I start my walk from Haverigg, where pastel-painted houses line the little harbour. It looks very pretty in the clear light of a November morning.
Today I’m heading northwards, and my walk begins along a wonderful stretch of sand, fringed by dunes. The tide is low at the moment and the only thing to spoil my enjoyment of the beach is the fact the sea is nowhere to be seen!
After a while I realise I’m probably not walking along the beach anymore. I’ve joined a track that runs between a grassy marsh on my left, and the low line of dunes on my right.
Between me and the sea is a shingle bank, somewhat similar to Chesil beach. I meet a dog walker who stops for a chat. He tells me he goes night fishing off the shingle bank, and it’s easier to reach from a little further up.
We express mutual surprise that there are so few people out walking on this glorious day. ‘I rarely meet anybody,’ he tells me. ‘Only a few tourists, like yourself.’
I’m not sure I like being called a tourist. (Once I had an argument with somebody on a blog somewhere about the difference between a traveller and a tourist. I like to think I’m a traveller!)
Onwards. After a while, I head across the shingle and walk by the shore. I’ve enjoyed hiking up and down the Duddon estuary – but this is proper seaside. It really is beautiful. So much empty space around me, and such clean, fresh-smelling air.
To my right, hidden behind the dunes, are a few scattered wind turbines, and – somewhere nearby – is Haverigg prison. I am interested to see what the prison looks like, but I’m so busy enjoying the beach that I never get round to climbing back over the dunes for a look.
I’ve definitely left the shelter of the estuary behind. The wind is blowing strongly, and straight into my face. Either the beach gets narrower, or the tide is coming in, because I soon find myself walking closer to the water’s edge.
I reach a place where there’s a few houses and a car park. Silecroft beach? Or Hartrees Hill? My map seems a bit vague. But a car park means people, and I meet families out walking.
The wind is fierce, and I’m struggling to walk against it. A group of horses are trekking along the sands, and you can tell how strongly the wind is gusting from the position of their tails in photo below
I seek shelter beside a wall so that I can check my map. There are no coastal footpaths shown, and the fields are fenced. Can I get through along the shore? Or will the incoming tide force me to stumble across shingle or, even worse, force me to turn back?
Back on the beach, I look ahead up the sands, squinting as the wind causes my eyes to fill with tears, and am surprised to see a range of cliffs.
For a few minutes I dither. In the end it’s the force of the wind, rather than the fear of getting cut off, that makes me decide to take the inland route.
I head up the road towards the village of Silecroft. It looks like I’m walking straight towards Black Combe.
There’s a little railway station at Silecroft but, just before I reach it, I strike off to the left along a farmer’s track and then follow a public footpath. I cross over Silecroft Beck via a rickety footbridge…
… and splosh my way across a marshy field, filled ominously with cow pats, until I reach the railway crossing. The lovely bridge I can see, just down the line, connects a farm to the road. The farm is probably the source of the cow pats but luckily, today, there are no beasts in the field.
Over the crossing and I’m walking uphill through a field of sheep to a place called Sledbank. It’s barely a village, just a collection of farm buildings. Here I come across the most rickety and dangerous stile I’ve ever encountered. First of all it takes me some time to spot it…
… and then you have to first climb over a fence and then over a wall. Unfortunately, the stile on this side of the fence is broken and wobbles alarmingly as you balance on it. But then things get worse.
On the other side of the fence there is a huge step down to get through the wall. Not only must you make this leap from a precarious starting point on the wobbly plank, but you must also – at the same time – squeeze yourself (plus rucksack) through a narrow slit between the stones.
This dangerous contortion, once accomplished, allows you to get onto a rickety ladder. It has missing rungs and so you must jump (backwards) straight onto a steep slope, which you will then slither down at high speed before hitting the lane below.
Wow! I’m totally amazed I manage to get through, and even more surprised not to sustain a serious injury – just a sprained wrist and a few grazes and splinters.
I take a photo looking back up at this death trap.
Then I turn and continue up the hill towards the main road.
It’s my old foe, the A595. I cross over to pick up another footpath which runs along the lower slopes of Black Combe. From this high point I can look down across the farmland I’ve just crossed, and the distant sea.
The views are wonderful, but the path is poorly signed and I’m confused by a sheep trail, before I realise and backtrack. It’s tempting, with Black Combe above me, to head uphill. But I must stay focused on the coast… onwards.
I’m walking parallel to – and just above – the A595. But soon I rejoin the road.
Luckily it’s only a short distance before I can leave the road again, in a tiny place close to Whitbeck. The lane I want is opposite a church.
The post box built into the wall (bottom, left hand side of the photograph above) has the letters V and R, so I suppose it must be Victorian. You don’t see many of those about.
I turn left down the little lane and soon reach the railway line. Just before I get there, the red lights start to flash and the barriers come down. A train goes rattling by. Nothing special about this one. It’s just a boring old commuter two-carriage job.
Once over the crossing, I take the right hand fork. It’s marked as a public footpath on my map, but turns out to be a pretty substantial track. I’m heading northwest, and should reach the coast in a couple of miles.
The track itself is pretty boring with no view of the sea…
… but the views over the countryside inland are stunning. Black Combe really is magnificent – a big messy mass of a thing, rising up almost from sea level, and with multiple peaks. It’s both a dramatic and dominating presence for the duration of today’s walk.
A man I met yesterday (the man with the beautiful collie), told me I should climb Black Combe. From the top you can see for… he was a big vague about the exact number… but many miles. Across to Wales. Isle of Man. Scotland. He also told me there are two summits. The first one has a cairn on top, which was clearly visible from where we were standing at the time. But the cairn doesn’t mark the true summit, he told me. No. You must continue to the trig stone near a circular structure (possibly a sheep fold?) and then you’re really at the top.
We then had a long discussion about whether Black Combe was a hill or a mountain. According to the official and historic definition, in the UK a mountain must be over 2,000 feet. But, of course, we’ve gone metric. 2,000 feet turns out to be an ugly number in metres – 609.6 metres, to be exact. More recently, therefore, official documents have begun referring to anything over 600 metres as a mountain.
Black Combe is exactly 600 metres high.
My man with the collie was inclined to be traditional and think of Black Combe as a hill. If so, it is the largest hill in Britain.
I would prefer to think of Black Combe as a mountain. It’s big enough, bold enough and dramatic enough to deserve that title – in my opinion, anyway! If it really is a mountain, at 600 metres exactly, it must be the smallest mountain in Britain.
Thinking of climbing Black Combe, even if just in theory, makes me feel suddenly tired. I sit down on the side of a bank (just ahead in the photo below) which gives me some shelter from the wind.
It’s time for lunch.
[To be continued…]