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No boat required: exploring Britain’s tidal islands

Picture the scene: It’s August 1974. A small boat is heading to the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast. Seventy or so passengers are enjoying views of rocky islands with spectacular cliffs and watching the huge numbers of puffins, guillemot and fulmar. One more, a long haired and slightly lanky teenage lad, has his head in a bucket. OK you might want to stop picturing it too vividly now. The boat lands on Outer Farne. The lad almost steps on an eider duck camouflaged in the grass and finds three eggs in a rough nest on the rocks. Little else does he see but the inside of a bucket as the boat tosses and turns its way back to Seahouses. Perhaps his parents shouldn’t have been surprised; he had once been sick in a rowing boat in Torquay Harbour. Perhaps the lad shouldn’t have refused a Kwell.

And picture the scene thirty four years later as the lad with the bucket, now middle aged, of wider girth and shorter hair, walks the length of the Essex coast. He rediscovers the beauty of the sort of places his parents took him to as a child and writes a book describing the walk, the coast, its history and its wildlife. As he walks he passes many islands, which to him like most of our island nation, hold a special appeal. Then he realises that many of these can be walked to when the tide is low. An idea starts to brew. We’ve all heard of St Michael’s Mount and Holy Island, but how many other islands can be walked to? As the last stretches of the Essex coast are completed plans are mulled over and a decision made. I would visit all the islands which could be walked to from the UK mainland – islands for which ‘no boat is required’.

A short article can give just a flavour of the 43 very varied and often remote islands which I visited, but Chapel Island in Cumbria epitomises the beauty, history and mystery of our tidal islands and the challenges faced to reach them.

Everyone to whom I mentioned my plan to walk across the sands to an island in Morecambe Bay expressed concern that I may not return to tell the tale. Such is the reputation of the sands since 23 Chinese cockle pickers tragically drowned here in February 2004. Indeed it can be highly dangerous to venture into the bay and every year lives are lost. Today however I was to be in the safe hands of Ray Porter, a local fisherman and official guide to the sands, appointed by the Duchy of Lancaster. I was joining a guided walk from Ulverston to Chapel Island.

The walk was run by Morecambe Bay Partnership, a charity who aim to improve the environment and quality of life around Morecambe Bay. Susannah Bleakley, a lovely lady who had organised the walk and enthused about the island and bay, was most interested that I was writing a book on tidal islands. She put me in touch with Jack Manning, a local fisherman, who in turn gave me the name of Jack Layfield, an authority on Chapel Island who I arranged to meet before we set off.

After seeking directions from a handy policeman, I set out along the canal towpath that leads to the sea. With the sun shining brightly and a variety of birdlife on the water, it was a most pleasant walk down to Canal Foot and the shore of Morecambe Bay. I was soon distinctly warm and pleased to find the Bay Horse Hotel, once a staging post for coaches crossing the sands, which provided a most welcome drink.

Stepping out of the pub, I was immediately approached by an elderly gentleman who said I must be Peter. This was Jack Layfield, but how he knew that I was the person to whom he’d spoken on the phone I had no idea. Whilst my teenage son had recently been stopped by the police in my parents’ home town of Ledbury for ‘walking with a swagger and not looking like a local’, I don’t think there was anything about my appearance to suggest my Essex roots (I’d left the Burberry baseball cap, hooded top and white stilettos at home).

Jack was clearly delighted to be able to tell me about Chapel Island, ‘his paradise’. He pointed out the channel of the River Leven, the river that drains from Lake Windermere, and told me how porpoises used to chase salmon here. He told me about the railway viaduct to our left and how it had been strengthened in World War One to carry Welsh coal round the coastal line, en-route to our fleet in Scapa Flow. Looking across the sands to Chapel Island, Jack said that 1871 census had showed it was inhabited, but that the only building now is a ruin. He wasn’t sure if I’d be able to climb up to this as it was surrounded by tall nettles.

Chapel island signAs we talked the weather rapidly changed, the sunshine being replaced by heavy rain. Jack got on his bike to cycle home before he got too wet, while the forty or so walkers milled around waiting for the off. A couple of rumbles of thunder brought doubts as to whether we’d be allowed to go out onto the exposed sands, but then Susannah, having signed us all in, introduced our guide Ray. I’d expected a long safety talk but he gave just one warning:

‘If you start to feel you’re sinking don’t stop. Just keep going!’

Down the slope once used by stage coaches and out onto the sands we went. A selection of cagoules and umbrellas, of hats and walking sticks, of young and not so young, plus the obligatory dog, heading off in pouring rain to wade through rivers and dodge quicksand, to find a tiny island and return before the rising tide would drown us all. Oh how very British.

Ray had already surveyed the safest route and taken his tractor to place flags at intervals on the sand. Hence we headed east from Canal Foot, soon crossing the first channel which was only about 15 yards across and knee deep. The water was surprisingly warm. The next channel, the main River Leven was wider, faster flowing and thigh deep. I lifted the bottoms of my shorts to keep them dry, but for the two young girls on the walk it was well over waist high. Even at close to low tide I could see how people could be swept away. I thought of Edwin Waugh’s account of his dramatic and very nearly fatal trip to the island, which I’d read on the train from London.

Chapel island walkAs we got closer to Chapel Island I made my way to the front of the group to take a few photos. An oyster catcher greeted us, with its characteristic piping ‘kleep kleep’ call. Large numbers of these attractive wading birds, with their long bright orange-red beaks, live in Morecambe Bay, feeding on the abundant cockles and muscles. I already felt guilty that we were invading the birds’ island.

Jack Manning, who visits the island regularly to tend his nets, told me that until the 1990s there were about 100 gulls nests every summer, then in 1990 half a dozen eiders nested here. Their numbers increased year on year, but the gulls decreased, until in 2006 there were none at all. That week he had however seen one tiny gull chick with its mother squawking overhead. For the last three summers there had been 200 eider nests on the island and Jack Layfield had told me that this year some had laid a second batch of eggs. He was concerned that the visitors would disturb them, as he said that when startled the birds fly upwards, crushing the eggs beneath them. I saw one nest on the island, with four speckled eggs, that I think were oystercatcher’s. I hope our short visit didn’t bring the birds harm.

Chapel Island walkChapel Island has rocky peninsulas at each end, with higher cliffs in the middle. We set foot on the eastern end and gingerly made our way across the slippery rocks. Footwear chosen for walking on sand and wading through water wasn’t ideal for clambering over rocks, and much care was needed. At the foot of the cliff was the skeleton of a sheep. The unfortunate creature must have drowned elsewhere and been washed up here, as there are no large mammals on the island.

There’s no path around the island, but we were able to climb onto the cliff and with much care walk half way around the perimeter. Centuries ago the island was larger, as much limestone was taken away for building on the mainland. The bore holes for explosives are said to be still visible. There’s a tradition in the villages along the Morecambe Bay shore that the stone was taken to Liverpool for use in construction of Mersey Docks.

With trees and impenetrable brambles to the cliff edge on the eastern side, we climbed down onto surrounding rock. From here it would have been possible to walk uninterrupted across Cartmell Sands to Flookburgh. This however hasn’t always been the case, as the Leven channel sometimes moves its position in the bay. In fact locals say that it used to change from one side of the island to the other every decade, but hasn’t switched since 1976, staying between Chapel Island and Ulverston.

Although Jack Layfield had doubted that we’d be able to get to the island’s only building, the ruined chapel, one of the group managed to get up the steep path through the trees. Wearing shorts I was more susceptible to the nettle stings and thistle pricks, but was able to follow him and look inside without too much damage to my bare legs. The building is not quite as it seems and has an interesting history.

Original known as Harlesdye Isle, the island lay on the ancient route across the bay and would have been a safe haven for travellers caught out by the tide on the Leven Sands, considered to be the most dangerous in Morecambe Bay. In the 14th century Cistercian monks built a small chapel here to serve the needs of travellers and fishermen. It is after this that the island was renamed. The chapel eventually fell into ruin, but was recorded by William Wordsworth in The Prelude, Book Tenth after he passed the island on one of his several journeys across the sands.

Nothing remains of the original chapel although the building which I climbed up to is often mistaken for this. In fact this was built in the 19th century by Colonel Thomas Bradyll, the then owner of Conishead Priory, which after the Dissolution had become a private estate. It was actually constructed to resemble a ruin to enhance the view from the priory, so rather than being the remains of a holy place of worship, the building is actually a folly, although none the less atmospheric and intriguing.

Chapel Island nearly became a railway station! In 1837 George Stephenson was considering alternatives to the hilly route over Shap Fell, which the main West Coast line to Glasgow now takes. His idea was to take the railway from Lancaster to Morecambe, before proceeding across the sands to Humphrey Head on the Cartmell Peninsular and then cross the Leven Estuary to Furness. The line would have passed through Chapel Island, which he proposed as a station. Embankments would have been built on the sands, with the area inside of these reclaimed. The scheme was eventually dropped and a line built from Carnforth to Ulverston. How different would the bay have been and what a sad loss of an island if the plans had gone ahead.

Close to the island were Jack Manning’s fishing nets. These are ‘baulk nets’, which are stretched out across the sand to catch fish on the ebb tide. Today they were ‘hung up’ (not fishing), with the bottom cord of the net secured along with the top cord, so fish cannot get in. When set for fishing the bottom of the net lifts on the incoming tide, allowing fish to pass, but falls on the ebb forming a barrier, ‘baulking’ the fish by preventing them going out to sea. Jack officially retired in 1997, but in 2006 realised that this particular type of net may never be used again, as it’s a labour intensive job to set it up. So that the method could be recorded for posterity he set up a net to film it. This actually renewed his interest and now he goes out to catch fish when he feels like it.

Somewhere in the undergrowth on the western side of the island is a memorial stone commemorating the death of a man who died in the 1990s. He is not buried here, but the stone marks the fact that his wedding reception was held on Chapel Island. Jack Layfield had given me instructions on how to locate it and as the rest of the party started to leave, Susannah and I tried to find it. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for a thorough look and not wishing to be left behind to find our own way across the channels, had to admit defeat.

I’d been first to arrive at Chapel Island and was last to leave. I had found it to be of much interest and by its location, atmosphere, bird life and history, to be a very special place.

As we walked Susannah showed me a patch of quicksand. Not the most deadly type, but enough to feel our feet sinking. I have since read of a man who spent hours stuck fast in Morecambe Bay quicksands, unable to move, even to turn and see the incoming tide. With great fortune he was rescued by the emergency services just as the waters reached him. Not so fortunate were a man and his young son, stranded on a sand bank. As the waters rose the father put his son on his shoulders so he could continue to talk on his mobile phone, but even though rescuers could hear their shouts, the pair couldn’t be found in thick fog. The voices got weaker until all that could be heard on the phone was water, their two bodies being found later.

The Leven was still flowing out to sea as we waded back, but was now a good six inches deeper. Rain in the last couple of days was causing it to swell and even below waist depth I could feel the strength of the current and wouldn’t have wanted to be here alone. It would be a foolish person who attempted the crossing without a guide.

Back at Canal Foot, farewells were said and the other walkers got into their cars, while I strolled back along the canal. My visit to Chapel Island had been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Susannah had promised to let me know when there was a walk to Piel Island and I looked forward to once more venturing out onto these mysterious and strangely haunting sands.

In No Boat Required Peter Caton takes us to explore islands, some familiar but most which few of us know exist and even fewer have visited. He finds that our tidal islands are special places, many with fascinating and amusing stories and each one of them different. It adds up to a unique journey around Britain. No Boat Required can be purchased from, more about Peter Caton at

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