From Barrow railway station, I walk down Abbey Road. Funny how this walk, which I’ve only completed 3 times, now seems so familiar to me. In the rootless, restless life of a long-distance walker, places we visit more than once begin to seem like old friends.
Yesterday was a long march – 17 miles – and mostly along roads. And so, from the bottom of Abbey Road; I shave a couple of miles off today’s route by catching a bus over to Walney Island. I’m starting my walk at the place I left the shore yesterday, Sandy Gap.
I check my map again. The north end of Walney Island has very few public footpaths, for some reason. Maybe the land is too new? The far tip of the island – a curving spit of dunes – is shown as open access land. That’s promising, but doesn’t mean there will be an easy walking route around it. Could all be deep sand – or, worse still, marsh.
To start with, I follow a proper tarmac path running alongside the golf course, just above the beach. But dog walkers are out in force, and the path seems relatively crowded, so I soon head down to walk along the shingle for a while.
Unlike yesterday, where the water was right up against the shingle bank, today there are acres of exposed sand and the sea seems far away. The wind is stiff and from the north-east, blowing clouds across a constantly changing sky. It creates dramatic landscapes.
I soon leave most of the dog walkers behind. But, considering I didn’t meet any other walkers yesterday, this northern section of coastline appears surprisingly popular. And the view ahead is wonderful. That dark, brooding hill is on the other side of the Duddon estuary and must be… I check my map again… what a great name – Black Combe.
The trig point on the top of Black Combe sits at 600m. That makes it, I think, officially, a mountain, according to UK government definitions.
I’m walking past the far end of the golf course. To my right are housing estates of North Walney. There are still plenty of people about, strung out along the path.
Beyond the houses, the path joins a single track road, where a number of cars are parked, and I carry on, past yet another holiday camp.
The tarmac road becomes a gravel track. Still a few cars come this way. A weather-battered sign forbids overnight parking and camping.
A child has lost a boot. Someone has placed it on top of a gate post. It’s really weird how many single shoes you discover while walking the coast. What happens to the other one? And how can people lose just one shoe and not notice?
I pass the last of the parked cars. Down on the sands a couple are walking their dog. I remember the furious – and silent – onrush of the tide yesterday, and shudder at the thought of being overtaken out on the sandbanks.
The track comes to an end. Or maybe it’s been washed away? A sign post is too faded to read and the whole area seems abandoned and deserted. In fact, from here onwards I will see nobody – not a single person – for the next 4-5 miles.
To my right are the hummocks of vegetated dunes. What does this sign say? ‘Keep out’? It leans precariously and the lettering has long since disappeared.
To my left, the empty beach stretches for hundreds of yards out to the distant sea, and beyond that rows of wind turbines turn like ghostly figures waving on the horizon.
Finally, I reach a sign I can actually read. It tells me this is North Walney National Nature Reserve.
Onwards. I know Barrow is only a mile or two away, and yet this area seems like a complete wilderness. My progress is slow because the landscape is stunning and I take, as usual, far too many photographs.
Inland, through gaps in the wall of dunes, I catch sight of small lakes. It’s always a surprise to discover just how wet a dune system can be.
Meanwhile, the rough path I’ve been following has disappeared, and I’m stumbling along old tyre tracks across the top of the shingle.
The sky is constantly changing. Great tumbles of cloud build up over the mountain ahead, threatening rain, and then just seem to blow away.
I’m turning a corner. Well, it’s a gentle curve, to be more accurate. No longer walking northwards, I’m now looking up the Duddon estuary. Somewhere over there is Millom.
[I know Allan (fellow coastal walker and frequent commentator on this blog) is planning to continue his walk in Cumbria tomorrow, and he told me he will be starting from Millom. It’s not the first time we’ve been almost in hailing distance of each other!]
The shingle is hard to walk on, and so I take to the sands. The tide turned an hour or two ago, but the water is still a long way off. I’ll be OK if I stick close to the bank.
More clouds are building over Black Combe. These ones are light and fluffy.
Finally, I’m nearing the end of the spit of dunes. The sky ahead is turning ominously dark. The water to my left is the Scarth Channel. On the other side I can see yet more dunes, but these ones are on the mainland.
I feel the familiar thrill of anticipation when I see a landscape I know I’ll soon be travelling across. Tomorrow I should be walking over there!
Looking back, I take a photograph of my line of boot prints. Another thrill! It’s always very satisfying to realise you’re the only person who has left your tracks along a beach.
The footprints will be short-lived. I know the next high tide, due in under 4 hours time, will wash all traces of my presence away.
The northernmost tip of Walney Island is called North End Haws. It’s a little difficult to know when I’ve reached it, because the beach simply curves and there is no obvious ‘point’. I think this is it.
The names of the geographical features are odd and uncomfortable. ‘Haws’? Does that mean hawthorn berries? No sign of any hawthorn bushes here. And the water off the end of the spit is called Scarth Hole, which seems vaguely menacing. While the shingle bank on the other side is known as Lowsy Point.
I don’t know if it’s this combination of names, or the realisation I’ve been completely alone for several miles, or the darkening sky, or the knowledge that the tide is coming in and I don’t know what lies ahead, and the worry that I might not be able to find a way back down the eastern side of the island, but I have a growing sense of unease.
It’s almost a relief to turn the corner, look south along Walney Channel, and see the smoking factory that sits on the opposite bank. Civilisation.
And I’m also relieved to find a path along the shore, even if it’s rough and disappears at times. Clearly people must sometimes walk this way and that must mean there is a walkable route back along this side of Walney island.
I realise I’m hungry. My sense of unease makes me want to carry on, but I know I’ll feel better when I’ve had something to eat and drink. So I climb up to a high point among the dunes to eat my picnic lunch.
From up here, the highest point I’ve been all day, I can look across the dunes, across Duddon Sands, to Black Combe. The mountain is certainly living up to its name at the moment, collecting a halo of dark clouds.
After my lunch, I scramble back down to the shore. It no longer feels like a coastal beach here, more like a river bank. And the tide is definitely coming in. Onwards
I reach a wide area of mud and marsh, which has been fenced off for some reason. I’m nervous of the incoming tide and decide to stay on the landward side of the fence, where the ground is sandy rather than muddy.
This turns out to be a mistake, as the wide track becomes increasingly narrow and overgrown with gorse and a tough grass, whose spiky stalks are sharp enough to cut your hands. So I climb over the fence – I’m clearly not the only one to do this – and walk in the marsh for a while. It’s a little muddy, but not too bad, before I find several stiles back over the fence and with paths leading back into the dunes.
I take one of the paths and climb up into dune system, which at this point seems to be fenced to create a number of fields. Now I’m walking some distance away from, and above, the channel.
This is North End Rabbit Warren, says my map. I do see evidence of rabbits, but I also see sheep and then – uh, oh – cows. Mothers with calves. Not good. They are, of course, sitting right in front of the exit stile. One big beast gets up and starts moving towards me.
I quickly climb over the fence and send a flock of sheep scattering in panic. Sorry, little sheep, but I really don’t like cows.
Further along I join a grassy track. Little signposts erected by ‘Natural England’ point out the walking route. This must be some sort of nature trail.
Actually, it’s quite a boring walk, designed I think to take you past the ponds among the dunes, where you might be able to see natterjack toads, apparently. I don’t see any.
Natterjack toads are quite fussy creatures, which is why they are relatively rare. They like gently sloping banks and sparse vegetation. This might be enticing scenery for the toads, but is pretty boring for humans. A few trees, or even some decent bushes, would alleviate the monotony of the landscape.
I don’t see toads, but I do see cows. And calves. It’s difficult to avoid them among the long grass because you’ve practically stumbled across them before you know they’re there.
Luckily, I make it through unharmed and find my way blocked by a tall fence. I’m on the outskirts of the Walney Island Airport. Here my plan is to stick close to the fence, in order stay as close to the eastern shore of the island as I can, but it’s difficult as the way becomes very overgrown.
A short while ago I was longing for proper bushes to add variety to the grassland of the dunes – well, here they are. Thick hawthorn, prickly brambles and impenetrable gorse!
In the end, I abandon my attempt to stick close to the fence and join a proper path. This one is surprisingly clear and well used by dog walkers, who now make a reappearance as I get closer to civilisation.
I’m heading south and the sun is bright in my eyes, so I turn and take a photograph looking north. I’m surprised to the sky over the Lake District has turned dark, even though Black Combe still attracts its own halo of lighter clouds.
I reach the end of the airport and notice a dog walker is heading up along its southern border. So there must be a path there. I follow her.
What a wonderful situation for an airstrip! It must be one of the prettiest sites in the country. Maybe almost as nice as Caernarfon Airport, when I walked in the shadows of Snowdonia? I pause to take a photo of the landing lights, and stop to watch a plane take off.
A nearby sign tells me this is not a public right of way, but is a ‘permitted path’ courtesy of BAE Systems. BAE Systems! They actually own the airport. I hastily put my camera away and wonder if another security guard will spring out of the bushes to challenge me.
Onwards. At the end of the permitted path, I reach a lane and continue heading southwards towards a residential area, North Scale on my map. A man is picking blackberries from the hedge and… and is throwing them at his dog!
The dog leaps up and snaps the berries out of the air. The man sees me staring and explains the animal loves them. Weird dog, although surprisingly agile.
I walk down residential streets to pick up a public footpath that runs along the shore. A tiny sign warns me ‘THIS ROUTE HAS NATURAL HAZARDS’ and ‘SEEK LOCAL GUIDANCE’. (Why are all notices – even ones as small as this one – written in capital letters?)
I look down the shoreline and immediately realise I have a problem. The tide is high. The channel is full of water and the bank is completely covered.
An elderly man with a shopping bag shuffles past. He heads up the steps to the right (in the photo above). Oh. Perhaps that’s the footpath? I climb up after him and find myself standing on a small lawn. A lady, on another lawn above me, looks startled.
‘Is this the footpath?’ I ask, knowing from her reaction that it isn’t. No, it’s a private garden. The footpath runs below.
I can’t get through along the bank, so I turn back and walk along the streets instead.
This route turns out to be almost as dangerous as the flooded bank, because a group of workmen up on scaffolding are throwing old timbers into the back of their truck. The timbers are large. The truck is small. The men are poor with their aim. And so pieces of wood are falling all over the road. (I would have taken a photo of this bizarre sight, but it is too dangerous to hang around!)
The road goes down to the water, where I enjoy a pleasant stroll towards the bridge. The light at this time of the afternoon is wonderful, and the area looks much nicer now the tide is in and the channel is full. The water is even deep enough for boats to move around.
As I cross over the bridge, I notice a rainbow in the sky to the northeast, where all the dark clouds have been. It makes the perfect end to a wonderful day.
I don’t stop at Wetherspoons on the way back to the station, tempting though it is. My husband is travelling across from Lincolnshire to spend the weekend with me, so I’m in a hurry to get back to meet him at our B&B.
Walked today = 12 miles
Total distance so far = 2,870 miles