HAVING ‘enjoyed’ torrential rain on my previous walk, I waited until the weather seemed slightly more promising before returning to Cumbria. The forecast in mid-June was for sunshine one day and probable rain the next. Slathered in sunscreen but half-expecting a downpour, I found Barrow-in-Furness basking beneath blue skies and looking somewhat better in the sunshine. Not by much, admittedly, but better nonetheless.
Emlyn Hughes Statue
Near to the station was this statue of Emlyn Hughes OBE (1947-2004), a Barrow lad who played first for Blackpool and then Liverpool, which he captained during the 1970s. He also captained the English national team before finishing his career at Wolverhampton Wanderers, which doesn’t end in ‘pool’ and therefore ruins a good theme.
Although the town of Barrow-in-Furness is keen to claim him now he never actually played for Barrow as they wouldn’t even give him a trial. His father, Fred ‘Ginger’ Hughes, played Rugby League for the town, having moved from Llanelli to Barrow for exactly that purpose; he also played for Wales and Great Britain.
Despite not being at all interested in football of any flavour, I was fairly sure I recognised Emlyn Hughes’s name from somewhere — he was big when I was in primary school and football stickers and top trumps were the rage. Given that the most I could recall about him that he was a footballer — and the statue kind of gave that away — I shrugged and moved on, retracing my steps towards Barrow Town Hall.
James Ramsden Statue
On the way, I passed another statue and it probably says a lot about me that while I barely knew who Emlyn Hughes was, I did know the identity of the bloke with a seagull on his head.
Sir James Ramsden (1822-1896) was an industrialist and civic leader who, in concert with the likes of mining magnate Henry Schneider, oversaw Barrow’s rapid growth in the nineteenth century.
Sir James served as managing director for several local companies including the Furness Railway Company, the Barrow Hematite Steel Company (formerly Schneider, Hannay & Co) and the Barrow Shipbuilding Company. When Barrow grew large enough to gain municipal borough status, he got himself elected as mayor for five successive terms.
His statue was erected in 1872, the year he was knighted; the seagulls find it very handy.
I returned to the town hall and then kept heading south onto Barrow Island, which is actually more of a peninsula since Devonshire Dock was constructed in 1867. Upon its completion, the prime minister of the day, William Ewart Gladstone, declared that ‘Barrow would one day become another Liverpool’.
Devonshire Dock Hall
As a port, this prediction was never to be fully realised but Barrow did overtake Merseyside in its shipbuilding capabilities and boats of a sort are still being built there today. The massive Devonshire Dock Hall is the secure construction facility in which the UK’s latest nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs in NATO parlance) are being assembled: the Astute Class.
That’s nuclear-powered not nuclear-armed (although some new ones of those are planned too). And definitely not nuclear-powdered.
Astute Class Submarines
The Astute Class is a highly complex piece of kit designed to very sneakily sink other people’s ships and subs. It is armed with torpedoes and cruise missiles (with conventional warheads) and equipped with what BAE Systems is describing as ‘the world’s most advanced and effective sonar system’ (although, as BAE Systems are building the subs, they’re bound to put out a good sales spiel).
Interestingly, what is now BAE Systems Submarine Solutions is, via long chain of mergers and sales and a dollop of nationalisation/privatisation, the direct successor company to Sir James Ramsden’s original Barrow Shipbuilding Company.
So far, seven Astute Class subs have been ordered. HMS Astute and Ambush are already in service, while Artful should be commissioned sometime during this year and Audacious, Anson, Agamemnon and Ajax are all in varying stages of construction.
I’m not sure exactly how the Royal Navy selects its vessels’ names but all seven have been used by them before. HMS Anson is named for Admiral George Anson (1697-1762) who, among other things, was First Lord of the Admiralty during the Seven Years’ War. As head of the navy, he instituted a number of reforms including better management of defence contractors. I’m sure that’s not a subtle comment on the Astute program, which was one unholy mess of delays at the start.
An amusing thought as that is, it’s the name of the seventh boat that amuses me more. Sadly she isn’t due to enter service until 2024, so there’s at least nine years before an admiral has to resist the urge to misquote the film Flash Gordon.
‘Open fire! All weapons! Dispatch HMS Ajax to bring back the bodies…’
And this is how, 44 years after mixed reviews, a rather campy sci-fi film will inadvertently trigger a war. But it will be entirely worth it if Brian Blessed gets to give the order to “Diiiiiiiiiiiive!”
As the end of the world was still far enough off that I had time to finish my walk, I pressed on. This meant wandering across Barrow Island past numerous BAE Systems buildings with robust security turnstiles and severe signs warning against trespass. On the far side of these, I came to a bridge which led not to the mainland but across the Walney Channel to Walney Island. Opened in 1908, it replaced the old Walney Ferry and there was really only one thing it could possibly be called…
Walney Island was occupied as far back as the late Neolithic but was most extensively settled by the Norse. Its name, given as ‘Hougenai’ in the Domesday Book of 1086, is of uncertain etymology but possibly meant ‘Hougoun’s island’. It later fell under the sway of Furness Abbey and remained a rural backwater well after the Dissolution and right up until the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of Barrow.
The rapidly expanding town was short on recreational space — all the available land was being bought up by industrialists — so the inhabitants took to enjoying the beach at Biggar Bank, on the seaward side of Walney Island. This wasn’t entirely popular with Walney’s farmers, who made repeated attempts to fence off the area but to no avail.
Eventually, in 1877, Barrow’s council leased Biggar Bank, later purchasing it outright. At this time, Walney was mostly accessed by tidal fords across the Walney Channel but the Furness railway Company, in building the docks, had dredged the channel and rendered most of the fords impassable. This naturally upset the islanders (not to mention the seaside-goers) and, facing compensation claims, Furness Railway reluctantly established a steam ferry in 1878.
As the century wore on, the still-expanding Barrow also found itself short of residential space and Vickers (the shipyard’s then owner) decided to build a planned town on Walney Island in 1897. The first tenants moved into Vickerstown in 1900 and immediately spotted something of an inconvenience, namely their reliance on the ferry.
With more voices now clamouring for a bridge and Furness Railway proving intransigent, Barrow obtained an Act of Parliament authorising the council to build a bridge themselves. It was opened in 1908 with the obvious name of Walney Bridge and cost £175,000 to build. Part of that expense (which at the time was a fortune) was due to the need to build it as a bascule bridge, able to open like a drawbridge to allow shipping to pass.
For the first 27 years of its existence it was a toll bridge, the proceeds going some way towards recouping the cost, but in 1935 the toll was dropped and the bridge renamed in honour of King George V’s Silver Jubilee.
Not that the new official name caught on — Barrovians insisted on continuing to use the previous name, or else called it ‘the Blue Bridge’ on account of its colour, which you may have noticed isn’t blue. A repaint in 2008 has robbed it of that nickname and now it’s simply known as ‘Walney Bridge’. Unofficially, of course.
I crossed the bridge to Vickerstown for no better reason than because I could. Unfortunately, you can’t really walk around Walney Island so much as up and down it, retracing your steps, and I saw no benefit in doing that. And so, having stepped foot on the island, I promptly turned about and immediately left it again.
At the Barrow Island end of
Walney Jubilee Bridge, I parted from the streets and followed a foot and cycle path along the banks of Walney Channel. This led me back onto mainland Great Britain and northwards past the busy Barrovian suburb of Hindpool but I might as well have been in another world: enjoying a quiet, waterside amble with a splendid view up the channel towards the fell named Black Combe.
There is one foot crossing still in existence with a small footbridge that is exposed at low tide, while another, still shown as a bridleway on the OS map, map or may not still be passable. Both were very much submerged as I made my way along the channel’s banks and taking those routes would have required a boat.
As I continued northwards, the path rose atop a low cliff, affording me excellent views across the channel to the northerly end of Walney Island. It was pretty easy going as it climbed on account of also being Route 72 of the National Cycle Network; cyclists don’t much care for steps. They’re also not entirely keen on some random beardy bloke standing in the middle of the path taking photos and causing an obstruction.
Walney Island Airport
Walney Island’s flat, open terrain lends itself well to an airfield and accordingly is the site of Barrow/Walney Island Airport, which is privately owned by BAE Systems. The modern airfield was bought from the RAF by Vickers after WW2, it having been constructed as part of the war effort.
A whole world war earlier, the northern end of Walney Island had been home to aviation of a different kind, when Vickers constructed airships there for the Royal Navy. I find airships fascinating; I’d have loved to have seen that.
As pleasant as the cycle path was, it was finite and I was approaching its end. At a point where my map shows a tidal bridleway, the cycle path turned inland and joined the A590. I took advantage of a lumpy hill — an old mining spoil heap, I suspect — to stand just a few feet higher and look ahead before I gave up and joined the road.
I passed under a railway bridge and along a small lane past Ormsgill Farm, the farmhouse of which dates to 1605 and is Barrow’s oldest continuously inhabited building. From there, I had little choice but to join the A590 and use it to continue my journey north.
The A590 is a fairly ordinary main road with not a lot to look at on the way (it was mostly industrial units). I vaguely hoped that the suburb of Ormsgill might have a shop that would sell me an ice cream — it was now devilishly warm — but if so, I didn’t pass it.
Askam and Ireleth
The heat and lack of ice cream helped put me in entirely the wrong frame of mind for busy main road walking and so I was overjoyed when, after what was only a mile and a half but felt more like a billion miles of wading through treacle, I was able to take a turning back to the shore. I was now at the low peninsula projecting westwards in the photo above (not Black Combe and the fells but the one in front of them), which is called Sandscale Haws and is mostly composed of sand dunes.
Cutting into the southern side of Sandscale Haws is a semicircular bay called Scarth Bight. This has a right of way through its centre at low tide, the end of another turn-off from the A590, which I’d not taken on account of it being inconveniently underwater. Now though, the tide had turned and was drawing back across the sands.
Gazing across Scarth Bight to the beach huts at Lowsy Point, I could see more sand than water where, just half an hour ago, no sand could be seen at all.
Sandscale Haws is National Trust land and apparently popular with bird-watchers and dog-walkers alike. I followed the arc of the waymarked path around the high tide mark at the rim of the bight and so made my way to Lowsy Point, where ramshackle sheds pose as beach huts, some of them made from old boats.
The path snaked round the huts and along the edge of the dunes before dropping me down onto the beach. A quick glance at the map showed me that it should have done nothing of the sort — or at least not yet — but I shrugged and made the most of it. I may have gone slightly astray but Duddon Sands hardly looked terrible.
Duddon Sands is the estuary of the River Duddon and the sand is fairly soft underfoot. Much like Morecambe Bay, it is criss-crossed with old rights of way which my OS map warned me were dangerous, what with the tides and the quicksand and all.
I initially stuck quite close to the tidemark, which would have carried me onto a bridleway had I persisted, but that meant following a concave shoreline when the tide had receded to cut across the curve. The sand, though exposed, was wet with pools and puddles while shallow streams and channels wound their way across. Aware that it was not impossible that this might go horribly wrong, I took my boots and socks off, rolled up my trouser legs and splashed merrily across.
The sand in the stream-beds was firm. Elsewhere it was clingy and in some places swallowed my foot to well above the ankle. The trick with such sand is to keep moving — if you stand still you sink — and so I pressed forwards. The water, being shallow, was warmed by the sun and I found my trek generally delightful. I was making my way up the estuary rather than across it; ahead of me was the bulky shape of Askam Pier and, behind it, Askam-in-Furness.
Askam Pier is not a pretty construction, having been built by the simple but effective method of linearly dumping slag from Askam’s ironworks until it reached the nearest low-tide channel of the Duddon.
In the century or so that it has stood there, the area immediately upstream of it has silted up and is now meadow and marshland. I suppose it always was marshland, but the effect of the pier on the flow of river and tide means that there’s more of it that perhaps there once was.
Askam is not an ancient settlement, dating back only to the mid-nineteenth century when Henry Schneider discovered iron ore beside what was then Ireleth Marsh.
The then-tiny village of Ireleth is technically Askam’s neighbouring village although the two have long since merged into each other and they form a common civil parish. Ireleth is much older, dating back to the Vikings (its name means “Ire’s hillside”) and stood on a crossroads between a road heading north and the Marsh Road over Duddon Sands.
Askam grew up a little further down the Marsh Road, near to where the Furness Railway crossed it, in an area then dominated by Askam Woods (now much reduced). By 1870, an ironworks had been established to take immediate advantage of the iron ore and this remained in business until 1918, by which time the ore deposits had already been depleted.
I left the estuary at Askam and headed into the village where I was able to satisfy my desire for ice cream and other, more nutritional foodstuffs.
Having been built in the 1860s and 1870s for iron workers, Askam is largely composed of Victorian housing terraces with more modern houses on the outskirts.
Three Routes Onwards
I paused beside the station and took stock of the time only to discover that I’d lost quite a lot of it on the sands; I can only assume that time is heavy and sinks into soft sand like anything.
Since I was way behind schedule I now had to consider my options, which were to take the old Marsh Road onto the sands and follow a tidal footpath upstream, or else to head north on the busy A595 (also called the Cumbrian Coast Road). Theoretically, I also had a third option, which was to take the Marsh Road and keep going, fording the Duddon to Millom along the ancient right of way. I ruled option three out immediately on account of not having engaged the services of the Queen’s Guide to the Sands.
Realistically, I had little choice: I would have to take the boring route along the A595. That much was obvious. If I chose to walk up the estuary I’d lose even more time than I already had. And that would be bonkers.
I merrily trudged across the soft sand and splashed through tidal pools towards the not-quite island of Dunnerholme, a limestone escarpment surrounded by estuary and marsh. Near to Dunnerholme, marram grass was sprouting through the estuarine sands, slowly securing them in place and moving the dune front forwards.
As expected, I lost far too much time crossing what was only a mile of sand but on the whole it felt worth it. I stopped and rested on the grassy bank of Dunnerholme, where my thirsty consumption of water was scrutinised by a flock of suspicious sheep.
On the map the footpath I was following — which only existed on the map, there being no markers on the tidal sands — continued north to distant Foxfield, crossing the channels of the Duddon twice. Hmm. While I was definitely up for a bit of pool-paddling, I wasn’t so keen on wading river channels of unknown depth. Also, everything north of Dunnerholme looked a lot more marshy and muddy than what I’d squelched across so far.
Cumbrian Coast Road (A595)
At this point Realism snuck up and ambushed me, beating Bonkers into a metaphorical pulp. Reluctantly, I turned inland, crossing through a golf course and heading for the A595. I pointedly ignored the route of the actual Cumbrian Coastal Way, which appeared to be choosing the boggiest bit of the marsh just for giggles, and followed an access track all the way back to the road. At this point that was a mile away and about 30 m up the hillside that Ireleth sits on. I was quite glad when I finally reached it and also keenly aware that it hadn’t helped my schedule issues one jot.
The A595 was far easier going, since it had much less quicksand than the estuary. It still carried the possibility of making unpleasant squelching noises however as it did have a lot more heavy goods lorries flooring it round blind bends without warning.
The A595 was following the route of the old northern road from Ireleth and I plodded up it, leaping occasionally into the hedgerows in fear of my life. After about a mile I came to Soutergate, an outlying hamlet of the village of Kirkby-in-Furness.
Rather than running straight up Soutergate’s high street, the A595 had been re-routed down a parallel bypass (referred to by residents as ‘the Back Road’ for some years). This meant that the village was essentially traffic-free and I rather enjoyed the respite from homicidal lorries; as impressed as I am by the Astute Class submarine, I have no desire to be squished by a consignment of its parts.
Though its village smithy sadly vanished in the 1960s, Soutergate remains essentially unspoiled by modern development. If you ignore the rumble of traffic on the bypass and the odd parked car then by standing in its high street it’s easy to feel as though you have travelled back in time. This may be comforting to its increasingly elderly population — the young are being driven out by unaffordable house prices.
Sleepy-looking Soutergate was previously also spelt ‘Southergate’, which seems reasonable enough for the southernmost hamlet of what is officially the parish of Kirkby Ireleth. Not that Ireleth was ever a part of the parish, the ‘Ireleth’ in the name was just there to disambiguate Kirkby from any others.
As if that wasn’t confusing enough, this particular Kirkby takes its name from Kirkby Hall, named for the Kirkby family who dwelt in it for ten generations and who are presumably named after another Kirkby, the name of which simply means ‘church village’.
Soutergate, together with Sand Side, Beck Side, Wall End, Marshside and Chapels, forms part of what is today called Kirkby-in-Furness, a name made up by the Furness Railway for its station serving those villages and later also adopted by the Post Office. Not that I’m knocking the Post Office, far from it. Kirkby Post Office shop sold me water and an ice cream, which I severely needed. The day had grown hotter by the hour.
I’d had enough of the Cumbria Coast Road by now so I wished it a hearty goodbye and took the turning for Sand Side. This led me down another narrow Lane that Time Forgot, which included this rather low-key pub:
The Ship Inn takes its name from the days when the estuary was more navigable and vessels would moor at a quayside to take away slate from the nearby Burlington Quarry. The actual building dates back to 1691 but has only been a pub from the 1840s or early ’50s.
No pub this old should be without a lurid ghost story and the Ship lays claim to a ghost named Elizabeth Kendall, who was definitely born in 1869 and who may or may not have died of pneumonia in 1888. Allegedly, her footsteps can sometimes be heard.
Tempted though I was, I didn’t investigate whether the Ship was open but continued down the street to Kirkby-in-Furness station, which is squarely in the hamlet of Sand Side. Hot, tired and slightly headachey, I briefly considered calling it a day but couldn’t convince myself that ten and a half miles was nearly enough.
A small stream, Kirkby Pool (originally Steers Pool), flowed into the estuary at Sand Side and a stone-walled country lane led northwards more-or-less alongside it. In the distance various fells paraded along the skyline.
The lane eventually took me back to the A595 near Kirkby Hall but only so that I could quickly leave it again. A short footpath led me onto a country lane heading westwards, crossing Kirkby Pool via a bridge.
The lane cut past fields long since reclaimed but the names of nearby farmhouses — Moss Houses, Marsh Field — spoke of their history; between them and the estuary lay Angerton Marsh.
I passed through an (open) gate and over Waitham Hill, a mere pimple on the landscape at 20 m high but an obvious spot to aim for in the days when the fields were still marsh.
On the far side of the hill, I crossed the railway line by means of a level crossing, turned off from the road to tiny, isolated Angerton (it had a population of fourteen in the 2001 census) and generally enjoyed the cool, shady loveliness of the trees now lining the lane.
Skelly Crag Level Crossing
I had to cross the railway line again as I approached Foxfield, which wasn’t in itself surprising.
In general, even level crossings on tiny roads in the middle of nowhere tend to have automatic lifting barriers and flashing light signals, the first of which were installed in 1961. Prior to that, they employed the style of crossing shown in the photo, namely a hinged gate that would be opened onto the track, preventing people and animals from straying onto the tracks while using the crossing.
As there was no automation, the gates rested closed instead of open and a crossing attendant was required to open them for traffic (during a suitable timetable gap). And, sure enough, the gate in the photo was manned by a bloke in a nearby hut, reading his paper and waiting for a road-user to need his gate-opening services. I was almost disappointed to be on foot, which meant that I could nip across through a pedestrian side-gate.
Enough is Enough
Crossing the railway line deposited me back on the A595. Almost opposite was a narrow lane climbing a hill, with a Cumbria Coastal Path sign pointing along it. I duly noted my route onwards but decided that enough was enough. Foxfield would be my end point for the day; I would continue to Millom in the morning.
Foxfield is another tiny village, situated at the end of that route up the estuary sands I didn’t take. It also sits on the A595 and has a railway station on the Cumbrian Coast Line.
One might wonder why a minute village needs a station and one answer might be that it also serves the nearby town of Broughton-in-Furness. Another might be that it is clearly situated at an ancient crossroads with one of the routes over the sands. But the most likely answer, this being how Victorian railways did things, is simply that it used to be the junction for a branch line.
Foxfield Station dates back to 1848, which is when the Furness Railway extended its track to Broughton-in-Furness to serve the copper mine traffic. It became a junction in 1850, when the Whitehaven & Furness Junction Railway connected to the Furness Railway there. The Broughton line was extended as far as Coniston in 1859 by the Coniston Railway Company, which though a separate company, just happened to have exactly the same leadership as the Furness Railway.
For reasons of cost and efficiency, the Coniston line, including the original Furness Railway section between Foxfield and Broughton, was closed to passenger traffic in 1957 and to freight in 1962, with all the track being lifted. This means that today’s Cumbrian Coast Line is the old Whitehaven line north of Foxfield and the Furness line heading south.
Back to Barrow
I used the latter to head back to Barrow, where I had plans to meet the Lemming, who would join me on the following day’s walk.
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,107 miles