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Sea Pink, Lancashire coastal way, Glasson

The plan was to climb Ingleborough. But it’s a popular hill, and we realized at the last minute it was the half-term holiday. We’d be lucky to get near it or, once on it, we’d be trampled underfoot by herds of stampeding three-peakers. So we diverted to the Lancashire coast, and to Glasson. I wasn’t up to a sweaty climb anyway, felt tired after sleeping a bit funny. The little blue car felt jittery, and it had a bouncy clutch.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“It’s not me,” it said. “It’s you. Stop driving like you’re half asleep.”

So, nine a.m., the M6 is running thick and fast, just like in the old days. It’s been decided by a consensus that the pandemic is now over. Except it’s not. I had the second AZ jab last week, so I’m as immune as it gets, at least to the known variants. But there are mutations arising everywhere, and no certainty over how infectious, or dangerous they are, vaccinated or not. The World Health Organisation says we’re just going to have to live with it. But on the bright-side, the forecast is good, so everyone’s bound for Blackpool, or the Lakes. The sun shines, we forget our troubles, and make hay.

We sneak off at Junction 32, Broughton Bridge, and pick up the A6, north, pausing briefly here to drop the top and let some sunshine in. It’s cool to start, but the morning warms as we travel the rural lanes, to the coast at Cockerham. After rather a cold and wet May, the season seems to have come upon us suddenly, the hedgerows bursting with growth and colour, as if making up for lost time. Suddenly, it’s summer.

Glasson Harbour

Ten in the morning, and Glasson Harbour is quiet. It’ll fill up with visitors later, but most go no further than the harbour basin to picnic and catch some sun. We’ll be heading south to the marsh at Cockerham, then back along the coastal way. I’ve done this walk every year since 2014, usually on the last Friday of February, and for no particular reason. But early summer is as fine a time as any to be here. The paths, always heavy with mud, mid-winter, are now dust-dry, and the hedgerows are head high in waving white clouds of cow parsley.

I’ve got the big camera today and a couple of lenses, a wide one and a long one. I’m looking for wide shots of bright meadows, those summer heavy hedgerows, and puffy-cloud skies, as we trace the paths to Cockerham Marsh. Then I want some long ones when we circle back along the coastal way, in particular of the Plover Scar light.

The sheep are out on the marsh, sleepy in the sun, thousands of them, seeking shade or splashing in the tidal creeks. And there’s a profusion of sea pink in the rocks, and along the defences by the abbey. It makes a fine display, and is one of the unexpected highlights of the day.

Thursland Hill

The walk is about seven miles round, so two and a bit hours, and dead flat. The tide is far out, but the air is sea-scented, and heat-shaky, and there are oystercatchers and curlews on the mud-flats. Glasson is sweltering on our return, and bustling. We enjoy coffee and chips at the Lock Keeper’s Rest, before driving home. Top down, summer-scented hedgerows, blue skies and a sense of unhurried motion. It’s why I bought the car. I’m feeling great now, and the car feels super, super normal.

“See,” it says. “I told you it wasn’t me.”

Crook End Farm, Glasson

The M6 southbound is solid, but fast, and we flow with it. Northbound is solid and stationary from Broughton to beyond Leyland, which is my exit. I wonder if everyone is still banking on a day in Blackpool, even as the day slips away to late afternoon. The car ran well, touch wood, still coming up on 95,000. We’re just not getting the same miles in we once did. I’ll wash her off tomorrow. She deserves it, even though she can get a bit grumpy with me when I’m not entirely with it.

The Plover Scar Light, Glasson

Of the photographs I took, the quiet network of paths down to the marsh yielded the best results. They spoke of a balmy English summer, without the cynicism. Those scenes will never look quite the same again, or as fine, as they did today. I’ll use the one looking back to Thursland Hill as background on my laptop. It’ll keep me cosy throughout next winter.

None of the shots of the Plover Scar light really did it justice. I think you need the golden hour for that one. You need a long lens, a tripod to steady it, and the patience to find a leading line, with the tide in the right place to add a mirror for the flaming sky. I can picture it my head, but I’ll leave that one for the locals to pick their evening. I’m sure you’re not stuck for fine sunsets out here.

I don’t know what it was like on Ingleborough. We’ll save that one for later in the year, and an early start, but it couldn’t have been any better than the coast around Glasson.

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mazzy at glasson 2019

Small blue car, Glasson Basin

It was unseasonably warm, this, the last Friday of February, temperatures nudging seventeen degrees and a spring tide almost cutting off the village of Glasson. The little blue car and I are here again for our annual groundhog day. I first came in 2014, but that morning was a cold day, a winter’s day, and there was ice on the car park. Today was summery, balmy and weird. There have been years when I didn’t get the top down until April. That’s natural, today wasn’t.

I’m dressed for winter, five sensible layers and a hat. I have binoculars, camera and a Lion Bar. The plan is the same as always: walk south across boggy meadows to Cockerham Marsh, then pick up the Lancashire coastal way which leads us back to Glasson, then a brew before we paste it back home.

I’m not feeling too good, a bit of a cold breaking, so my head is woolly and there’s a fatigue hanging over me, but I’ll manage. Yes, the weather is weird, and I’m tying my coat around my waist before we’ve gone a mile, but the warmth in it is undeniably cheering. A few weeks ago we had snow.

marsh end farm

Bank End, Cockerham

Cockerham Marsh never fails to impress, one of Lancashire’s jewels – the glittering expanse of it, the greenness and the dendritic channels all patiently fished and swooped over by oystercatcher and curlew. There were murmurations of dunlin and starling too, animating a sky lit generously by a low winter sun, and with all the warmth of spring in it. I’m thrilled by the rapture of birds here as they wade and gambol out of reach of man. As I watch I find myself wondering if, when we’ve poisoned ourselves from the last corners of the planet, the birds will find a way to survive and preserve in themselves what is truly beautiful about the world.

And then it’s the coastal path and the green sward by the old abbey where the land stops and tumbles sedately into the sea, then the call of lambs in sheep-thick meadows, and the final push up a summer-sleepy Marsh Lane to Glasson. All of this in February.

lancashire coastal way

The Lancashire Coastal way, Cockerham

I get a brew at the Lock Keeper’s Rest, by Glasson Basin, settle on a bench in the sun, among the born-again bikers. I’m joined by an old dude who tells me it’s a shame they closed the pub. He speaks with the direct intimacy of an old friend. He’s just lonely for a chat, I suppose. He goes on to complain about the salt water he’s had to drive through on the way into Glasson, as if it’s someone’s fault, and how it’s no good for a car. Then it’s the price of a pint and a football ticket, his opinion amply expressed by a weary shake of the head. I ask him how long since they closed the pub, not that I’m interested, but it looks like he’s settling in and thus far it’s been a bit one-way. He seems not to understand the question, bites his lip and looks at me askance, as if I’ve offended him and he bumbles off to sit alone.

On the drive home there’s a near accident on the humped bridge over the canal at Garstang, a learner driver is approaching it cautiously, but then caught unawares by an insane hardcore wagon which appears suddenly, rising like Poseidon from the deep and steaming over the bridge at full tilt. The wagon screeches to a halt, inches from disaster, sends up a cloud of dust and is unable to move unless the learner reverses, but the learner is frozen with shock, as am I.

The hardcore driver is not a patient sort and is effing and blinding at once. The passenger gets out, the learner hastily slides over. The hardcore man continues to sully the air with foul and insulting language: You can’t drive, you’re an idiot, you shouldn’t be on the road – that sort of thing.

“Learning, mate,” says the passenger, hands wide, in a placatory tone, then points out the L plates. You know? Cut us some slack. Be patient.

But the hardcore man takes this as a challenge to his superiority. The cab door is flung open, and a tense standoff ensues. The queue for the bridge is dozens of vehicles deep in both directions by now, but we must all await the pleasure of the hardcore troll, captive audience to his vile strutting. Does he commit assault on an innocent man? mangle his car for good measure and expect us all to applaud him? The learner car backs up as quickly as possible in order to avoid fisticuffs. The hardcore man, still puffed up hurls parting curses, then thunders away to wreak havoc elsewhere.

I follow the L plate into Garstang, thinking to myself the learner will probably never want to get behind the wheel of a car again, scarred for life by an ill timed encounter with the troll. A troubling day of sorts then, mostly beautiful, but in a weird sort of way, overlaid by something surreal, courtesy of my being under the weather, and there’s an aftertaste of threat that’s been hard to shake – the un-seasonal weather suggestive of climate catastrophe, and the latter incident indicative of an increasing and vociferous intolerance among our people.

The principal threat to the natural world of course has always been the human being which seems incapable of acting in harmony with it, while the biggest existential threat to the human being, apart from an asteroid impact, has always been human beings themselves, and their propensity to act first in preservation of their own misguided sense of superiority, to the detriment of more altruistic virtues.

Anyway, mind how you go and beware of those thundering hardcore wagons.

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mazda at glassonThe last Friday of February is the one that usually kicks off my year, and for the past four years I’ve been travelling to the little Lancashire port of Glasson to walk the same section of the coastal way from Bank End Farm, on the spectacular Cockerham Marsh. There’s an element of groundhog day to this outing, underlined by the uncanny similarity of the weather on each occasion – temperature just above freezing, clear skies, wintry sun , and a light but bitterly cold wind blowing in off the sea. Today is no exception, but there’s a difference in the air, a subtle nuance – call it imagination, call it superstition, but I have a feeling this run is coming to a close now, that next year will be different. It has to be. Everything must change if it is to remain true, and whatever does not change cannot be true, thus I’m picking up an element of fantasy to the day which, although pleasant enough, cannot be entirely trusted.

The Mazda was reluctant after a very cold few weeks in the garage, and very little exercise over winter, the engine catching only at the last minute as the battery faded to nothing. Then the ABS warning light remained on throughout the outward journey – brakes were fine, so most likely a problem with the anti-lock sensor. It’s a thing with Mazdas. There’s also a grand’s worth of repairs necessary to her bodywork if I decide to keep her beyond this year. I have the sense she’s reminding me of her mortality. It’s all fixable but she’s a second car, not my main driver, and all of this seems a bit extravagant and unnecessary, especially in the current oppressively austere zeitgeist. It’s a pity because I love the car like no other I’ve owned, and we’ve had some fun, but she’s sixteen years old now, coming up on ninety thousand, and she isn’t going to last for ever. That’s just another fantasy.

Still, for all of our antiquity, we pick up a tail on the way, a Mercedes SLK, brand new. This happens a lot. Last time, as I recall, it was a Maserati. These supercars growl up close, like predatory animals, glue themselves aggressively to the bumper, then, at the first opportunity pull out wide and disappear in a cloud of dust and noise, and all in order to prove their willy is bigger than mine. Now the Mazda is a lively little thing, but the sense of her is mostly internal. She’s also worth next to nothing. That she attracts such attention is laughable, not flattering, and do I really want us to go on being the foil for this particular kind of conspicuous consumption?

The Mazda sighs impatiently at such class-warriorish ruminations, rattles up to Glasson and deposits us on the carpark at the marina. Here we leave her to admire the view, the basin running like burnished silver this morning, boats nodding at their moorings. We tog up and set out on the familiar way, first of all calling in Glasson’s gorgeous canal-side Parish Church to admire the spill of light through stained glass, and to see if there are any good second hand books for sale on the stall at the back. Today there are none that take my fancy, so on we go.

cockerham farmThe walk first takes us south across sodden meadows as far as the lush fractal patterned marsh at Cockerham, from where we pick up the coastal way. Winter wet has left the meadows heavy, and they are slow to drain. Migratory swans pepper the green sward, settling there to rest, and forage. They are not gregarious birds and spread themselves out into introspective, moody dots of white, their grumpy honking a reminder to steer clear. We pick up the more cheerful sound of waders down on the marsh, mostly Oyster Catchers and Curlew piping. There’s a Plover doing acrobatics across the emerald meadow, pee-witting as it goes, and then as we cross the causeway we are treated to the most astonishing display – a vast murmuration of starlings rises from its roost around the farm and swirls a living spiral in the air.

Unlike other birds en-mass which we tend to view from afar, Starlings are an easier treat for the photographer performing it would seem for our pleasure at much closer range, and quite exhilarating . It’s a whirring buzzing chattering shriek of a thing, a pointed cloud swooping and soaring like a single living entity, drawn into strange, pulsing patterns and made entirely of tens of thousands of birds. I am so astonished that by the time I remember the camera, I manage only the weakest of shots as the birds move north.

plover scar lightThe Plover scar light, broken last year after being struck by a ship, is now repaired and looking like new. I try a few shots but the light is suddenly flat and I need a longer lens to do it justice. And the narrow passage across Jansen Pool, where I nearly had to swim in order to complete the walk last year, is now repaired so the path can be followed without risk to dignity. Then there’s just the last long quagmire of Marsh lane and its ancient line of hawthorns, twisted into fantastic wind-blasted shapes, and we’re back – another completed round of Glasson and Cockerham, on the last Friday of February.

Image5It remains only for us to take lunch in the Lantern o-er Lune, from whose brightly lit interior we shelter from the biting wind, and pretend it is a summer’s day. Tasty Cumberland Sausage Panini and a gorgeous salad soothes our lunchtime cravings. Over coffee we gaze out at the water, and we contemplate this particularly lovely and ancient part of Lancashire. Meanwhile the Mazda catches the sun. She looks ever so lovely out there, even shaded and lined as she is by the mud and salt of winter.

Okay, so here’s what we’ll do: We’ll get the ABS repaired first, then see if she’ll squeeze through the MOT into next year without the bodywork doing. It’s a good call, and she rewards us by putting out the ABS light on the way home.

Who says living magically makes no sense?

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Mazda Glasson Feb 16Doris they called it, the storm I mean. We caught the scythe edge of it on Thursday as it advanced across the North, laid the grass flat and rippling in shivery silver waves. It pulled down trees and masonry too. It was looking a bit doubtful for my trip to Glasson Marina then, this last Friday of February. It would have made it four years in a row and on each occasion enjoying the harbingers of spring – soft sunshine, snowdrops and crocuses, and hares gambolling in the lush green meadows between Glasson and Cockerham.

Ah, well.

But come Friday Doris has moved her quietly watchful eye over the North, blessed us now with a brief, eerie calm, and several hours of clear blue. So, I wake the Mazda from her hibernation, and we head up the M6 to Lancaster, and Glasson.

The ticket machine at the marina is broken. It always is. There’s a number to ring so you can pay to park your car by phone but the number is broken too. It was broken last time, I recall. It’s only a pound all day , and I don’t begrudge it. I want to pay, but there is not the means of doing so. So, I tie on my boots, put on my winter layers and set off amid a gnawing anxiety about returning to find the Mazda slapped with a cunningly constructed penalty notice – this happens every time – the anxiety I mean, not the penalty notice.

I’m a little spooked by this weather. Four years in a row, this day has repeated itself, weather and all, this annual pilgrimage to the port of Glasson. It’s not a groundhog experience – more complicated than that. I live my life as normal all year, but on this one day, the last Friday of February, I step back into the same day, like an eternal recurrence.

cockeham-stoneOn this occasion, I am also on a mission. Last year, just along the coast here, I’d found a smooth-worn piece of standstone. Unremarkable you might say except this stone had once been part of the Abbey, long since demolished and recycled into the sea defences. It granted the stone a certain intangible, esoteric value and I’d made a promise with the abbey’s ghosts – I’ll take this home for luck, because its shape pleases me, I’ll keep it on my desk, turning it meditatively as I ponder my muse, then I’ll return it to the sea a year from now.

So here we are again. Same day, somehow slipped out of time – even a storm abated to make way, so I can keep my promise.

From the Marina we head out along the canal to the first bridge, pausing a while at the Christ’s Church, glowing in the the early morning sun, and we admire its displays of snowdrops and crocuses. Then from the bridge, we have a bit of quiet road walking, narrow lanes, south, before taking to the first of the boggy meadow paths, this one by Thursland hill fishery, and eventually out onto the causeway at Cockerham marsh.

It’s all wide blue sky and impossibly green meadows here, a pair of swans in one, stark white against the green, a pair of hares at play in another. There’s something neat and, compartmentalised about this, something symbolic, dreamlike even, and then,…our first impediment to progress, our first challenge: a gate, tied up with a tangle of wire and made so as not to be undone.

It makes me question my memory, my confidence, for sure the path leads through here? The map says yes, but there’s no way this gate is going to open, and all alternative routes lead astray. Something symbolic here also, I think. So I climb the gate and, not for the last time today, make good my course.

Gaining the causeway at Cockerham Marsh, I’m in time to see a Pilatus Turbo Porter, belonging to the Black Knights skydiving centre, hauling itself aloft with a penetrating buzz that vibrates in my skull. This is new to me. They have not flown on previous incarnations of this day.

Later, as I walk the causeway a couple of red chutes blossom in the blue. Men float to the ground, legs akimbo, wobbling. Their rate of descent looks faster than I’d be comfortable with. I’m reminded a man was killed here in 2012 when his chute didn’t open. It’s a sobering thought – a popular charity challenge, but leaping from a plane is no joke, and clearly not without its dangers, which I suppose is the attraction.

Anyway,…

It’s a gorgeous morning on the marsh – the tide is out, waders a plenty by the sparkling waterline – a mix of dunlin mostly, some curlew and the occasional splash of darting colour, and the shrill piping of oyster-catchers. These are the birds I can name, many I cannot. I kick against a curious piece of brass just along the way here, hear its metallic jingle underfoot. Curious, I pick it up.

What the Hell?

knuckledusterIt’s a knuckleduster, perfect fit too, but as I squeeze it into my fist, I feel a jarring of something unpleasant, imagine it smashing into someone’s jaw in a drunken brawl, blood, a spill of teeth, torn flesh. What foolishness and folly – the worst of mankind encapsulated in this one dumb object.

They are illegal to carry, and to sell in the UK, but not to own – one avoids prosecution I presume by not being caught with it in one’s possession. I don’t know what to do with it. If I drop it back onto the path, it’s there for the next passer by to chance upon it. And so what? I don’t know, but it doesn’t feel right, feel safe, so I slip it into my pocket for now, some possibly misguided sense of protection. I’ll have to think about it.

plover-scarAcross a vast, green, sea-scented sward I approach the Chapter House of the Abbey now, but what draws my eye is the Plover Scar Light, just off shore, or rather its absence from the receding tide. It was a rusty old thing, quaint, its architecture not quite of this world and having the look of something too long at sea without paint. And it’s mostly gone now, its stonework laid out methodically ashore, its foundations on the scar overlaid with an exoskeleton of scaffolding. A ship struck it some months ago, dealt it a mortal blow, but engineers are undertaking a painstaking restoration. It was always a beautiful subject for the camera – just Google Plover Scar Light for a sample. I shall have to wait for my next incarnation, next year, to get my picture.

slurryNear the old Lighthouse cottage I return
that smooth-worn piece of the abbey to the sea, keep my mysterious pact with the spirits of place. But it’s an ignominious ceremony overseen by a farmer shooting shit into the meadow across a fence, trundling slow with a giant tank of malodorous slurry. I’m upwind, so it doesn’t bother me, but I sit a while anyway, let him get on, not wanting to follow too close.

So,… the knuckleduster. It’s much pitted and spoiled by weather, but serviceable enough  and not beyond restoration – there are some  who have a morbid fascination for such things. I should take it home and saw it up perhaps? Take it out of circulation. But it feels like a contamination in my pocket, a really bad vibe, bad Karma rising from it like the stench of that slurry now. So how about I throw it into the sea? But might the sea not throw it back, come the next storm, for other hands to find?

gateIt’s about six miles round and back to Glasson. But at five miles I come upon my second impediment to progress ,and this one more serious. It’s a gate that lets on to a section of path that is now submerged by flooding. Someone has laid a precarious looking plank across the gap. The water beyond the gate, under that plank is waist deep and very, very cold. It gives me pause, but the alternative is several miles of backtracking.

I accept the challenge -something bloody minded in my attitude to risk this morning – I mean if people can leap from aeroplanes,… So, I stride out over several feet of water, onto the first bar of the semi-submerged gate, climb the gate, descend to balance on the plank on the other side. Then it’s a deep breath and a couple of steps to the dry land, the plank bending under my weight as I go, so the water comes within inches of overtopping my boots. But I make it over with dry feet.

As a marked track, the Lancashire coastal way is not without its spice!

Finally it’s back along the canal with it’s colourful barges, their chimneys now smoking cosily, and to Glasson Basin where the Mazda basks in the sun, awaiting its long run home. There’s no penalty notice stuck to the windscreen. Glasson keeps its pact with me, as I kept my pact with the ghosts of the abbey. And that knuckleduster? Let’s just say I lost it along the way, lost it somewhere safe where no one,  will ever find it again and from where the sea can never toss it back.

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