If you find yourself on quicksand, you should lie down and roll off the area,’ says local guide Cedric Robinson as we look out over a huge expanse of flat, grey sand. ‘You might get wet and muddy, but at least you’ll get out.’ It’s unusual advice for enjoying a beach, but then Arnside isn’t your average seaside resort.
It’s located in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – the UK’s second smallest at 75 square kilometres – a mixture of limestone-topping habitats on the western edges of the Cumbria–Lancashire border that also stretches out into the surrounding estuary, where the River Kent runs into Morecambe Bay.
The sands left behind at low tide cry out to be walked on, but the signs along the promenades make it clear that they’re not for the bucket-and-spade brigade: ‘Danger: quicksands’; ‘Hidden channels’; ‘Fast-flowing tides’. And over the years, hundreds of people have drowned here, caught out by the shifting flows of water and sand banks.
For centuries, guides were employed on either side of the bay to help travellers take the shortcut (cutting around 38 kilometres off their journey) across the bay. And 74-year-old Robinson is the latest. The son of a fisherman, he learned to ‘follow the sands’ by going out with his father to collect cockles and shrimps from the bay.
In 1963, he was offered the job of Queen’s guide to the Kent Sands, a position that dates back to the 16th century (it comes with a house, and an annual salary of £15), and moved to Grange-over-Sands with his new wife.
Nobody has ever drowned on Robinson’s watch, and he has now led hundreds of thousands of people across the sands, avoiding the places ‘that could mire a cat’ as the local fisherman used to say, and marking the paths with laurel branches from his garden ‘because the leaves don’t fall off’.
But he can’t keep everyone on the sands safe, and he’s known a few tragedies in his time, including the notorious incident that occurred in nearby Morecambe Bay on 5 February 2004, when 23 inexperienced Chinese cockle collectors drowned as the freezing winter tides rushed over the sands in the dark and cut off their paths back to the shore.
‘It was a terrible night,’ says Robinson, who could only help by using his knowledge of the sands to let the police know where the bodies were likely to wash up. But in some ways, he feels it was the inevitable outcome of the rise in cockle prices. ‘It was like a gold rush,’ says Robinson. ‘They were boasting in the pubs that they could make £1,000 a tide.’
Today, the cockle beds are closed and many are hoping that a licensing system will be brought in when they are reopened in order to stop non-fisherman being attracted onto the sands. But, for now, the area has been returned to the myriad birds that live there or use the mudflats as a refuelling station during their migration.
And nearby, at the Leighton Moss nature reserve, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is trying to build up the numbers of another bird: the bittern. Once known as the ‘fenman’s turkey’ because it was popular roasted, this super-shy wader lives among the reed beds there, stabbing the water for fish and elvers (baby eels).
‘They were hunted during the 19th century, and in 1886, they were declared extinct in the UK,’ says Jen Walker, visitor and publicity officer at Leighton Moss. ‘They then returned in 1911, but by 1997 there were just 11 booming males.’ (Because they’re so shy, bitterns are counted by listening out for the booming mating call of the males, which can be heard up to seven kilometres away.)
Now, there are more than 70 booming males across the UK, largely based in their stronghold of East Anglia. To boost northern numbers, the RSPB is trying to make the reed beds at Leighton Moss more appealing – lowering them to let in fish and creating more edges for the bitterns to fish from – while also creating new reed beds nearby for their young to colonise.
There are currently only one male and three nesting females in the reserve, but the staff are hoping numbers will improve at the next count this spring. ‘The problem was that their habitat was disappearing as the land was drained for agricultural purposes, and they are so habitat-dependent that if we don’t do anything for them, they’ll go extinct,’ says Walker.
Another of the area’s rare species, the lady’s slipper orchid (Britain’s rarest flowering plant), hasn’t even reached these numbers, despite the fact that orchids generally thrive in the low-nutrient limestone soils. Officially, there’s only one plant in the AONB area and, after part of it was stolen in 2004, it now has its own guard during the flowering season.
‘It’s very difficult to get [lady’s slippers] to germinate from seeds because the seeds are microscopic,’ says Tony Riden, the AONB’s countryside officer. ‘They can be carried long distances and even up into the jet stream, and may not land for decades.’
Despite the difficulties, Natural England is attempting to grow the lady’s slipper in a number of secret locations in the AONB. In the meantime, it’s still easy to spot bee and fly orchids, which are happy to seed themselves in the disturbed ground of the disused quarries, a relic of the long history of industrial use of limestone in the area.
The limestone brings benefits to the area in others ways. It not only creates extraordinary landscape phenomena such as limestone pavements, and has left the region dotted with old fertiliser-making kilns, but it also creates natural sills on river beds. And the power of the River Bela dropping over a sill at Beetham has powered the Heron Corn Mill for centuries.
The current mill was built in 1740, but they tend to be built over other mills, so project development officer Audrey Steele thinks that there could have been one there in Roman times. Millwright Martin Watts agrees. ‘It’s a natural site for a mill,’ he says. ‘And the Romans were brilliant at using natural features and enhancing them for defence or homes or mills.’
One of only about ten millwrights left in the UK, Watts has been brought in to restore the mill’s inner workings and get it grinding again. ‘It’s a really good example of a north-country mill,’ says Watts, who believes that it was probably used to grind the oats grown in the local area.
The farmers or their assistants would have bought the crops in by horse and cart. ‘They used to say a mill wouldn’t be more than half a day’s walk away,’ says Watts, ‘so you could walk there and back in one day.’ At the mill, they would sit around chatting while they waited for the job to get done. ‘[The mills] were like early community centres,’ says Steele.
Today, grinding grain is unlikely to provide enough of an income for the upkeep of the restored mill, so Steele has raised funds for the installation of a £500,000 electricity-generating turbine on the weir, which should not only supply the mill and surrounding buildings but also provide an income by selling the spare power to the grid.
The AONB staff are keen to support small-scale renewable-energy projects such as this, partly in the hope of escaping the large windfarms that can be seen in other nearby areas. ‘We have to be careful here,’ says Lucy Barron, the AONB manager. ‘Because we’re small, any development can have a large impact on the area. And for such a small area, because of the range of habitats within the AONB – including limestone grassland, ancient woodland, salt marsh, reclaimed mosses and the wildlife that lives on them – we have so much here to protect.’
The best view — Wharton Crag
‘In summer, it’s covered in wildflowers. From the top, you can see the Forest of Bowland AONB and, on a clear day, Blackpool Tower, and maybe peregrines or little owls in the quarry below.’
Lucy Barron, AONB manager
The best time to hear bitterns booming — at dawn or dusk
‘They start booming around Valentine’s Day and go on until around the end of June. For the first couple of weeks, it’s more of a grunt until they strengthen the muscles.’
Jen Walker, visitor and publicity officer, Leighton Moss RSPB reserve
The best circular walk from Arnside To Silverdale — along the coast on the way and back over Arnside Knott, a 150-metre limestone hill
‘You can stop for lunch at the Wolfhouse gallery, where they do really good soups.’
Lesley Hornsby, owner of No 43, a boutique guesthouse in Arnside (01524 762 761, www.no43.org.uk)
The best fish dish — flounder (or fluke as it’s known locally)
‘The flesh is lovely and sweet. Almost like plaice. In some estuaries, the flukes feed on worms and they taste earthy, but here, they feed on young cockles and bivalves.’
Cedric Robinson, Queen’s guide to the Kent Sands
This article was published in the April 2009 edition of Geographical magazine