Off season by the sea
At the southern tip of England’s Lake District, JILL HOCKING delights in the shimmering vision of the Morecambe Bay sands
LAKELAND poet William Wordsworth called it a ‘‘ spot of time’’, an experience of nature so compelling - dancing daffodils, the song of the nightingale, sailing clouds or a cascading stream - that the memory of it could be summoned again and again to uplift the spirits. We are in the right place for a ‘‘ spot of time’’. Our first morning in the Lake District dawns frosty and rosyhued. We have climbed Hampsfell, a hill at the bottom end of the Lakes. Light snow dusts the mountains to the north and the Pennines to the east. Pearly clouds, edged in mauve, hang over the Irish Sea. To the south, beyond the coastal town of Grange-over-Sands, silver ribbons of water unravel into the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay. The town below us slumbers but, on top of Hampsfell, nature is in control.
We are spending a wintry few days in Grange-overSands (known to the locals simply as ‘‘ Grange’’). There’s a melancholic, old-fashioned charm to English resorts in the off-season (ducks on ponds, autumn leaves eddying in the parks, and a stiff wind that propels us along the promenade) and Grange has it in spades.
While many younger Brits have ditched their local seaside resorts for Spain’s Costa del Sol, the older ones still flock to Grange. Spry seniors decked out in sensible parkas and hats greet each other in the street and tuck into cream teas in the plentiful Miss Marple-syle olde tea shoppes such as Hazelmere Cafe, which was named as the UK Tea Guild’s Top Tea Place in 2006. We stay at the 125-room Cumbria Grand, a labyrinthine Victorian hotel glowering over the bay.
The neo-Gothic pile of grey stone turrets and peeling paintwork, a faded grand dame, is a perfect location for the Whodunnit? Murder Mystery Weekends the hotel regularly holds. Alas, the Turkish baths enjoyed by previous visitors have been ripped out, but the staff are young and enthusiastic.
A century ago, the captains of industry from the works and mills of the north holidayed here. ‘‘ In the Second World War, the RAF used the hotel for officer training. People still find RAF buttons in the woods,’’ the affable porter, Dave, tells us.
Our room turns its back on the fells and looks out across Morecambe Bay. At low tide, 310sq km of saltbush and sand are exposed, a shimmering vision of sandy corrugations, split by coiling tidal channels. At night, the moon casts a beam across the rippling sands beneath us.
Like generations before us, we take a fresh-air walk along the prom. The Victorian seawater baths, once alive with fun and laughter, stand derelict. Sheep graze the saltmarsh close to the prom wall. Flocks of curlews and oystercatchers wheel in the sky. Silhouetted on the horizon, we see the wide-wheeled tractors of fishermen who are 5km offshore, gathering cockles and flukes from the sands.
Signs along the prom warn of the dangers of fast rising tides and quicksands; river channels, gullies and dykes constantly change course and sands that are safe one day can be deadly the next. It is in Grange that we learn of an unusual guided excursion. The town is the finishing point of a 12km walk across the Morecambe Bay sands, led in the warmer months by local sand-pilot, fisherman and farmer Cedric Robinson.
Before the Furness railway was built in 1857, the quickest way of reaching southern Lakeland from Lancashire was with a guide across the sands. Records show that the first guide, a ‘‘ carter’’, offered safe passage across the sands from 1501. In 1963, Robinson was appointed the 25th Queen’s guide to the Kent Sands of Morecambe Bay. He revived the role of piloting groups across the sands and for more than 40 years has been leading Cross-Bay walks.
Robinson is in his 70s and has lived in south Cumbria all his life. He says he can read the treacherous quicksand, galloping tides and changing channels better than others can read the morning paper. Those without his life-long knowledge of the sands step out at their peril. (In 2004, a gang of 19 Chinese cockle gatherers perished on Morecambe Bay after they were trapped by racing tides.) Guide’s Farm and its 700-year-old cottage, a wave’s roar from the sea at Grange, come with the job. Robinson doesn’t seem to mind when I track him down and ring him at home. ‘‘ Working the sands was in my blood,’’ he tells me. ‘‘ As a young boy I followed the sands with my dad. When I was 14 I’d venture 8km from shore alone, gathering cockles, shrimps and flukes, with only the gulls and terns for company.’’
Robinson doesn’t fish for a living these days. He is too busy leading the Cross-Bay walks, which take place from May to October and are always booked out. More than 400,000 people have joined the hikes over the past 30 years. Many walkers are sponsored and millions of pounds has been raised for charity.
He explains: ‘‘ We start at the village of Arnside and cross the Kent estuary, finishing near Grange. The day before I always mark the safest route with laurel branches. We also take a tractor and trailer so people can rest if they’re tired.
‘‘ I’ve taken children from Chernobyl fluke gathering. They didn’t speak a word of English and they’d never been on an estuary before. They loved it,’’ Robinson adds. ‘‘ Crossing the wide, empty sands towards the mountains of the Lake District is the experience of a lifetime.’’ Then he rings off, our phone conversation at an agreeable end. It’s January and we can’t do the walk,
so the next best way to see the sands is by train. A 20-minute journey west of Grange takes us along the shoreline, past Guide’s Cottage, through farmland reclaimed from the sea and across the sands to the small market town of Ulverston.
Despite being part of the well-trodden Lake District National Park, Ulverston feels like a real town rather than an over-touristed honey pot. Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy fame) is Ulverston’s favourite son and a museum is devoted to the comical pair.
Both the covered and outdoor markets are trading but business is sluggish. At lunchtime, we find a pub in a cobbled side street. Two men with broad Cumbrian accents breast the bar, bemoan the fact smoking is now banned in pubs and down pints simultaneously. Despite the ambience of air-freshener (which is losing the battle against decades of cigarette fug), the food is first-rate and typical of Ulverston’s pubs: carrot soup, chicken curry and rhubarb crumble, all steaming hot and full of flavour.
This being the Lake District, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking. In winter, this can also mean a good chance of rain and cold. We follow the lead of the locals who, with their stout boots, Goretex jackets and lightweight trekking poles, are not deterred by erratic weather and mingy daylight.
Our first excursion is north into the Grizedale Forest between Coniston Water and Windermere. A few kilometres from the coast take us deep into the mountains. Black and white sheep huddle in fields stitched together with dry stone walls. Humpback bridges span chuckling streams and slateroofed farmhouses nestle in the folds of snowdusted hills. It’s like driving across the lid of a Derwent coloured pencils case.
Grizedale Forest is renowned for its 100 woodland sculptures. As we amble through the oak woodlands, whimsical wooden creatures peek through the undergrowth. A frozen pond in a neighbouring field becomes a readymade skating rink. At lunchtime, the cafe at the visitor centre hums with cyclists and walkers enjoying the soups and pies.
Other hikes take us to the southwestern fells. On a bright and blustery day, we climb Black Combe, the most southerly of the Lakeland peaks. Rugged-up families, septuagenarian couples, a mountain bike rider and a mad fell runner dragging an unwilling terrier are out on the track.
In 1813 Wordsworth wrote of Black Combe: ‘‘ This height, a ministering Angel might select.’’ We wonder what the poet would make of the 20th-century intrusions to his vista: the nuclear power plant at Sellafield, wind turbines high on the hills and gas terminals perched like giant Lego blocks in the Irish Sea.
Our last walk is around the shores of Wastwater, the deepest of the Cumbrian lakes. At Wasdale Head, the graves of fell climbers dot the churchyard of tiny 16thcentury St Olaf’s church. The rugged ancient landscape uplifts the soul. This is a memory, among many from the mountains to the sands, to hold on to.
Black and white sheep huddle in fields stitched together with dry stone walls. Humpback bridges span chuckling streams and slate-roofed farm houses nestle in the folds of snow-
dusted hills. It’s like driving across the lid of a Derwent coloured pencils case
Grave moment: Cemetery at St Olaf’s church