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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

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Weekend walk around St Bees

Think local:  Consider the delightful St Bees head and surrounding area for an autumn walkPicture: John Story

MAP: OS Landranger 89, West Cumbria; or Explorer map 303.

Parking: Foreshore car park in St Bees (GR NX960117).

Public transport: 20, 830 and X6 buses all serve St Bees and trains on the Carlisle to Barrow railway line stop here (telephone 0871 200 2233).

Refreshments: Hartleys Beach Shop and Tea Room on the foreshore.

Distance: 6.5 miles

Total ascent: 1,132ft

Time: 3-3½ hours

Grade: Intermediate

Overview: St Bees Head is the highest and most westerly point on Cumbria’s long stretch of coastline. Red sandstone, laid down some 240 million years ago, forms several miles of magnificent cliffs that reach a height of 300ft.

Our walk takes us from the village of St Bees, with its colourful history, up on to the South Head, past the 140-year-old lighthouse and around the North Head to complete what has to be the best stretch of coastal walking in the county. We return via quiet roads and footpaths. Don’t forget to pack your binoculars if you’re at all interested in birds.

The Walk: From the car park, head down towards the sea and pass in front of the lifeboat station to walk along the sea wall. Having crossed Rottington Beck via a narrow, railed footbridge, you ignore the first path on the right (to Rottington); instead, take the next path (signposted: “Public Footpath St Bees Head, Whitehaven”). This is the start of Wainwright’s 285-mile-long Coast to Coast route, which ends in Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea coast.

The path climbs fairly steeply, although there are steps to aid your upward progress. As the gradients eases, you reach a viewing platform from where you can see north along the sandstone cliffs and across the water to Dumfries & Galloway. To the south, beyond the ugly towers of Sellafield, is Black Combe, and, if you look behind you, the western fells have appeared. On a clear day, looking out to sea, you may just be able to make out the misty shape of the Isle of Man.

The first wooden step stile you come to puts a double line of protective fence between you and the unstable cliff-top – a welcome relief to anyone who doesn’t have a head for heights. The path now eases down to a tiny beck feeding into Fleswick Bay, which you cross via a stretch of bare, mossy rock (1.6 miles from the start). Watch your footing here!

Crossing the next stile, you begin to climb back on to the cliffs. As you do so, looking south along the dark sands of Fleswick Bay, you can see the stretch of coast that you have just walked.

Before you reach the lighthouse, watch for a stile in the fence on your left. This leads to an RSPB viewing area, where, armed with binoculars, you can watch the many species of birds on the guano-whitened cliffs. An information panel lists some of the most common ones, including kittiwakes, herring gulls, cormorants, puffins and razorbills. St Bees Head is also the only breeding site in England for black guillemots.

When you reach the concrete track coming down from the lighthouse (2.4 miles from the start), cross the stile and continue along the clifftop. As the path begins to swing NE around the North Head, you get your first sighting up the coast to Whitehaven and, beyond that, Workington.

Stick to the coast path – sometimes you have the fence on your left, sometimes on your right. The stiles and occasional green-and-white Coast to Coast waymarkers will guide you. Do not be tempted on to a grassy ledge half-way down the cliff; at this point, you need to be on the highest part of the cliff with the fence on your right.

The path meanders along this wild section of coast until you come to the edge of a quarry (3.6 miles from the start). Still following the route of the Coast to Coast, turn right along a quiet lane immediately after some cottages – towards Sandwith. Rather peculiarly, considering you have just turned your back on the coast, you can see the sea straight ahead of you now.

Swing left as this private road merges with another coming in from the right. Turn right at the T-junction in the village of Sandwith (4.4 miles from the start). What follows now is 1.4 miles of road walking – normally anathema to ramblers, but on this occasion a relatively pleasant experience, especially on a bright afternoon when the sun is shining through the trees.

Passing the last of Rottington’s scattered dwellings on your right, the road swings left to drop down into St Bees. Leave it here by turning right along a wide track and through a kissing-gate (signpost reads: “Public footpath to the beach”).

The track ends at a stile, but the footpath continues on the other side. Walk with the low, fence-topped wall on your immediate left and then cross a small ladder stile to continue in the same direction. After the next ladder stile, you drop to a kissing-gate, beyond which you reach a wooden fingerpost. Bear left here to cross a wooden stile.

You should recognise the narrow bridge on the other side of the fence – it is the one you crossed at the start of the walk. Now, simply retrace your steps to the foreshore car park – or take a stroll along the sea wall to Hartleys for some warming coffee and cake.

Points of Interest: St Bees is said to be named after Bega, the daughter of an Irish king, who fled from the prospect of a forced marriage to a Viking chieftain. The story of her life and miracles is contained in the 13th century manuscript Life and Miracles of St Bega, which is now housed in the British Museum.

There are many legends associated with St Bega, including the story that she sailed single-handedly across the Irish Sea and became shipwrecked. Others claim she came with a group of nuns and asked the Lord of Egremont for land on which to build a nunnery. He is supposed to have said that she could have as much land as was covered by snow the following day. Despite it being midsummer, snow did fall that night and she got to build her nunnery.

For walks in the Lake District, try Vivienne Crow’s Walk! The Lake District (North) published by Discovery Walking Guides. Available on Amazon.

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