THE morning after my arrival in Lancaster, I emerged from my hotel full of enthusiasm, energy and significant quantities of breakfast. A blue sky was bedecked with fluffy white clouds and the clouds were also full of enthusiasm and energy — but probably not breakfast — judging by the speed at which they were bombing across the heavens.
The sun shone brightly and reasonably warmly as people bustled about their business amid the stalls of a Saturday morning street market. I also bustled about for a bit; it seemed rude not to. Before long though it was time to take my leave of Lancaster and this seemed a bit of a shame. Not that that stopped me.
I crossed the River Lune by means of a footbridge and set off apace along a foot and cycle path that ran along the river’s northern bank. Along the southern bank were numerous flats and warehouse conversions which I had hardly noticed on my way into the city, despite passing right by their doors. They looked much like flats and warehouse conversions often do.
Salt Ayre Cycle Track
As most of Lancaster lies south of the Lune, I pretty much ran out of city quite quickly, although ‘quickly’ is something of a subjective term.
On the western edge of Lancaster was Salt Ayre Cycle Track, a dedicated cycle racing track and some sort of kids’ event was in full flow; cyclists in their early teens were doing their best to outpace the clouds and made me, with my pedestrian progress, look as if I were going backwards. A gaggle of mothers watched from the sidelines, their faces a mixture of pride and concern as their offspring gave their all.
I half watched the cyclists and half perused my map as I made my final decision about which route to take. One possibility was the Lancashire Coastal Path, which I had hitherto been sort of following but which had so-far delivered mixed results with respect to being coastal or even, at times, a discernible path. From this point, the Lancashire Coastal path headed northwest, ignoring Heysham and the mouth of the Lune and instead heading directly for Morecambe via a disused railway alignment. I was not convinced that this what was I wanted to do. No, I would try to follow the Lune as best as was possible.
Sticking to the riverside, I followed a footpath past the cycle track and a high fence that kept me away from a neighbouring landfill. After a while the path joined a quiet back road, which a prominent sign proclaimed was prone to flooding. The road ran along the edge of the river through what was technically Oxcliffe Marsh so the possibility of its inundation was not exactly a surprise. Fortunately, give or take the odd puddle, the River Lune was staying safely in its bed.
Golden Ball Inn
Beside the floodable marsh road stood the Golden Ball Inn, sitting in splendid isolation a good mile in any direction from the nearest house. Some of its signage also gave its name as ‘Snatchems’, a long-standing nickname for the inn and its location.
As ever with these things, there are multiple competing explanations for the nickname but by far the most popular derives it from the days when the Lune was a busy shipping channel and tall ships regularly sailed from Lancaster. Then, the story has it, as they waited for the tide their captains would check the strength of their crews and, should they be under strength, they’d send unofficial press gangs ashore to Shanghai some unfortunate souls who were too drunk to catch on. It’s a good story.
Apart from a brief interlude in 2010-2011, when it was shut down for about a year, there has been an inn on the site since around 1650. The main part of the current inn was built in 1710 with a significant extension in 1790; another was added by its new owner in 2012.
A white line on the wall in the Inn’s lower car park shows the maximum height of the Lune’s spring tide flooding — an impressive 5 feet (1.5 m), which it reached in 1967.
Had it been later in the day, I might have supported the ongoing existence of the inn by partaking of a gin and tonic (just one, mind – I’ve no desire to sail for Mumbai). But it was both too early to drink and too early to be able to get one and so I continued on my way.
That way carried me across the rest of Oxcliffe Marsh and onto another country lane that led me to the hamlet of Heaton, which was part of the lands held by Earl Tostig Godwinson in pre-Conquest England.
As I’ve mentioned before, Tostig mismanaged his lands so badly that he sparked a rebellion and King Edward the Confessor sided with the rebels and got rid of him, a policy agreed with by Tostig’s own brother, Earl Harold. Which is why, in 1066, Tostig returned with many armed friends in the form of King Harald Hardrada’s Norwegian army. Harold, who was himself King by then, defeated them at Stamford Bridge, where Tostig was slain. Harold of course then had to immediately march south to deal with William of Normandy’s near-simultaneous invasion. That didn’t go quite so well.
Anyway, Heaton is tiny and made mostly out of lovely old cottages. I wandered into it, or rather the bit that was technically Heaton Bottom, and stood consulting my map to make sure that I headed through the village and not down the dead end lane to Heaton Hall. As I looked at the map, an elderly gent with a walking stick ventured slowly out of his house and down the street to ask me if I was lost. I wasn’t, but it was nice to be asked. Although actually, I suspect that the question was simply an excuse for conversation, which I indulged.
Walking Stick Man
Walking Stick Man enquired as to where I was walking, where I had walked from and various related questions and I was happy to answer. The conversation was a little stilted though; for every answer I gave he responded with a statement that made what I’d said sound ludicrous. For example.
‘Where are you walking to?’
‘Round the coast, mostly.’
‘Coast’s two miles that way.’
‘Where are you going to today?’
‘I’m finishing my walk at Carnforth’
‘You’re going the wrong way.’
And so on. I’m quite sure he had me categorised as a dribbling idiot by the time I left him. Still, I knew what I was doing.
I climbed up Heaton Bottom Lane until I had mounted a low hill, from where the road led south to Overton. The elevation was never higher than about 30 m but even so it opened up much better views across the countryside.
To the west I could see Heysham in the distance, or rather the blocky rectangular shape of Heysham Nuclear Power Station. To the east I could see the river and the fells of the Forest of Bowland in the far distance.
As I stood there, the word ‘fell’ reminded me of The Lord of the Rings, specifically the bit when Saruman prevents the Company of the Ring from crossing Mount Caradhras — “there is a fell voice on the air!” — which further led me to muse that I was looking eastwards, the direction in which the land of Mordor lies.
Overton, which I soon reached, lies directly north of Glasson Dock on the Lune’s opposite bank (the meandering river having switched its direction of flow from north-south to east-west). Much of the village consisted of eighteenth century stone cottages.
Overton was originally a farming and fishing community. Its name is Anglo-Saxon meaning ‘town by the shore’ and in Saxon times it, like most of the lands around Lancaster, was part of Earl Tostig’s estates. Later, it became part of the Royal demesne but was sold off by Charles I and the estate divided.
St Helen’s Church
Its church, St Helen’s, dates mostly from a 1771 rebuilding although parts of the structure date back to the twelfth century.
The Globe & the Ship
The village has or had two pubs, the Globe and the Ship, although the latter looked as if it had closed down when I passed.
The Ship was so called because Overton and ships have a long association, a boatyard having been founded by the Woodhouse family in the late seventeenth century. Shipbuilding continued until WW2, when actual construction ceased. Boat repairs continued to be carried out at the yard right up until the 1970s, when the yard finally fell silent.
Overton’s remaining pub, the Globe Hotel, dates back to the seventeenth century and sits at the western end of the village, overlooking the tidal road southwest to Sunderland. Tide tables are displayed nearby and for centuries the Globe has been a handy place to see if the tidal road is passable, or to wait out the tide if it is not.
Sunderland is a tiny village at the end the tidal road from Overton, which is its only vehicular route in and out. In some respects this makes it a tidal island, and indeed it was more so in the past before land was reclaimed from the marshes that still surround it on three sides. It is this periodic sundering from dry land that gives it its name (a name it shares with several places for similar historic reasons).
Today, Sunderland’s situation — i.e. a settlement on mainland Great Britain dependent on tidal access — is unique.
While there is only one vehicular route in and out of Sunderland it is possible to enter it on the road and then leave by foot, which was essentially my plan. I had already checked the tide times and knew that though it had already turned, I had plenty of time to cross the marsh.
The Tidal Road
The road began by cresting a bank — keeping the marsh out of Overton — before winding its way through a landscape of salt marsh and mud channels. A sign at one point warned not to proceed if the signpost was standing in water.
Criss-crossed by deep channels and with the road surface below the high-tide mark, this particular stretch of marsh is transformed by the tide more than many. As an environment it was certainly evocative and full of contrasts, bleak yet beautiful, eerie and inspiring.
As the road approached its destination, Sunderland appeared silhouetted against the skyline while the waters of the Lune Estuary lapped gently off to one side.
Although quiet now, at one point Sunderland was a small but bustling quayside serving ships unable to navigate the Lune, their goods unloaded and transported overland via Overton. This was no accident — the village was developed for that very purpose in the early eighteenth century by a Quaker named Robert Lawson; stones from nearby Cockersand Abbey were used in constructing the quay.
Unfortunately for Lawson, while it certainly attracted trade from cotton and slave ships, it wasn’t sufficient to offset his costs and he went bankrupt in 1728. Thereafter, Sunderland struggled on until considerably better facilities opened in 1787 at Glasson Dock on the opposite bank and killed its trade stone dead.
While obviously not the grave of Sunderland’s maritime trade, that shown above is certainly a consequence of it. Many of the ships that called at Sunderland and Lancaster were involved in the triangular slave trade, carrying manufactured goods from Europe to Africa, then slaves to the Americas and finally plantation crops back to Europe.
That Lancaster and its satellites were involved should not be a surprise, at the height of the triangular trade, Lancaster was one of the largest ports in the country.
The Triangular Trade
Slavery is rightly abhorred as an abominable practise, the very idea of one human being owning another as property is — or should be — unthinkable, but the triangular trade was a horrible reality. It didn’t function quite as many people assume however.
Slavers rarely sent out raiding parties for instance; they were businessmen who would have seen that as an expensive and risky operation. Mostly slaves were bought from African rulers such as the King of Dahomey (modern Benin) or the Omani Sultans of Zanzibar, who saw nothing wrong with selling their enemies or more troublesome subjects to some white people with big ships and interesting trade goods.
One Way Only
Also, slaves tended to travel in only one direction, to the Americas. While England was, to its shame, a most ardent participant in the triangular slave trade and slaves could be bought and sold on the financial markets in London, few slavers would risk bringing their cargos back to Blighty.
This was because, while the exact status of slaves was contested, a series of legal judgments had determined that slavery was foreign to English law, noting that ‘no man can have a property in another’ (Smith v. Gould 1707) and ‘as soon as a man sets foot on English ground he is free’ (Shanley v. Harvey 1763).
This led to the deeply hypocritical situation that until the slave trade was abolished in 1807, slavers could buy and sell their wares on paper and physically could sell them in the colonies but they couldn’t ship them to England without potentially freeing them by doing so.
Servants to ship’s captains might be a different matter though, and indentured servitude, while technically not slavery, could be hard to distinguish in fact. Which brings us back to the grave shown above.
In 1736 a ship arrived at Sunderland, the name of which is not recorded nor that of its captain. The captain had a black cabin boy, whose name is recorded as Sambo.
According to an 1822 account in Lonsdale Magazine (a local publication) he was placed in an inn ‘with the intention of remaining there on board wages till the vessel was ready to sail’ but supposed himself deserted by his master and pined away to death. That account was written almost a century after the fact though, so it needs to be taken with an entire boatload of salt.
We can be reasonably certain that he was a slave, despite the dubious article’s talk of wages. We don’t really know how he died but disease seems most likely. What we do know is that he was buried in unconsecrated ground (as he was not Christian) on the edge of the village.
Originally the grave was unmarked but in 1796 a memorial was added by retired headmaster James Watson, whose brother, William Watson, was himself a prominent slave trader. The plaque reads:
A faithfull Negro
(Attending his Master from the West Indies)
Died on his Arrival at Sunderland
Full sixty Years the angry Winter's Wave
Has thundering dashd this bleak & barren Shore
Since Sambo’s Head laid in this lonely Grave
Lies still & ne’er will hear their turmoil more.
Full many a Sandbird chirps upon the Sod
And many a Moonlight Elfin round him trips
Full many a Summer's Sunbeam warms the Clod
And many a teeming Cloud upon him drips.
But still he sleeps - till the awakening Sounds
Of the Archangel’s Trump new Life impart
Then the Great Judge his Approbation founds
Not on Man's Color but his Worth of Heart
Today the grave is signposted as a tourist attraction and surrounded by stones, flowers and other bright ornaments, placed there by local children.
As mentioned above, Sambo’s Grave lies on the edge of the village, where the marshes face west into the Irish Sea. Not that you can see the sea from the edge of the marsh, mostly you can just see marsh grass stretching all the way out.
A very rough path of sorts led north up the marsh’s landward edge towards the blocky shape of Heysham Nuclear Power Station. On the way, it passed an old brick WW2 pillbox and various farm tracks leading out into the marshes.
A couple of miles, later the path veered to the left as the marsh petered out at the tiny hamlet of Potts Corner.
I stood in a car park at Potts Corner, staring out to sea and marvelling at what an awesome job the marsh had been doing of lessening the impact of the freezing cold wind rushing in from offshore and, consequently, how much I suddenly missed it.
The presence of a car park at Potts Corner betrayed its connection to the road network, a connection I now planned to exploit. Trying to venture further up the actual coast would be blocked by the nuclear power station so instead I headed slightly inland, following a series of quiet country roads from Potts Corner to the village of Middleton.
At Middleton, the roads got slightly busier on account of there being both an industrial estate and a gated community of holiday homes, the latter on the site of an old holiday camp. The camp first opened in 1939, was purchased by Pontins 1955 and finally closed in 1994, being left to moulder prior to its redevelopment.
From Middleton, I headed north, still going by road, and thus entered the very much larger village of Heysham, where I found shops from which I could purchase food and drink. I had no idea how much I wanted food and drink until I’d bought it.
Although a village in its own right, Heysham essentially forms a continuous conurbation with Morecambe to the north. It does have its own identity, though, and to a certain extent that identity is formed by two things: ferries and utilities.
The ferry aspect is handled by Heysham Port, which since 1904 has maintained a ferry service to the Isle of Man and to Ireland.
Heysham Nuclear Power Station
The utilities aspect is most obviously represented by Heysham Nuclear Power Station, which is actually two stations both operated by EDF Energy, a subsidiary of Électricité de France.
Heysham 1 was completed in 1983, generates 1150 MW and is expected to remain operational until about 2019. Heysham 2 was completed in 1988, generates 1250 MW and is expected to remain operational until at least 2023. The construction of a third reactor is not impossible — Heysham has been identified as a potential location for one of the UK’s next generation of nuclear power stations.
The nuclear-powered generation of electricity is not the only utility string to Heysham’s bow though, it is also the terminus of both an oil pipeline and a gas pipeline, all of which sounds like the making of a really big bang.
I wandered through a number of Heysham’s residential streets until I reached the old village in Lower Heysham, which was certainly a lot more ‘villagey’. This in turn led me onto a seafront promenade, which would eventually lead me into, through and out of Morecambe.
Morecambe Bay is not named after the town of Morecambe but rather the other way around. The bay — which is not actually a bay but rather a system of multiple estuaries — was named Moriancabris Æsturis on a Latin-language map of Claudius Ptolemy (90-168).
The town of Morecambe, which looks out onto the ‘bay’, has only been called so since 1889, prior to which it comprised the separate villages of Poulton, Bare and Torrisholme. These had been tiny and insignificant prior to the 1846 arrival of the railway, at which point they merged and developed into a prosperous resort.
Piers & Promenade
Like any self-respecting Victorian resort, Morecambe used to have pleasure piers, two of them in fact, but they succumbed to fire and storms in 1978 and 1992. It still has a massive promenade, flanked by rows of hotels and apartments.
Morecambe shares its name with the late comedian Eric Morecambe (1926-1984), one half of the award-winning double act of Morecambe & Wise who were giants of British comedy for decades. The matching names are not a coincidence, Eric — real name John Eric Bartholomew — hailed from Morecambe and used his hometown as his stage name.
In 1999, the town erected statue of its most famous son, perhaps hoping that he would bring it sunshine.
There were quite a lot of statues and other artworks of birds in Morecambe, such as the two cormorants shown above. These are the result of the TERN Project, a public art programme celebrating the seabirds of Morecambe Bay.
The project has been in progress since 1994 and is centred on a nature trail along the seafront. Cormorants, gannets and razorbills sit proudly in the centre of roundabouts and flocks of metal birds grace seafront railings. I rather like them.
A whole bunch of them were sitting on the old stone jetty that is all that remains of an 1853 harbour. A short stubby lighthouse stood at the far end.
If The Platform, one of two live music venues in Morecambe, looks more like a railway station than many modern railway stations, there is probably a reason for that. And that reason is that, yes, it obviously used to be one.
It was opened in 1907 by the Midland Railway and closed in 1994, when a new (but less impressive to look at) station was opened closer to the centre of town. Bizarrely, but not untypically for the railways, the station that is now The Platform was built to replace an even older one — opened in 1851 — which stood exactly where the new one now stands.
I spent some time in Morecambe, not least because I found a seafront café and spent a while enraptured by the delights of tea and cake. How much time was made clear to me later, as I walked some way further along the promenade.
The Clock Tower was erected in 1905 as gift to the town from Alderman JR Birkett. It was recently renovated as part of Morecambe’s ongoing makeover. I took its hint and got moving, which sped me onward towards this…
Venus and Cupid
Actually entitled Venus and Cupid, but known almost universally to locals as Mother and Child, this sculpture was designed by Lancaster artist Shane Johnstone in 2005 and frequently gets dressed up for various occasions, such as with tinsel and lantern wings at Christmas.
It was originally meant for Lancaster but was built in Morecambe instead to commemorate the loss of 23 cocklers in Morecambe Bay in 2004.
Morecambe Bay Cockling Disaster
This appalling incident, which was national news at the time, involved a gang of Chinese illegal immigrants who had been set to work collecting cockles (a type of small edible clam) out on the sands of Morecambe Bay. Having been trafficked into the country by Triads and forced to work in conditions of near-slavery in order to pay off ‘debts’ incurred in the trafficking, they knew nothing of the dangers of the bay.
A group of British cocklers tried to warn them about the incoming tide but sadly to no avail. Not only can the incoming tide advance faster than a man can run but the bay is criss-crossed with hidden channels that fill up and cut you off from dry land while previously firm sands become quicksand underfoot.
As the tide rushed, in the gangmasters abandoned their victims to their fate, resulting in 23 tragic and unnecessary deaths. The chief gangmaster, Lin Liang Ren, was later sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment. A Gangmaster Licensing Authority was also established in an attempt to ensure that henceforth providers of cocklers, fruit-pickers and similar workers will be properly licensed and monitored.
The actual site of the disaster was a little way north of Morecambe, near Hest Bank, which is where I was heading next. As I traipsed north, the promenade as such came to an end and instead became a pavement beside the busy A5105. This conveyed me to the edge of the village where I stopped and considered my options.
Hest Bank is a coastal village which mostly relies on tourism now but was once an important stopover point on the only real route to reach Furness, which lies directly across the sands. Today Furness is part of Cumbria but historically it was in Lancashire and there’s a good reason for that.
The Cross-Bay Route
Thanks to the hills and mountains that lie to the north, before the advent of the railway the only practical way to reach towns on the other side of the bay was to cross the sands at low tide. Hest Bank was the eastern end of that route and the Hest Bank Hotel — formerly the Sands Inn — hosted such travellers for centuries.
Of course, as already mentioned, the sands can be a terrible, treacherous thing and a safe crossing was by no means certain. For this reason there has been an official guide since at least the sixteenth century; the office of Queen’s Guide to the Sands is still appointed and its holder leads groups across the old route, usually to raise money for charity.
The right of way across the sands is clearly marked on OS maps (but then so is the Wadeway to Hayling Island and that’s impassable without swimming). In this case, though, even the Ordnance Survey has seen fit to print the alarming legend ‘Public Rights of Way across Morecambe Bay are dangerous. Seek local guidance.’
Lancashire Coastal Path
I wasn’t planning to attempt to cross the sands. I was intending to head north along the Lancashire Coastal Path but, when I got to Hest Bank, I wasn’t entirely sure where it ran.
As best as I could figure between the signs and my OS map, it ran along the stony beach, which was now almost at high tide. Thereafter, it would wend its way through three miles of salt marsh with the last mile or so missing the dotted lines on the map that signify an actual path. Well, this was fun. Did I really want to cross a pebbly, stony beach (my least favourite kind) followed by that much salt marsh? At high tide? With even the map giving up on the idea of ‘path’? Hmm, let me think…
…thank you, no. Fortunately there was another alternative. One that would also take me to Carnforth but in a manner altogether more civilised.
The next few miles were rather relaxing, what with the ducks and the boats and the extremely even, utterly un-marshy and clearly identifiable canal towpath. And this time around the canal was even coastal, sort of, insofar as I could see the sea.
Renamed by the Railway
The Lancaster Canal took me north to Bolton-le-Sands, historically just named Bolton (or ‘Bodeltone’ in the Domesday Book of 1086). Apparently the railway thought that it would be confusing to have too many Boltons and so they bolted on ‘le-Sands’.
Navigating by Numbers
As I wandered through Bolton, I realised that the canal did have a teensy problem in that it’s quite hard to tell how far along it you are unless you count out the bridges. So I counted the bridges. Fortunately someone had numbered them all, which made things easier. I was all in favour of easy as by then I was quite tired and looking forward to having a nice long rest in my hotel.
Fortunately the very next settlement was Carnforth, a small town formerly dominated by railways and ironworks. My hotel was right by the railway station, which was handy.
Carnforth Station is not quite what it once was as fewer lines now stop there than was the case in the past. Its café is a gleaming restoration of its 1930s heyday though, a fact not unconnected with the 1945 film Brief Encounter. The film is actually set in 1938 (it is based on the 1936 Noël Coward play, Still Life) and large parts of it take place at Carnforth Station, particularly in that canteen.
Back in the 1980s, when the station had been steadily deteriorating for decades, someone suddenly cottoned onto the fact the station is instrumental in one of the all-time classics of British cinema and had parts of the station — including the café — restored to how they appear in the film. Except the actual café in the film was mostly a set, recreated in a studio. But so what? I applaud their efforts.
The following morning, while waiting for my train home, I enjoyed a cup of tea in the station café. So far as I can tell, I didn’t experience a doomed love affair on account of it (although it’s possible that I did but simply failed to notice, I can be remarkably oblivious at times). I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed about that.
This time: 20 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,029 miles