I SHOULD know better than to try to make plans. Staying overnight in Millom, for instance, so that I could just get up early and start walking. That was a plan right up until the day before, when my hotel turned out not to have an actual room for me to stay in.
Some last-minute problem-solving saw me staying at St Bees instead, which meant that my hotel was right next to a beach but not, unfortunately, next to Millom. My earliness would now be constrained by the railway and the rest of my plans would have to be somewhat fluid…
A Short Walk
It was about seven thirty when I arrived in Millom and the sun was blazing mightily in a blue sky. I had decided to commit a crime against other people’s eyeballs by virtue of wearing shorts but, as the shorts in question and my legs were both the same shade of brilliant white, no one could actually tell. Later, my legs would turn scarlet, which is obviously nature’s way of showing that they are ripe and ready to be harvested. Or that they’re dangerous to eat. Nature can be so ambiguous.
Most placental mammals are dichromats, unable to see red, with the higher primates being the principal exception. This is a consequence of descending from nocturnal rodenty-things that scampered about beneath the feet of dinosaurs; they lost their red receptors because there wasn’t much red light at night to detect, so having them wasn’t an advantage.
We’ve since managed to re-evolve the ability by mutating some of our green-receptors into new red ones. To a dichromat without red receptors, what we see as red is a kind of sandy beige, which means that to a rabbit, foxes are beige. And foxes are beige to other foxes. Nature does love her little jokes.
As you can see from the photo, the tide was out in the Duddon Estuary, leaving a vast expanse of dull sand (‘fox-coloured’, if you’re a rabbit).
Peering down into the channels of the Duddon I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t all that deep and that I possibly could have crossed on the right of way from Askam-in-Furness, depending very much on how much of the sand was firm enough to walk on and how much was actually quicksand.
I got to try out the firmness of the sand shortly thereafter when my path dropped me onto the shoreline. Let’s just say that it was extremely variable and it wasn’t always easy to tell which bits would support your weight and which would swallow your ankle. I quite enjoyed my little stroll along the beach but was equally glad when it came to an end and I rejoined a proper, solid path above the tidemark.
Hodbarrow Nature Reserve
I had now reached Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, today a haven for a myriad of waterfowl and maintained by the RSPB but previously the site of Millom’s iron ore mine.
Hodbarrow Sea Wall
When iron ore was discovered and the vast mine developed in the mid nineteenth century, it encountered some safety issues insofar as it extended under the sands and was therefore at constant risk of flooding. Successive sea walls were built to keep the water out — the first one was built from wooden piles secured with iron rods but collapsed after being literally undermined in 1884.
A second barrier was constructed between 1888 and 1890, this time made of concrete with the joins between sections waterproofed with clay. It was a clever design but too brittle and so, when the mining caused further subsidence in 1900. a stretch of it simply collapsed.
Work immediately began on a third barrier, built further out this time, which was designed to be less rigid, able to subside with the land without cracking. It was completed in 1905 and cost around £600k to complete but the principle was clearly sound because it still stands today, having long outlasted the mine it was built to protect.
When mining ceased in 1968, so did the pumping that removed any water from the tunnels. The mines filled up, and the area behind the sea wall turned into a 200 acre lagoon, now home to an impressive array of different types of duck. There are paths along both the inside edge of the lagoon and along the sea wall. I chose the latter of course. To reach it I had to pass a ruined building that, surprisingly, was not a relic of the mine…
Towsey Hole Windmill
The ruin is Towsey Hole Windmill, which stood atop Hodbarrow Point and used to grind grain for the nearby village of Haverigg. I don’t know when it was built but it had already fallen into disuse and disrepair by the time the miners sank a shaft nearby. Despite looking then much like it does now, that didn’t stop the mining company from using it as an office, presumably by adding a temporary roof and door.
Although you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a chimney, the object above is Hodbarrow Beacon, a lighthouse built in 1866. Its purpose was to guide ships safely past Hodbarrow Point into the Duddon Estuary and thence to the company’s pier at Millom. It ceased operation in 1905, by which time the sea wall had made it obsolete.
Hodbarrow Beacon actually stands beside the path on the lagoon’s inner edge, which was not the way I was going. So, I backed up and set off along the wide, easy top of the sea wall (more a massive embankment than a ‘wall’) and cast my eye across the lagoon to Black Combe.
My original plan, when I was expecting to be able to set off stupidly early, had been to take an inland detour up and over Black Combe.
An isolated fell, it stands 600 m high, which means that it’s not quite a mountain — UK reckoning generally requires a mountain to be 610 m, which is simply 2000 ft rendered into metric. Meanwhile for purposes of common access, the government considers anything over 600 m to be mountaintop and open to all. At exactly 600 m, Black Combe is not over 600 m, so even by that standard it remains a mere hill.
It’s still a bloody great lump of rock, though, and requires some effort to go up it, although the paths, while steep, do not appear to require any mad scrambling. This relative ‘ease’ of ascent and the apparently awesome view from the top was leading me to want to include it in my walk. My railway constraints — namely a much later start and a last train at quarter past seven — were promising to make this a challenge. I would, I decided, postpone my decision until I was closer to the fell. In the meantime, I had the sea wall to traverse…
Hodbarrow Point Lighthouse
When the Board of Trade gave their consent for the sea wall in 1900, they added a condition that a lighthouse was required on the outer curve of the barrier, presumably to keep ships from sailing into a wall that hadn’t been there before. It was this light that rendered Hodbarrow Beacon obsolete and it shone out, warning shipping until 1949, when declining trade in the estuary meant it was no longer needed. The lighthouse sat derelict for half a century but was finally restored in 2003 with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The sea wall reconnected with dry land at the village of Haverigg, whose name is Old Norse (hafri + rigg) for ‘oat ridge’. It was way too early for a drink at the prominent Harbour Hotel but I spotted a shop in the street behind it, where I found myself some tasty breakfast.
Also in the shop was an old-fashioned sweets counter, with big jars containing the countless variations possible for boiled sweets. Two small children, their tiny hands clutching twenty pence pieces, made their agonisingly difficult choices and the shopkeeper patiently hunted through an assortment for just the flavours they liked. It was wonderful.
Somehow, amazingly, I resisted the urge to buy any sweets of my own but made up for that with a ham roll, which practically jumped down my throat in one go. It must have been really keen to get eaten. I was keen to press on…
A short path along the seafront soon dropped me onto a beach that my Ordnance Survey map insisted was sand. It also insisted that there was a path running along it.
In fairness there is sand below the band of shingle but the tide had rolled in as I traversed Hodbarrow’s sea wall and the sand was now underwater. Technically, there was sand to the right of me too, in the form of sand dunes and these even had intermittent paths, undulating like a roller coaster and then suddenly petering out. I tried hard to deny the horrible reality that I was going to have to walk on shingle but horrible reality persisted in spite of my efforts. I really hate shingle. I hated it for three miles.
One of the reasons that I was stuck on the beach, tramping over shingle, was that directly inland lay Her Majesty’s Prison Haverigg and, low-security as it might be, there was no way I could just walk through that. Beyond the prison stood a wind farm and, judging by its serious fences, it had better security than HMP Haverigg did.
Eventually, after what felt like eternity, I saw a couple of houses facing out to the sea and I knew that I had reached Silecroft Beach. There are just a handful of buildings at the beach, for the main part of Silecroft village lies just under a mile inland.
About half a mile further in than Silecroft was the foot of Black Combe and it was now decision time. That view (of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man) was very tempting. The two mile slog to the top, not so much. Add in the mile and a half to get to the start of the climb, plus the long route back down again and there was no way I could do it and still catch my train from Ravenglass back to St Bees. This was infuriating. I did not want to be prevented from climbing Black Combe by basic timetable issues.
I sat down and pondered. I ate another sandwich that I had stowed in my bag. I startled a Rough Collie dog that was too busy sniffing things to notice I was there until it decided to look up. I devised a new plan.
I could, I realised, go up Black Combe, make my way down again and terminate my walk at Bootle Station, about eight miles earlier than planned. I could then make up this distance the next day when, since I would be ending at St Bees, I would have no last train back to constrain how long I took. Yes, this would work. I could indeed climb Black Combe now and train times would not be an obstacle. Marvellous. My decision was made:
Yes, the view was probably lovely and yes it was a really clear day. It was also a really hot day and most of what I’d read of Black Combe said the two mile ascent took two hours. I didn’t want to spend two whole hours doing nothing but up. Compared to that, even the shingle was looking fairly inviting.
I stuck with the shingle. For another two and a half miles.
Eventually, just as I was getting heartily fed up of endless bloody shingle and was wondering if two miles of steepness would have been that bad after all, I spotted a Cumbria Coastal Path sign pointing inland up a small track. This revealed two things. Firstly, that the shingle had indeed been the ‘path’ and secondly, as I climbed the short incline from beach to cliff top, that any kind of gradient was not funny on such a hot day. I might not care for shingle but I’d definitely made the right choice.
Now that I was at cliff height, the path edged through a field full of sheep before it returned me to the cliff edge.
Behind me I saw a band of clouds close in over Black Combe and noted with dark amusement that they’d probably have cut off all visibility just as I reached the top. Other fells sat on the horizon to my right, while on my left the Isle of Man made itself hazily semi-visible to the naked eye. My camera was less convinced while my phone, though it couldn’t see the island, was more than happy to go roaming and connect to a Manx network.
The path became a farm track for about a mile and I left it at the edge of Annaside. This tiny hamlet nestles on the side of the River Annas, a narrow but fairly deep stream with a bed made entirely out of pointy rocks.
I would have every opportunity to consider the depth and difficulty of crossing the Annas as I now returned to the shingle beach knowing that, somewhere ahead of me, the river emptied into the sea. I realised far too late that there was no bridge marked on my map and wondered if perhaps I should head into Annaside and take an inland back-road route?
The above bridge crossed the Annas at exactly the point my map suggested I would ford it. This was well and good as it looked to be at least waist deep and the bottom was very uneven. Now, all I had to do was follow the path along the river’s northern bank.
This started well but the bank soon became very steep indeed and ahead I could see fences. I tried to figure out if I’d gone astray (and I’m sure that I had) but I didn’t see any way forwards. Figuring that the river must spread out and become fordable on the beach, I retraced my steps to just before the bridge and tried again.
Fording the Annas
I had blithely assumed that this would be a simple case of taking off my boots and splashing across. Not so. The shingle was painfully angular and the stones in the stream were covered in slippery weed.
I quickly realised that I was going to have to get my boots wet; at least they would dry out quickly in the sun and warm breeze. I just had to hope that the wet leather wouldn’t do too much damage to my feet in the meantime — wet boots cause blisters far more easily than dry ones. As it turned out, there would indeed be painful blisters later but compared to the sunburn developing on my calves, they would hardly hurt at all.
And so, with my boots now full of the Annas, I splashed up the beach past the farmstead of Selker and scrambled up off the beach at a point where the cliff was at its lowest. The map showed another mile and a half of ‘path’ that I now knew to be shingle and I was not willing to do that with wet boots. Besides, I was running low on water and was hoping that if I headed inland to Bootle Station, I might find a shop. This wasn’t entirely a gamble; I was pretty sure that I’d read that Bootle had a shop. And it did.
Unfortunately Bootle Station wasn’t in Bootle. It was in a hamlet also called Bootle Station, which adjoins the hamlet of Hycemoor. Bootle itself lies another mile up the road but, being a larger and more important village, gets to have its name on its neighbour’s station. Thus, I sat on a bench near the station and weighed up how badly I wanted to find that shop, which was a mile in entirely the wrong direction.
Not that badly at all, it turned out. I could cope.
Beside the station was a level crossing that had steadfastly remained in the middle of last century with its manually operated gates (largely phased out elsewhere in the 1960s). It certainly gives it a peaceful, hamlet-that-time-forgot feel. But Bootle Station has not always been peaceful and its wartime claim to fame is frankly bizarre. It is probably the only British railway station to have ever been blown up with depth charges.
Obviously, it wasn’t deliberate. No-one deliberately uses depth charges on a railway station. Mind you, nobody intentionally allows a railway wagon containing fifty-two depth charges to catch fire either, but that’s what tragically happened in 1945.
Having become uncomfortably aware that he was driving a steam train with a cargo of unexpectedly combusting explosives, the driver, Harold Goodall, stopped the train just outside Bootle Station (somewhere to the right of the photo above). He and his fireman, Herbert Norman Stubbs, then uncoupled and isolated the wagon — there were another six wagons full of depth charges that were not yet on fire and they wanted to keep them that way — and then, while Mr Stubbs went forward to protect the northbound line, Mr Goodall went back towards the burning freight wagon.
It is assumed that he planned to try to fight the fire but we’ll never know for sure because at that moment the depth charges detonated, excavating a crater 50 ft deep and 105 ft long. You won’t be surprised to learn that he was killed instantly.
Stubb Place Farm
A little bit of sunburn is nothing compared to receiving fifty-two exploding depth charges to the face and my mental complaints were silenced as, still leaving damp footprints, I trudged off down the road to Stubb Place Farm, where the shingle ‘path’ would have ended anyway.
By now, the tide had receded again, revealing the sands below the shingle just in time for me to not need them anymore. As it was, I now had the easy going of the road, with the sea on one side and fields full of Friesians on the other.
About half a mile down the road I lost sight of the sea on account of MOD Eskmeals, a firing range used for military equipment evaluation. Still, the view on the other side more than made up for it.
Eventually, the road left the firing range behind, passing by a couple of isolated cottages and a field full of shire horses. At the banks of the River Esk it took a sharp turn right, ducking under a railway bridge and heading upstream to the hamlet of Newbiggin. It had been my plan to do likewise but, as luck would have it, I had reached the Esk at the lowest point of the tide. My OS map suggested that there was a tidal road or track running across it.
Fording the Esk
There clearly wasn’t a road as such but there was a bridleway, marked with a sign. And, reassuringly, none of those danger of death signs that marked the routes across the Duddon. The river bed here was mud and small stones, so there was no need to wet my drying boots again. And, crucially, there were hoof-prints.
This last detail was important because the mud off the bridleway looked exactly the same as the mud on the bridleway right up until you stepped in it and it swallowed your foot. The horses were wise and I followed in their footsteps, confident that any ground that could support a horse and rider could easily do the same for me. Plus, as a bonus feature, it also meant I avoided stepping on the dead body of a young fox. That would have been icky.
The tidal bridleway continued up the far bank of the Esk as it snaked round towards Ravenglass. A number of moon jellyfish lay scattered about the estuary sands and I took great care not to tread on those either. While their stings are weak and often don’t penetrate human skin, I had already rubbed my heels raw with wet boots. No sense in tempting providence.
Entering the Village
The tidal bridleway ended at a slipway that led up into Ravenglass. I had made it. Now all I had to do was find the station.
My short cut along the tidal road shaved another three and a half miles off my walk and made the difference between racing to make my last train and strolling up to the station with time for a couple of G&Ts from the pub next door. Far more civilised. Soon I was heading back to St Bees, where my attempt to relax in a nice hot bath would exquisitely highlight the actual extent of my sunburn.
The following morning I would be back, ready to continue northward up the coast.
This time: 20½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,138½ miles