So yesterday after 9¾ miles I was pretty shattered. Weeks and weeks of lockdown have turned my legs to jelly! That doesn’t bode well for today’s walk which is 13 miles, but we’ll see.
The day starts at Harrington station, waiting for the train to the start point in St Bees. The weather is looking quite promising – clear and cold. Perfect for walking.
In the far distance I can just see a cargo ship chugging up the Solway Firth. I take a quick look at a map on my phone to see where it might be going, but there aren’t any large ports up the Solway Firth that I can see, so I’ve no idea. [Probably going to Silloth Docks. There’s a website, MarineTraffic, that tells you where every ship is and where it’s going, but I didn’t know about that at the time, and it’s doubtful whether I would have bothered finding out anyway, I just wasn’t that interested. There’s another website that tells you where all the aeroplanes are too, Flight Radar 24, that is equally not particularly interesting.]
The train pulls in… here’s a picture of it for those who like trains.
I get off the train at St Bees, and wander the half mile or so down to the coast. In the lovely sunny morning some people are dragging their dogs (who are more interested in pissing on the verges), and others dragging their horses (who are more interested in eating the verges).
You know it’s said that some people look like their dogs? There’s something in it….
I reach the coast, and encounter a sign marking the start of the Coast To Coast walk, a 182 mile unofficial route invented by Alfred Wainwright from here at St Bees across the country to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.
I’m half hoping that someone will ask me whether I’m doing it, so I can say “Sort of, but I’m taking the long route!“… but nobody asks. Well, I might as well get on with the long route then. A quick look back into the rising sun behind me, and forwards to St Bees Head rising in front of me, and off I go.
Before reaching the hill of St Bees Head, I see another one of these “beach sculptures” / “piles of beach rubbish” that seem so popular these days. It’s not even as good as the one yesterday, and that was pretty bad.
The climb up St Bees Head is steep, and quite muddy. It’s hard going on my legs, which are tired from yesterday’s walk, but not nearly so bad as walking along the pebbles yesterday, so I’m pretty relaxed about it, taking it slow and easy.
Photos of steep hills always look disappointing, never as steep as in real life. I try to point the camera level so the ground rises up in front of me, but it still doesn’t look anywhere near as steep as it is!
Within a couple of minutes this is the view back over St Bees Bay…
The slope eventually levels out a bit, and the route passes along the coastward side of lush green fields. The sun is shining in a cold blue sky. The sea is twinkling steel-grey to my left, and the mountains of the Lake District fells are dazzling white, peaked with snow. This is just perfect.
I reach what looks like the remains of a WW2 lookout shelter, which is now fitted with plaques pictorially describing the views in three directions. Out to the west is the Isle Of Man, clearly visible in the fine weather and from this high up.
The summit of Snaefell on the Isle Of Man is also peaked with snow, shrouded in a blanket of cloud, and looking very cold.
In the distance to the north, framed to the right by the rocky outcrops of St Bees North Head, is the rugged coastline of Dumfries and Galloway, with patches of golden beaches (perhaps) picked out against the blue-grey mountains behind. Somewhere in those mountains is the fantastically named “Range of the Awful Hand“. I guess I’ll be writing about that in a few months.
Sellafield steams in the sunlight, now in the far distance behind me to the south.
The path dips into a steep valley at a place called Fleswick on the OS map. There’s nothing in Fleswick though, apart from a steep valley, and I wonder what it ever did to deserve a name.
The path then continues along the top of the cliff, at the edge of green fields.
Looking west, the flat grey steel sea, the blue streaked cirrocumulus sky (I don’t know anything about cloud types, but you can look it up here, like I just did), the air cold on my face, and the sun warm on my back. Perfect.
As I crest the rounded peak of the next hill, St Bees lighthouse pops its head up. This is my tenth lighthouse so far to add to my collection .
It was built at the top of the hill in 1866, replacing an earlier one which was coal-powered but tragically caught fire, the fumes killing the keeper’s wife and five children. It was the last lighthouse to be powered by coal… probably a good thing. In 1913 a fog horn tower was added at the top of the cliff…
Down at the foot of the cliff, a small fishing boat, Creelers Quest from Whitehaven, is laying pots in the shallow waters, probably catching langoustine, crabs, scallops and lobsters which apparently is the normal catch around here.
The route is frequently scattered with golden yellow splashes of flowering gorse, although in the cold air their aroma is sadly missing.
In the far distance looking north-west is the Robin Rigg offshore wind farm with 60 wind turbines, framed by the Galloway Hills. It sits on a sandbank in the Solway Firth halfway between Galloway and Cumbria. The little platform in the middle supports an electricity substation, from where two undersea cables carry the power to the mainland.
The geology of St Bees head is primarily sandstone, laid down around 200 million years ago apparently, although I don’t remember it. Erosion from the sea and wind have carved it into patterns, so that the sedimentary layers can be clearly seen…
Around the next corner, the long harbour wall of Whitehaven stretches out into the Irish Sea. The town itself is still hidden, nestled between its rocky outcrops.
The path leads up between tall, natural stone walls, and leads me to Birkham’s Quarry.
Sandstone has been quarried here since the 18th century, and has been used in Carlisle Cathedral, the V&A Museum in London, Liverpool Cathedral, Liverpool Albert Dock, and even in buildings in Canada, America and Hong Kong. The stone was created by water-borne sand and apparently has a very small grain size, the mica in the stone giving it a sparkling effect. It looks a bit dull to me.
Shortly after the quarry, the path is blocked…
Naturally I ignore the sign and carry on along the path. It’s possible the path may end in a plummet over the edge of the cliff, and that’s the reason for the sign, but I’ve found that far more often the paths are closed for the most pathetically minor of reasons. This time it seems to be because the gravel they’re laying to renovate the path hasn’t been levelled out yet…
…this could potentially cause me to trip on one of the tiny pebbles, roll down the grass bank to my left for several hundred metres before tumbling off the cliff and onto the rocks below. Potentially.
I battle internally with this terrifying risk, before deciding that I’m a big boy now, and might just be able to stay on my feet as I’ve done for the previous 8 miles, through deep mud and over slippery rocks that I was left criminally unprotected against. The fact I’m typing this now should allay your fears for me, and reassure you that I traversed this fearsomely dangerous gravel mostly intact.
At the far end of the treacherous path, I meet a couple walking the other way, and we get chatting about where we’re going. They’re headed to St Bees and are staying in Whitehaven, where they have a small boat moored in the harbour. They like Whitehaven, and want to get a bigger sailing boat and station themselves there, where they could easily visit Dumfries & Galloway, the Isle of Man, and even Ireland further off. It sounds a great idea. We part, and as they retreat into the distance I remember about the blocked path, and shout back to them to ignore the closed signs…. I hope they didn’t come a cropper over all those deathly little pebbles.
Over the next hill, the winding gear of Haig Colliery comes into view.
Coal has been mined here since the 13th century when monks from St Bees Abbey supervised the opening of coal mines at Arrowthwaite. They presumably chose not to go down the pits themselves, supervision being a far more godly endeavour. This mine finally closed in 1986 with the loss of 3500 jobs. It then opened as a museum, but even that closed in 2016 when it got into financial difficulties, a regrettable reflection of the history of the mine itself.
The mine shafts extend up to four miles out under the Irish sea, and required continuous pumping to remove water. At the base of the cliff is the pit head buildings of Saltom Pit, sunk in 1729, from which coal was mined from under the sea until 1848 from when it was used as a pumping house for several of the mines nearby. This mine in particular suffered from Firedamp, and in three separate explosions in the 1920s and ’30s a total of 79 men lost their lives. There are memorials to the dead from all the local mining accidents in Whitehaven.
Apparently they want to open another coal mine up here, a strange move in this age of requiring less CO2 emissions. It’s understandably coming under quite some pressure.
The air has cleared even more since this morning, and with my camera on full zoom I can now just make out features on the coastline of Galloway about 25 miles away.
The path dips down a steep slope towards Whitehaven harbour, past “The Candlestick“, which looks like a monument but is actually the disused ventilation chimney of Wellington Pit. It was apparently modelled on a candlestick in the house of the 4th Baronet of Whitehaven, James Lowther, who owned the mine. He had shit candlesticks.
A plaque on the wall below the chimney commemorates all the “Men, Women and Children” of the Whitehaven District Collieries who lost their lives in the local pits.
I can’t find any information about the boarded-up slightly derelict house in the foreground. It seems a strange place for a house, and to be boarded up with such a magnificent view. The grass around the house seems well-tended. Who knows!
At the end of the harbour wall sits another lighthouse. I guess these aren’t really lighthouses in the traditional sense, to warn of rocks, but just to mark the entrance to the harbour. The Harbour Commissioners were initially reluctant to build it, only the shipmasters’ constant demands finally changed their minds, and it was completed in 1839, although the commissioners have still resisted all demands to give it a new coat of paint since then.
The path winds down towards the harbour, where numerous words are inscribed into the ground and the walls, describing the past industry of the area. For example, this message commemorating the deaths of two 8-year old boys, Abraham Taylor and William Savage, who worked in a local mine. Children as young as 6 worked down the mine doing 12 hour shifts for 6 days a week.
By the side of the path, a single Sea Holly plant sits pretty.
A shed at the end of the inner harbour wall has a brightly pained red door with the words “Board Of Trade Rocket Brigade“.
Unexcitedly, it’s not a team of 1950s international super-heroes flying around in space-age rocket ships. It’s a shed used to store equipment that is fired by rocket to a ship in distress. Oh well.
Whitehaven boasts a tiny beach, but probably only when the tide is out. I guess that’s one up on Manchester, which has everything else but.
It does have a pretty little harbour though, with lots of small pleasure yachts next to working fishing boats, and even a super-yacht centre-right there.
Overlooking the harbour is a mixture of quaint old buildings and modern apartments.
I’m feeling quite tired now. I have a feeling that Whitehaven was only about a third of the way into this walk, and I start to feel a bit dispirited, wondering how I’ll manage another 8 miles. However, a signpost tells me that Harrington is only 5 miles away along the coastal path, so I’m nearly two-thirds there. This cheers me up, but not as much as seeing a cafe serving tea and cakes…
I was expecting to see some plaques or memorials to a time when Whitehaven had a very special place in history – the only British town to be invaded by the American Navy. Here’s the story…
It started with a colourful character called John Paul Jones – no, not the bassist with Led Zeppelin, although he might have done a lot better – but an 18th century sailor. Born in Kirkcudbright in Scotland (just 27 miles away from Whitehaven as the crow flies, or the ship sails) he started his maritime career at the age of 13, sailing out of Whitehaven. He rose up the ranks quickly, but after an incident where his sword ended up through the body of one of his fellow crew, he felt his chances might be better in the colony of Virginia, where he joined the American Navy and got command of a ship.
After attacking several British merchant ships, in April 1778 he convinced his crew that it’d be a good laugh to invade Whitehaven, where he knew a couple of decent pubs, and they could even start some fires for fun. So they got in their landing boats and rowed into the harbour. Unfortunately for him, their lanterns ran out of fuel making it significantly harder to light any fires. They eventually attempted to set fire to a coal boat, but one of the crew spotted them and called for help from the local population. A large number of people came running to the quay, forcing the Americans to retreat. The only thing JPJ did get right was to spike the town’s cannons first, preventing the good people of Whitehaven from sinking his ship as he fled away.
As invasions go, it was a pretty poor attempt. In 1999, perhaps feeling a bit sorry for poor old JPJ for being such a rubbish invader, the people of Whitehaven formally pardoned him for his raid on the town, in the presence of Lt. Steve Lyons representing the US Naval Attaché to the UK.
At the northern end of the harbour, a wall has been decorated with street art representing local themes – the sea, plastic pollution, and mining heritage, courtesy of a local charity Young Cumbria. I really like it…
The route passes a big Tesco store and follows a little lane west of Bransty Road, past the railway station. The lane becomes a track which leads past a house snuggled under what looks like a very loose and dangerous cliff. It’s a quaint little cottage, but I wouldn’t fancy paying the insurance premium on it.
Around the corner, the track becomes a path leading along the coast just landward of the railway line. The beach on the other side of the railway is rocky and bouldery, so I’m quite happy remaining on this side – not that there’s much I could do about it short of risking a £1000 fine from Network Rail for trespass. I look back towards Whitehaven, nestled in its cove under a sun hanging low in the sky, and decide I like the town quite a lot.
I attempt a selfie by balancing my camera on the railway wall. Mostly the picture is of the wall.
I attempt another with the camera balanced on a rock, but that comes out even worse, so I give up and carry on walking.
Shortly I arrive in the little village of Parton. It was developed as a port in the early 17th century to cater for the local coal trade, but fell into decline after the rise of Whitehaven into a major port. A local entrepreneur, Thomas Lamplugh teamed up with the lord of the manor of Moresby to improve Parton harbour, and boosted by Lamplugh’s private Act of Parliament in 1705 to break the monopoly power of Whitehaven developed a major port serving the local collieries. Parton is not as well sheltered as Whitehaven though, and gradually fell behind it’s larger neighbour, and now is just a small residential village.
The route passes underneath the railway and comes out onto a car park and then a gravelly beach. A group of old guys are huddled around a heater outside a lock-up with beers, with a big sign proclaiming it to be Santa’s Grotto. It hasn’t quite got the atmosphere, but there’s beer so it can’t be too bad. I’m tempted to join them, sit in the sunshine and get plastered with the old boys, but it occurs to me that I may then end up having to sleep on the beach, and that gravel would get into places I really wouldn’t want it to. I decide to slog on…. you see, sometimes I can be sensible.
The gravelly beach reaches a stream – Lowca Beck – and the route passes over a footbridge then heads under the railway line and inland up a road.
I follow a horse up a footpath which rises up the cliff to Lowca Point. Looking back, the church of St Brigit’s sits pretty in the sunshine, with its small walled churchyard. Its claim to fame is that it sits on the site of a former Roman camp, Gabrosentu, and once had William Wordsworth’s brother John as its vicar. That’s not a big claim. There is a 13th-century chancel arch still standing in the churchyard, unfortunately hidden behind the church in my picture.
At the top of the hill, a look back gives a view over the village of Parton. The railway line must have created havoc in the village when it arrived, cutting it off from its maritime source of revenue. There are a couple of passageways under the railway line, but still, it must have been a shock to the local economy.
The path follows the edge of the cliff as before, until I have to climb steeply upwards to join another path that crosses the top of the hill. Up here was once an industrial area with a fireclay mine, brickwork, and a chemical factory. Much of it is paved with uneven concrete slabs left over from the industry, and the remains of brick buildings are dotted around.
In 1911 a chemical factory extracting toluene (for use in TNT, it’s the last T) from coal was built up here by a German company, which was then shelled by a German submarine during World War I. Families fled their homes as the submarine surfaced and fired 55 shells from its deck gun. Most of the shells hit near the railway line, substantially delaying a train to Whitehaven, one hit a benzene tank, but the attack achieved little else. Local legend has it that a quick-thinking local worker opened a relief valve which sent up an impressive plume of burning gas, so the submariners thought they had destroyed their target and left. The official German version of the shelling stated at the time “The works blew up amidst high roaring flames” so I guess it must have worked. The only fatality of the incident was one very unlucky dog.
Afterwards, local anger was directed towards Mrs Hildegarde Burnyeat, the German wife of the local MP. She remained pro-German throughout the war, and unwisely didn’t express enough remorse for the death of the dog, like any decent English woman would have, and so in the wake of the raid was arrested and interned at Aylesbury Prison for crimes against English dogs.
The site now looks like this, which I guess is how the captain of the U-boat imagined he’d left it…
The locals seemed so delighted about the event that they even published a postcard to celebrate it.
When Ruth passed this way she took some arty photos of the bricks – I make a feeble attempt to do likewise…
Out to sea a sailing boat slowly drifts across the bay, heading back home to Whitehaven, sailing into the golden-red beams of the dying sun….
I meet a friendly guy up here who hails me and asks me where I’m walking to. I tell him briefly about my coastal walking adventure, which inspires him to tell me his life story starting from the age of three. He’s very amiable, but exceedingly dull. His monologue moves on to Covid 19, and he trots out a few of the conspiracy theories doing the rounds at the moment… government control of the population, forced inoculations, alien lizards robbing Trump of the election, and all that sort of stuff. Admittedly I may have dreamed that last one, as I was almost asleep by then. Eventually, he interprets the glaze over my eyes for exactly what it is, bids his farewells and heads off down towards Parton.
The path passes into a wind farm…
The navigation app on my phone tells me that the route I planned to take is actually about 400 feet nearer the sea, so I head left off the firm concrete paving, and down into a field of long wet grass, towards the cliff edge. When I get to the edge it tells me it’s still another 100 feet to go… over the precipice. Perhaps there’s a path along the beach at the bottom, but I don’t fancy finding out this way, so I retrace my steps through the soggy grass back up to the path.
In the distance I hear the grumbling sound of a tractor, and I see a farmer muck-spreading his field. The aroma gradually drifts over the surrounding area, and it reminds me of growing up in Cornwall where this smell seemed to be ever-present in the lanes around my home town. I pass a sheep with a straw hanging from the side of his mouth – like all good farm dwellers should – who looks at me purposely, and we both silently decry the stench-spraying culprit.
A little further along the lane I meet that same smelly culprit driving up towards me. His tractor and slurry-laden trailer are only marginally narrower than the lane, and I along with a couple of other walkers in front of me have to squash up close to the hedge to allow it to pass. I hope beyond hope that the switch to turn on the spray is reliably fixed in the off position, but I still close my mouth and eyes just in case. Being sprayed with slurry would certainly have topped my previous experience of wading through it, and would have provided a good anecdote when chatting about my adventure in times to come, but right now I’m glad to have avoided such mirth-filled future fireside conversations.
I pass a radio mast mounted at the top of the cliff, the purpose of which is still a mystery to me, and turn back to look at the wind turbines set against the dying sun.
Ahead, on top of Copperas Hill a lonely WWII lookout gazes out over the bay. In long distance photos looking north now, the mountains of Galloway form a dramatic backdrop. One day soon I’ll be traversing that coastline… Covid lockdowns excepting.
The path dips down into the village of Harrington, my destination for today’s walk. Harrington has a nice little harbour, surrounded by green parkland.
It occurs to me that I was feeling really tired a few miles back in Whitehaven, but now I feel like I have a second wind. The sun is getting low in the sky, but I decide to take the long route, heading southwards for a bit to maximise the time spent next to the coast.
In the parkland by the harbour sits a statue of a man wrestling with a huge fish. He seems to be getting the better of it until you see the other side, with his hand firmly clenched between the huge teeth of the fearsome aquatic monster… strange.
Harrington seems to be a peaceful, if not pretty place. Just one tiny boat occupies the harbour. Children have decorated little pebbles, encouraging fortitude in the face of the virus, a lovely gesture.
I pass under the railway viaduct, and trudge up the little hill to the station, outside of which my car sits ready to take me back home to Manchester. Another 23 miles under my belt this weekend, and the most fantastic winter weather to have done it in. I leave Cumbria, probably for the last time this year, a very happy bunny.
This walk was completed on Sunday 6th December 2020, and was about 13 miles long. Here’s a map:
And here’s a real-time recorded map of my actual route, which you can pan and zoom around…
Read some other coastal walkers’ write-ups for this section, just click on the icon…