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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Discover Europe In Winter -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.