her work in recovery, he founded The Well Communities in 2012.

One of the features of the charity is that all volunteers and staff have lived experience of addiction.

'They just use you'

One man whose life was decimated by heroin Liverpool was Jason Sutton, 47.

Jason, from the scenic Lakes District village of Windermere around 40 minutes from Barrow, spent 27 years addicted to heroin.

Sparked by a childhood dominated by a violent father and the loss of his brother to suicide, Jason's addictions dominated his life - and did not go unnoticed by a firm of Merseyside dealers.

Jason Sutton, 47, a former drug addict and county lines dealer who turned his life around and now works at addiction charity The Well Communities
Jason Sutton, 47, a former drug addict and county lines dealer who turned his life around and now works at addiction charity The Well Communities

He told the ECHO: "They were coming up selling and before long I was getting in debt to them. They would come with the heroin plugged (secreted up their backside).

"I would be getting one bag of heroin for every four I sold. It was not nice, they just used you.

"My partner at the time was also addicted to heroin and was pregnant, and they would do things like go 'here you are there's a bag for your pregnant Mrs' and laugh about it."

Jason was freed from the clutches of the group when they were arrested, but was himself jailed for burglary in early 2017.

After leaving prison the following year, Jason was desperate for change and turned to the Well Communities.

He told the ECHO: "The drugs didn't work any more, I was desperate. I spent 10 months in here and now I am a paid employee."

Jason Sutton, 47, a former drug addict and county lines dealer who turned his life around and now works at addiction charity The Well Communities
Jason Sutton, 47, a former drug addict and county lines dealer who turned his life around and now works at addiction charity The Well Communities

The market remains

Despite the success of projects like The Well, the heroin market in Barrow remains, as do the predatory organised crime groups determined to profit.

Cumbria Police told the ECHO that officers targeting county lines groups in Barrow have made more than 20 arrests, seized 12.5kg of cannabis, 6kgs of amphetamine, 1,000 MDMA tablets, 1oz of cocaine, and more than 500 wraps of heroin and crack cocaine between March and June this year alone.

The force said: "Cumbria Police have recently implemented a more focussed approach to the threat posed to our communities by Serious & Organised Crime with the formation of Community Serious & Organised Crime Teams (C-SOC Teams).

"These are agile, proactive, specialist teams of officers with geographical responsibility for targeting SOC in their areas with the support of the wider Specialist Capability available in Cumbria that includes our Force Intelligence Units, Serious & Organised Crime Unit, Economic Crime Unit, Operational Support, Roads Crime Unit, and Roads Policing Unit.

"Cumbria Police also works daily and extensively with law enforcement partners in Merseyside Police and the Regional Organised Crime Unit to combat serious and organised crime and County Lines Specifically.

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"Cumbria Police will continue to relentlessly pursue those involved in serious and organised crime, including county lines, who are operating in or passing through our county. We will continue to identify, arrest, convict, seize criminal assets and impose restrictive orders on offenders who impact on our communities."

For David Higham, the desperate souls who fund the lucrative trade were set on that path from childhood - and the right intervention and emotional support is essential.

He said: "I would have loved someone like me to come back to me and tell me you don't need to go down the route of a life of addiction.

"You can deal with the abuse and violence that's happened around you, you can deal with all these issues.

"The statistics tell us if you experience three or more Adverse Childhood Events you are more likely to commit crime, you are more likely to take drugs or abuse alcohol.

"For those people, it is like their lives are already mapped out for them at eight, nine or 10 years old.

"For me, when I first picked up drugs at 12 and heroin at 14, my life was already set out for me and I didn't even know."

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