Guide to Arnside and Silverdale: walking, wildlife, where to stay and eat

Between the shimmering sandflats of Morecambe Bay and the high crags of Hutton Roof lies a forgotten Eden, where birds and butterflies thrive in the meres and woodlands.

Sunset at Arnside Knott

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Our islands specialise in hidden utopias. One of the very best of these contains a small (75 square miles) Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Arnside and Silverdale AONB on the border of Lancashire and Cumbria.

Leighton Moss, Lancashire, England
Leighton Moss, Lancashire, England
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Guide to Arnside and Silverdale, including the best places to visit, where to stay and eat and why the landscape is so special.

Why visit Arnside and Silverdale?

This is no mere landscape, for it reaches out into the silvery seascape of the Morecambe Bay estuary and into the skyscape. More importantly, it is a dreamscape: a place to stop and stare, where dreams may come true. It is a part of paradise that fell to earth, liked where it landed and stayed.

Many of us have sped past, usually at the end of fraught journeys up the M6 to the Lake District, not knowing that we have bypassed somewhere arguably even more special. This is nothing new; followers of the picturesque movement shot by on the newly established coaching routes. The Lakeland poets followed suit. Wordsworth could have written his greatest poem here, Silverdale. Coleridge might never have dreamed more sweetly than here, loving its blend of quietude and awe. Eventually, Edward Thomas made it here, describing it in The Sheiling as: “A land of rocks and trees / Nourished on wind and stone.”

donis blue male butterfly Lysandra bellargus, Getty

Landscape and habitats of Arnside and Silverdale

This landscape has almost stood apart from history. It has largely done its own thing, and has more of a sense of timelessness than of time. There is but one hillfort, a paltry affair on the summit of Warton Crag. Much of the terrain is too rocky for the plough, or even for the tractor. Some hillsides, to the east and south of Arnside, at Warton, and just east of the motorway near Burton-in-Kendal have been quarried, primarily for roadstone, but most of the slopes either grow hill sheep or trees. There is a long history of coppicing here – for charcoal, tanning, fuel and bobbins for the Lancashire mills. The dark satanic mills must have consumed myriad bobbins, for just about every tree has been coppiced here, many times.

Today, coppicing is practised primarily for nature conservation, for the woods are of immense importance for wildlife; as indeed are the limestone grasslands and pavements, the peaty wetlands and the rock and salt-marsh shorelines.

Jenny Brown’s Point and Jack Scout, Lancashire
Jenny Brown’s Point and Jack Scout, Lancashire
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Geology of Arnside and Silverdale

Geology is at the root of the deep magic of the place. This is carboniferous limestone terrain, of stand-alone hills with scree slopes and outcrops of limestone pavement, separated by meandering peaty valleys that grow rocky hillocks, cows and wildlife. It is well wooded too, with most of the woods being ancient in nature and unblemished by 20th-century coniferisation. All this forms an intimate landscape mosaic that offers great connectivity for the more mobile species of plants and animals.

But there is an extra dimension to this district, concerning the intensity of light. This is something to do with the way sunlight reflects off the grey limestone walls, paths, rocks and slopes of scree and clitter, while being absorbed by the woods, especially by the sombre yews. This creates a curious juxtaposition of lightness and darkness that only an artist could capture, and a poet articulate.


Wildlife of Arnside and Silverdale

Ecologically, the district lies along the boundary of north and south – where plants and animals of the far south occur at the northern limit of their UK range, and vice versa. The result is a naturalist’s paradise, though climate change is already impacting hugely on this heady mix. The botany is renowned, including local specialists such as dark red helleborine and top national rarities including the Teesdale violet. It is also a nationally important area for butterflies, notably for the rare high brown fritillary and other fritillary butterflies, and for the Scotch argus, whose outpost on Arnside Knott marks the very southern limit of its range.

Dark red helleborine orchid, also known as royal helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens)
Look out for the dark red helleborine orchid, also known as royal helleborine (Epipactis atrorubens)
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The Morecambe Bay area is one of our richest districts for butterflies, with 36 species occurring there annually. Remarkably, seven are recent colonists – species that are moving north in response to warmer conditions caused by climate change. But despite brilliant conservation efforts, some of the rarities for which the region is noted are in serious decline: the high brown and pearl-bordered fritillaries are now all but confined to the Whitbarrow area, and the Scotch argus has dwindled alarmingly on Arnside Knott. Climate change – in the form of milder winters that exacerbate grass and bramble cover and crowd out essential bare ground – is thought to be the main difficulty. Nitrogen deposition is another major problem. These issues probably explain why the reintroduction of coppicing in the woods has not yet benefited the fritillary butterflies greatly.

Lancaster University is leading the research to find solutions. Butterfly Conservation is running a project to reverse the decline of the Duke of Burgundy in the region. Cumbria Wildlife Trust (CWT) has restored raised bogs around Witherslack, to the benefit of the large heath and green hairstreak colonies. Some other species are thriving, notably the small pearl-bordered fritillary, the speckled wood and the ringlet.

Pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly
Pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies are in decline in the area
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Best sunsets in Britain?

This area specialises in sunsets. Each sunlit day, the shallow estuarine waters gleam silver, only to harmonise with the sky at sunset, to flame blood-orange before turning rose-red at dusk. And the climate here is sunnier and drier than in neighbouring Lakeland: one can sit contentedly on one of the northern hills and watch meteorological Armageddon raging over the Lake District high fells to
the north of the River Kent estuary.

Sunset at Arnside Knott
A limestone path weaves down 159-metre-tall Arnside Knott towards the estuary – where the River Kent empties into Morecambe Bay – as  the sun lowers behind the southern Lakeland fells
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Arnside and Silverdale through the seasons

There is a distinct aura of timelessness here, though the sense of seasonality is also strong, with concertinaed springs and short, bittersweet summers. Autumn’s first tinges are felt here in early August, and the winters may prove too long for many of us.


Walking in Arnside and Silverdale

The AONB’s labyrinthine network of lanes and footpaths is perfect for pottering, and central to the intense feeling of spirit of place that pervades throughout. Here one can bumble peacefully all day, though the downslope rocky paths are slippery when wet and there are ankle-twisting humps, bumps and trippy tree roots. These paths are not for hurrying. And this is pepper-pot country, for there are stone cairns dotted about all over the place, high and low. Some are almost impossible to find, and even harder to refind.


Where to visit

Arnside

The town of Arnside, with its Victorian promenade and arching railway bridge across the Kent, overlooks this strongly tidal estuary. In summer, Arnside is run by its swifts, which scream over its rooftops each evening.

Arnside, promenade and Kent estuary, Cumbria
Arnside promenade and Kent estuary, Cumbria
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Silverdale

Silverdale is a rather disparate place – a parish of whitewashed houses that sprawls peacefully over hillocky land. It is perhaps more of a state of mind allied to the Quaker movement (which has roots at nearby Yealand) than anything else. This is borne out by the fact that many a house, street and, curiously, cul-de-sac elsewhere is named after this village idyll.

Warton Crag

The village of Warton, above the small railway town of Carnforth, forms the AONB’s southern boundary. Above it stands Warton Crag, the southernmost of the limestone hills. The old A6 runs along the AONB’s eastern boundary, but the hills continue and tower proudly above the M6, a mile or so to the east, before marching off towards the Yorkshire Dales. The broad estuary of the River Kent, which flows down from Kendal, forms the northern boundary.

View from Warton Crag across Morecambe Bay
View from Warton Crag across Morecambe Bay
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Meathop Moss

Meathop Moss near Witherslack is a butterfly-rich raised bog with boardwalk. cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves/meathop-moss

Whitbarrow

Administrative boundaries often belittle landscapes, especially here, for the limestone hills rampantly cross the Kent estuary to invade the southern end of the Lake District National Park. Here stands Whitbarrow, a haughty scarred limestone massif that scarcely seems British, though it could perhaps be twinned with Great Orme’s Head on the Clwyd coast. It takes two full days to explore Whitbarrow, and longer still for it to accept you.

Whitbarrow Scar
Whitbarrow, a haughty scarred limestone massif
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Heathwaite

Heathwaite, the lower hill west of Arnside Knott, offers a fine view over Silverdale estuary.

Yewbarrow

To the west is a lower, calmer limestone hill, Yewbarrow, above the paradisiacal village of Witherslack. The limestone eventually peters out at Humphrey Head, just beyond the coastal retirement town of Grange-over-Sands.

Grange-Over-Sands, Cumbria
Grange-Over-Sands, Cumbria
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Gait Barrows NNR

Gait Barrows NNR near Carnforth provides an excellent example of limestone pavement. arnsidesilverdaleaonb.org.uk/gait-barrows

The Fairy Steps

The Fairy Steps near Beetham is a childhood delight ascending a short scar edge.

Arnside Knott

The area contains some of the richest wildlife sites in Britain: the reedbed wetlands of the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve and Hawes Water at Silverdale, just about any of the woods, the limestone pavements of Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve, Hutton Roof and Holme Park Fell, and the limestone pasture and scrub mosaics of Arnside Knott, Whitbarrow and Yewbarrow are all essential visiting for the keen naturalist. Perhaps the National Trust’s Arnside Knott should be your first port of call, for from its summit the whole landscape can be appraised – though beware, the Knott may seek to seduce you into wanting to stay forever, transfixed by wonder.

Arnside Knott and the Kent estuary
Looking from Arnside Knott across the Kent estuary
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Jenny Brown’s Point and Jack Scout

Jenny Brown’s Point and Jack Scout (NT) are close by on the Silverdale coast. Sit on the Giant’s Seat to enjoy the view. nationaltrust.org.uk/arnside-and-silverdale/features/jack-scout

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Levens Hall

Levens Hall is an Elizabethan manor with an extraordinary yew topiary garden. levenshall.co.uk

Levens Hall, Cumbria
Visit Elizabethan Levens Hall
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Places to stay

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks

 Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is perfectly placed on the promenade, offering stunning views across the Kent Estuary to the Lakeland mountains from its terraced garden. Originally built in 1660, a large variety of rooms are available. Breakfast is included in the price, and the pub also serves meals at lunchtime and in the evenings.

Challan Hall, near Silverdale

This B&B overlooking the ‘original’ Lake Hawes Water, complete with booming bitterns and hovering marsh harriers at breakfast, also offers self-catering cottage lets. challanhall.co.uk/arnside-silverdale

Number 43, Arnside

A boutique B&B on The Promenade with an airy lounge and relaxing terrace from which to watch wildlife over breakfast. no43.org.uk

Hollins Farm Holiday Park, Far Arnside 

This campsite at the foot of Arnside Knott offers both pitches and glamping pods, plus access to a café, bar and swimming pool at the nearby Holgates site. holgates.co.uk/hollins-farm


Where to eat

The Albion, Arnside

Situated on the Promenade, The Albion (above) offers good food of local provenance and views of superb sunsets. albionarnside.co.uk albionarnside.co.uk
The Albion, overlooking the Kent Estuary, in the village of Arnside, Cumbria
Enjoy s drink on the terrace of the Albion pub, overlooking the Kent Estuary, in the village of Arnside
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Kingfisher

The Kingfisher in neighbouring Sandside offers a modern restaurant with stunning views across the estuary. Its menus are produced using locally sourced ingredients, and offer both an a la carte menu (with prices from around £6 for starters and £14 for mains). kingfishersandside.co.uk

The Old Bakehouse Café, Arnside

Dog-friendly café serving freshly made pastries. oldbakehousearnside.co.uk

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, Arnside

Overlooking the estuary, this hotel and pub provides fresh homemade meals and Sunday roasts. fightingcocksarnside.co.uk

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in Arnside, Cumbria
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in Arnside
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Woodlands Hotel, Silverdale

A charming community-owned pub.  facebook.com/WoodiesSilverdale

Wolf & Us, Silverdale

Excellent cake and wholesome food, with seafood and wood-fired pizza in the evening.
facebook.com/pages/category/Coffee-Shop/Wolf-Us-2298913283668025

Old Beetham Post Office, Beetham

A village store and tea room with superb cakes. facebook.com/beethampo

The Old Beetham Post Office is a shop and tea room
The Old Beetham Post Office is a shop and tea room
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How to get there

The AONB is just off junctions 35 and 36 of the M6. The Furness railway line runs through it, with stations at Silverdale (+ shuttle bus link to the village centre) and Arnside, linked to the north-west mainline from the station at Lancaster. There is also a Stagecoach link with Lancaster. See the Greentraveller website: greentraveller.co.uk/arnside-and-silverdale-aonb

Most people who come here are seeking peace and natural beauty. Many are on walking holidays. Some have ancestral links with the Red Rose County.

Many naturalists visit in July to see the butterflies, and birders visit the RSPB wetland reserve at Leighton Moss all year round. Consequently, there are no tourist grot-spots (though one static caravan site is perhaps overlarge). Book your accommodation in advance. Don’t arrive on spec: the district has limited capacity and is often full. Above all, this is not a place to visit but once. You will return.


About the writer: Matthew Oates

In the early 1980s, Matthew Oates surveyed butterfly populations in the Morecambe Bay area. He went on to work for the National Trust. His latest book is His Imperial Majesty: A Natural History of the Purple Emperor.