I’m looking forward to leaving the Furness peninsular, not because I don’t like it (although Barrow could be loved only by its children), but because the titles of my walks are getting far too long, and all those hyphens are annoying to type. Nearly every town round here is appended by “-in-Furness”, it’s like the people need constantly reminding where they are.
I’m now 20 walks in, and on this section I pass the 200 mile point. When I drive up to Cumbria for these walks it’s now taking me a couple of hours, and it feels an accomplishment on those long drives that I’ve already walked all of that journey. Further in fact since I’m following the wiggly line of the coast. But it’s not really a major milestone when there’s still well over 5000 miles to go. This is only the beginning of the beginning of this adventure and there are years to go yet.
I’ve got a grand total of 24 followers so far, but I’ve just been mentioned at position 100 of the excellent site Top 100 Hiking Blogs and Websites For Hikers in 2020. You would think ranked 100 would put me in last position, but there are 148 in this top 100, so not so bad. Maybe I’ll get some more followers shortly, although I’m not overly fussed about it to be honest. I guess it is nice when you spend time writing to know that someone is reading it though!
This weekend marks a big change in my logistics as it will be the first time that I stay over in my walking locality. Up to now I’ve driven home after each section, but it’s getting to be a big journey now to make, home and back again the following day. If I’m walking Saturday and Sunday then just the cost of petrol driving home far exceeds the price of a B&B stopover. It would help if I didn’t have a 20 year old car with a 4 litre supercharged engine, but that’s staying. When I get way up into Scotland even a two-day stopover will seem way too short and expensive. I’m not thinking about that at the moment.
So this walk starts by parking up at Kirkby-on-Furness railway station (pronounced “Kerby” with a silent second ‘k’) and getting the train back to Barrow. The station is tiny, and quite attractive.
The weather looks oppressive, dark grey clouds roiling over the mountains on the other side of the estuary. It looks like I’ll get a soaking at some point today…
That land over there is where I intend to get to by the end of tomorrow. I have to walk 27 miles around this estuary, yet it’s a mere 2 miles or so to Millom from Barrow. The tide is going out and the River Duddon seems so small it would surely be easy to wade across, like I did the River Kent? I’m seriously tempted, but checking online it seems it is quite dangerous, and you need to get a guide to show you over. And where am I going to get a guide this morning in the middle of a Coronavirus pandemic lockdown! Oh well.
The train ride to Barrow is quick and easy. I then have a half mile walk back down to the Morrison’s by the docks to get to the start-point, the point where I finished the last walk. I walk through the town centre, which is a rare treat for me – mostly I only visit a thin strip next to the sea, and miss a lot of the interesting parts of town.
Barrow struck me as a miserable place on my last walk. Walking through the centre changes my mind a bit. It’s still a pretty miserable town, but the people are really friendly. It’s a strong working-class town, dominated by BAE Systems as the biggest employer by far, and it is very proud of its heritage.
It’s also very proud of perhaps its most famous son, Emlyn Hughes, although he never played for Barrow AFC.
I get to the start point, climb up a flight of steps onto Michaelson Road Bridge, and I’m met by one of the local residents. Hard, brash and brave, as they are in this tough old town.
The BAE factory dominates this part of the town. Looking down the river towards the sea, a modern building stretches off into the distance. On the other side, a huge hangar is fronted by a hydraulic apron that can lift the ships and submarines that are built inside gently down into the water.
The other side of the road also boasts a huge BAE factory, but this one is a much older building. I wonder why it’s built in stone rather than brick which surely would have been cheaper, perhaps the company just wanted it to look that little bit nicer?
The original shipbuilding factory here was The Barrow Shipbuilding Company, founded in 1871. It was bought by Vickers shortly after in the 1890s, and through many different owners over the years has been building ships and submarines on the site ever since. An 1890 drawing gives some idea as to how large this site was…
Vickers even built a housing estate on the nearby Walney Island to house their workers, which is still called Vickerstown to this day. This might be reminiscent of places like Port Sunlight, Bournville, and Saltaire which were built by the Quaker industrialists of the 19th century in a benevolent manner to house their workers in attractive village-like communities. But Vickerstown is a little different…
Vickerstown left, Bourneville right
I’ve worked for engineering companies all my life, and I reckon it’s much better working for someone who makes chocolate.
The new factory building appears to have been built on top of older buildings. Walking down a side street, Buccleuch Dock Road, shows the modern steel skin mounted on top of stones, and that on top of bricks, which themselves sit on a rocky base…. an architectural version of geological strata.
On the other side of this street a new car park is being built right next to an old impressive villa which has fallen into dereliction. This house was built in 1872 to accommodate shipyard personnel of a high rank such as accountants, managers, and the Harbour Master.
Buccleuch Dock Road ends at a rough track leading down to allotments, and to a footpath at the southern end of Barrow Island. I’m walking round Barrow Island because it isn’t actually an island, it’s a peninsular. The nearby Walney Island is a true island, and is very big, and so I’m not going to walk round that, which would add a couple more days to my walk. If I walked round every island as well as the mainland coast I’d never end this adventure!
Where the path passes the allotments, a large rose bush is growing over the hedge, small pink flowers flaunting to passers-by, and filling the little lane with their delicate scent.
Around a corner, ox-eye daisies do their best to compete, for me easily winning this competition with their simplicity and child-like innocence.
Juxtaposed against the daisies is the first of a series of pill boxes that I’ll encounter along this stretch of coast. They were erected as part of the British anti invasion preparations of 1940. Most (although not this first one) are hexagonal in shape with small holes in 5 of the 6 sides, and a door and two holes in the rearmost side. They were built of reinforced concrete to protect the men inside from small arms fire. They were constructed along the entire western coast here from Sowerby all the way down to the tip of Walney, and were to keep watch and protect the town and its shipbuilding industry from possible invasion from the Irish channel. Luckily the British coast never faced a direct sea invasion during the war, although the south-east coast of Britain faced exactly that, had the Battle of Britain been lost. More information about all the WWII defences around Barrow can be found here.
The path eventually ends up at an entrance to Barrow docks on St Andrew’s St, and the next half mile is through residential streets of terraced houses.
The houses gradually give way to larger buildings, including the Egerton Buildings, tenements built in the 1880s to house the huge number of workers required for the new docks and shipbuilding industries.
Walking down Michaelson Road the huge old Vickers factory on my left, and the tenements on my right, I get a feeling of what this town must have felt like over a century ago, although today there’s no oppressive smoky atmosphere to choke on, and no-one in sight, where once these streets would have been buzzing.
I turn a corner onto Bridge Road, and pass the impressive entry gates to the old Vickers factory, still in use by BAE today.
I’m admiring the gate when I’m approached by a polite young guy in a uniform and asked what I’m doing. “Taking pictures of the nice gate” I tell him.
“Do you realise this is an MoD property, sir” he replies, before telling me that I don’t have to answer any of his questions. His first two questions haven’t been very hard, so I’m pretty comfortable with it so far. He seems like a nice bloke so I decided to chat with him for a bit. I wonder if the questions will get a lot more difficult. Maybe even as hard as President Trump’s cognitive assessment test which he likes to boast that he “aced”. In that test he had to identify an elephant from a drawing. I’ve encountered a few animals along my walk so far, so I’m feeling pretty confident. I hope they have a picture of an oyster catcher, I’ll know that one.
It turns out the questions aren’t nearly so interesting, and he seems insistent that he needs my home address, which I’m not so comfortable about giving out. I do know it, unlike Mr Trump, but I don’t fancy a visit from a private security firm at my home address any time soon. He asks me if he can see the photos on my camera, and that cheers me up, because I really want to show him the lovely display of ox-eye daisies I showed you further up this blog. Excitedly I start flicking through the pictures, describing in intensely tedious detail why I took each shot and how I thought the angles would work best, but it turns out he doesn’t have any interest in photography. I eventually get to the ox-eye daisy picture and look at him proudly to see his reaction. It seems he doesn’t have much interest in flowers either. Bloody philistine. I’m rapidly going off this guy, and so decide to carry on with my walk. He doesn’t seem to be particularly perturbed by me wandering off.
Everywhere in Barrow the houses and the factories sit in juxtaposition. A row of colourful houses on North Road are dwarfed by the huge hangar behind.
As I stroll down Bridge Road, looking forward to getting out of town and into the countryside, I see a police car coming in the opposite direction. I have a bad feeling about this. He drives past me but the feeling doesn’t subside, and sure enough out of the corner of my eye I see him do a U-turn and pull up next to me.
“Excuse me sir” he says, just as politely as the security guard, “can we just have a word with you?”.
“Yeah, sure” I sigh, expecting the worst. He could confiscate my picture of the ox-eye daisies, and I was really looking forward to putting them in this blog. He doesn’t seem interested in my pictures, but asks me loads of questions about what I’m doing here. He seems very interested about my coastal walk, and I warm to him. Just like the security guard, he tells me I don’t have to answer his questions, which seems a little odd, until I notice in smaller writing on the side of the car it says “MoD Police“. I think to myself that these guys have no power of arrest of civilians, and so, with time dragging on, and me starting to get bored of their questions, I decide to continue my walk without giving them my address either.
Looking it up now, it turns out they do have power of arrest over civilians, I was mixing them up with the Royal Military Police. Oh well, it seems I’ve got away with it so far!
I pass by the main bridge to Walney Island, and walk through a little park and onto a path which leads past the Docks Museum. There are a few exhibits dotted around next to the wharf, including this Chaff Launcher from the Falklands War era, which fires rockets to form a radar decoy screen around a ship. Chaff is thin pieces of aluminium or plastic which reflects radar signals and swamps the radar screen making the ship impossible to detect accurately with radar.
Just past the docks museum the path squeezes between the sea and modern industrial units. Roses line the path, their flowers long gone and their hips bulging. I pick two or three and carefully munch on them, managing (mostly) to avoid a mouthful of itchy seeds. A woman passing by the other direction sees me eating them and tells me that her mum used to collect them in the war and got paid a penny a pound for them. Back then when tomatoes and oranges were impossible to get, I guess the sweet, Vitamin-C rich rose-hips would have been a real luxury.
I look out across the water to Walney Island. Seagulls glide serenely on the air currents, without having to flap their wings, tiny adjustments to their wing feathers allowing them to steer their course. I’ve realised since starting this walk that there a lot of different seagull species. I see a lot of seagulls out of my apartment window in Ancoats, mostly Lesser Black-Backed Gulls (who have grey backs, not black) and Black-Headed Gulls (who only have black heads for half the year). Who named these birds??? Looking out over the sea between the mainland and Walney Island I spot what looks like a tiny boat with two gulls stood on top. I zoom my camera in and realise that it’s a normal size boat, but these gulls are huge. These are Greater Black-Backed Gulls, which can be much bigger than the ones with grey backs. And they do have black backs… the bird-namers at least got one out of three right.
A few hundred yards beyond the monstrous gulls, a cormorant is preening himself on a wooden railing in the sea. From far away they just look like ugly brutes, but up close their feathers are really quite beautiful.
I turn a corner and find the path blocked by a plastic barrier with a sign telling me to use an alternative route. The footbridge has clearly seen better days, and several of the planks are rotten and broken. Since there’s no alternative route that I can see anywhere, I climb over the barrier, and carefully avoid the rotten parts. I wonder what the traffic cones are attempting to achieve here. Would anyone who deliberately climbed over the plastic barrier really miss the big hole in the bridge deck without the cones being there?
The path quickly passes into more rural countryside, climbs up a steep slope, and heads a little inland. I want to keep as close to the coast as possible, and see a rough outline of a track which stays at the edge of the cliff so decide to follow that instead.
However, the track quickly disappears, and the steep drop down to the rocky beach inspires me to climb back up to the path. To get back onto the path I have to climb over a barbed wire fence. Why are so many fences now topped with barbed wire? I didn’t have to cross any fence to get here, and I wouldn’t have had to if I’d stuck to the path either, so what are they trying to achieve by topping the fence with barbed wire? It really annoys me. I climb over the fence, and predictably stab my thumb on one of the barbs. I get even more annoyed about it.
The view over to Walney Island is really nice and the sky is clearing up a bit now as well… that huge grey cloud is long gone.
At the bottom of the cliff, a large derelict boat lies stranded on the muddy shore, destined now only to progressively shed its bones into the waters.
Looking north, I can see the sandy northern tip of Walney Island, and beyond, the mountains of the western Lake District, Black Combe on the left, perhaps White Combe to its right. The colours intrigue me, a patchwork of pastels, and I stop and admire it for a few minutes…
…actually that was just an excuse to rest for a bit, because the path up here was quite steep. The path starts to descend, and I head for a track that climbs steeply up a stony scree slope, the remains of an old quarry where iron ore was extracted for the nearby furnaces in Askam-in-Furness. Although many of the slag heaps and quarries have been reclaimed by nature, this particular scar continues to hold out against the beautifying pressure of nature.
Walking down the steep stony track, I go over on my left ankle, and falling forwards grab my camera to protect it from smashing on the rough hard ground. My hands otherwise occupied, I land heavily on my left shoulder, tensing in time to ensure no bones get damaged, but hitting the ground hard, leaving a big bruise and open scratches over my shoulder and left hip. When I was young I’d fall over all the time, playing in trees, climbing cliffs, it was part of childhood. Back then my body would bounce! I’d just get back up and carry on with whatever I’d been doing. I’m 54 now and my body doesn’t bounce anymore. It hurts.
I just lay there on the hard ground swearing between attempts to reclaim the air that has been knocked out of my lungs. I check my camera – it’s taken a knock to the lens, but it seems only cosmetic and still works fine. I pull myself to my feet, and trudge onward, feeling badly battered and with a big dent in my pride!
I hear a buzzing sound from overhead – it’s another of those “39 Steps” moments, as I imagine the MoD Police have now brought in aerial support to gun me down. I’m in the open here, away from any crowds, and easy meat for them…
The pilot makes a strafing run at me, but I guess his guns must have jammed, because there’s no dotted line of bullets either side of me. Or maybe he saw me take a fall and felt sorry for me… yeah that’s probably it. He returns to the Walney Island airfield and the secret underground MoDP headquarters. Presumably. Close shave that!
Looking north across to the other side of the estuary, the tip of Walney Island is now accessible from the mainland by walking, with only a few puddles of sea left between.
Those white specks in the distance are the houses in Millom and Haverigg. It seems so easy just to wander over the sands to get there….. no, I don’t want to drown today!
This spoil heap is quite treacherous to traverse, as there’s a very steep slope down to the water’s edge, which would make for very uncomfortable tumbling. I go inland a little to see if there’s a safer path, and sure enough, there is.
I see the next pillbox along this shore. This one has clearly been undermined by the sea over the 80 years since it was built, and has fallen forwards.
The path leads down onto the shore, and I start walking along the beach, which is a mix of stones, mud, sand, and lovely sea lavender.
It’s very pretty, especially when there are big patches of it. It doesn’t smell of lavender though, unfortunately. Apparently it’s completely unrelated.
A bit further out to sea, an abandoned battered wheelbarrow sits forlornly on the beach, and I wonder what the story is here.
Three more pillboxes arrive in quick succession, another tilted one, an upright one, and one that has fallen completely onto its front face
Beyond the pillboxes is a platform, presumably built at the same time for some wartime purpose, but equally skewiff now as the pillboxes. Perhaps it was a small wharf that boats could pull up against. There’s no sea here, but over the last 80 years this side of Britain’s coast has seen the sea withdraw significantly, while the east coast of Britain is being gradually eaten away. I guess that means Britain is gradually moving out towards Ireland…
The beach becomes grassier and grassier, until it gives way to paths through the grass and low scrub, and eventually becomes a more distinct track.
The mountains to the north rise up commandingly over the grassy fields…
The track turns to the left, but my app shows it finishing soon after, so I ask a dog walker nearby if I can get right round the coast that way. He assures me that I can, I just need to pass through the collection of huts that we can see in the distance. Some of the huts have been here since 1900, and were used by fisherman, but many more have joined the original few. It’s reminiscent of an Icelandic village. The dog walker tells me that the council tried to get rid of them once, but had difficulty and in the end gave up and let them stay there. They have no running water and no mains electricity or gas, and have big tanks to collect rainwater, and wind turbines to generate electricity, and bottled gas. The first hut I reach is owned by the dog walker’s friend, and started off as a beached boat. Over the years he added bits to it to make it a home.
Many of the huts have multiple boats and tractors parked outside. I get to the end of the village, at Lowsy Point, just a hundred yards from the northern point of Walney Island. It’s a strange, peaceful place, and I like it. I stop for lunch, sitting on an old cable reel, and watch the birds pecking at things on the beach.
Past the village of huts, apparently called “Black Huts” although none of them are black, the coast becomes sandy, with huge expanses of beach. This promontory is called Sandscale Haws, and it is almost all a Nature Reserve. The sand higher up on the beach is soft and dry, and is energy sapping to walk along. Further down the sand is moist and my feet sink into it an inch or so, making it equally energy-sapping. There’s a small margin in the middle where it’s just firm enough to hold my weight, so I follow this invisible path northwards.
The view across the River Duddon to Millom looks so easy to cross here, but I asked the dog walker at Lowsy Point about it and he said several people have drowned attempting it. I finally dismiss the idea and decide I’m just going to have to walk around the estuary.
The sun is burning fiercely now, and the grey clouds that were roiling off the mountains this morning are long departed. The light refracts off the expanse of open sand, and reflects in the watery crevices. It’s quite dazzling, but desolately beautiful.
Rounding the northern tip of Sandscale Haws, I see in the far distance the white dots of the buildings of Askam-in-Furness. I decide if I can’t take a shortcut across to Millom, then I definitely can to Askam-in-Furness. My planned path goes inland, wiggling around various obstacles, but I can see no obstacles between me and Askam straight across this sand, so I set off into the soft moist plain, heading straight for the jetty at Askam.
After a mile or so, the sand becomes muddier, and I can see it dips a little ahead of me. When I get closer I encounter a small river snaking through the sand plain. The detour around this would add at least half an hour to my walk, and I’m starting to get tired now. The simpler alternative is to slip off my socks and shoes, roll my jeans up, and walk through. The water has got really warm, as it flows gently over the hot pan of the huge expanse of beach, and the soft mud is pleasantly soothing on the soles of my feet.
I walk barefoot for the remaining mile or so across to Askam, and then sit on a rock to wash the sand and mud off my feet, and put my socks and boots back on. Askam is a relatively recent town, built around 1850 when huge iron deposits were discovered nearby. The village grew quickly, with terraced houses and allotments built for the flood of immigrant labour needed to work the mines. They came from all parts of the British Isles, with a large proportion coming from existing mining areas in Cornwall and Ireland. The Cornish in particular tended to bring their families and settle, while the Irish often moved on to wherever there was work. Here’s one more Cornishman come to the town… but I’m not settling.
The slag from the furnaces was produced in huge quantities, and many of the hills and embankments round here are not natural, but actually overgrown slag heaps. Even the huge jetty that sticks out into the estuary is made entirely of slag.
I pass under a bridge at the neck of the jetty, and onto a machair the other side. It is occupied by various boats that seem permanent – certainly some of them would be in trouble if the tide came up this far again!
The route winds along the beach through boulder-fields, stony fields, and grassy plain mosaics split by watery channels, until it reaches the headland at Dunnerholme.
The path officially goes over the top of this headland, but I’m too tired to attempt that, and decide to walk around it since the tide is out, and the sand makes for easy walking. Rounding the headland I follow the curve of Mere Beck, and pass two man-made caves in the rocky outcrop, old furnaces of some sort I’m guessing.
The route winds through fields of sheep, whose meanderings are disrupted by numerous collapses of the land into watery channels…
The path leads up to the railway line, and hugs alongside it for a mile or two, frequently disappearing into a maze of boulders, pools, and wire, which makes the going particularly hard.
Looking west over the estuary, I can still see Millom in the far distance, the water separating us now is deeper, far less tempting to wade across.
I can see the footbridge over the railway line at Kirkby station, my destination, in the distance. I walk and walk but it never seems to get any closer! I’ve done about 15 miles now, another 0.5 in Barrow, and that’s about as much as I can manage in one go at the moment. I’m hoping to be able to manage over 20 in a few months time, when I get to Scotland, to make sure I achieve as much as possible for the days that I’ll have to be away from home. When I started this adventure I couldn’t manage much more than 6 miles, so I’m improving all the time. 15 miles today is hard, and I’ve got another 12 to do tomorrow.
Eventually I reach Kirkby station, and luckily my car is parked right outside it, and I gratefully collapse into the driver’s seat and rest for a few minutes, before driving around the estuary to my B&B in Millom.
This walk was completed on 18th July 2020, and was about 15 miles long. Here’s the map:
Here’s a map which you can pan and zoom around in…: