Salt-marsh, limestone pavement and lush green valleys: Jo Keeling experiences a wealth of landscapes in one day, on a bike ride through the Arnside & Silverdale AONB
Fuelled by a hearty cooked breakfast and armed with a wealth of recommendations from Jason of Silverdale Cycle Hire, I set out from Arnside on a warm but breezy day in June, whizzing past clusters of birdwatchers and train spotters, scopes and lenses at the ready, on the Arnside promenade. Although this was only my second visit to the AONB, I was already beginning to love the unhurried charm of this Victorian seaside resort. Mostly I enjoyed the sense of expectation behind its easy going atmosphere, and I was coming to realise that if you spot lines of visitors looking out over the estuary, it usually means something exciting is about to happen: the tidal bore is approaching or a steam train is due to cross the bridge.
The viaduct at Arnside nips the Kent Estuary in like a belt, and it’s here that the tidal bore is most impressive, crashing in to the bridge’s 50 stocky supports with a roaring fuss, as it has been doing since the line opened in 1857. But now, turning left under a railway bridge and heading north towards the aptly-named Sandside, I noticed the estuary broaden and unwind. I passed a row of ten or more anglers casting their lines into the incoming tide. On the far side, the foothills of the Langdales and Coniston Old Man beckoned.
On the corner at Sandside, I paused at a knot of white cottages by the enviably well-set Ship Inn, which dates back to 1671. But it was too early for the pitstop, so I pedalled on until I reached a limestone bridge over the River Bela and picked up a track (NCP Route 6) through Dallam Tower deer park. I’d heard tell of the diversity of landscapes in this pint-sized AONB, but as I pedalled up the slow incline towards Beetham, catching glimpses of fallow deer sheltering beneath ancient trees, it struck me that I could quite easily be in the Forest of Bowland. Moments earlier, I had been enjoying the salt-marsh and wader-rich mudflats of Morecambe Bay, while I had awoken to views of Arnside Knott, which feels far closer to the landscape of the Lake District.
Here be fairies
Beetham is one of those pretty-as-a-postcard villages that will stop you in your tracks. You have a choice of pitstops: afternoon tea at the Old Post Office Tea Room or a pint at the wood-clad Wheatsheaf Inn, which has been welcoming guests since 1609 - first as a farmhouse providing meals to local farm labourers and later as a coaching stop for folk travelling from Lancaster to Carlisle. After re-fuelling, I took a detour to Heron Corn Mill, just a few minutes from the village. It’s a fascinating insight into the mechanics of an 18th century mill. Once the volunteers have the water rushing through the old mill wheel, you can lose yourself in a clunky cacophony of wooden cogs turning, conveyor belts clattering and a giant sieve spinning like a tumble dryer.
With the day still young, and cake and tea in my belly, I decided to seek out the rather intriguing Fairy Steps, which are about 25 minutes walk south west from the village. I found the route to the steps almost as enchanting as the final destination, as I picked up a winding path through woodland littered with ruins, moss-drenched dry stone walls and scars of lowland limestone. At first, it felt like I was following a path deeper into Tolkien’s Mirkwood; then later, as I stumbled upon yew trees ripping through limestone grykes with roots that spilled down like melted wax, perhaps a British version of Angkor Wat. The ‘steps’ refer to a rough-hewn stone staircase between a narrow cleft of limestone. Legend has it that if you can walk through the passage without touching the sides then you will be granted a wish by the fairies. I failed, as I’m sure most have before me.
Lady's Slipper Orchid
Clints and grykes
Hopping back on the saddle, I knuckled down on the first real hill of the route, through the village of Slackhead, then followed quiet leafy lanes until I saw a turn off for Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve, a mosaic of limestone habitats spanning 121 hectares and an unmissible highlight of the AONB.
This is one of the best sites to explore the limestone pavement that makes this area of the country unique. Lowland limestone has an entirely different character to its upland counterpart. At Malham Cove and Ingleborough, it’s epic and exposed, while here it’s otherworldly and hidden within woodland, creating a moonscape of clints and grykes. Stunted ash and hazel trees push up through the gaps (many of which are 100s of years old, although they still look like saplings), while rare limestone-loving plants such as the rigid buckler fern, dark-red helleborine and limestone fern find homes within the sheltered grykes. If you could explore deeper, you’d find liverworts and mosses thriving in the deeper fissures.
This unique wilderness is home to an array of woodland birds, rare butterflies and wildflowers. Look out for brimstone, high brown fritillary and the elegantly-named Duke of Burgundy butterflies, which thrive in the sheltered conditions, while marsh harriers display mid-air acrobatics over Hawes Water. If you visit in spring, you might even be lucky enough to spot the Lady’s Slipper orchid – Britain’s rarest flower.
A low tide treat
After a giddy downhill section (followed, inevitably, by the second stretch of hills on the approach to Silverdale), I found myself ready for lunch. Wolfhouse Kitchen, which is fast becoming a social hub provided the necessary fuel. I somehow managed to resist choosing one of their 20 varieties of cake and opted for a delicious and energising kedgeree.
Having recharged my legs, I took a detour to Jenny Brown’s Point. At high tide, you can watch flocks of waders roosting on the salt marsh towards Leighton Moss, but low tide had a charm of its own. Here I found absolute silence and an ever-changing web of shimmering channels.
After an afternoon pootling around Silverdale, I pushed through the final slow burning hill to the east of the Knott, then free-wheeled back into Arnside with only one thing on my mind: fish and chips from the renowned chip shop on the prom. As I was coming to realise, Arnside is a place to enjoy life’s simple pleasures and a well-deserved portion of fish and chips is certainly one of them.
Words by Jo Keeling