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Whinlatter Forest & Visitor Centre
Whinlatter Forest & Visitor Centre

St. Bees Head by Ian Atkinson
The rugged coast at St. Bees is no stranger to tragedy. In 1879 the barque, Luigi Olivari, carrying a cargo of grain from Philadelphia to Silloth, almost made it only to flounder at St. Bees Head with the loss of all on board.

In 1901 the schooner ‘WRT of Truro’ also succumbed to the elements with three drowned, and only six years later the steamship ‘Izaro’ was stranded on the rocks. Luckily this time there was time to get the crew to safety before the hull split and the ship sank. Rusted sections of the Izaro still protrude from St. Bees beach at low tide.

St. Bees Head from Above St. Bees Head from Above

I know from personal experience how unforgiving this deceptively tranquil place can be. In the summer of 1970, along with three friends, I was nearly drowned at St. Bees. We were trying to navigate our way around the base of the sea-cliffs to the remote shingle beach at Fleswick Bay, nestled between the twin sandstone buttresses of St. Bees Head. Normal people access Fleswick Bay by way of the cliff-top path, but we were thirteen and daft and, though far quicker, the path was laborious and no fun at all. Our way, not only did we get a great view of the seabird colony nesting on the cliffs, but there were hundreds of rock-pools to explore on the way. To make headway we had to negotiate the monolithic boulders that litter the slender shoreline; huge edifices bearing ornate carved signatures claiming to be centuries old.

But, as we were soon to discover, our way had one major flaw, one involving the gravitational pull of the moon and the elemental power of the oceans.

Thirty feet from the cliff face the shore plummeted away and the sudden depth turned the sea cobalt-blue. As we jumped from boulder to boulder and squatted by rock pools blithely searching for fish and molluscs, the tide was steadily encroaching. The water went from gently lapping the rocks to slapping them.

Soon, full-blown waves began to appear, pushed shoreward by vast rolling swells that stretched to the horizon and drew their power from much further out to sea. We were in the worst possible place at the worst possible time. Before we sensed the peril we were about half-way around and were left with a stark choice; forge on, or turn back. A look back the way we’d come was enough to convince us that Fleswick Bay was our best chance, so we moved close to the base of the cliff and began to jump and claw our way around the first promontory.

For a while we could see neither St.Bees nor Fleswick Bay. We struggled on and soon rounded the point, but any relief we might have felt was short-lived. The outlook was shocking. The tide was battering the shore, sending tons of surf spuming through gaps in the boulders and pounding the cliff face, sending mist and spray high into the air. The mocking calls of gulls sliced through the din, and I remember we stood, unspeaking, and had a desperate four-way Bonnie and Clyde moment.
We searched the rock-face for handholds, some way of reaching a vantage point where we could sit it out, but there was nothing, and we had no choice but to keep going. Somehow, incredibly, a frantic half-hour later, exhausted and bedraggled, bodies stinging from brine-washed barnacle scrapes, four humbled individuals stumbled the final few feet to the safety of Fleswick Bay.

I remember on the walk back we were full of bravado, reliving skirmishes with giant waves and celebrating moments of individual derring-do, but we had the legs of new-born foals and the silences, when they came, were fraught.

I’m not the sort to let that one bad experience put me off St. Bees, but I came to love that cliff-top path. Thanks to the only sea-cliffs in our region, (and the three viewing platforms erected by those intrepid people at the RSPB), St. Bees Head offers a unique and often spectacular day’s birding. I usually manage at least one visit a year, mainly during the breeding season when the place is thronging with nesting seabirds, but sometimes in late summer or autumn to watch for gannets and other migrants travelling offshore.

This year I went at the beginning of June and things were in full swing. It was a still, sultry day and the smell of guano was wafting up on thermals from the cliffs below. Large numbers of birds were coming and going, ferrying food to their nests; guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake, fulmar, raising families on precarious ledges and fending off the attentions of gulls, ravens and the occasional peregrine falcon.

I made the first summit and stopped to take in the view, (and to catch my breath), and was treated to a lingering, eye-level encounter with a fulmar, a diminutive albatross, soaring close by on rigid wings.

Fleswick Bay
Fleswick Bay

Close to the sun, a skylark, Wordsworth’s ‘Ethereal minstrel’, sang his heart out, a mere speck in the sky. The sea was dead-calm and rafts of auks were clustered offshore. A pair of ravens climbed into the blue and tumbled haphazardly into the void. The Isle of Man and the sprawl of Dumfries and Galloway were clearly visible, and I stood a while until a tiny, belligerent stonechat puffed out his russet chest and launched himself from a growth of furze, tac-tacking loudly, and bullied me off his patch.

I pressed on to the other side and down the gulley that opens onto Fleswick Bay. Human traffic here is sparse. (The only person I saw was a man throwing stones at an irate fulmar that was relentlessly dive-bombing his dog). About a hundred yards long, the narrow shingle beach is walled-in on three sides by a huge expanse of rock, and on the other by the sea; a real Shangri-La. I walked its length beachcombing, (a complete razor shell and a mermaid’s purse), and had a brew and a sandwich on the flat sandstone giant at ‘Salvation Point’.

The sun had reached its zenith and a heat-haze blurred the terracotta cliff-face. The ebb-tide was becalmed, a sleeping behemoth licking timidly at the shore. Fulmars patrolled the air with majestic ease. (I watched one until my neck ached and it never beat its wings once).

Guillemots on the Cliffs
Guillemots on the Cliffs

Cormorant chicks called gruffly from above as their ungainly parents approached at speed and used their feet for brakes. Tranquillity reigned and I sat for a half-hour, lost in thought. A solitary black guillemot drifted idly, very much at home close to the point where once, having survived the deluge, four callow youths dropped to their knees and laughed until they cried.

From here I was heading to Whitehaven for a beer and a catch-up with an old friend. It was a two-hour walk so I reluctantly left Fleswick Bay behind and set off towards the lighthouse. The viewing platforms are all on this second leg, and at the first there was instant drama as a raven swaggered into the auk colony and plundered the solitary egg from beneath a sitting guillemot, causing pandemonium on an already overcrowded ledge.

Higher still, two rival kittiwakes grabbed each others’ tails and rolled through the air, a scraggy ball of noise that plummeted into the abyss and parted less than a yard from the sea’s teal-green surface.

I scoured the bustling host of birds hoping to see a puffin but had no joy. That’s two years now. Let’s hope I’ve not been observant enough.

By way of compensation I did get a splendid view of a regal-looking, thoroughbred Rock Dove, perched on the tip of a jutting sandstone slab. Now uncommon, the true Rock Dove is the original pigeon, ancestor to every feral pigeon. But, in stark contrast to the sad army of threadbare hybrids that limp around our town centres today, this beautiful, dapper bird, with its iridescent headdress and black-barred, slate wings, was absolutely stunning.

I can’t believe that a pigeon was the highlight of a day’s birding, a great day’s birding at that, but there it is. Of course you don’t have to be a keen birder to enjoy a walk over St. Bees Head and be impressed by the wildlife spectacle, and there’s no finer place than Fleswick Bay to sit and feel at one with it all.

If you don’t fancy the trek from St. Bees, the viewing platforms and Fleswick Bay can be accessed with less effort by car via Sandwith, parking at the farm there, putting two quid in the margarine tub at the front door, and following the path past the lighthouse and back towards St. Bees; but be warned, despite being the area’s only tall, brilliant-white building with a flashing, man-sized zillion-watt bulb in the top, the lighthouse isn’t easy to find first time.

If you need to ask for directions, it helps to know that in these parts Sandwith is pronounced Sanneth.

Ian Atkinson

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