MY RETURN to Lancashire came interestingly close to not happening, as I slept through my alarm and missed my intended train into central London.
The next one, which I caught, gave me very little time to transfer between National Rail and Underground stations, which culminated in my racing through London Euston and leaping aboard my train to Preston with literally seconds to spare. Compared to that, the ten minute transfer window I had at Preston provided great opportunity for dawdling.
Arriving in Blackpool, I forced myself to relax and went in search of breakfast. After brekkie, a leisurely tram ride got me to Fleetwood just in time for the ferry to resume (service is suspended at low tide, since the ferry works best if there’s actual water). It was twelve noon.
So, my plan was to now walk the distance to Lancaster — approximately twenty miles — while there was daylight; sunset would be about eight pm.
Twenty miles in eight hours: that’s an average speed of 2½ mph. Easy, right? Well, we’ll see. But first I had to cross the River Wyre. Fortunately, as I have said, there was a ferry to help me with that.
The ferry was actually running slightly late, which led to her captain desperately calling the passengers down the ramp as quickly as we could manage, past the sign warning us to stay put until collected by a member of staff and the other sign warning that the ramp could be slippery. We made it aboard without mishap and then we were off.
My fellow passengers included a couple whose small boy — he might have been about three — clearly thought the ferry was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him ever. And maybe it was. His joyful pointing at literally everything was itself a joy to behold. ‘Everything’ includes me.
‘Yes love,’ said his mother, ‘it’s a man with a beard. Well done.’
There has been a Fleetwood ferry for almost as long as there has been Fleetwood. Although, given that Fleetwood was only laid out in the 1830s, that’s not actually all that long. Even before that, as in many places, fishermen would ferry people across if they really wanted to go from one spot in the middle of nowhere to another one.
But with the establishment of Fleetwood it didn’t take long for someone — notably the Croft family — to begin offering a service between Fleetwood and the beaches at Knott End-on-Sea. Starting in 1841, the ferries were powered by sail and oars and operated from the beaches themselves as no jetties had yet been built. It was around fifty years later, in 1892, that agreement was reached to build a jetty, secure landward access on the Knott End side of the Wyre and to use a steam ferry instead.
Wyre Marine Services
The council took over operations in the late 1890s but mostly did so by simply employing the Croft family. The ferry has run since with many different operators, although services became seasonal in the 1990s and ceased altogether between 2001 and 2003. Today, it is back to being regular and running through most of the year.
The current ferry, Wyre Rose, is actually operated by Wyre Marine Services, a local dredging company for whom ferry operation is a sideline. She has been in operation since 2005.
Crossing the Wyre takes only about three minutes and deposits you on a slipway leading up from the muddy riverbank. To your left, as you climb it, lies the beach of Preesall Sands, which forms a southern part of the enormous Morecambe Bay. At low tide the sea recedes by about two miles, leaving an expanse of sand.
At the top of the slipway was Knott End-on-Sea, a village that somehow combines being the literal end of the road with also being the main commercial centre for the region known as Over Wyre.
Over Wyre is, as its name suggests, that part of the Fylde Peninsula that lies north of the Wyre. There’s not a lot in it, which is how little Knott-End-on-Sea can be its biggest and most thriving settlement. Together with Preesall, which it abuts, and the hamlet of Pilling Lane it forms the township of Preesall-with-Hackensall. A Viking settler named Haakon gave his name to that last bit.
No one is quite sure what the ‘knott’ in Knott End-on-Sea is supposed to mean though piles of stones and sea birds have both been suggested.
Knott End Café
Right at the top of the slipway, next to it in fact, was a café. Despite knowing that I had limited time to walk twenty-ish miles, it seemed rude not to stop and have a cup of tea in celebration of having crossed the Wyre and reached the start of my actual walk. Also, I wanted a cup of tea.
Knott End Station
The café was actually built as part of Knott End railway station, which formed the terminus of a branch line from Garstang. The station was opened in 1908, a mere 44 years after work on the 11½ mile line began. Yes, you read that right.
Garstang & Knott End Railway Company
The project was a disaster from the start, taking 5½ years just to get to Pilling, 4½ miles short of Knott End, at a cost of 2½ times the projected budget. They had just one locomotive and it broke down in 1872, precipitating a financial crisis that ended up with the bank repossessing the loco. For the next three years, the Garstang & Knott End Railway Company could only run occasional horse-drawn trains.
Knott End Railway Company
In 1898, a new Knott End Railway Company finally began work on extending the line to Knott End-on-Sea and the station opened ten years later. It didn’t last.
Closure (Café excepted)
For once, the fact that the station is long gone and only its café remains cannot be blamed on Dr Richard Beeching as he was still studying at Maidstone Grammar School when the line closed to passengers in 1930. The truth is that not nearly enough people wanted to travel by train between Knott End and Garstang and the goods traffic that mostly kept the line afloat disappeared following a dispute over haulage rates.
Today, the café remains, still run by the same family that first opened it to serve the railway passengers, and thrives because it’s handy for the ferry and a café by the sea is always nice.
Fuelled by tea and history, I left the café and set off apace along Knott End’s seafront. Although, since it was low tide, there was no sea to be seen. It did have a dinky little strip of salt marsh though, between the promenade and the sand. The upshot of this was that the steps down from the promenade mostly ended in puddles of murky water, through which one would need to wade to get to the beach.
According to the map, I had about three miles of promenade to walk, although once past Knott End’s centre the railings gave way to flood defences made of piled rocks. The map turned out to be overly optimistic and I had done maybe a mile when I came to a barrier placed across the promenade and the familiar legend ‘Footpath Closed’.
A narrow side path led me onto a road running parallel to the coast. This was the lane to nearby Pilling, halfway along which lay the imaginatively named hamlet of Pilling Lane. Initially though, I was still in Knott End-on-Sea and some very lovely cottages graced both sides of the lane. One such cottage still incorporated its old stable and a head poking out of the doorway gave me reason to pause for a closer look.
A little further on I passed a pheasant farm, much to the complete disinterest of the dozens of pheasants, who, if anything, paid less attention to me than had the artificial zebra.
Soon, Pilling Lane took a sharp right-hand turn and I left it, following instead a farm track that led pretty much straight on.
New Ridge Farm
The track crossed some fields and came to some farm buildings, where vehicles and farm machinery almost blocked the road. Well, it was their private road so it was up to them if they obstructed it. But it did lead me to wonder for a moment if perhaps I’d gone the wrong way; from where I was standing it didn’t look like the road continued through the farm.
The map said otherwise, though, and there really hadn’t been any opportunities where I could have gone astray, so I picked my way around the assorted obstacles and there indeed was the farm track leading out the far side. This turned left and took me back to within a stone’s throw of the embankment before it joined a proper road that led south to Pilling.
Pilling occupies what would once have been an island of dry land between the sea and Pilling Marsh (it was crossing the marsh that caused so much trouble when building the Garstang & Knott End Railway). It has been intermittently occupied since the Neolithic and remains still pretty small to this day. It’s frankly bizarre to think that it was once a railway terminus.
On its eastern edge, in Damside, a windmill sits beside the stream of Pilling Water.
The windmill was built in 1808 and, as it was built next to the stream rather than on Pilling’s ‘island’, they had to make it 22 m tall as the site was below sea level. A height of 22 m might not seem all that great but it makes it the tallest windmill on the Fylde Peninsula.
Converted to steam power in 1886 and decommissioned in the 1940s, the mill is now a private residence.
The road out of Pilling passed across what was once Pilling Marsh but was now fields full of sheep and lambs. I love the spring, with all the lambs gambolling about full of life and excitement and no hint of the threat of mint sauce. Alas, the sheep and lambs did not share my generosity of spirit.
Lancaster Road (A588)
The quiet country lane curved around to meet, for a few unpleasant yards, the A588, along which a surprising number of lorries roared past. Still, it could have been worse; prior to the construction of Pilling’s sea wall in the 1980s the A588 was a tidal road and was flooded twice a day. As it was, I needed to spend very little time on the A road, taking as I did the first available turning, which brought me alongside the Grade II listed farmhouse of Pilling Hall.
Pilling Hall Duck Pond
A nearby bench overlooked a duck pond and I sat and watched the ducks milling aimlessly for several minutes. Eventually, the ducks spotted me and quite reasonably assumed that if I was sat on the bench I must be bringing them bread. Except that I wasn’t. I felt ridiculously guilty as I walked away, reproachful duck eyes following my retreating steps. How could I be so heartless as to stoop to teasing ducks?
Pilling Hall Farm
According to the map, a footpath led off across fields from Pilling Hall farmhouse and a sign on the ground seemed to back that up. I therefore wandered into the farmyard but could not see an obvious way onwards. I could see a man with a tractor and farm machinery and so I approached him to find out where the footpath was (or alternatively if I was trespassing). He shrugged and indicated a field with no waymarks or signposts whatsoever.
‘Footpath’s there,’ was his laconic answer.
The field was dead flat, its only feature of note being a drainage ditch that ran down one side and which I avoided falling into. This was harder than it might otherwise have been on account of some remarkably tame chickens that were wandering about and literally getting underfoot. I can’t say that I’ve ever had to gently scoot a chicken out of the way with my foot before.
Forest of Bowland
The weather had been bright but hazy for most of the day and visibility was poor. This was a shame as the fells (i.e. hills, from Old Norse fjall, meaning ‘mountain’) of the Forest of Bowland should have been forming a magnificent backdrop to the flatness of the fields. Sadly, I could hardly even see them.
Bowland is a forest in the original legal sense of ‘a royal hunting ground’ rather than the modern sense of woodland. Many forests were both but Bowland mostly comprises peat moors and gritstone fells and therefore has a rugged moorland beauty. Most of it is still royally owned, belonging to the Duchy of Lancaster.
I decided to try to take a picture of the hazy and indistinct fells but hit an unexpected problem when I turned out to no longer have my camera. Without much hope I started to retrace my steps, only to find it lying on the floor just a few metres away. Possibly it fell out while I was looking at my map. Or maybe it was the chickens. One distracting me by getting underfoot while another hen rifled my bag? I’m never falling for that again. Still, at least their reward was paltry.
Cockerham Moss & Marsh
There may have been no path across the field but there was a stile at the far side. This led to a farm track that in turn led to a back road that made the other country lanes seem like busy thoroughfares by comparison.
Moss Edge Farm
The lane eventually came to a T-junction beside the wonderfully-named Great Crimbles Farm and I turned left, heading back down to the A588. The lane joined the A road beside the culvert through which the River Cocker passed beneath the A588 and on into Cockerham Marsh. Espying a handy bench, I sat and perused my map for some moments.
There are two Rivers Cocker, one in Lancashire and another in Cumbria, both taking their name from a Celtic word for ‘crooked’. The Lancashire Cocker is only a small stream, rising near Lancaster and winding its way down to Cockerham and the sea. The drawing on my map led me to expect that from A588 to the sea it would be confined to a dead-straight channel. The name ‘Cockerham Marsh’ suggested it might not be as confined as all that.
Alongside an Embankment
Once I had risked life and limb by crossing the A588, the footpath ran just outside the embankment that kept the marsh from engulfing the fields beyond. The path and embankment were liberally dotted with ewes and lambs, most of which slowly moved out of my way as I approached. One ewe, however, had other ideas.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t seen me, I was quite sure of that, it’s just that she had decided to stand and face me down. This was an issue as, between the fence at the top of the embankment and the squelchy mess of the marsh beside the path, I really didn’t have much option for going around her. I slowed as I got closer. She stared right back at me, her two lambs hiding behind her. I knew at that point that if I kept heading right for them she would eventually charge and, while she didn’t have horns, she could certainly break bones. I stopped. She kept staring.
Ewe and Me
At this point I was determined of two things. The first was that I was not going to end up wading through the marsh. The second was that my uniformly peaceful interactions with sheep were not about to be marred by an ‘incident’. I knew that she was just protecting her lambs, although why she couldn’t do it the same way as all the other ewes, I don’t know. On this occasion, I was not about to applaud her for not simply following the flock.
Although the very top of the embankment was fenced off, I realised that I could probably make my way along its side for a little way, even if walking on the steep bankside would be tricky. I thus climbed higher than the ewe and lambs and moved forward. She turned to watch me and then, realising that I was outflanking her, finally turned and led her lambs away. I could now march past and drop back down onto the path. Hooray! She had made it much more difficult than it had needed to be.
Two Thousand Miles
The rest of my trek through Cockerham Marsh was uneventful. At Pattys Farm I found a sign asking walkers to keep off the embankment (hey, I tried) and at Bank End Farm I reached my two thousandth mile since Gravesend.
This momentous occasion coincided with reaching the mouth of the Cocker — but not Cockermouth, which is in Cumbria — just in time for the skies to darken and a hideous gale of Arctic wind to rob me of all my body heat. This was no time to stand around snapping celebratory photos. Pulling my coat on, I marched off at speed, following the path along the sea embankment.
Cockersand & Thurnham Mosses
What was marked on my map as ‘Bank Houses‘ turned to be exactly that: a few houses atop the bank. There was also a holiday park, which allowed me to duck out of the wind and purchase food from its shop. This turned out to be long enough for the wind to drop off a little; it’s almost as if it was aiming at me personally and simply gave up when I hid.
The coast curved around so that it faced west instead of south and up ahead I could see the lighthouse at Plover Scar, marking the mouth of the Lune. Between me and it was a curious building and, as I approached the latter, I noticed the ruins of walls poking up among the grass. A farmhouse stood off to one side and, as it was called Cockersand Abbey Farm, it gave a nice clue about the ruins.
Cockersand Abbey was founded in 1180 by a hermit named Hugh Garth as the Hospital of St Mary on the Marsh. It accepted lepers and others whose illness ostracised them from their communities.
Initially belonging to Leicester Abbey, which was Augustinian, Cockersands was refounded as a Premonstratensian priory in 1190 and elevated to abbey status in 1192. Like many abbeys, it grew to be rich and powerful and owned property across Lancashire and the Lake District.
Dissolution & Destruction
This wealth was the undoing of the abbeys and Cockersand was dissolved in 1539 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Most of the abbey stonework was pulled down and used to build the sea wall but the Daltons, a Catholic family who dwelt in Thurnham Hall, some two miles east of the abbey, acquired the site and retained the old, vaulted chapter house for use as a family mausoleum.
It is this — or what’s left of it — that still stands. Left to moulder and be buried, the rest of the site was excavated between 1923 and 1927. Very little besides the chapter house is visible today.
The wind picked up again as I turned my back on the abbey ruins and set off the very short distance to the mouth of the Lune.
Plover Scar & Cockersand Lighthouses
Just offshore (at high tide) is Plover Scar Lighthouse, erected in 1847 on the same rocky islet around which the monks of Cockersand Abbey used to erect their fish traps. Built to help guide shipping into the Lune, it used to be paired with a second light, Cockersand Lighthouse, also built in 1847.
While Plover Scar Light was built in stone, Cockersand Lighthouse was built as a square, timber-framed affair. Initially the keeper lived within this structure but a stone cottage was later added. By 1953, the old wooden lighthouse was seen as terribly outdated. A steel tubular tower was built to replace it and the wooden Cockersands Lighthouse demolished the following year. The steel version remained in service until 1985, when it too was decommissioned and demolished.
Plover Scar Light remains in service however, having been automated in 1951.
I soon came upon Lighthouse Cottage — for the keeper’s cottage still stands — which is situated at the end of a road where one might, if one wishes, walk down the slipway and onto the marshes that line the Lune Estuary. Despite the grey skies and a growing threat of rain, splashing about at the water’s edge might have been tempting.
From Lighthouse Cottage, the path continued just a short way along the embankment — roughly half a mile — by means of the lane that links Crook Farm and Crook Cottage to the road network. At Crook Farm this ended and the footpath headed inland, initially following a farm track but then striking off across fields. The rain arrived at this point; it was somewhere between heavy mist and light drizzle but the wind drove it through me without mercy. I was suddenly very glad indeed that I’d been carrying a waterproof coat around in my bag for most of the day.
The rain was brief and so was the traipse across fields.
I passed through a gate beside another holiday site and was immediately approached by a little old lady with a dog, who took great joy in telling me I hadn’t fastened the gate correctly. In my defence, I have to say the catch on the gate was broken, but she clearly wanted me to loop the chain round the post in a particular manner. To be honest, I think she just enjoyed telling me I’d done it wrong and even that somewhat less than how much she enjoyed adding ‘no, no, it’s okay, I’ll do it in a minute’.
‘And then he left me to do it,’ I imagine she told someone later. ‘Typical bloody southerner.’
Entering the Village
The gate led to a farm lane, which led to an actual road and then suddenly I was entering the village of Glasson Dock.
Historically the tiny farming hamlet of Old Glasson and fishing hamlet of Brows-Saltcote, Glasson became the descriptively-named Glasson Dock in 1787, when a port was required for vessels too large to safely navigate the Lune as far as Lancaster. A suitable dock was therefore constructed and serviced ships sailing as far afield as the Baltic and the West Indies.
A branch of the Lancaster Canal was extended to Glasson in 1826, linking it to the canal network, which remained for decades the only efficient method to transport goods inland.
In 1837, Glasson Dock branched out from servicing ships to also building and repairing them. Amongst the many ships built at Glasson was the schooner Ryelands, which starred in the 1950 film Treasure Island as the Hispaniola. She was sadly destroyed by fire in 1970.
Glasson Dock Branch Railway
In 1883 the canal got competition when the railway arrived at Glasson Dock. Glasson Dock was now the terminus of a new branch line from Lancaster, constructed by the London & North Western Railway (LNWR). The railway saved Glasson Dock from decline but sped up that of the canal, which could not compete with the speed and sheer tonnage of goods that the railway could shift.
Passengers were rather fewer and the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS), into which the LNWR had been amalgamated in 1924, closed down passenger services to Glasson Dock in 1930. Goods traffic, which is what the line was built for, kept going until 1964, when it fell victim to the Beeching Axe. The track was torn up shortly afterwards.
Glasson Basin Marina
Today, the port of Glasson Dock is still active, though it is no longer connected to the railway and the canal carries only leisure traffic. The canal basin, which is connected to the dock by a lock, acts as a marina and it had an impressive array of vessels moored within it when I passed. In addition to brightly painted canal narrowboats and other river craft, I saw sea-going motor yachts and what can only have been a small trawler moored in the basin.
In some ways, the presence of sea-going craft in the basin is a little surprising. Vessels wishing to exit the dock into the Lune (or vice versa) have a pretty tight window in which to do so. Thanks to the Lune’s tidal range, and the way its channel varies over time, the dock gates are only ever opened for the forty-five minutes immediately preceding high tide.
This seems at first sight a bit odd — why the 45 minutes before high tide but not the 45 minutes afterwards? The answer turns out to be simply that the tide goes out rather quickly. Vessels leaving the dock at high tide and travelling downstream are only safe for an hour, after which grounding is a risk.
Lune Estuary Path
From Glasson Dock up to Lancaster, the Lancashire Coastal Way followed the Lune Estuary Path along the alignment of the former Glasson Dock Branch Railway. This made for easy going and was by no means unpleasant — the line ran right next to the Lune for most of its length. What it did mean is that most of the next three miles looked mostly like this:
The footpath curved gently out of Glasson Dock, initially flanked by a low wall, which looked out over the marshes that line the Lune’s banks. The curve carried it via a bridge across the River Conder, a tributary of the Lune, and through the former site of Conder Green Station. Conder Green is a tiny village even now; it probably never really needed that railway station. The site of the platforms is still discernible.
From Conder Green, the path led up to the site of Ashton Hall Halt, a private railway halt that was constructed purely for the personal use of Lord Ashton, who lived at Ashton Hall, and his family and guests.
Lord Ashton, born James Williamson (1842-1930) was a businessman and politician, whose company manufactured linoleum and exported it worldwide; he purchased Ashton Hall in 1884. A member of the Liberal Party, Williamson was elected MP for Lancaster in 1886 and was ennobled as Baron Ashton of Ashton in 1895. He died just two months before passenger services were withdrawn on the Glasson Dock Line, which would have rendered his private halt redundant anyway.
Ashton Hall still stands today and is grade I listed, as befits a fourteenth century mansion, albeit one that was extensively rebuilt in 1856. Today it belongs to the Lancaster Golf Club and its grounds form their golf course.
The railway alignment carried me northwards until it intersected with a road near the village of Aldcliffe. The remains of a level crossing gate could be seen mouldering where they met, the gate having not been used since 1964.
Aldcliffe (Anglo-Saxon for ‘old high ground’) was held by Earl Tostig, the brother of Harold Godwinson, shortly before the Norman Conquest. After the Conquest, William I gave Aldcliffe, along with a fair chunk of the north, to his cousin and ally Roger de Poitou.
In 1094, Roger founded Lancaster Abbey and gave it Aldcliffe and much of the surrounding land. It had a number of owners following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Today, it is a small village on the outskirts of Lancaster with the Lancaster Canal flowing past it to the east.
The road crossed by the old railway alignment would have taken me to Aldcliffe had I turned right and, looking at my map, that was one of many options.
Firstly, to my left, the Lancashire Coastal Way departed from the railway alignment and set off along the edge of the river marshes. The map seemed pretty clear that the path was not on the embankment separating marsh from dry land, but was definitely on the marshes side of the bank. This did not appeal. I have become of the opinion that marshes are at their loveliest when seen from somewhere dry and solid and I hold this opinion with rather more firmness than I am accustomed to finding beneath my feet in a marsh.
My second option was the cycle path route, which also abandoned the railway alignment by turning left along the road. The road in question then immediately turned right and headed north and appeared to have once been an on old country lane — one that was probably tidal before the embankment was built. Though fully metalled there were ‘no motor vehicle’ signs, restricting the path to pedestrians, cyclists and horses.
Option three, directly ahead of me, was the railway alignment. Henceforth it was no longer a well-maintained cycle route but it was still a muddy-looking footpath. The last option was the one I mentioned first, to enter Lancaster via a route through Aldcliffe. I considered the matter carefully…
For about half a second.
By Invisible Bicycle
Option two won. The cycle route wasn’t marshy, muddy, hilly or a significant diversion and by this time I just wanted to get to Lancaster while I still had daylight. I was making good time but I still didn’t have much to waste.
Entering the City
And so, I entered Lancaster along the cycle path, which was not necessarily the most salubrious route as it joined a road that led me along the Lune’s south bank, past many buildings showing post-industrial decay. The centre of Lancaster was vibrant though, and I set about orienting myself so that I might find my hotel.
Lancaster Castle was built by Roger de Poitou in 1093 on the site of the Roman fort (built in 79) from which Lancaster gets its name (Lune + ceaster, Anglo-Saxon for ‘Roman fort’, derived from Latin castrum, meaning ‘military camp’).
In 1399, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, deposed his cousin Richard II and became Henry IV. The castle, and indeed the duchy, have been royal ever since.
Duchy of Lancaster
Today, Lancaster is one of two royal duchies and its revenues provide the personal income of the Queen (as opposed to her state expenses, which are funded by the government from part of the Crown Estate).
While the castle is splendid, I’m not entirely unhappy that I wasn’t staying there; for centuries it was used as a prison. Indeed it only stopped being a prison in 2011, when the government came to the rather inescapable conclusion that its facilities as a prison might be just a teensy bit outdated.
Lancaster Crown Court
The castle is still owned by the Duchy of Lancaster though and it also still houses Lancaster Crown Court. That would be an awesome place to do jury duty. I did jury duty just before Christmas in Woolwich Crown Court which is very a 1990s building and, though undeniably built with the needs of a modern court in mind, lacks in architectural grandeur. I feel vaguely cheated now.
Finding My Hotel
I wandered through Lancaster until I found the bus station, where a handy map actually had street names on it (unlike mine) and I could see where I’d been going wrong. It turns out I hadn’t really gone wrong at all, I’d just basically gone straight past where I was staying. A short while later I’d checked in, got clean and changed and gone back out again in search of dinner. Which I found and was delicious.
That night, tired from walking and fed until bursting, I slept like the proverbial log.
This time: 19½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,009 miles