ALTHOUGH there is a certain purist joy in staying overnight at the start and end point of each walk, so that all the travelling that you are doing between places is on foot, there is a whole different kind of joy in starting the day already ensconced in a hotel at your end point. This kind of joy entails the ability to dump all your heavier things in your hotel room, safe in the knowledge that you’ll walk back to them later. It is a ‘travelling light’ kind of joy.
This was, of course, what I was doing when I caught a train from St Bees to Ravenglass in order to spend the day walking back to St Bees (the railway version of the journey was around sixteen times faster).
I arrived in Ravenglass at about seven thirty, an hour when everything other than the station was shut. The only other passenger to alight was an eager-looking bloke with a camera who promptly formed a queue of one, waiting for Ravenglass’s other station to open.
Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway
In addition to having kept hold of its ‘proper’ railway through the 1960s Beeching Axe (thanks mainly to Sellafield Nuclear Power Station up the coast, which needed some way to get its workers in and out), the village of Ravenglass is also home to the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway,
This is a 15” narrow gauge railway, following the route of an earlier 3’ gauge line opened in 1875 to transport iron ore from local mines. Unfortunately for the railway, the mining industry collapsed a few years later and it barely survived on income from passenger traffic. The original line eventually closed in 1913 and the tracks were ripped up and replaced with the current 15” gauge, reopening in 1915.
Today, it is a tourist attraction, providing a scenic ride for travellers and locals, using both steam and diesel engines. It is one of the oldest and longest narrow gauge railways and goes by the affectionate nickname of La’al Ratty, which is old Cumbrian dialect for ‘little railway’.
I had no particular interest in taking a trip on the R&ER, intending instead to rely upon Shanks’s pony for my personal conveyance. My feet obliged, carrying me through the village of Ravenglass towards the River Mite, which bounds it to the north much as the River Esk does to the south.
That Ravenglass is surrounded on three sides by water is no accident, the village began as a Roman naval base in the second century. The Romans used the port to import goods for the better support of this fringe of empire — especially the forts and ongoing construction of Hadrian’s Wall.
Ravenglass (then named Tunnocellum) possessed its own fort with a garrison of around five hundred soldiers. Sadly, the remains of the fort itself are no longer visible but the walls of its bathhouse — outside the fort on account of the fire risk from the furnaces — are still standing. In fact they are standing quite proud at almost four metres high. These days that’s taller than Hadrian’s famous wall.
Ravenglass’s village green overlooks the River Mite, a stream whose name is thought to derive from the Cumbric root meigh, meaning ‘to urinate or dribble’. Essentially, that makes it the ‘Dribble of Piss’. Like the Esk to the south, it has a tidal ford.
Drigg and Carleton
On the far side of the Mite lay the tiny hamlet of Saltcoats, which comprised just a handful of houses. They may or may not have been coated with salt but as I didn’t lick them I can’t say.
I passed through the hamlet, just about avoiding a speeding Land Rover whose driver had hitherto been confident (on account of the early hour and because he was starting from quite literally the end of the road) that there would be no one in his way.
Ahead, the road forked and while Mr Toad sped off down the right-hand route towards the A595, I took the other and followed National Cycle Network route 72 along a quiet country lane. I didn’t have a bicycle so I was forced to mime one instead.
NCN 72 took a sharp right-hand turn beside the hamlet of Hall Carleton (not to be confused with Carleton Hall, a mile directly northeast). A small lane continued forwards through the hamlet, where it would become a farm track leading down to a tidal ford of the River Irt.
I had initially thought I might take this route but the day was much cooler and greyer than the previous and I wasn’t all that keen on fording any stream, not even one formerly famous for its black pearls (thanks to nineteenth century overfishing the freshwater mussels are long gone). I therefore decided to stick with NCN 72 for the moment, until such time as I found a certain footpath…
The Road to Carleton Head
As it was, ‘until such time’ turned out to be a few minutes and the footpath in question appeared to be a muddy farm track. I was just checking for certain that the track — which in many ways resembled a linear ford anyway — was my footpath when a Land Rover pulled up beside me. ‘Blimey,’ I thought (I’ve obviously lived in London too long), ‘Mr Toad’s back for another go.’ But it wasn’t him.
‘Are you lost?’ asked the driver, who had a hard to define but distinctly farmer-y look about him.
I assured him that I wasn’t and he clearly thought I was lying. It was when he asked me ‘are you sure?’ that really gave it away. But I wasn’t lost, I knew where I was, it was where I was going next that I was checking. And I’d got that right too, mud and all. I squelched resignedly down the farm track…
The mud didn’t so much ease as tease, varying in depth and consistency from ‘almost none’ to ‘WW1 battlefield’, the latter around the gates that led into and out of a field containing cows.
The cows looked up curiously as I passed and I bid them a cheery good morning. This — or rather my tone of voice — reassured them and they went back to their grazing while I searched for the way onwards. I was now on a hill with the Irt somewhere below me and the way down to its banks consisted of steps. At the bottom of those steps was the reason I’d chosen this route:
Holme Bridge is a packhorse bridge, which means that it’s wide enough for a single packhorse and older than 1800. How old, I have no idea but apparently it’s represented on maps going back to the seventeenth century.
To the south, another path heads off eastwards towards Carleton Hall and the A595, which it meets at a bend where it forms a suspiciously straight line as if, for instance, it was the old trade route and the modern road-builders veered off towards another crossing. To the north, footpaths head to the villages of Holmrook and Drigg. I took the latter, following a signpost that pointed to Drigg Church.
Having already tested me with mud, Nature now showed her capricious sense of humour by flanking the footpath with knee-high wet grass. My boots and trousers were quickly soaked through and by the time I emerged from the footpath’s end it looked as if I’d forded the Irt anyway.
The footpath had led me to the B5344, the main road through Drigg village, along which my perambulation would continue. Directly in front of me stood this:
St Peter’s Church
St Peter’s was built in 1850 upon the site of an older church, which was demolished for that very purpose. The previous church had stood for some centuries, having been a possession of Conishead Priory prior to the Dissolution.
While not an especially impressive church in itself, St Peter’s silhouette against the skyline makes for quite an imposing sight at the end of the footpath from Holme Bridge and this is probably just as well as the rest of Drigg isn’t exactly exciting.
Drigg’s not bad either; it’s just a number of houses strung out along the B5344. I walked past most of them.
Low Level Waste Depository
The B5344 took a right turn and headed north, not quite in parallel with the coastline and separated from it by three things: some dunes, the railway line and what appeared from a distance to be a small wood surrounded by a security fence. Signs on the fence, if you made the effort to get close enough, informed you that it was a nuclear-licensed site and that trespass was a criminal offence.
The wood was, of course, no such thing and the trees merely formed a convenient privacy screen. The site was a Royal Ordnance Factory during WW2, situated far from any large towns to minimise the possible casualties in case of an accident or enemy action. It found a new purpose in 1959 when UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) took it over for use as a repository for nuclear waste.
Today, the Low Level Waste Repository — discreetly signposted off the main road as ‘LLWR’—continues to serve in that capacity, storing waste from nuclear power stations, MOD sites, hospitals, universities and industry despite being at acknowledged risk of coastal flooding and erosion.
The LLWR was some way off from the B5344 and receded still further as I left it behind, heading north through the countryside. I wasn’t exactly making an escape from nuclear danger, though, as this meant I was getting closer to Sellafield, the UK’s most notorious nuclear power station although not the only one to ever catch fire. First, however, I would be passing through Seascale, where I left the B5344.
The village of Seascale gets its name from the Vikings, although it’s fair to say it’s grown a bit in size since Norse settlers erected the skali — a wooden hut or shelter — that gives it part of its name. The ‘sea’ prefix, a later addition, simply indicates where Seascale is, to distinguish it from other skalar further inland.
For about a thousand years, Seascale was little more than a loose collection of farms but then the railway arrived in 1849. An actual village then coalesced but it was in 1879 that things really changed as Sir James Ramsden, managing director of the Furness Railway, decided to develop the village as a resort.
Work began and the village expanded although only a small fraction of Sir James’s ambitious plan was ever realised. The fledgling resort did all right, luring people to its sandy if windswept beaches with an array of Victorian bathing machines, but the town’s growth stagnated until 1939, when two Royal Ordnance Factories were built nearby (at Drigg and Sellafield) and the village was swamped with an influx of munitions workers.
Both ROF sites would later be repurposed for the nascent nuclear industry and nuclear workers replaced their bomb-making predecessors. Today, they account for a sizeable proportion of the inhabitants.
I stopped for a while in Seascale to enjoy a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich in a cafe near its seafront, having first had a bit of an aimless wander about. Much of the village retains its Victorian character as exemplified by one of its most prominent landmarks, a water tower built for and by the Furness Railway to service its operations.
Mock Fort & Cannon
Some of Seascale’s features would be instantly recognisable to a time-travelling visitor from Victorian times but have actually been re-established after a gap of some years. One is the little wooden jetty visible in my first Seascale photo and another is a mock fort and cannon feature on the village seafront.
The latter, situated next to what is now a car park, was covered over during WW1 for fear that the enemy might think the village fortified and therefore attack it. Then, in WW2, the original cannon was melted down to help the war effort. The fort and its cannon weren’t properly reinstated until 1998, when they secured a new cannon from elsewhere.
West Cumbria Shootings
In 2010 the fort became a focal point for villagers as they came to terms with their grief following the West Cumbria Shootings. These involved a lone gunman, local taxi driver Derrick Bird, who killed twelve people and injured eleven others. His exact motives are unknown but are thought to involve a combination of various harboured grudges and the stress of an HMRC tax investigation.
What is known is that he first drove to Lamplugh, where he shot and killed his twin brother. He then went to nearby Frizington, where he murdered the family solicitor, and then Whitehaven where he killed another taxi driver with whom he had previously clashed. So far, so murderous but at least clearly targeted. But Bird then went on a shooting rampage, starting with various other taxi drivers and then numerous other people who just happened to be within sight.
Bird blazed his way across West Cumbria, shooting people in Egremont, Thornhill, Carleton, Wilton, Seascale and Bootle. His final victim was himself as a massive police manhunt closed in. Cumbria Constabulary, a relatively small police force, sought help from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the specialist force that protects nuclear power stations like Sellafield and which, unlike most UK forces, is routinely armed.
Shootings Memorial Plaque
In Seascale, memorial services were held on the seafront at the mock fort, which made it the obvious place to site a memorial plaque. However, as the local paper pointed out, at least one Seascale resident took issue with the plaque’s exact position:
Since the beach at Seascale was glorious sand and not hideous shingle, there was naturally a perfectly good foot and cycle path for me to walk on, because ironic perversity is a powerful force in the universe.
This path formed another part of NCN 72 although I only saw one cyclist upon it — a boy in maybe his early teens. This lad was trying valiantly to cycle suffciently slowly as to not ram a mobility scooter pootling along in front. A small dog accompanied them both. I did also see one motorcyclist, taking an illegal shortcut home from Sellafield but I heard him coming with plenty of time to leap aside. The mobility scooter was far stealthier and more dangerous.
At its far end, the path curved inland at the mouth of the River Calder in order to cross it by bridge. I was now in the shadow of Sellafield nuclear power station and was vaguely amused to see a determined angler fishing the Calder’s tiny estuary.
Sellafield or Windscale?
Sellafield was the UK’s first nuclear power station. Except that’s not quite right. ROF Sellafield was a munitions propellant factory and is where the UK’s nuclear bomb was developed in the postwar years. But when it became a nuclear plant they renamed it Windscale to avoid confusion with Springfields nuclear fuel plant (which I passed back in March).
The UKAEA was created in 1954, beginning the country’s civil nuclear power programme, and the first Magnox reactor was built at Calder Hall, on the river’s opposite bank.
Windscale Reactor Fire
There have been a number of leaks and (in the early days) deliberate releases but Windscale’s primary claim to infamy is a fire in the plutonium piles in 1957. The fire burned for three days, destroyed the core and released over 750 TBq of dangerous radioactive material into the surrounding environment including iodine-131, a potential cause of thyroid cancer.
Fighting the fire proved difficult. Initial attempts to blow out the fire by turning the air-cooling to maximum merely fed the flames and made them worse. Carbon dioxide was tried but by this point the fire had reached such a temperature that it merely stripped the oxygen from the gas. It should be no surprise that water didn’t work either. Eventually, they shut down all the cooling vents and simply starved it of oxygen.
It was Britain’s worst nuclear accident and wind patterns meant that we shared it with several North Sea neighbours. We’re so generous.
In the aftermath, the unsalvageable reactor was sealed and another of the same design shut down just in case. Milk from the area was dumped for fear of Iodine-131 contamination. Air-cooled reactor designs were abandoned as the cost-cutting insanity they the obviously were and physicist Sir John Cockroft, who had stubbornly insisted that expensive filters be added to reactor chimneys intended never to contain any particulates, was utterly vindicated when it became apparent that the filters — previously dubbed ‘Cockroft’s Folly’ — had prevented worse contamination.
Thomas Touhy — Windscale’s deputy general manager who threw away his radiation monitoring badge so that no one could send him away for exceeding dose limits and repeatedly stared directly into the pile to inspect fire-fighting progress — somehow lived healthily to the age 90 despite getting a faceful of radiation. His bravery was never officially recognised as the fire was too damning an indictment of reckless government penny-pinching and Westminster had no intention of drawing attention to that.
Indeed, so keen was the government that everyone should just quietly forget it that later, in the 1980s, they renamed the site back to Sellafield — a cynical piece of rebranding that fooled no one at all.
Edging Round Sellafield
I would be a liar if I said that I didn’t think on at least some of this as I made my way along a path that followed Sellafield’s perimeter fence. But I didn’t dwell on it too much as the plant clearly wasn’t on fire and if there was an accident I could hardly do anything about it. The path led round to Sellafield Railway Station, and then up its access road, past the nuclear site’s main gates.
Sellafield is far and away the region’s largest employer and people were bustling and out. A number of vehicles were quietly waiting to be searched by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. I hurried past, lest I show too much interest and look suspicious.
Fire Memorial Plaque
Marking thirty years since the Windscale Reactor Fire, the plaque above was part of a concerted PR exercise embarked upon in the 80s. This included the renaming of Windscale back to Sellafield and the construction of a shiny, new visitor’s centre.
Certainly its promise to always remember the victims rings false for two reasons. Firstly the plaque is clearly not maintained, so ‘forever’ is looking rather finite. And secondly, there were no named victims. No one died in the fire itself, not even Thomas Touhy who probably should have, and anyone who developed cancer from the radiation will, sadly, be a mere probability statistic with their condition not provably attributable.
Promising to ‘remember’ some people who statistically probably exist (but we don’t know for sure) strikes me as a rather empty gesture.
Moor Row to Sellafield Branch Line
A little further on from the plaque, NCN 72 left the nuclear site behind and set off down a couple of quiet lanes that led to a dedicated cycle and foot path. This soon led to a raised embankment which bore the unmistakeable signs of being an old railway alignment. It was built by the Whitehaven, Cleator and Egremont Railway in 1869 and closed in 1980.
Being an old railway alignment, it made for awesomely easy walking, offered good views and was wonderfully quiet. I thoroughly enjoyed this stretch but at the same time I found it slightly melancholy. Such paths are convenient but I also regret their abandonment. It seems a shame that no train will run that route again.
Middlebank Farm Lane
The railway alignment carried me directly north towards the village of Beckermet, upon the outskirts of which the cycle path abandoned the railway alignment, switching to a narrow country lane. I did likewise, it seemed rude not to.
The lane was pretty quiet since while one end led to Beckermet and thus the rest of the road network, the other led only to Middlebank Farm. On either side were empty fields, except for one bend in the road, beside which sat a church.
Old St Bridget’s Church
The church in question was Old St Bridget’s, known as the ‘Low Church’ to distinguish itself from the newer St Bridget’s that sits in nearby Calder Bridge. Now used for services just three times a year, the Low Church’s graveyard contains two ancient crosses, one of which has a runic inscription.
I took some time to wander around the Low Church’s graveyard but I didn’t find them and further research shows that this is because I’m unobservant / incompetent / unlucky / accursed (delete as applicable). I must have walked straight past them. In fact, I probably looked straight past them, trying to spot them behind themselves.
In fairness, the description ‘runic cross’ is highly misleading as the actual runic stone looks more like a slightly phallic stump but I didn’t know that at the time and was looking for entirely the wrong shape. Anyway, having failed to find the runestone, I decided I’d find some sort of lunch instead and headed up the lane into Beckermet proper.
Beckermet — pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, bec-KER-met — probably derives from ‘beck’ + ‘hermit’, making it ‘hermit’s stream’. Today, it’s a quiet, rural village but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was part of the regional rush to industrialise, with flax mills and mining both strong local industries.
Not too far from that ore wagon planter I found a pub and, within it, my lunch. Delicious sandwiches were washed down with gin & tonic, all of which refreshed me for the continuation of my walk.
From Beckermet, the cycle route went north, rejoining the old WC&ER alignment just north of the village and following it on to Egremont. I, however, was heading in a different direction, taking a quiet-ish country road towards the hamlet of Braystones. Along the way, I discovered why cyclists had to detour into Beckermet instead of staying on the embankment.
Braystones was about a mile down the road from Beckermet, on the banks of the River Ehen. The Ehen, which drains from Ennerdale Water, has managed to hold onto its freshwater pearl mussel population, which remains the largest in England.
One might conclude therefore that Braystones might not be an ideal site to build a new nuclear power station but it still made it onto a shortlist in 2009. In 2010, Chris Huhne, then the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, decided that this might possibly damage the environment a teensy bit; he had the village taken off the list.
Just south of Braystones stands a memorial tower, erected by local squire William Henry Watson in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria‘s diamond jubilee.
Watson was the son of William Hough Watson, the chemist from Bolton who created Sunlight Soap, the world’s first packaged, branded laundry soap. The elder William Watson became a business partner of the Lever Brothers, who established a business empire and built the planned town of Port Sunlight to house their workers. To this day, Sunlight remains a trade mark of Unilever (formed by a merger of Lever Brothers and Dutch company Margarine Unie in 1930) and is still used abroad. In the UK Sunlight products disappeared in 2009, pulled on account of low demand.
In 1920, the tower’s duties were doubled, when it was also designated a memorial for ten local men who died in WW1. One of those commemorated was Private Harry Christian VC, who won his Victoria Cross in France in 1915 by rescuing three comrades from crater during a heavy bombardment.
The Tower Today
When first built the tower had floors and glazed windows though those things have now gone. It is now in a perilous state but one local farmer, Tony Sharp, is keen to see it restored. Not least because he climbed it as a child fifty-odd years ago and the memory stuck with him. And why not?
From Braystones, I could have taken a footpath directly to the coast, crossing the railway line just south of Braystones Station. But I could see from my map that the beaches were shingle and I wasn’t ready for that.
Instead I stuck with a country lane that ran in parallel with both coast and railway line. With a little local undulation, this slowly ascended over the course of a mile and a half, carrying me up to Nethertown, a small agricultural village. There wasn’t much in Nethertown apart from old stone buildings but it certainly wasn’t kidding about being agricultural — one of the premises right in the centre was a farm.
I sat for a while on a handy bench before continuing northwards for another two miles of country lane. The road was quiet and though it was not right next to the sea, I could frequently see it on my left. The view on the right was more constant and, especially southwards, beautifully summed up this trip.
Eventually, as the road approached St Bees, I saw a footpath that I wanted to take. A narrow track led me down towards Seamill, essentially the most southern part of St Bees.
Seamill takes its name from an old grain mill, which stood at the mouth of Pow Beck. The mill was fed by a leat which drew from a weir further upstream; Seamill stood at the end of an elaborate system of leats and mills.
The arrival of the railway in 1849 required a sandstone wall to protect the tracks and, in the course of building the wall, the railway straightened Pow Beck and moved the mill slightly further north. It stood on its new site for over a century before finally being demolished in the early 1960s. All that remains now is a single millstone, displayed down by the shore.
St Bees Bay
Reaching Seamill meant that my journey was almost over; all I had to do now was complete the last mile along the low sandy cliffs. The bulk of St Bees lies a little way inland such that its roads form two sides of a triangle. I would be traversing the hypotenuse as my hotel stood at the corner overlooking St Bees Beach.
The sun had disappeared and a brisk wind was blowing as I strode purposefully along the cliff top, ever mindful of the edge. The cliffs at this point are composed of loose material and erosion’s eating into them at the rate of four to six inches a year.
On the far side of the crumbly cliffs, in the dip between them and St Bees Head, I found my hotel. It was exactly where I’d left it and still contained my heavier belongings. There was time for tea and food and lazing on the beach in spite of the worsening weather. It’s a good beach, almost all sand apart from the top bit, which is shingle.
Given the number of nearby beaches that are all shingle or rocks, it’d be a pretty good beach to arrive at if you’d just fled across the Irish Sea.
The reason I say that is on account of St Bega, for whom St Bees is named. Allegedly an Irish princess who was very keen on virginity, she didn’t take it too kindly when her father had her betrothed to a prince of Norway. She registered her reluctance by jumping in a boat and fleeing across to what was then (in the ninth century) Northumbria, coming ashore at St Bees.
There she settled, being extremely pious, until Viking coastal raids caused her to flee east. A statue of her by Colin Telfer — a local ex-miner turned sculptor who likes to work with haematite dust mixed with resin — was erected in the village in 2000.
St Bees Priory
The Norse settled across much of Cumbria and carved stones at St Bees Priory show their influence. The Benedictine priory was founded in the early twelfth century by William Meschin, Lord of Egremont (the Normans reached Cumbria in 1092) and was subordinate to York.
As is usually the case, the priory rose to become a wealthy and important power until Henry VIII dissolved it in 1539. While many of the priory’s buildings were destroyed, its church stayed in use until the present day. Built in red sandstone, it looks like modern brick at first glance. But then you take a closer look…
St Bees School
Later, when Henry’s daughter Elizabeth was on the throne, both of her archbishops (Canterbury and York) hailed from this tiny Cumberland village. The Archbishop of Canterbury was Edmund Grindal (1519-1583), who later fell out with the Queen and died in disgrace but not before he had founded St Bees School.
From its founding in 1583 to its closure last month (July 2015), the school was independently run, educating boys and (from the 1970s onwards) girls. After four and a third centuries, financial pressures closed its doors and a number of parents and Old Beghians have taken the news rather badly. I imagine its three hundred pupils had mixed feelings on the matter.
I helped my day to its own conclusion by lubricating its passage with one or more further G&Ts. But not too many, I would be up bright and early in the morning, ready to continue on to Maryport.
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,155 miles