Beautiful but treacherous, Morecambe Bay is a place of startling contrasts! Attractive beaches invite us to explore further but are surrounded by signs warning of ‘extreme danger’ ~ it’s known for its gentle waves and miles of shimmering sand, but also notorious for its quicksand and fast-moving tides. Most tragically, on the night of 5 February 2004, at least 21 Chinese cockle pickers drowned after being cut off by the tides. Everybody mentions that terrible event when asked about Morecambe Bay, and nobody wants to see it repeated, yet I heard there are regular incidents of people ignoring the danger signs and then getting stuck and needing rescuing.
The only safe way to go out on the Morecambe Bay Sands is on an organized walk across the bay, which are all run by the Guide Over Sands Trust and must be guided by the Queen’s Guides to the Sands. The walks are run in aid of different charities over summer weekends when the tides are right.
You pay a registration fee for the walk, usually about £15 per adult, and then if you want to raise more through sponsorship, that’s great. On Saturday August 20, the walk was in aid of the Grange-over-Sands Lido, but there was a train strike that day – so instead I signed up for yesterday’s walk, Sunday August 21, in aid of Galloways (Galloway’s Society for the Blind), one of Lancashire’s oldest charities, established in 1867 – and now providing services to over 7000 blind and visually impaired people across Lancs from its HQ in Preston. The walk was due to start at 1:00 pm from Arnside, walking across the bay to Grange-over-Sands. This is the T-shirt specially produced for the occasion!
But first, some background: “Morecambe Bay is a large estuary in northwest England, just to the south of the Lake District National Park. It is the largest expanse of intertidal mudflats and sand in the United Kingdom, covering a total area of 120 sq mi (310 km2).”
It’s been famous for so long that even the “Greek geographer and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (died c170 AD) referred in his writings to Morikambe eischusis as a location on Britain’s west coast, lying between the Ribble and the Solway.”
It is impossible to understand Morecambe Bay’s history without knowing about the importance of Cartmel Priory, in the quaint village of Cartmel, just inland from Grange-over-Sands. It has quite some history, though today the priory is a dark and imposing edifice, and Cartmel has become more famous for its posh restaurants, horse races, and sticky toffee pudding…
The earliest mention of Cartmel in historical records occurs around 674 AD, when the land was bequeathed to St. Cuthbert by King Egfrith of Northumbria, who established a church dedicated to St. Michael. “This Christian era remained until 1189 when William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, founded Cartmel Priory. The Priory was saved at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the early 1530s, owing to William Marshal being granted an altar in one of the Priory’s chapels. The villagers protested that the Priory was in fact their parish church, and so it remains.”
“At the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII the Duchy of Lancaster acquired (amongst others) the Cartmel and Conishead Priories. With them went an obligation to appoint guides for travellers over the sands of Morecambe Bay, one over the Leven Sands, in the Estuary of the River Leven between Ulverston and Cark and the other over the Kent Sands in the Kent Estuary under the Cartmel Priory between Kents Bank and Hest Bank. Since the dissolution the Duchy has appointed two guides formally by Letters Patent but in more modern times through the Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster.”
I’ve become interested in the Morecambe Bay area since my mother has now moved into a care home in Grange-over-Sands, and so I find myself regularly looking out at Morecambe Bay, and keen to explore – and she’s keen to hear my reports! First though, Grange-over-Sands, on the north side of Morecambe Bay, where the weather is always warmer and drier than the Lake District, everything is in red and green, and where the building of the railway in 1857 enabled others to discover its delights too. The railway is the key to Grange-over-Sands – and the key to me being able to take part in the Morecambe Bay Sands Walk!
Yesterday, the weather was fantastic, so I started early, with a walk up Hampsfield Fell (known as Hampsfell) 222m (727ft), just above Grange, where the top has a building called ‘Hampsfell Hospice’, a ‘sturdy limestone tower monument’ built in 1846 by the vicar of Cartmel as a shelter in bad weather.
The views were stunning, all the way to the distant Lake District mountains, and fascinating it was to see the limestone pavement on the top, filled with blackberries and blueberries growing in the pavement cracks, plus gorse on the slopes.
Due to Saturday’s rail strike, there was also expected to be some disruption to the trains yesterday, but by arriving early, I planned to have plenty of time to get from Grange to Arnside for the start of the walk. In the event, I arrived at Grange Station at 9:15 am to find a train was coming in 20 minutes. Normally there is about one train an hour, only 2 carriages long, and the train takes only 5 minutes to go across the bay on the railway bridge and arrive in Arnside.
On arrival in Arnside, I went up Arnside Knott 159 m (522 ft), to see the view over Morecambe Bay from the south side. Beautiful!
And down to Arnside Promenade…
And by 12:30 pm, 300 people had gathered on the Arnside Prom, many coming on coaches, organized by Galloways from across Lancashire. We were all dressed in our orange T-shirts! The walk was led by the official guide, Michael Wilson and his team, all dressed in yellow.
Estimates vary considerably as to the length of the walk and the time required, partly due to changing routes through the sands, but also due to numbers of people, as we have to wait for everyone to gather at various points before we set off again – though generally reckoned to be 3-4 hours and about 11-13km (7-8 miles).
The walk went along for about 45 minutes via the Arnside Promenade around and through the caravan site at the headland, and then across a big boggy area on the edge of the bay – where everyone got their feet completely soaked!
Out on the sand, we met up with the 2 tractors, which were there to rescue anyone in an emergency. Many of us removed our shoes at that point and walked the rest of the day barefoot.
We walked out a long way in a straight line from the headland following distant laurel plants stuck in the sands, heading in the general direction on the horizon of the Heysham Power Station. The sand was hard and dry, but as we moved deeper into the bay, it got wetter – and more comfortable to walk on.
We then waited for everyone to catch up because this was potentially the most dangerous part coming up, as we were about to turn to cross the River Kent.
Some more members of the crew arrived from over the other side of the river to guide us all across. The crossing of the River Kent was a bit like the crossing of the Red Sea – we all lined up in a row between 2 laurel branches, lined by crew members, and ready for the off!
And then we all splashed our way across, the water going up to about knee-level. We had been told not to stop under any circumstances as there is quicksand in that river channel, and there have been some instances of people who stop to take a photo, but then find they’re stuck and can’t move, and a friend goes to help them and then gets stuck too!
As we walked through the water many of us felt something smooth and slimy under our feet. It turned out to be fish, and the guide captured 2 for his dinner!
Once safely on the other side, we had a break, and then turned towards Grange, walking onto the shore at Kent’s Bank, at the far end of Grange Promenade.
We got there about 3:30 pm, the last ones arriving maybe 3:45 pm. The actual barefoot section of the walk on the sands was about 6 km, with several more km at the beginning, in all I guess maybe we did 11 km, about 7 miles, and in all it took 2 and half hours. I imagine with 500-600 people, which was the regular number before the pandemic, it would have taken considerably longer.
When I got back to Grange, there was an outdoor service, Praise on the Prom about to start (held each Sunday in July and August 4.30-5.30 pm), run by the Grange ‘Churches Together’, so I stayed for that – lots of people passed by, and some stopped to listen and join in…
It was a fitting way to end the day, watching the shadows lengthen over Morecambe Bay, singing and praising God, and marveling at the wonders of the world right there in front of us!
And finally, Galloways produced a 5-minute video of the same walk in 2019 on YouTube, filmed on a drone, it’s excellent!
2 thoughts on “Morecambe Bay Across the Sands!”
So beautiful and perfect weather too. Very interesting I’d no idea about the history of the area.
Not a cream tea day! Great to end up at prom praise and it does make a good picture of crossing the Red Sea.
Thanks Nicky! Good to read your comments!