A last minute escape to the wild North Cumbria Lakes: Part Two – St. Bees Lighthouse Hike
by Dr Anthony D. Cliffe
A less than easy Cliff walk followed by a night under the stars. Part one: https://thedayinthelifeoftonycliffe.com/2020/12/31/a-last-minute-escape-to-the-wild-north-cumbria-lakes-part-one-ennerdale-water-hike/
I had one of those nights of sleep wherein a dream it had felt like hours had passed and upon waking to a darkened and distinctly chilly room, it turned out barely an hour had ticked on the clock. So while I felt wide awake despite this, I tossed and turned before I eventually drifted off to sleep again, however, not before marvelling at the stars and the nearly full moon above my bed. In this room, two giant skylights pierced the ceiling above my head, a deep black was speckled with twinkling stars while the bright moon bathed the room in a silvery blanket of light. No need for any lights to go on tonight!
Somewhere between marvelling at the night sky and tossing and turning, I was awoken by my alarm. Still dark outside, with the sun yet to raise its head this far north at this time of year, I got dressed and headed downstairs. Today was another walking day. Peering through the skylights, a thick frost had formed unsurprisingly with the thermometer dropping down to -6c! Of course, it made perfect logical sense to spend a day walking the windswept coastal cliffs of the Irish sea!
After breakfast and my bag was packed I thawed the car out, forever grateful to have heated windows, seats and steering wheel in my trusty Vauxhall Corsa, affectionately called Celine. I was a little nervous as I waited for the ice to turn into water and trickle down the windscreen. While I was out walking the lake yesterday, my family had tried to find this location I was going to, the car park at St. Bees. They had spent the day in Whitehaven before ending up in what turned out to be, the entirely wrong part of St. Bees. My Dad’s description of the narrow roads and how for him, someone who is an advanced paramedic and is trained in every type of advanced driving there is, scared him. I told myself that I was going the right way and that the location I was going, which my Android Auto google maps screen displayed, would not be as scary as their adventure.
With a clear screen and my back and hands suitably warm from the heaters, my Dad made sure the blind bend was clear and with a wave, I was off to St. Bees. Nervous for the drive. Living on the greenbelt land of a major city, the roads are, for the most part, well kept and well lit. Living on the border of the countryside of Lancashire I can be on country backroads in seconds, and I’ve spent many a year on my bike cycling them. However, there are country roads, and then there are Lake District country roads! Where it’s single track, hedgerows tower either side, blind bends and dips, not to mention with it being -4c on the car’s display that the road was completely full of ice.
Some people hate motorway driving, I adore it, I spend hours on them every day travelling to work (pre-lockdown). Narrow twisty, tight, blind and icy country lanes are not for me. I appreciate the ‘driving’ of it, but the constant fear is not my cup of tea!
After 30 minutes of cautious and at times white-knuckled driving (especially when a tractor appeared on a single track, narrow road), I arrived at St. Bee’s carpark. A complete contrast to what my family had travelled to the day before, this, was the proper St. Bee’s. St. Bee’s located just south of Whitehaven on the West coast is a famous location for anyone familiar with the ‘C2C’- Coast to Coast walk. A renowned walk or cycle, from here to the East coast. Tradition is you would dip a boot or a rear tire in the Irish sea and then dip them again into the North Sea at the end of your journey. Me and my cycling buddy Shaun, a few years ago had very much planned to do the C2C in less than 94 hours for charity, but things got in the way, and we never did complete that challenge. Yet, it was oddly satisfying years later to actually get to this famous spot in the UK.
In the summer, I’m sure this place would be heaving with intrepid adventurers starting the C2C with excitement and trepidation. The cheering support of family members mixed in with the tourists and locals enjoying the mobile holiday homes, ice creams and the gravel beach. Today, however, I was one of only two cars in this vast carpark with nothing but a few greedy Wagtails milling about, a Cawing of a Seagull and a bitingly cold Irish sea breeze.
After paying less than £5 for a day ticket at the car park, I quickly got my walking boots, gloves, hat and Buff on, then headed off to the looming and quite imposing ascent of the headland to my right. Short but hard work up the steep and wet and muddy trail, thankful to have my walking poles with me for stability although a fat lot of good they did on the way down to my own demise later on! I climbed higher with every pump of the heart, the sea falling away to my left, the beach now at my back and the ever-present biting wind. Thankful for the steep climb to keep me warm but my legs weren’t as excited about it, especially after yesterday’s hike!
The headland eventually flattened out, only for a short respite before climbing again. I don’t mind short sharp vertical ascents, all that pain is worth it as it’s shortlived, hell, yesterday’s scramble was epic. However, when scrambling, you get to use all four parts of your body to heave yourself up a mountain. Here nothing but your legs that kept giving way on the deep mud and slick grass making it harder than it ought to be!
The headland followed rolling hills, which forever seemed to be climbing more than they descended. A narrow muddy path had been forged over the years from walkers which made progression slower than I’d have liked. I didn’t dare risk walking on the grass off the path, while free of mud, I’d already had enough close calls of slipping on the grass to warrant pushing my luck further. That and with such a steep slant towards the sea, I didn’t fancy my chances! Eventually, after some slogging, my destination came into view. A tiny white speck on the horizon, St. Bee’s Lighthouse, glistening in the early morning sun, at least now I had a point to work towards.
To my left the Irish Sea was far below me, sea birds swirled on the winds, the taught horizon so clear. As much as I love the mountains and the Lakes, I’m forever drawn to water. A long history of seafarers in my family dates back to the Spanish Armarda on my Mums side. Nearly every generation has been away to sea. I find comfort in the ocean, although it’s to be respected. There is nothing quite like that blue that the sea has!
In the distance out to sea, the Isle of Man and the Scottish borders were visible. I was surprised how close and clear the Isle of Man was from here. Again, a wonderful island with close family ties to the Island, I’ve enjoyed my time on it. Unfortunately, it will be a while until I return. With their borders closed off and having dealt with COVID a damn sight better than we have, they’re living their best lives with no social restrictions and no cases across the water. Good luck to them! An island standing out in the ocean like an Ocean Liner, no one in or out. I paused for a moment, looking across the sea and I wondered, was someone on the Island looking across to me and thinking “Glad I’m not over there”.
Pushing on towards the Lighthouse, which seemed to be getting further away than closer, the headland abruptly stopped. An inlet of water had eroded a weakness in the rock causing a distinct split. After heading down a makeshift staircase, covered in ice and mud, I arrived at the bottom. Polished rock from the water churned and tumbled down the small valley, before heading out onto the gravel beach and out into the sea. I had no clue on tide-times, and I didn’t fancy getting stuck on a beach with an incoming tide! So I elected to traverse the mini raging river across the polished flat rocks. I gingerly made my way across, watching the water spill over my boots, taking all the mud with it, before crossing to the other side—a deep breath, another short but very sharp climb back up this side of the headland.
At the top, I spotted my first other walkers, it had been so quiet so far. They were heading back in my direction, probably making the summit for sunrise and heading back again. With a cheerful hello, holding my breath to give the appearance of a fit, well-walked man when, in reality, I was dying inside from the climb!
Eventually, I arrived at the Lighthouse. Nothing spectacular, but then again, I’ve spent most of my travels around the world photographing lighthouses, and it takes something to beat some of the ones I’ve seen! However, what made this place pleasant is while I caught my breath, you could see the Scottish borders and mountains blanketed in thick snow. From here, it looked like a layer of clouds against the sea. Beautiful.
As always, the walk back never fails to feel quicker. By now, the sun was rising in the sky, reflecting off the rugged cliffs, shining while the sea boiled and tossed below. I couldn’t help but snap away and marvel at it all. Coming back this way I noticed other things I hadn’t before, particularly the North Lakes to my right and in the distance, the distinct silhouette of Sellafield Nuclear Power Plant. A place I’ve known for many years, often terrified me as a kid should it ever explode and now I could see it with my own eyes. Pretty cool!
After congratulating myself for not falling over, and chuckling to myself as I watched a man stack it on the way up the steep climb that I was now ascending, my laughter was short-lived. Both heels slide forward and with all my might, I managed to dig my poles in, although felt a twist in my back I didn’t fall. Deep breath, good save. Started to move again and boom, flat on my back as I slid down the hill but the poles arrested the fall. I clock a couple coming towards me, to their credit they look away (probably holding back a laugh but grateful they didn’t) in classic embarrassment, I curse myself, then look at the ground in disapproval and a shake of my head before continuing down the headland to solid ground. I dipped my boots into the ocean to clean them from the massacre of mud on them before making my way back to the car. A delightful morning walk!
Later that evening, we headed out after dark back to the lake. While I love my landscape photography, I’ve perfected the nighttime shot of the stars as an amateur astrophotographer. I’ve loved taking star pictures from my garden at home to the Northern Lights in Iceland. The prospect of some night photography on the lake was something I absolutely wanted to do here.
Despite it now being way below freezing we made our way to the water’s edge. No need for torches as the full moon lit everything up. Unfortunately! If there is one main enemy of the night sky photographer, it’s a full moon. Disappointed that despite this being a dark sky spot, the full moon makes any decent star pictures impossible, as with a long exposure the sky becomes almost daylight. Instead, I made the most of it and made some shorter shots, making the most of the running water. Not what I had in mind but still happy with them. How can you be genuinely disappointed when you have nothing but water, the moon and the stars. Peaceful.
The next day an uneventful drive home, bar a patch of dense fog by Preston. I was home in just over 2 hours, feet up and back to daily life at home. The next day new tiers were announced and before long lockdown 3.0 began. I was grateful we managed to get away when we did, for all I know, it could be the last trip for a while.
Until next time!
Location: For the start of the walk head to the car park at St. Bees called St Bees Beach Front car park. Plenty of parking available for reasonable prices. Take in the climb or the flat gravel beach if the strenuous walk isn’t your thing! Satnav: Firth Dr, Saint Bees CA27 0EY
Walk: On a non-muddy day i’d say this was a light to moderate walk at 5 miles. However, beware of the deceptively steep at times rolling hills, very slippy underfoot so highly recommend walking boots and a pair of walking poles! If tides allow, make use of the inlet half way to explore the secluded beach.