Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Sands of Time

Amongst the castles, gardens and other historic sites that make up the tourist attractions of Great Britain there lie other quirky and eccentric historical stories that also contribute to our heritage. One of these is the Queen’s guide to the Sands.

The Queen’s Guide to the Sands is a very romantic title for a very practical job.   The post of “Royal Guide to the Sands” has existed since the 1500s with the brief of guiding travellers safely across the desolate expanse of Morecambe Bay, 120 square miles of sand on the north west coast of England that contains dykes, a river, quicksands and dangerous tides that are said to come in “as fast as a horse can run.” To the north of the bay lie the mountains of the Lake District, cutting off the coastal land and making this one of the most isolated spots in England.  Morecambe Bay apparently first got its name in 1771 when the historian John Whitaker suggested that it was a tidal flat described by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in the second century AD.

Prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, the job of guide had been done by the monks of the nearby Cartmel Priory. The priory was founded in 1190 and it’s original gatehouse dating from 1330 still stands. After the Dissolution, however, there was no one to guide travellers over the four mile crossing and so local villagers petitioned King Henry VIII for help and the post of Royal Guide was created. Despite this, the dangers of the bay are legendary. In 1725 the Rev John Lucas wrote of a sandbank collapsing to reveal “the corpse of a man dressed in clothes from an earlier age, still clutching his whip in his hand.”

There have been 25 Royal Guides since the post was invented and the job comes with a cottage, Guides Farm, and a salary of £15 per annum which is paid by Lord Cavendish of Holker Hall. The Hall is open to the public to visit, as is Cartmel Priory.

Royal Guides have used the same method since the 1700s, cutting laurel branches to mark a route for safe passage across the sands. A painting by Turner of cockle pickers on the sands shows the use of laurel stakes back in the 18th century. Before the coming of the railway in the 1860s the sands were a major transport route with coaches and horses sometimes racing the tide. These days Cedric Robinson, the current Queen’s Guide, takes groups of walkers across the sands, many of whom do the four mile walk to raise funds for charity. It's amazing to think that a role that began centuries ago still has a place in the modern age of high speed transport but if you are looking for history and a slower crossing of the sands you can still engage the Queen's Guide to take you across.

Picture credits:The Tate Gallery and


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What an interesting post, Nicola. I've heard about the dangers of quicksands at Morecombe Bay but I didn't know about the Queen's Guide to the Sands - what a wonderful 'occupation' description for one's passport!

And the Turner painting is just beautiful, so full of light.

Jo Beverley said...

I was born in Morecambe, in a room overlooking the sands. I have to object a bit to the bleak description, because it's actually a very pretty place with the backdrop of the hills on the other side. (Not your description, Nicola, but others.)

I grew up on the beach whenever the weather was fine, and we were all trained from an early age on the dangers of the sands. The sea goes all the way out at low tide, leaving very inviting sands, but we stayed close to shore. The instinct stays with me still. I was in a coastal town in Washington state and the tide went out in the bay, so people were walking out on the smooth sands. I couldn't do it. Perhaps there's a deeper instinct, because later I learned the sands can be treacherous there, but not to the same extent as in Morecambe Bay.

I'm not sure I could walk across the sands, even with a guide!

There have always been tragedies there, and they continue. There were the foreign shrimpers, who didn't know. A lad on a motorbike who couldn't be got out. Also a man with his young son, who was on his mobile phone all the time, but they couldn't be saved.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks you, Elizabeth. Yes, that one would cause some comment at passport control! I think it's wonderful that such a role has been going for hundreds of years.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you so much, Jo. What a fascinating insight into what it was like to grow up in Morecambe and to know about the dangers of the sands. We had family there and I visited Grange-Over-Sands a lot as a child. I completely agree with you about the natural beauty of the area.

Helena said...

Thank you for an interesting post, especially since it prompted such a good response from Jo.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks, Helena. Yes, Jo's insight is fascinating isn't it. It's so interesting how lessons like that learned very young will stay with you.

Mary Jo Putney said...

Fascinating, Nicola, especially since Jo actually grew up there. I remember a place of fast, shimmering sands on the south coast of Wales, and this sounds like the same only more so. Horrifying to think of the man and his son out there with him on the cell phone, yet they couldn't be rescued. Nature is not mocked.