Outdoors: Brief encounter with shifting sands

Continuing his series on great short railway journeys, Matthew Brace enjoys a nostalgic trip around Morecambe Bay on a scenic line to the Lakelands.

If Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard could see Carnforth station today they would weep even more than they did when filming the famous steam scene there in Brief Encounter in 1945. The limestone walls are moss-covered and crumbling. The paint in the abandoned booking office has peeled away - in some places so badly as to reveal the original bricks under years of plaster. The only light relief is offered by the graffiti, which are touchingly innocent in their lack of swear words. "Kerry D is fit, by Phillie," reads one, written perhaps after a modern-day brief encounter between two teenagers.

The two-sided station clock looks as if it might have survived since the film was released. It hangs precariously from wires, like an over- sized wristwatch with a threadbare strap that could snap at any moment. One side told me it was 3.20, the other a minute past two. Neither was right.

From the platform you can see Steamtown, a museum that houses a fine collection of steam locomotives. It looked as though it would have been worth a visit, had I been able to find the way in.

I think I found the spot where Johnson and Howard left the station cafe and walked across the platform enveloped in locomotive steam. But all remnants of a cafe are long gone; the windows and doors have been boarded up and broken into and boarded up again, and only the leaking gutters and metal skeletons of signs creaking in the wind break the silence. It was spooky, and I was glad of some company, even if it was a gang of excitable schoolboys with ties at half-mast.

The one excellent reason for coming to this forlorn little station in north Lancashire is that the Barrow-in-Furness trains come through here on the branch line from Preston, heading for the Lakes. The 16-mile stretch from Carnforth to the gentrified holiday resort of Grange-over-Sands follows the stunning coastline as it curves round the head of Morecambe Bay. When the track was first laid in 1867, wealthy businessmen from Lancashire and Yorkshire built elegant homes in Grange and commuted to Preston or Lancaster along this picturesque route.

Carnforth sits almost on the Irish Sea coast, and as my train pulled out north across Warton Sands I found it hard to distinguish between land and sea. Mudflats that looked like the boggy limits of a nature reserve at low tide would be covered with water in a few hours. Our two-carriage train skimmed the tops of the reed beds. After the hamlet of Crag Foot we passed between small, wooded knolls and mist-wrapped villages that might have graced any of CS Lewis's Narnia stories. Even the names sounded right - Silverdale, Waterslack, Arnside, Middlebarrow Wood.

In the cold winter light the bay looked like a sheet of steel. We crossed the estuary of the river Kent on a viaduct. I watched Holme Island, farther west along the coast towards Grange, rise up out of the sea haze like Atlantis. Just beyond the track sleepers, rivulets in the mud snaked away towards the sea. Grange station is a little way past Holme Island and a set of rocks called Seldom Seen - which need renaming, because they have been uncovered for the last 20 years. The town fits invitingly into a cleft below the cliffs. Looking out to sea at low tide from the platform, the shoreline seems miles away and the sand looks solid enough, but these flats are treacherous.

Before the coming of the railway, the only way to get from Morecambe to Grange was over the sands (hence the name). I learnt from an excellent guidebook, written and produced by the children of Grange Church of England primary school, that whereas some travellers waited for a boat at high tide, others braved it in a horse and carriage. A coachman would stand up high on the back of the carriage as a look-out, scouring the ground ahead for hidden channels and patches of deadly quicksand that lurked under the surface. It may sound dangerous, but the alternative was to risk being robbed by highwaymen along the road to the north. Today there is a footpath marked on the Ordnance Survey map right across the sands. It gives a red warning to anyone thinking of going for a stroll: "Public rights of way across Morecambe Bay can be dangerous. Seek local guidance." Seeking urgent psychiatric help might be more appropriate. The mud has claimed lives in the past.

A more leisurely way of enjoying Grange is to spend a while examining the station. It is a gem. A pounds 500,000 refurbishment has returned the Grade II listed buildings to their former glory, and the Railway Heritage Trust recently honoured it as one of the top three stations in the country. It has survived two world wars, nationalisation and privatisation, almost unscathed. The town clerk, Frank Brooks, is proud of these achievements. "We fought a long battle to get it looking like this," he told me, as he rushed around the town hall placing name-plates for a council meeting. "Railtrack wanted to make it single-line but we said no, this is a tourist destination and you can't do that, and we won."

This is not the end of the line. You can take trains on from here to Ulverston and Barrow-in-Furness, but for thousands of tourists each year, Grange and its surrounding countryside is magic enough.

On the footplate

When to go: open all year round (check with tourist office for sand walks)

How much: Preston to Grange-over-Sands via Carnforth day return, pounds 6.80 adults, pounds 3.40 for children aged five to 15.

Information: North Western trains on 0345 484950 or 0161 228 5906 (cycle information), or 0161 228 5907 (facilities for the disabled), and Grange Tourist office on 015395 34026.

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