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Is The North West Britain's Most Underrated Coastline?

5th September 2015

I had driven way out along lanes no straighter than a ram’s horn to Red Bank Farm, at Bolton-le-Sands, near Lancaster, England. The farm, and its cafe, were poised at that point where farmland, salt meadows, marshes and incoming tides all met.

The many signs were clear: these were lethal surroundings for the stupid. I ordered a coffee, took it outside to the farm garden and asked if I might join a senior lady at her table.

“That’s a small coffee,” she said. It was. Finding an espresso here on the rim of the North West was like finding a Scotch egg in Haifa. “Me, I need more volume.” She giggled. We talked.

I told her that, though a Lancastrian, I hadn’t been near the Morecambe Bay coast for years. Decades.

“I’m awestruck. I’d forgotten the scale. The grandeur.”

I had. I’d burst from the high-hedged lanes to immense meadows speckled with sheep, to mud and marshes, a forever sea, and a vast sky which did as it damned well pleased – black cloud to dun hues, then blue and back again, in 10 minutes flat. “It’s stunning,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “It is very nice.” I’d forgotten, also, the Lancastrian way with superlatives. “We often have a run out here.” Then she paused. “Are you sure that coffee’s big enough?”

 Morcambe Bay is one stop on Britain's North West coastline (Image: AP/FOTOLIA)

A Varied Coastal Landscape

The untutored limit the Lancashire coast to Blackpool, Morecambe and other resorts. This is wrong, but it wouldn’t bother me if it were right. These are places you plunge into for raucous experiences.

At Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach, the Big One is like going over the Andes in a coal scuttle. A jet-propelled coal scuttle. There are piers and slot machines, award-winning double burger outlets and all-you-can-eat pizza restaurants – for a population that might (Lord knows, it’s none of my business) better profit from a least-you-can-eat salad bar. Popular culture is popular for a reason. There was a three-hour wait for the Big One when I was through.

Real popularity, though, sometimes embarrasses clever people within local authorities. In line with contemporary mores, they like to culture up their towns, perhaps by emphasising a Victorian past. Or slotting in sculpture. Or reworking the prom.

Some of this looks jolly good, but Lancastrians resist overt gentrification. Theirs – ours – is a meat-pie culture. As one fellow with whom I broached the subject in Cleveleys put it: “B----- the statues, give us the chips.”

 At Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach, the Big One (Image: AP/FOTOLIA)

At the edges, liveliness like that fosters tat. The resorts boast much in the way of glaring signs in orange and yellow and a world-class collection of budget stores smelling jauntily of despair. Fleetwood’s famous market, and that in Morecambe on a Sunday, would dispirit shoppers from Somalia.

But it is this uncertainty – the bouncing between acute popularity, attempted culture and the frankly tawdry – that has the resorts keeping calm and carrying on, against the odds, in an intriguing manner.

I licked through them at a fair old pace, particularly taken with Cleveleys, where sculptures indeed punctuated the seafront and sands. They’re inspired by characters from a children’s book, The Sea Swallow, itself inspired by folk tales from this Fylde coast. The idea is a belter.

The artworks – sea swallows atop a beacon, a four-metre sea shell, a sea ogre hiding among groynes and rocks – urge you along the front. It was a terrific walk, even as the wind blew my eyebrows off.

So over the Wyre to Over Wyre. Here the world changes. Lanes drawn by a fellow following cows lead to little-ruffled villages – Pilling, Cockerham – and out to the sense-smacking immensity of the Morecambe Bay seaside.

You roll past hedges and cattle-heavy fields, then surge through to the coast, John Denver ceding to Van Morrison. This is huge, outlandish, not just stirring but nourishing. Drive out to Lane Ends – a distant gathering point-cum-picnic area beyond Pilling – park, walk and tell me I’m wrong.

Outside the old farms and village centres, folk have reacted to the elemental power with bungalows, semis and other bits from suburbia. This is the British way. We don’t go bonkers. We settle down. And certainly, in Hambleton, many will require “Woof ’n’ Puss Pet Supplies”.

I now skipped to the Lune estuary. Overton is the last, stone-built, outpost before the mile-long causeway to Sunderland Point. The causeway crosses marsh, mudflats and channels which fill up at high tide, overspilling to flood the road and ambush motorists.

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Affection Rises Faster Than The Tide

I really needed a tide table. A sign in the Overton car park indicated such was available at the village’s Globe pub. “Nah, sorry, love. Not here.” I set out anyway, taking my mind off watery death by trying to spot the heavily advertised wading birds.

I’d got right across and parked up on the beach stones and had seen nothing but a dunlin. Or it could have been a chicken. Ornithology is not my strong suit. Around the corner, Trevor Owen and his team were coming ashore, across the mud from little boats, with two sackfuls of salmon.

Sundered from land, the semi-island of Sunderland Point is about a half-kilometre by a quarter-kilometre. Some 67 people live there, in 35 houses – mainly drawn up in two distinguished seafront terraces. It’s been a proper little port, home to ship owners, sea captains, farmers and Sambo, a black fellow who may or may not have been a slave. He died there in 1736; his grave has been honoured since.

Then there are the fishermen. Or there were. Trevor, 69, is among the last. Certainly his wife, Margaret, 63, is the last fisherwoman. This may be because young ladies no longer consider standing up to their chests in estuary water, wielding a four-metre haaf net, an attractive career option.

At different seasons, the Owens fish shrimp, cockles, whitebait, bass – and sprats for the sea lions at Blackpool Zoo. Their activity is tenaciously regulated. Margaret fights the more formidable idiocies of officialdom. Trevor plays in blues bands. You think you’re at the end of the world, but you’re right in the middle of theirs. “Visitors? We love them,” cried Margaret. I hopped back to the car and beat the tide, easy.

Heysham has the advantage of being one of the few places around Morecambe Bay from where, if you’re smart, you can’t see Heysham power station. I’ve nothing against power stations, would be lost without them, but they don’t embellish a coast.

 The coast near Heysham (Image: AP/FOTOLIA)

Up on the headland, there are heath, wind, rocks and a sense of eternity. The distant Lakeland fells make things perfect. What’s left of the wrecked, 8th-century St Patrick’s chapel stands stout near older rock-hewn graves.

“The scale of the bay has always inspired spiritual reflection,” said Susannah Bleakley of the Morecambe Bay Partnership.

Vikings worshipped Norse gods here. The coast is punctuated with barrows, chapels, nunneries – and Black Sabbath fans seeking the rock-hewn graves: they’re on the cover of the band’s 2000 Best Of album.

A Simpler Way Of Life

Down below, Heysham village is Miss-Marple-by-the-Sea, a delight distinguished by native nettle tea, which I have drunk once and probably shan’t again. Beyond is Morecambe and, beyond that, Hest Bank and Bolton-le-Sands, where windsurfers dart about like dragonflies on a gunmetal sea sheened silver where there are shafts of light.

Right out beyond the fields, there are Lancashire’s most remote farms, a cafe or two, people sitting in their cars staring out and – a surprise, this – an abundance of residential caravan sites. On the edge of nowhere. At one, a chap was watering a herbaceous border. The vast bay was feet away. I heard his wife call him in for tea. Natural splendour of international class, and a nice cup of tea: the English truly are unbeatable.

By Silverdale, the coast has sprouted more rocks, rounded hills, little cliffs, thick woodland, drystone walls and the thinnest country lanes of all. They go up and down and round and round. Farm boys on big tractors could slaughter the tourist trade in an afternoon.

 Classic Silverdale scenery (Image: AP/FOTOLIA)

There’s an Iron Age fort up on Warton Crag and, out on Jenny Brown’s Point, a terribly isolated chimney whose function no one really knows. The walking is wonderful. The village itself is overcome with stone, flowers and a sense of centuries.

Elizabeth Gaskell holidayed and wrote there, but who else has even heard of it? There’s no space here to do justice either to this district or the bay in general. It’s the coast of my home county and, now I’ve been back, I’m as proud as hell. I shall go on talking about it until everyone has been.

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This article was written by Anthony Peregrine from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.