Western Howgills

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Saunterings:  Walking in North-West England

Saunterings is a set of reflections based upon walks around the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire in North-West England (as defined in the Preamble). Here is a list of all Saunterings so far.
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142.  Eskmeals: Dunes, Estuary and Firing Range

Continuing our expedition around the western borders of the Lake District National Park (from Sauntering 141), we followed the A595 and National Park border to the village of Holmrook, where the border suddenly darts to the west, following the River Irt, towards the shore. It then makes a bee-line for the small, low-tide-only island of Kokoarrah, just off shore. Why the Park authorities were so keen to include this part-time island, I have no idea. As far as I know, it has no relevant merits.

Thereafter, the Park border follows the coast south for some ten miles. No doubt, Drigg Dunes and Eskmeals Dunes deserve protection, which they now have as designated Nature Reserves, but they are far from the scenery of lakes and mountains normally associated with the Lake District. According to Berry and Beard (1980), the earliest proposals for the National Park boundaries argued that the “narrow strip of land between the foot of the mountains and the sea was almost untouched by development and was worthy of the same standards of preservation as the mountainous area.”

The A595 continues south over the Esk estuary but we turned off at Waberthwaite to have a wander around this atypical part of the National Park. From the Eskmeals Viaduct, we headed for Eskmeals Dunes. The map shows nothing at all within the Nature Reserve, so we were expecting a featureless, flat, sandy area. In fact, the dunes are well-established, surely high enough in places for a contour or two, with plentiful vegetation and even some small trees. We had arrived after high tide, which it is essential to do, otherwise the access road from Newbiggin and the path to the dunes are liable to be under water. An angler assured us that the bridleway marked on the map as crossing the river was indeed usable (on horseback, I assume) at low tide, although this looked quite implausible at near high tide. Anyway, we set off along the promontory’s edge confident that more of the beaches and mud flats would be revealed as the tide receded.
eskmeals viaduct

Eskmeals Viaduct and bridleway

We spent some time wandering about, along the shore, up the highest sand dune and over to the seaward side. Here, three volunteers were commendably gathering up bagfuls of rubbish washed up on these shores. Apart from them we had the promontory to ourselves. It is a spot that may not seem part of the Lake District but that is considerably more peaceful (usually) than many places that do.

The reserve is home to the rare natterjack toad and to several species of birds, although we saw none of the former (nor even any ponds that they might inhabit) and few of the latter. It is also said to provide habitat for over 300 species of plant. Autumn is not the best time of year to look for plants and, apart from the marram grass and shrubby trees, the only one that really caught our eye was the sea buckthorn, with its profuse orange berries. I understand that sea buckthorn is non-native and that it is therefore being removed from the promontory (so, there's plenty of work still to do). Back at the viaduct a Cumbria Countryside Services van was parked with on its side the words ‘Japanese knotweed’, which is also, of course, non-native. We told the man standing by that we hadn’t seen any Japanese knotweed and he said “no, there isn’t any”. He must have been on guard to make sure it didn’t sneak in.
eskmeals dunes 1

From the highest sand-dune, looking south to Eskmeals Viaduct and Black Combe, in cloud

eskmeals dunes 2

From the highest sand-dune, looking north to the village of Ravenglass on the other side of the River Esk

eskmeals dunes 3

From the highest sand-dune, looking west across the dunes and River Esk to Drigg Dunes

This was the first half of a ‘figure of eight’ walk, with a leisurely lunch break in the middle. The second half was a circuit inland, still (we had to remind ourselves) within the Lake District National Park. We walked south, with the Ministry of Defence’s Firing Range, a two-mile long area closed to the public, to the west. On this occasion it was not blasting shells into the sea. It is the shells that made me add the '(usually)' to a sentence above. We turned east past Eskmeals House and then battled along an unused, overgrown footpath with stiles well hidden in bushes. We were relieved to reach the lane near Waberthwaite and to be able to stroll back through Newbiggin and by the estuary to the viaduct.

Now, about that Firing Range. Why is there a Firing Range within the Lake District National Park?  When the Park borders were defined in 1951 the Firing Range was either there or it wasn’t. If it’s the former case, why was the border placed to include the Firing Range when it could easily have been moved to the east to exclude it?  If it’s the latter case, why did the authorities agree to a new Firing Range within a National Park or why were they forced to accept one?

In order to seek an answer I asked a relative, Christopher Butler-Cole, whose family owned land around Eskmeals House and who himself lived there at the time in question. I could paraphrase his reply but it is probably better that I include it here in full (with permission, of course):
      According to some written recollections of my grandmother (father’s mother) an offer was made in 1911 to the family to rent part of the sandhills for use in “Safety in Mines Research”, which was installed under a committee headed by Sir Henry Cunningham. Her recollections continue as follows:-
      “A committee house was built right inside the sandhills with a light railway running to it, while on the edge of them (nearest to Eskmeals House) was a bungalow for the chief chemist with laboratories where experiments were tried out in glass tubes, before further experiments were made in great tubes the size of mine workings. All the miners’ lamps for the North were tried out here. To accommodate the junior chemists we built, at our own request, four cottages on the main road near Eskmeals station. We called them Falcon Place in memory of an old oak-panelled house on the Workington docks whence my great-grandfather had come to Eskmeals. Then the first world war came and brought great animation to the branch of Vickers which tested man-of-war guns. The noise of their testing was frequent and the first caterpillar wheels in the world were tested on our main road, little balloons were sent up for marksmanship trials, and 200 women and girls came daily to fill shells in a new big building at the south end of the site (Marshside)”.
      This will give you the bones of the origins of the range. When we came back from Ceylon in 1947 we could walk all along the shore and directly across the sandhills to the shore when the warning flags were not flying and there were huge sheets of armour plating held upright by mountains of sandbags for testing the guns, by that time, I believe, of tanks.
      The range extended some way north but did not occupy the final half mile or so up to Ravenglass Point and we could walk on that part of the sandhills at any time. The building for the chemists and the one for the committee were in my family’s possession from, I think, before the last war, and were I assume bought off Vickers as they were not used by the Ministry of Defence. When the takeover occurred I do not know but presumably before the National Park was constituted. In 1947, and for several summer holidays thereafter, the family used to stay in what was the chemists’ house. The two buildings were called Sandy Gap (the one with the railway to it) and the chemists’ house was in effect two properties, one housing the laboratories and one the living accommodation. They were known as Broombank and Broomclose. Sandy Gap was overwhelmed by shifting sand and I remember in the late ‘40s going into the abandoned house and marvelling at the way the sand reached up to the ceiling in many of the ground floor rooms. Broombank and Broomclose are still there I think, but now in the Danger Area. Sandy Gap was, I believe, demolished long ago, but I haven’t been able to access that part of the sandhills for many years.
      In 1950 my parents took over one of the Falcon Place cottages as my father was still working in Ceylon so we were up at Eskmeals for only short periods of time, mainly holidays when my parents were back in the UK. In 1955 the tenant of Eskmeals House (it had been let by the family from 1920) died and we moved in as our permanent home. They left Eskmeals House in 1979 when the Ministry said they wished to extend the Danger Area and purchased the house and surrounding land from my father. It lay abandoned for many years and whether the Danger Area was ever officially extended I don’t know. As far as I am aware the use of the road alongside was never restricted.
So it seems that this area has been used for industrial-military purposes for over a century. There was an out-of-bounds region here when the National Park was established. Old OS maps tended not to show military establishments in detail but maps from 1899 to 1957 on-line indicate a 'Vickers gun range' with 'flagstaffs' (for warning flags?) but no buildings within the present restricted area. The history of Vickers is complex, with its aircraft, shipbuilding and steel-working interests being separately nationalised at various times. Whoever owned the firing range when the Park borders were defined, why was it included in the National Park?  Did the Park authorities optimistically believe or hope that the land would be released soon (as other military land had been) and would revert to natural sand-dunes?

The two core aims of a National Park are to protect exceptional landscapes and to enable public access to those landscapes. For seventy years those aims have been violated by the Eskmeals Firing Range.

    Date: September 17th 2021
    Start: SD087943, Eskmeals Viaduct  (Map: OL6)
    Route: NW, N, W, SW, E, SE around Eskmeals Dunes – Eskmeals Viaduct – S, E past Eskmeals House – lane north of Waberthwaite – NW through Newbiggin – Eskmeals Viaduct
    Distance: 5 miles;   Ascent: 20 metres

The two following items:
     144.   Fencing The Clouds
     143.   Two Days as a Lake District Tourist
The two preceding items:
     141.   In and Out of the Lake District, in the Ennerdale Region
     140.   Short-Circuiting Wharfedale
Two nearby items:
       28.   Broughton Moor, or What's Left of It
     107.   Along the Sands from Millom to Silecroft
A list of all items so far:

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    © John Self, Drakkar Press, 2018-


Top photo: The western Howgills from Dillicar; Bottom photo: Blencathra from Great Mell Fell