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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Meathop Moss near Witherslack is a butterfly-rich raised bog with boardwalk. cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves/meathop-moss
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.
Heathwaite, the lower hill west of Arnside Knott, offers a fine view over Silverdale estuary.
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.
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.
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.
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
Levens Hall is an Elizabethan manor with an extraordinary yew topiary garden. levenshall.co.uk
Places to stay
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks
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
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.