Day Out: Fleswick Bay, St Bees Head, Cumbria

Discover a remote coastal stretch of cliffs, caverns and boulders in which illegal goods were stashed during the 19th century

Waves, beach and cliff
Published: April 3rd, 2021 at 10:13 am
Summer Sale Offer | Get 3 issues for just £5 - save 67% off the shop price

In recent years, Fleswick Bay, at the westernmost tip of Cumbria, has become familiar to walkers setting out on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk. Go back a generation and it was known only to a tiny proportion of the local population. Go back farther still, and a 19th-century visitor might have found himself surrounded by a band of smugglers.


The main source of this nefarious industry can be seen to the west, on a clear day, when the Isle of Man hovers like a treasure island on the horizon. Of the many landing places for contraband around the Solway coast, Fleswick Bay was almost perfect, cut off from the rest of the country by high cliffs and accessible only from the sea or through a narrow gorge.

Person in coastal cave
St Bees Head, Cumbria/Credit: Alamy

Wildlife at St Bees

The approach from the car park at St Bees beach follows the edge of the cliffs for a little over a mile. In spring and summer, every ledge on the precipice is packed to capacity with herring gulls, kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills and guillemots, including England’s only nesting black guillemots. Indeed, the cliffs of St Bees Head are a nature reserve belonging to the RSPB. The descent brings you to the gorge, through which a stream trickles into the bay, losing itself amid the shingle that carpets the red sandstone bedrock.

Bird on rock
Spot kittiwakes at RSPB St Bees Head/Credit: Getty

Behind the boulders to the north of the beach, which themselves provide plenty of places to escape the eyes of the excise men, is a cave large enough to hide smugglers as well as substantial volumes of their illegally imported goods.

Carved into the cave walls, often with exquisite calligraphy, are the names of people who came here from the mid-19th century, possibly with intentions that fell well short of the legitimate. This is a place where children can allow their imaginations to fly freely for a few hours.

And while the youngsters are creating adventures, adults (aka bigger children) can indulge their fantasies by searching for real treasures, for among the myriad pebbles that cover the entire beach, are semi-precious agates, garnets and jaspers.

Waves and coastline
The waves roll in from the Irish sea and crash against the rocks. The small village of St Bees and the surrounding area can be seen/Credit: Getty

Fleswick Bay

Fleswick Bay can also be reached from Sandwith, to the north. The road from the village is private, but cars are permitted if you park, for a small fee, at Tarnflatt Hall farm. From there, a short walk brings you to the lighthouse and on to the cliff top.

Carrying on south, pass Lawson’s Leap – apparently named for a local character who thought he could survive the jump. A huge section of cliff has become detached, and will surely fall soon. A gentle descent brings you to the ‘smuggler’s steps’, which
drop more steeply into the entrance gorge.


Naval attack at St Bees

A notorious act of piracy occurred in 1778, during the American War of Independence, when Scotsman John Paul Jones, ‘Father of the American Navy’, attacked nearby Whitehaven, setting fire to ships in the harbour. An irony of this is that George Washington’s grandmother is buried in St Nicholas’s churchyard in Whitehaven.


Anthony Toole
Anthony TooleFreelance travel and science writer

Anthony has published more than 500 magazine and online features about his visits to more than 20 countries.


Sponsored content