There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 19 August 2011

Morecambe Bay and Sunderland Point

[Addition 31/05/2014 at end]
I find the sight of Morecambe Bay both awe inspiring and unsettling. 310 square kilometres of sand and mudflats is not only a vast expanse of nothing, it is an expanse of nothing with a strangely threatening air. And the threat is real. The quicksands are dangerous, but it is the tides that have been the great killer over the years. Amongst the highest in the world, they sweep in faster than a man can run. Sand bars that are almost undetectable by the naked eye are first cut off and then submerged. 23 Chinese cockle pickers, many of them illegal immigrants, died here in February 2004 when they were caught out by the tide.

Morecambe Bay as the tide comes in
The 2004 Gangmaster Licensing Act was a direct consequence of this disaster, but passing well-meaning legislation is easier than enforcing it. The cockle beds closed in 2005, more as a measure to conserve the cockles than the cockle pickers. They will reopen one day soon, and I hope they will be worked by local cocklers who have the skill and knowledge to do the job safely.

The River Lune flows into the bay a few miles south of the town of Morecambe. Sunderland Point, on the northern side of the river mouth, is a low-lying projection into the wasteland of mud and silt. At high tide in spring and autumn, the tip of the point becomes an island, but the rest of the time the village of Sunderland is connected to the mainland by a single-track causeway.

The Sunderland Point Causeway

Samphire grows abundantly along the roadside, while around it the normally flat mud has been sculpted into mounds and water-filled hollows. A heron stood in a pool looking for fish abandoned by the tide. As we reached the village, a curlew flew low overhead, dropping down onto the riverside where it joined a group of redshanks, using its long curved beak to harvest a layer of mud below that reached by the shorter, straighter beaks of its smaller companions. Further along, oystercatchers were doing what oystercatchers do, which is generally eating worms and small molluscs rather than catching oysters. Overhead a variety of raucous gulls announced their presence.


The channel of the River Lune was maybe fifty metres away. On its muddy banks, fishing boats lay abandoned, awaiting high tide. Sunderland Point feels remote and desolate, though on closer inspection it is neither. Lancaster is not far away, the Ashton Memorial, the city’s hilltop landmark, is clearly visible. The small group of houses and barn conversions that comprise the village are well maintained and the eighteenth century buildings are fitted with twenty first century flood defences. Although there was nobody about, there were clear signs of a still active community.
Fishing boats beside the River Lune
Once, though, Sunderland bustled. Vessels anchored in the river, awaiting the high tides that would take them upstream to the port of Lancaster. Sailors came ashore to do what sailors do – which is not necessarily catching oysters – and Sunderland catered for their needs.


In the 1780s,when Glasson Dock was built on the other side of the Lune, ships no longer had to wait for tides and Sunderland slipped into obscurity.

Eighteenth century Lancaster played its part in the triangular trade that brought cotton and sugar from the West Indies, took manufactured goods to West Africa and bartered them for slaves. There are even records of some forty black slaves in the Lancaster area.

Sambo, for that was the name he was given and the name he is buried under, arrived in Sunderland Point in 1736, either as a slave or as a cabin boy. He immediately fell ill and soon after died in the brewhouse of the Ship Inn, now known as Upsteps Cottage. As he was not a Christian, he was buried in unconsecrated ground on the tip of Sunderland Point.

Sixty year later James Watson, a retired schoolmaster, raised money from summer visitors to fund a memorial. In 1796 he placed a plaque on the grave bearing a poem he had written himself.

The plaque, Sambo's Grave, Sunderland Point

The words – with modernised spelling and orthography – read:

Full sixty Years the angry winter's wave
 Has thundering dashed this bleak and barren shore
Since Sambo's head laid in this lonely grave
Lies still and ne'er will hear their turmoil more
Full many a sandbird chirps upon the sod
 And many a moonlight elfin round him trips
Full many a summer's sunbeam warms the clod
 And many a teeming cloud upon him drips.

But still he sleeps - till the awakening sounds
 Of the archangel's trump new life impart
Then the Great Judge his approbation founds
 Not on man's colour but his worth of heart

The grave today is well signed and frequently visited. It is surrounded by flowers and painted stones, put there mainly by local school children - teachers are worthy and wonderful people.

James Watson’s brother William was a prominent Lancaster slave trader. Sixty years after his death the unfortunate Sambo was used in a quarrel between two brothers about a great issue of the day. It was, however an issue on which the long dead young man may well have felt strongly. At least his memory was co-opted by the right side.

A court judgement in 1772 had declared slavery illegal in England, slave trading was banned in 1807 and slavery itself abolished throughout the empire in 1833.

Slavery may be illegal, but that does not mean it no longer exists. The status of the Chinese cockle pickers who perished not so far from here in 2004 was little better than that of slaves. The law may no longer be on the side of the slavers, but enforcement, even in this country, is far from easy.

Addendum 31/05/2014

While strolling beside Morecambe Bay near the village of Bolton-le-Sands we came across the Praying Shell. Made from Portland limestone it is the work of Morecambe sculptor Anthony Padgett and was unveiled on the 30th of November last year as a memorial to the Chinese cockle pickers who died in 2004.

Praying Shell by Anthony Padgett, Bolton-le-Sands
We had visited this spot before and bought some of the excellent salt marsh lamb from Red Bank Farm (some of the farm buildings can be seen in the background). We had not realised that this is where the incident took place.

Mud flats, Bolton-le-Sands
In the picture the tide is out and the mud flats are relatively safe, provided you avoid the quicksands; but the tide can sweep in fast enough to drown the unwary - as it did in February 2004.


  1. Great post! I used to go for day/evening trips from Preston to Glasson Dock and Sunderland Point with my family, in the 70s. My first memory when I saw the title of the post was - the slave trade - but I had forgotten about Sambo's grave. Thanks.

  2. Yes, a lovely posting.

    I fully agree that teachers are worthy and wonderful people!