IT’S a day to drift on a wind that smells of salt and seaweed. The sun glares on distant fells where snow burns the eyes. For the first time this year – the first time in many, many months – it feels like spring. Things are changing, and it’s not just the seasons . . .
One of the advantages – or possibly disadvantages – of moving away from the place of your birth and returning infrequently is that you notice the changes. Change is gradual, and if you live with it then the change becomes subsumed in the everyday pattern of normality. But this change is big. And the sea is responsible.
I’m not alone on my walk today. I have a dog and a grandchild – THE grandchild. Taking a three-year-old girl on an adventure along the shoreline of a Lakeland estuary is an experience for both of us. She sees lots of new things – and I discover that my plans alter rapidly to suit her whims, moods, and sudden urges to disappear behind sand-dunes and blunder carelessly into pools. The Border collie, despite being a puppy and bursting with energy, is easier to control. So let me tell you about the sea.
When I was a child in the 1960s, in an outpost of Lancashire that is now part of Cumbria, the Duddon estuary was flanked by miles of golden sands and acres of pristine saltmarsh. There was so much sand that when the village of Askam-in-Furness was built in the 1860s – during the boom years of the haematite iron-mining and smelting industry – the villagers were nicknamed “sand rats” because the drifts would block backyards and even the main street. (I’m never sure whether to describe Askam – population 3,600 – as a large village or a small town. But I’ve just been thumbing through Dr JD Marshall’s Furness and the Industrial Revolution, where he describes it as an “industrial colony”, and that sounds perfect to me)
In the 1880s, the Lancet medical journal published a report on notifiable diseases, citing Askam as a particularly nasty example of insanitary industrial housing because of the sand and the developers’ inability and lack of enthusiasm to deal with it. The drifting became less when the ironworks slagbanks were extended across the dunes. Nowadays, the notifiable diseases have gone. Most of the sand has gone too, I discover.
We walk to Blacks Pond, a flooded subsidence crater formed by the removal of haematite from the workings of the Woodhead Pit, which was situated right on the shoreline. Haematite formed in the underlying carboniferous limestone in huge bodies called sops – rather than veins or seams – so this part of the Furness peninsula is pock-marked by gigantic holes that have flooded and gradually been reclaimed by nature.
During the 19th Century, a seawall was built around the Woodhead Pit to prevent the Irish Sea entering the workings. The wall was still in pretty good condition during the 1960s, despite the pit ceasing production and the crater flooding before the First World War.
But now the wall has gone. It has been washed away by storms and shifting currents. The once-sandy beach has gone too – revealing a vast area of sticky mud that attracts Border collies and granddaughters. (By the way, you can click on pictures for high-res versions)
What has also been revealed is part of the pit’s pumping arrangements. The wooden flumes and a cast-iron pipe that delivered pit water to the sea have been uncovered by the tides. At one time, during the mine’s operation, they would have lain on the surface. Then shifting sands swallowed them and they remained swallowed for several generations. The timber flumes are in good condition, considering their age. Intriguingly, water pours from the pipe. Are the pumps still working down at the pit bottom?
We head north – me, a wild dog and a wilder granddaughter. Huge sections of shore that were once beaches of perfect white sand are now sticky brown mud. We used to picnic down here and build sandcastles. Mud pies would be more appropriate these days.
On the shoreline near Marsh Farm we discover a row of wooden stakes the sea has returned to the sunlit world. These, too, had been hidden in the sand for perhaps a century or more. In this area, at the dawning of the railway age, iron ore was loaded into boats from quays that have long disappeared. Are these stakes the remnants of that activity?
As well as the sticky mud there is rubble – the detritus of misguided attempts to halt coastal erosion during the 1960s. Builders’ waste was tipped by the wagonload along this part of shoreline. But with little regard for the efforts of man, the sea has picked it up and spread it like cinders. Bricks, concrete blocks and lumps of masonry have been worn smooth and aged by the sea. Fifty years from now they will have been pounded into pebbles. No? Let me tell you about the Germans.
Between Marsh Farm and an outcrop of carboniferous limestone known as Dunnerholme lies a broad expanse of estuary that remains mainly sand. During the Second World War, concrete posts were positioned at intervals of twenty or thirty yards across the sands to prevent an airborne invasion by Nazi forces. Aeroplanes and gliders would have had their wings and undercarriage smashed if an attempt was made. A crude idea, but cheap and effective.
I remember the posts as a child, sticking from the sand about 6ft tall and with cores of rusty cast-iron – dozens of them, spread across the sands as far as the eye can see. But now they have gone. Only a few stumps remain. Soon they will have been erased from the physical world – and probably from memory.
We wander on. The granddaughter is beginning to tire and get grumpy, but new shells, coloured stones and placid pools revive her interest periodically. At Dunnerholme, which is almost – but not quite – and island, she removes her wellies and fills them with lily sand. This keeps her occupied while I sit on a rock and contemplate the slow but unstoppable changes gradually remoulding this stretch of England.
Lily sand. Has anyone come across that term, because I can’t find any reference on the internet? It’s the white sand that blows along beaches like smoke on a wind and forms into drifts; the sand that runs through your fingers and fills little pairs of wellies. On a breezy day it can get in your hair and sometimes your eyes. That’s lily sand.
The biggest change, though, and a daunting and unsettling one, is the course of the Duddon itself. Thirty years ago, when the tide was low, the river channel lay in the middle of the estuary, a good ten or fifteen minutes’ walk across the sands. It was broad and it was shallow, and quite easy to cross.
The river has moved, and the move is dramatic. Wordsworth’s Duddon has carved a gash that washes against the hitherto unseen foundations of Dunnerholme. It looks deep and cold. I won’t be going for a paddle today.
We pass the whitewashed Dunnerholme Cottages and chat to a bloke gathering litter from the tideline. He invites us in for a cup of tea, and we sit in his kitchen talking about mines, limestone kilns, railways and local history. He’s Canadian and his name is Graham. He tells me he moved to the Furness peninsula in 1986, stumbled on Dunnerholme by chance, and bought one of the cottages with its single tap, slate-flag floor, clunky floorboards and dramatic location on the edge of the sea with uninterrupted views of the Lakeland fells.
The sea has been in once, he tells me, flooding the ground floor. Other than that, there’s an unmade track, an unmanned level-crossing with gates you have to open yourself, and a twisting farm road before you encounter that overrated comfort-blanket we refer to as the civilised world. If it sounds like heaven, it’s because it is.
We talk about the Duddon channel changing its course. He tells me the local farmer, who has lived for 80 years at Marsh Grange, just across the fields, has never seen it alter so much in the space of a year. Apparently, it’s washed away a sizeable area of saltmarsh in its meanderings. Food for thought. We sup our tea. The dog whines and strains at its lead. The granddaughter eats a banana.
Then we all shuffle off in the direction of Askam, an industrial colony once choked with sand – me, a wet dog, a weary grandchild sitting on my shoulders, and Graham accompanying us for part of the way, resuming his litter-pick on a shore that’s forever changing.