ON WHAT would turn out to be a bright but breezy day, I sacrificed any hope of breakfast by rising around dawn in the hope of maximising all available daylight. I planned to walk to Preston by a slightly meandering route that totalled 25½ miles. The question was, would I make it there before dark?
I passed a memorial to Southport’s lifeboat crews on my way to a bridge across the marine lake.
Southport Lifeboat Disaster
In 1886, the UK’s worst lifeboat disaster occurred off the shores of Southport when the cargo barque Mexico ran aground in a gale. Lifeboats were launched from both Southport and nearby St Anne’s-on-Sea to assist the vessel but quickly got into difficulty.
The Southport lifeboat, RNLB Eliza Fernley, capsized with the loss of twelve of her fourteen crew. It is not known exactly what happened to the St Anne’s lifeboat, RNLB Laura Janet, but she was found the following morning with all fifteen crewmembers lost.
A third lifeboat, RNLB Charles Biggs, launched from Lytham and succeeded in rescuing all twelve of Mexico’s crew at the cost of three shattered oars. This was Charles Biggs’ maiden rescue.
On the other side of the marine lake I made my way back to the seafront near to Southport Pier. Again, I found myself wondering if ‘the country’s second-longest pier’ is really a title it can claim.
I wandered along what I suppose we must persist in calling the seafront despite the actual sea having upped and left overnight.
As I followed the northern coast road out of Southport, the vast expanse of mud and sand started to turn green with marram grass as beach gave way to salt marsh. I would be seeing a lot of salt marsh as the day wore on.
Pretty soon the salt marsh on my left was matched by boggy ground on my right as Southport ended and a series of ponds and waterlogged fields reminded me that much of the farmland I could see had once been England’s largest freshwater lake by area: Martin Mere.
To be honest there wasn’t a great deal to look at. At least I hope there wasn’t, I mostly couldn’t see it as the biting wind was making my eyes water.
The road curved around until it brought me to Crossens, which is the northernmost district of Southport and straddles the boundary between Merseyside and West Lancashire. Historically, it was entirely within Lancashire and was a distinct settlement on the shores of Martin Mere.
Its name comes from ‘cross’, as in a settlement having one, and ‘ness’ meaning headland.
Originally a fishing village, Crossens switched to farming when Martin Mere was drained and then became a commuter town in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. None of which remotely explains what might be the best street name I’ve seen in a long time:
Ralph’s Wife’s Lane
There are conflicting stories as to how Ralph’s Wife’s Lane got its name, involving a fisherman or a farmer or a smuggler whose wife died in various ways, possibly haunting the vicinity therafter. The details are varied and contradictory but all share one important attribute — they’re almost certainly nonsense.
The road was Ralph Lane in 1736 and it seems most likely that some bloke called Ralph died leaving some land at the end of the lane to his wife. Not very exciting I know, and no one needs to get haunted at all. I’m just a killjoy.
Marching through the Marshes
From Crossens, I could have headed straight for Preston along the roads but where would the fun be in that? I can only kill so much joy in one go.
At this point, the coast becomes the Ribble Estuary and the actual river is quite some way from the roads on account of all the endless miles of salt marsh. A number of footpaths and farm tracks criss-cross the fields that have been reclaimed from the marshes and it seemed rude not to traverse them.
I thus found myself wandering along atop a dyke in Banks Marsh. The salt marsh to my left remained as wet and marshy as ever while the fields to my right were now flat and well-drained. They were also noticeably lower than the water level in the marsh, which meant that the embankment I was walking on was all that separated them from a flooding disaster.
There were about three miles of embankment, carrying me past two isolated farms — Old Hollow Farm and Marsh Farm. Near to the latter the way onwards was barred, with the footpath taking a right-hand turn across a perpendicular embankment that led me back to the road.
On the road a handful of houses crowded around a lonely bus stop, forming the tiny hamlet of Hundred End, so called because it used to lay on the boundary of two hundreds — Leyland and West Derby.
Hundred End Station
Between 1878 and 1962, Hundred End had its own railway station, although that was sited about half a mile south of where I walked. Like many rural stations, it closed as part of the short-sighted ‘Beeching Axe’ but in this case Dr Richard Beeching may have been justified; by 1959 it was down to about ten passengers per day and the barely-used station was still fitted with gas lamps and outdated signage.
Two years later, the rest of the West Lancashire Line (Southport to Preston) was closed down; the track was lifted the following year.
Hesketh Out Marsh
There wasn’t much in Hundred End to detain me, so I followed a footpath that led alongside a private drive before returning me to the marshes. I was now traversing along the edge of Hesketh Out Marsh, a site managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Few birds seemed to be in evidence though; possibly I was too early in the season.
Two miles after Hundred End I was anticipating at least another mile of embankment path when I reached the RSPB’s observation point and car park and found my way onwards blocked by the Environment Agency, who didn’t want me walking all over their environment.
Ribble Bank Farm
With the footpath closed I had little choice other than to follow the access track from the car park, noting as I went that the roads across the reclaimed land criss-cross at right angles forming a grid. I took the first turning I came to and marched along in parallel to the closed path. My new route led me straight towards Ribble Bank Farm.
At the farm I kept going, following the track until it finally came to an end at yet another embankment. This one was different from the others I’d seen insofar as it already had occupants in the form of a flock of sheep.
The sheep watched me warily as I climbed up onto the embankment, deciding as I got closer that I was clearly going to eat them. They retreated calmly as I approached, which simply meant that my progress along the embankment was preceded by several dozen fluffy white heralds. Admittedly, they lacked trumpets, with which to fanfare my arrival, but they tried valiantly to make up for that by offering the occasional bleat.
The sheep and I soon got tired of this game and they finally decided that I wasn’t going to eat them after all, moving to one side to let me pass. I passed. Everyone was happy.
At this point there was a watercourse flowing to the left of the embankment, whose snaky lack of straight lines betrayed that it was no mere drainage channel. This was the River Douglas. It was also the River Asland, as it confusingly has both names downstream of Tarleton, which I was.
Rising in the Pennines, the Douglas is a tributary of the Ribble, which it meets about a mile northwest of this photo:
The Douglas Navigation
Near its mouth, the Douglas experiences a tidal rise and fall of about 8 m and was canalised as far as Wigan in the 1720s-40s although the Douglas Navigation project was something of a fiasco.
Authorised by Parliament in 1720 with an 11-year time limit, the navigation company sold shares for an over-valued fortune at the height of the stock exchange boom known as the South Sea Bubble. Two months later, the bubble burst, the stock exchange crashed and allegations of fraud abounded. To make matters worse, the directors had reinvested the share proceeds hoping to make a killing from what had been the ever-rising prices but were of course now rock-bottom.
Work did not resume until 1733, two years after the expiry of the time allotted by Parliament and the canalisation wasn’t completed until 1742.
Leeds & Liverpool Canal
For thirty years the Douglas carried coal from Wigan but its days were numbered when the Leeds & Liverpool Canal was authorised in 1770. Not only did this compete for traffic but by 1783 the Leeds & Liverpool Canal had bought all the shares in the Douglas Navigation and shut it down, removing all eight locks. It thus reverted to being a river, tidal in its lower reach.
Ford to Freckleton Naze
Long before the attempts to canalise the Douglas, the tidal range of both it and the Ribble led to there being a ford at low tide, allowing a shortcut to Freckleton Naze on the Ribble’s far bank. Attempting to cross it without local guidance was lethally dangerous on account of the mud and a tidal bore. But with a guide it shortened the journey from Chester to Lancaster by twenty-eight miles, as opposed to crossing the Ribble at the first bridge, which was in Preston.
The crossing was used to good effect during the English Civil War when, in 1643, a group of Royalists evaded Parliamentary pursuit by fording the Ribble just ahead of the tide, leaving the Roundhead forces stranded behind them.
Hesketh Bank & Tarleton
Lacking both a local guide and a Cavalier’s horse, I would be going the long way around, crossing the Ribble at Preston. The route certainly promised to be roundabout as before I could get anywhere near Preston I was first going to have to cross over the Douglas. At one time I could have done this by making my way upstream to Becconsall and then taking the ferry across to Much Hoole. But that time is not this time and the ferry is long gone.
Not having much choice, I headed upstream until it brought me to Hesketh Bank, a small agricultural village of which Becconsall is part. I was vaguely hoping to grab a drink at the pub marked on my OS map but it turns out that it closed in 2009.
Historically, the village, which is sat on a ridge of high ground, would have almost been an island, flanked as it was by the Douglas on one side and Hesketh Marsh on the other. A railway station served the village from 1873 but met the same fate as the rest of the West Lancashire Railway after ninety-one years.
Publess though it was, Becconsall possessed a shop and a handy bench on which I could sit while I ate a sandwich and drank some water.
Becconsall Old Church
Heading south, I passed Becconsall Old Church (built in 1764, which makes it pretty young by church standards) and the lane that would have led to the ferry three or four generations ago. A long, straight high street led me onwards as Becconsall ended and the next village, Tarleton, began.
Tarleton takes its name from combining the Norse personal name Tharaldr and Old English tun, meaning a farmstead, and is thought to be where Vikings camped on the banks of the Douglas.
It’s a pleasant enough place with lots of listed buildings but for me its best feature turned out to a farm shop with a small café attached. The entrance to the café wasn’t immediately obvious when I entered the farm shop but I was soon directed towards its comfortable armchairs and the delights of tea and cake.
The tea was brought to me by a bloke whom I presume is the farmer and who spotted my OS map and asked almost disbelievingly if I might be out walking. Having confirmed that I was he soon pulled up a chair and we spent a good hour discussing perambulation. It was just what I needed: a cup of tea, a rest and a friendly encounter. I was renewed and bouncing along when I left.
A short walk through the rest of Tarleton brought me to the rather less lovely A59 but that in turn led me to a bridge over the Douglas.
Across the Douglas
Having crossed the Douglas, I could now head north again although the most obvious means by which to do this was to stay on the A59. This was easy going and quick but not the prettiest road I’ve ever walked along.
Liverpool Old Road
I could have taken a less busy and slightly more pleasant route by opting for any of the many side-roads that were all called Liverpool Old Road.
This seemed odd at first glance but it quickly became apparent that when they replaced the old, winding road to Liverpool with the A59, they didn’t worry much about bends and corners. The result could be stylised as something like a dollar sign where the ‘S’ is Liverpool Old Road and the vertical bar is the A59.
Given the limited daylight and the hour I’d lost to tea and cake, I stuck to the quick and easy.
The A59 conveyed me into — or more accurately, past — Much Hoole.
This village’s strange name has varied greatly on a theme, with the noun part being rendered as Hull, Hole, Hoole and Wholle while the adjective has been Magna, Much and ‘Grett’ for ‘Great’. The adjectival part is easy to understand but the noun needs explanation: it comes from Old English hulu meaning ‘hovel’ or ‘shed’. The village dates back to at least the early thirteenth century.
The A59 curved northeastwards at what I shall henceforth think of as Bloody Big Shed. A little further along it turned into the equally old village of Walmer Bridge, the village that gave the world Nick Park CBE, creator of Wallace and Grommit.
At this point, I was about a mile and a half east of the River Douglas and nearly three miles south of the Ribble and that meant that there wasn’t anything like enough salt marsh surrounding me on all sides. But I could soon fix that…
Hall Carr Lane
The first step was to take a road westwards out of Walmer Bridge. The road was residential at first but soon became a quiet country lane.
The lane became twistier and turnier and was heading due north when I left it. I planned to follow a footpath, which lay beyond a stile and a field full of sheep. Or so my map said.
The actual path on the ground didn’t seem quite to match up. Still, the terrain quickly became all too familiar, as the fields got boggier and the paths became raised embankments. Soon enough the sheep were behind me again and I found myself joining a footpath called the Ribble Way somewhere beyond the outskirts of Longton.
The Ribble Way
The Ribble Way is, unsurprisingly, a footpath that runs alongside the banks of the River Ribble. Or near them, anyway. Or vaguely in sight of them at least. I expect.
The path traversed dykes from which the river could not be seen and then dropped down to cross fields. I was just about ready to believe that the Ribble was fictional, an unlikely prank played by Lancashire and Yorkshire upon the rest of the world, when the path finally joined it. And by ‘joined it’ I mean ‘looked down on it from a particularly massive embankment for about the next four miles’.
The sun was low in the sky by now and I knew for certain that I wouldn’t reach Preston before dark. Though my feet were tired, I picked up my pace — one final effort to minimise my walking in the dark.
A bloke walking the other way caught my attention to tell me that I was looking in entirely the wrong direction:
‘You’re missing an awesome sunset facing that way,’ he said. I was, too.
A lot of hurrying along by twilight followed… until the twilight failed and it got dark. By the time that occurred I’d reached the edge of Preston and I finished my walk with a torch in my hand as I made my way into the city centre.
Preston, from Old English Preosta and tun meaning ‘priest settlement’, is an old and important town, listed as ‘Prestune’ in the Domesday Book of 1086, when it was already the most important town in Amounderness Hundred.
By 1219, it was the wealthiest town in Lancashire. It saw a Parliamentarian victory in 1648 and cheered King Charles’s grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, during the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Its heyday came with nineteenth century industrialisation and the building of Lancashire’s cotton mills and many of its buildings reflect the wealth and prosperity of that age.
The twentieth century was less kind but the twenty-first saw it finally earn the status of a city, which was granted in 2002. I rather like the place.
This time: 25½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,953 miles