And so to the second of my subjects in the hinterland of Morecambe Bay… once I’ve told you a little about the bay itself. This is the largest area of tidal mudflats and sand in the UK, though The Wash was more notorious for much of history after King John’s disaster there (which led to schoolboy jokes about him losing his clothes in the wash). All of that changed in February 2004.
The bay is passable in between tides and for centuries those heading north to the Lake District would employ the services of locals who bore the title “Queen’s Guide to the Sands” to avoid the many quicksands and safely cross before the incoming tides swamped them. Spending time in Grange over Sands some decades ago there used to a some sort of warning klaxon or siren to indicate the turning of the tides I seem to recall.
The mudflats are rich in shellfish, which attracts plenty of seabirds, but on the 23rd February 2004 it wasn’t birds that were caught out by the tides. A group of illegal Chinese immigrants who had been smuggled into the county in shipping containers, effectively to work as slaves, were on the sands gathering cockles when the tide turned. Unfamiliar with the hazards and the geography 21 of them drowned.
On the day of my visit another drama was playing out. I’d spotted the “lifeboat” out in the bay as I was making my way along the shore, though because of the particular topography here the RNLI actually use a hovercraft. A little while later a police helicopter appeared overhead too. My thoughts that this was no training exercise were confirmed when I encountered coastguards scanning the shimmering horizon for signs of life. Seemingly a “despondent man had entered the sea” nearby. They following day they were looking for his body.
It was a different sort of salvation that brought me here though. I’d come to find Cockersand Abbey (or what remains of it). There has been a hospital (in the medieval sense) here since the 12th century though it was promoted to abbey status in the same period. The site may have had a religious function even early than this as finds of Roman silverware were made nearby in the 18th century.
Naturally the abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution and the land was sold on. In such a remote spot there wasn’t reason to maintain the buildings and these are now little more than bulges of fallen masonry beneath the soil, with the exception of a single structure. The Chapter House, built in 1230, was put to use as a mausoleum by the land owner in the 18th and 19th centuries, and more recently still has been given Grade I listed status.