Morecambe Bay, Hampsfell and Cartmel
Morecambe Bay is place of desolate beauty and treacherous tides. Its rich cockle and shrimp beds provide a living for local fishermen but have proved lethal for some. One of finest views of the Bay is from Hampsfell, a hill bedecked with rare limestone pavements. Below Hampsfell lies Cartmel, a medieval village still illuminated by its inspiring history.
Muddy bronze sands stretch all the way out to the sky, snaked with silver rivulets of residual water, stranded when the tide beat its retreat; the horizon a distant band of yellow in an otherwise monochrome landscape. Above, leaden clouds are fringed with pink and pierced with shafts of golden light, spearing the earth like the fingers of God in a William Blake painting.
For all its wilderness, there is industry here. A tractor rides a sandbank pulling a trailer on 200ft of rope through a channel of water. The trailer drags two large funnel nets to scoop shrimps from the shallows. These will be riddled (sieved) to remove the crabs and flukes (flounder). They will be shelled, cooked and potted in a spicy butter before being shipped to the far flung deli counters of London or the hotels of Hong Kong. Swap a horse for the tractor and this scene has changed little in a hundred years.
But the stark beauty of Morecambe Bay hides perilous hazards. Its tides sweep in twice a day, faster than a horse can gallop and with a force that can roll a tractor one and a half miles up the shore. When they retreat, they leave a lethal maze of ever-shifting quicksands. Inevitably, the bay has claimed its share of victims.
Indeed, in 1853 Grange-Over-Sands was nearly robbed of its first vicar. Historically, the sands provided a convenient shortcut linking the two parts of Lancashire (Lancashire North O’ The Sands now being part of Cumbria). The Reverend Rigg was en route from Manchester to take up his post when his coach was swallowed by the unstable ground. A delicate soul, Rigg had steeled himself for the journey by shutting the windows and shrouding himself in so many blankets he was utterly oblivious to the fact his carriage was sinking. It was with some effort that the coachman eventually got him out through the window, the doors already being too submerged to open.
Many others were less fortunate; in fact so alarming was the death toll that in 1501 the monks at Cartmel Priory appointed an official guide. That responsibility now rests with the Crown and the current Queen’s Guide to the Sands took up the post in 1963. A Bay fisherman since his teens, Cedric Robinson reads these sands like a book and has been instrumental in developing the Cross Bay walks that attract many thousands each year and raise princely sums for charity.
Before each walk, Cedric marks a safe route with laurel twigs. At the appointed hour, he leads the assembled party out across the watery desert. It is a strange and exhilarating experience, light dancing off scattered pools; the exposed sea-bed running as far as the eye can see – so flat that a solitary laurel branch can look like a tree (until a dog invariably runs ahead to pee against it).
It would be wrong to imagine the bay benign however, it’s fatalities somehow confined to former centuries. The band of volunteers who staff Bay Search and Rescue are kept busy and their amphibious Haaglund all-terrain vehicle is regularly deployed. But, in 2004, a tragedy occurred that neither guide nor rescue service could avert.
An abundance of cockles in Morecambe Bay coincided with a dearth elsewhere and their value rocketed. Soon the area saw a large influx of migrant workers, deployed by unscrupulous gang masters with scant regard for their charges’ safety. In his book, Between the Tides, Cedric recalls how ill equipped these parties were: knowledge of the tide tables seemed to consist of watching the local fisherman; some had little or no transport and were forced to walk the six or seven miles to the cockle beds.
It was an accident waiting to happen and tragically, on Feb 5th 2004, it did. A party of Chinese cocklers were cut off by the tide and twenty three drowned before the rescue boats and helicopters could reach them. Only Li Hua survived because he got so cold he left early and was picked up by a lifeboat on a sand bar after a brave but futile attempt to swim back to save his friends.
The incident had lasting ramifications, triggering changes in law and the creation of a Gang Masters Licensing Authority. Li’s evidence helped convict gang master Lin Liang Ren of manslaughter, but a wider picture of organised crime, human trafficking and enslavement of the desperately poor emerged. Li Hua now lives under the witness protection scheme.
The cockle beds were eventually closed and remained so until last year when limited access was granted on a strict permit-controlled basis.
A Nick Bloomfield film, Ghosts, upset the local fishing fraternity by portraying them as racists whose bullying forced the Chinese to work at night, an accusation vehemently denied by the fishermen who insist no such confrontation ever took place. Indeed, on the night of Feb 5th, locals tried to warn the cocklers of the impending tide and some even risked their own lives to assist in the rescue efforts.
Such a tragedy casts a long shadow and thirteen years on I am loathe to dwell on it, but that the story is so well known, its omission would seem oddly remiss.
For all their inherent danger, the sands possess a desolate beauty and while I have followed Cedric across these flats on more than one occasion, my favourite way to view the bay is from the top of Hampsfell.
From High Newton, I take the road past the post box, up the hill and over the road bridge. Here I turn left and then right, following the Cartmel signs, to descend Head House Hill.
A little way past the farm, a bridleway leads off to the left, becoming an intermittent tree-lined avenue dissecting pastures full of grazing sheep and curious cows. The path crosses a road and continues through a gate on the other side. After about quarter of a mile, a footpath sign points the way left into a meadow and the gentle climb begins, quickly affording impressive views of the Coniston fells.
At the top of the field, the path follows the line of the trees into the lightly wooded Hampsfield Allotment, then climbs on to open fell. A little further up, through a gate in a dry stone wall, the magnificent limestone pavements that adorn the summit come into view, jutting defiantly out of the hillside like ancient fortifications.
Formed under the sea some 350 million years ago from the remains of millions of small shelled creatures, the large upstanding blocks are known as clints and were scoured by glaciers during the ice ages, leaving them riven with gutter-like channels called runnels. These pavements harbour rare species of butterfly and moth and are a haven for badgers, stoats, weasels and even polecats. Only 26km2 of limestone pavement exists in the U.K. and in 1981, Hampsfell’s striking examples became the first in the country to be protected by a Limestone Pavement order under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
As I reach the top, the vast expanse of Morecambe Bay stretches out before me. The tide is out and sand ridges spiral into elaborate patterns. The newly risen sun is starting to break through the cloud, turning patches of sky an ethereal yellow and gilding stranded pools beneath. Elsewhere clouds cast blue tinged shadows turning sky and sand into mirror images, blending into one continuous other-worldly landscape.
It’s hard to imagine a finer backdrop for an exotic limestone paved hill top; but Hampsfield Fell has further riches. At the summit lies the Hospice, a squat stone tower with an open door and an oft used fireplace; built in 1834 by Thomas Remington, vicar of Cartmel as a gift to weary wanderers and a testament of thanks for the beauty he encountered here on a daily basis. Inside are boards inscribed with verses bidding travellers welcome and eulogising the landscape; and one rather more pithy plea against vandalism with a delicious quote from Solomon: “though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle yet will not his foolishness depart him”.
Outside, steep stone steps lead to the roof where a viewfinder helps interpret the uninhibited 360 degree panorama. Swing north-west from the bay across the lush green of Cartmel valley and you encounter a fine parade of mountains: the Coniston Fells, the Langdale Pikes, Helvellyn, the Fairfield group, the Kentmere Pikes, the Howgills and finally, before you meet the shore again, the distinctive profile of Yorkshire’s Ingleborough. At a little over 700ft, Hampsfell is small-fry compared with such lofty neighbours, but its views punch far above its height.
I continue south over grass paths to the subsidiary summit of Fell End, marked with a large cairn, then descend past Grange Fell Golf Club to Grange Fell Road. Here I turn right then right again on to Haggs Lane to follow the hill down into Cartmel.
Chris Evans described Cartmel as “a thimble full of diamonds”. The Village Shop is a mini Fortnum and Masons, chock full of delectable goodies and famous for its Sticky Toffee Pudding. Unsworth’s Yard is home to a micro-brewery, wine shop, bakers and a very fine cheese emporium. The village boasts no less than four pubs and for the high end gastronome, it is home to Simon Rogan’s l’Enclume, winner of the Good Food Guide’s best restaurant for the last four years.
In muddy walking boots with a mere pocketful of change, I don’t rate my chances there, but the lovely people at Cartmel Coffee don’t seem to mind me traipsing across their stone floor to buy a coffee and a deliciously sticky chocolate brownie.
Outside in the square I sit on the steps of the old market cross and look across at the fine medieval arch of the Priory gatehouse. Built in 1190 and colonised by Augustine monks, the Priory lasted four hundred years until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, when several of its brethren were hanged along with the villagers who supported them. Unusually, the church was not razed because its founder, William Marshall, had granted the villagers the right to use it as their parish church and they successfully petitioned to keep it.
As the second son of a baron, William was not in line to inherit but won fame and fortune through his prowess on the tournament circuit and on the battlefield where he fought beside Richard I. His loyalty to the crown was tested, however, when John assumed the throne. Marshall was one of barons who held the errant king to account and forced him to sign the Magna Carta, the closest thing we have ever had to a constitution enshrining justice and liberty from oppression.
In September 2015, to mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, Cartmel hosted a magical Son et Lumière. Projected on to the wall of the Priory church at dusk, the spectacle celebrated William Marshall’s legacy. At the climax of the show, a knight in shining armour galloped into the churchyard on a magnificent black charger; reared up, holding sword aloft, then galloped back into the darkness.
Under the steel helmet was Tracey Venter of Black Horses Friesians astride her fine Friesian stallion, Droomwalls. Tracey later told me her field of vision was so restricted by the visor she couldn’t see the assembled crowd. She said that if she’d realised just how many people had turned out to watch, she might have felt a tad nervous (words to that effect anyway).
From the square, I walk out past Cartmel’s intimate racecourse (another diamond) and follow the country lanes to Field Broughton; then back, via Barber Green, to High Newton and The Crown Inn, where a roaring fire and fine selection of local beers await. On offer is William Marshall Crusader Ale from the Cartmel Brewery, but there’s also award winning Loweswater Gold and beautifully balanced Hawkshead Bitter. Oh the agony of choice! Then again, this is my local – I don’t have to drive anywhere. I think I might just see a solution.