Morecambe Bay: A stroll between sea and sky

The desolation of Morecambe Bay is, for Anne Penketh, one of the greatest natural attractions of her native Lancashire. And there's a place to which she always returns

"Some people like to take their shoes off here," said Cedric. We looked at each other in disbelief. It was cold, windy and pouring with rain, and we were at the very beginning of our charity walk across Morecambe Bay led by the distinguished Queen's Guide, Cedric Robinson.

We had just spent 20 minutes clambering over mud flats. Ahead of us lay a vast expanse of grey sand. The clouds were so low that we couldn't even see the shore on the other side of the bay. But our immediate task was to paddle through a small stream and tread warily across a patch of trembling sand that presaged the treacherous quicksands that we knew were capable of swallowing us up.

I threw caution to the wind and strode through the water in my trainers. We were already so drenched that I decided it didn't matter if we got any wetter. My pathetic umbrella had been rendered useless by the wind.

As I negotiated a stretch of sand that felt like blancmange underfoot, I was in no doubt that crossing this bay was a serious undertaking. Morecambe Bay, and its dangerous 120-square-mile expanse, has always been part of local folklore. My mother had been on a guided walk with Cedric on a glorious sunny day a few years ago, so I'd been warned about the risks. But like most people, it was only when I read about the tragedy of the 21 Chinese cocklers, who were killed in February 2004 by the surging incoming tide that sweeps silently and swiftly across the bay, that I was dramatically reminded of the dangers.

We placed our trust in Cedric - who of course took off his shoes on that bitter day in May. He has been leading walks across the bay for more than four decades. Cedric says he reads the bay like we would read a newspaper. Because of the ever-changing channels and shifting sands, he marks out the entire route before each walk with laurel twigs that he digs into the sand.

We were half-hoping that he would call off our event because of the atrocious weather, which had depleted the numbers of sponsored walkers that day. However, despite warning of the dangers of deviating from his route, he decided to go ahead. He added ominously that we might have to turn back because of the dangerous currents in the River Kent, swollen by rainwater, which cuts through the bay. When we reached the river, four miles later, imagine our frustration when he said that that was indeed what we had to do because of the waist-deep waters, so we walked, paddled and slithered the four miles back to the genteel safety and warmth of Grange-over-Sands.

We had started out that morning in Arnside, meeting at Ye Olde Fighting Cock, a pub on the Kent estuary where cock fights used to be held in the basement, and where the 17th-century limestone cock pit has been preserved. The view from Arnside's picturesque promenade across the bay to Grange-over-Sands can be magnificent, depending on the weather. You can then take the train across the Kent estuary to Grange-over-Sands, where our walk set off from the station at Kents Bank. The train then winds its way along the shoreline and westwards to Barrow-in-Furness.

When I was a schoolgirl in Preston, walking was for wimps, so it was only as an adult that I came to appreciate the spectacular landscapes of my home county of Lancashire. But the seascapes of the coast have provided the most enduring attraction for me.

After I passed my driving test, I would borrow my mother's Morris Minor 1000, aka "the bomb", and race down the lanes with my friends to sunbathe on the fine sand and the dunes at St Anne's. (Swimming was also for wimps and, in any case, the tide always seemed to be out.) We pronounced it "Saint Aarns" because it was posh compared with Blackpool, the popular resort up the road. These days, my mother drives a Seat, you get to Blackpool along a motorway and the seafront in St Anne's has had a makeover, too, having fallen victim to the developer's digger. But there is one unspoilt spot along that coast where I've been returning for years. It is Sambo's Grave, at Sunderland Point, just south of Morecambe Bay, and for me it is one of the most inspiring yet desolate places on earth.

The long approach to Sunderland Point along a narrow causeway that winds through salt marshes, flooded twice a day at high tide when it is cut off from the mainland, is breathtaking: you feel as if you are entering a time-warp.

A stone pillar marks the entrance to the hamlet where a lonely cluster of 18th-century houses stand, all with commanding views of the River Lune estuary. One beautiful stone house has bay windows and a tidy garden. In front of one cottage, there is part of a trunk of a 200-year-old "cotton tree" that stood outside until it was blown down by a storm in 1998. For Sunderland Point is a link to Britain's slave-trading past. In the 18th century, the ships carrying sugar, tobacco, timber and also slaves crowded into the estuary. The cotton tree was said to have grown from a seed blown from a ship's hold.

Sambo, or Samboo as it says on his grave, was the anonymous African cabin boy who was buried by his master, a ship's captain, outside the confines of the village, because he could not be buried on sacred ground. It is believed that Sambo, who arrived in Britain in 1736, died from a fever he contracted on shore. Although it is well known that Liverpool was a thriving hub of the slave trade triangle in the 18th century, less has been written about the ships that plied their trade through the port of Lancaster on the river Lune. Both Liverpool and Lancaster had mayors who were former slave captains. The three-way trading route involved Britain exporting cottons, iron and tobacco to Africa, where the goods were traded for slaves who were then taken to America and the West Indies for sale.

To reach Sambo's grave, I have always scrambled along the shingle beach to the headland at Sunderland Point, then walked along a path that threads its way through the marshes. The only sounds are from the buffeting wind and the cries of the seabirds. Sambo's grave is set back from the path, and it is easy to miss. It used to be a simple, unmarked grave behind a stone wall and metal gate. But over the years it has taken on all the trappings of a shrine. A retired schoolteacher raised the money for a memorial and has written an epitaph, and a pile of pebbles has been carefully assembled. Flowers are strewn at the site, fenced off from the rest of a field. You can then walk back to the hamlet along a footpath flanked by wild flowers.

The epitaph reads:

Full sixty years the angry winter's wave

Has thundering dashed this bleak and

barren shore

Since Sambo's head laid in this lonely grave

Lies still and ne'er will hear their turmoil more.

Full many a sandbird chirps upon the sod,

And many a moonlight elfin round him trips

Full many a summer's sunbeam warms the

clod

And many a teeming cloud upon him drips.

But still he sleeps - till the awakening sounds,

Of the Archangel's trump new life impart,

Then the Great Judge his approbation founds,

Not on man's colour but his worth of heart.

Standing at Sambo's grave, you turn to face the vast expanse of sea, and you are cast back into history. It is a place of almost magical power.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Most trains to Morecambe require a change at Lancaster (National Rail Enquiries: 08457 48 49 50; www.nationalrail.co.uk).

WALKING THERE

Anne Penketh walked across Morecambe Bay in support of Fishermen's Mission (01489 566 910; www.fishermens mission.org.uk).

Details of Morecambe Bay walks, from May to September, can be obtained through the tourist office located at Grange-over-Sands (01539 534 026).

VISITING THERE

Port of Lancaster Smokehouse, West Quay, Glasson Dock, Lancaster (01524 751 493; www.glasson smokehouse.co.uk).

Pilling is famous for its new potatoes and their flavour rivals that of Jersey Royals.

Inland, the Forest of Bowland (01772 534 140; www.forestofbowland.com) is spectacular.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

The Inn at Whitewell, Forest of Bowland, Clitheroe (01200 448 222). Double rooms start at £96, including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Morecambe and Lancaster tourist information: 01524 582 808; www.citycoastcountryside.co.uk

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