Crossing the sands

Crossing the sands

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In Morecambe Bay the tide can come in at such a speed that locals say that it will overtake a galloping horse. With bores that exceed nine knots, and a catalogue of lost vehicles, animals and people (including at least 21 Chinese cockle-pickers who tragically died in 2004), it is evident that nobody can outrun that force of nature. It’s not just the speed of the tide, it’s the complex currents, deep channels, fast-flowing rivers and ever-changing sandbanks, interspersed with lethal quicksands which make this extraordinary, 120 square-mile geographic feature a place to avoid...most of the time.

What is really needed is a man with a plan, a person so knowledgeable that the tides practically hold back on his command, the waves part and the chosen people cross – to another part of Cumbria, which we all know is the Promised Land. And the good news is that there is such a Moses figure, though lacking staff, sandals and flowing hair – one Cedric Robinson MBE, the Queen’s Guide to the Sands. In 1963 he became the 25th person to hold that title since Thomas Hogeson became the first in 1548, and the accumulated knowledge of all those generations passes down to Cedric.

So every now and again, when weather conditions are right and tide, daylight and weekend fuse nicely (usually about once a fortnight in the summer months), around 500 people gather in Arnside under Cedric’s watchful eye to make the nine-mile crossing of the sands.

The glad throng which went laughing along comprised every human shape, size and age, interspersed with an eclectic pack of unrelated dogs, whose evident enthusiasm for the challenge (if deliberately getting sandy and wet for four hours is a canine challenge) showed in their lolling tongues and capering antics. Those doggies with shorter legs hadn’t considered all the downsides, but whether they were to swim, paddle or be carried, all this was yet to come.

A straggle soon stretched out along the shore as we headed south-west towards Blackstone Point. There, shepherded by a tractor and a pair of Bay Rescue Hagglund BV206s whose forbears I once used on arctic military training, we lined up looking west towards Grange-over-Sands across the estuary, which seemed but a stone’s throw away, surely not distance enough to fill the next three hours? As Low Water passed, we prepared for the sprint across, some people discarding their footwear and everyone expecting to get wet – very much part of the brief. Then Cedric made a sharp left turn and we headed south, out into the Irish Sea.

The featureless route out into the bay had been marked previously by our guide and his team, using laurel branches pushed deep into the sand. We walked through puddles and dips, speeding up as our feet sank into patches of sucking sand, but with a great sense of adventure and excitement. Crossing the first tributaries of the River Kent got us duly wet and wading, and each obstacle caused our group to extend out behind, such that after another hour, the party must have stretched to a mile, causing us to pause from time to time to let the gaggle coalesce. We were now in Lancashire (hopefully still in territorial waters!) and the two power stations at Heysham, which had looked like dots on the horizon from Blackstone Point, loomed large in front of us while the safety of our destination, Kents Bank, looked a long way behind. And then we came to the key obstacle of our course, the River Kent itself. Finding a safe and shallow crossing was the reason Cedric had led us so far south, and he and his acolytes marshalled us, 10-deep, to make the 300-yard dash (read: slow wade) across the river at its most benign.

Over the next 20 minutes pork pies and flasks of tea were consumed while standing in the water, as the strung-out expedition reassembled, and then we were off. Some doggies were lifted high and the noise of yelling and laughter and splashing grew and grew as we waded out, thigh-deep, towards the southern shore. The sound of a thousand legs swishing through the cold, fresh flow from the fells and the shouts and shrieks as a teenager stumbled (or was he pushed?) rose high above the cries of swirling seagulls over our heads. And then, after breathless and energetic minutes, we were across.

Turning north-west we yomped our way towards the land, and whether through fear of the incoming tide (we were getting on for halfway towards High Water), a sense of deliverance or just sheer competitiveness, the party really started to elongate and I have to confess that Sue and I were in the vanguard, enjoying the longer strides and the sense of a race...that, and we had heard that there was an ice-cream stall ahead. When we reached the shore, turning back, we could see that folks were still being directed towards the finish from nearly two miles out and it was probably another 45 minutes before everyone reached the shore, to join the long queue for that much-enjoyed ice-cream!

By the time we had bussed back to Arnside to pick up the car, the waters were already starting to pour into the estuary, but everyone was safe and across – until the next time. This was a truly fun experience, made possible by Cedric’s long-learnt and reliable local knowledge and the support, the organisation and the experience of the Bay Rescue team (who we sponsored to secure our place – www.baysearchandrescue.org.uk). A bravado approach to crossing the sands would certainly end in tragedy. But while never to be undertaken without the proper planning and preparation, pretty much any hazardous activity can be completed safely. Uncertainty is inherent in adventure, but the benefits of an exciting challenge in a task which is properly scoped and managed, nearly always offset the residual risk. Life should be as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible, and accidents don’t have to happen.

Tom Mullarkey, RoSPA chief executive

Posted: 31/08/2016 11:27:17 0 comments


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