UK: Journey's end

The old Lancashire trading port of Sunderland Point is a peaceful haven for sea birds. It is also the site of Britain's loneliest grave.
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Every now and then you hear of a place so intriguing you promise yourself that one day you will find time to visit. It is this nagging curiosity that lures people out to Sunderland Point, a bleak finger of Lancashire dangling into the shallows of Morecombe Bay. Ordinarily, the only reason to go there would be to watch the flocks of wading birds on its muddy fringes. But a story from the days when Sunderland was a busy port attracts a trickle of visitors on the little-known pilgrimage out to Sambo's grave.

Heading south-west from Lancaster, you reach Sunderland Point along a winding causeway across the salt marshes in the mouth of the river Lune. Be sure to check the tide timetables before setting out because this sandy track is submerged for up to four hours at high water. Set out on a falling tide, and you will have ample time to walk round the point without fear of being stranded.

For those who enjoy wild and remote places, Sunderland has an immediate attraction. In fact, it almost feels like you've reached an island as the road peters out at the stony beach on the leeward side of the point. All that disturbs the peaceful sounds of the wind, the lapping water and the toots and whistles of birds is the crunching of your feet along the foreshore. The views are equally serene, layered with a muted palette of natural hues as shore turns to sea and then to sky, broken only by clusters of dwellings sheltered behind wind-blown trees.

Walking past the row of quiet cottages, with their well-tended gardens and sleeping cats in the windows, it is hard to picture a bustling port now. Yet through the 18th century the point became the port for Lancaster, growing rich on the lucrative trade with the West Indies. Fortunes were made and lost importing mahogany, rum, sugar and molasses in Lancaster's "Golden Age".

But there was also a more sinister side to this trade. Some ships that left the point sailed via Africa picking up slaves to work in the Caribbean plantations. Although not brought directly to this country as slaves, some Africans arrived in Sunderland as ship's servants and for a time it became popular to have Negro servants in the big houses around the Lune Valley.

It was as a captain's servant that Sambo arrived in Sunderland in 1736. Little is known of his life, except that he died shortly after his arrival, probably of pneumonia, although some say of a broken heart because he believed his master had left him alone in this strange, cold country. Either way, his story is a sad and poignant one. Considered a pagan, his body was for- bidden burial on consecrated ground. And so, like the faithful family pet, he was laid to rest in the corner of a field on the windswept western side of the peninsular. Today you can reach his grave by turning down The Lane at the end of First Terrace and cutting across the point. But most visitors choose to take the long route and walk round the shore.

Follow the path out past the huddle of cottages along Second Terrace until you reach the last house, Sunderland Hall. From here, round to Sambo's grave, it's just you and the birds as you join the narrow strip of stony shore that leads you round the point. When you are on the seaward side look out for the flight of stone steps leading through the sea wall to Sambo's grave.

The small wooden cross and large lichen-covered stone slab is surprisingly well-tended, with fresh flowers and personal messages written on pebbles clustered around the cross. Etched on the grave are three verses of an elegy written by the Reverend James Watson some 60 years after Sambo's death.

Alone in the corner of a field, with just the sound of the elements and the chirping sand birds to keep you company, this could well be Britain's loneliest grave. But Sambo, in death, has a growing number of friends - unlike the wealthy shipping merchants that brought the slaves here. Their graves lie forgotten in the grounds of Lancaster Castle.

The easiest way to reach Sunderland Point is by car. There is an hourly bus service between Lancaster and the village of Overton from where you can walk across the causeway (but be careful of the tide). Further information and tide times are available from the Tourist Office in Lancaster (01524 3582816). `The Story of Sunderland Point' by Hugh Cunliffe can be bought from a house along The Lane (look out for a copy stuck in the window) priced pounds 3