I love islands. There’s something about their isolation and separateness from the modern world that intrigues me.
It’s almost as if they exist locked inside a time capsule, bound by their own sense of space and time. Horizons unlimited.
Sometimes they’re wild and forgotten places but they can also be a mere stone’s throw from civilisation which makes them seem otherworldly.
Walney Island is one such place, lying off the coast of Barrow in Furness which is best known for its industrial heritage and nuclear submarines. But a trip over the Jubilee Bridge from Barrow to Walney is one of winter’s great treats, especially when you leave behind Vickerstown and escape to the island’s wild beaches.
Walney is the biggest of a group of islands which lie along the tip of the Furness peninsula with spectacular views over Morecambe Bay.
As you drive over from the mainland, it’s easy to think you’re in a built-up area until you leave behind the suburban sprawl.
Southern Walney with its lighthouse is as remote and wild as you can get with its landscape of dunes, shingle beaches, ragged vegetation and mud flats. It’s no surprise that this is a wildlife watchers’ paradise,
I didn’t see a single soul on my trip except the Cumbria Wildlife Trust warden sitting in his car sheltering from the Force 7 blustery winds.
But I’m made of hardier stuff so I took the main trail down to the tip of the island past the oyster farm, freshwater and saline lagoons. It’s an intriguing and surprising coastal landscape.
Bird watchers will enjoy the large numbers of waders and ducks including goldeneye, wigeon, red-breasted merganiser, shovelers and colonies of coots.
Further along near the oyster farm I startled two gorgeous, white little egrets which swooped gracefully over my head as they moved to the next pond along.
Heading down to the beach there were hundreds of birds feeding on shellfish in the mud ranging from the unmistakable oystercatchers and redshanks to turnstones and godwits.
For these birds feeding at South Walney is a bit like dining at a five-star Jamie Oliver restaurant. Gloop supreme!
For those who prefer wild walks to bird watching, a trip along the beach at South Walney is incredibly rewarding, even when it’s blowing a storm in winter.
Walney is exposed to the elements so make sure you wrap up warm and wear boots, a hat (that won’t blow off) and heavy-duty outdoor kit.
King of Piel Island
Piel Island is dominated by its imposing ruined castle which dates from the 14th Century. It is a place of mystery and historic intrigue.
At low tide you can hire a local guide and walk across to Piel Island to visit the castle’s keep, inner bailey and fortifications.
Not far away are the comforts of the atmospheric Ship Inn where you can enjoy a pint and a pie.
Don’t be tempted to walk across the mud flats without an expert as tides in this area are unforgiving and change fast. You’re likely to get caught out if you don’t know what you’re doing – you have been warned.
There are also boat excursions to Piel Island in the summer but in winter these don’t seem to run – the only way of seeing the castle is from Walney’s shores. It’s definitely a case of so near, so far.
I stared longingly at the castle from the opposite shoreline with no prospect of catching a boat until April 2014!
The castle was built by the Abbot of Furness on the south-eastern tip of Piel Island to guard the deep water harbour of Barrow-in-Furness against pirates and Scottish raiders.
Piel Island has a fascinating history with its biggest claim to fame being that the rebel Lambert Simnel and his followers landed here in 1487 and declared himself the true king of England.
His rebellion was suppressed after his troops marched on and were beaten in Lincoln but the 10-year-old ‘young pretender’ was eventually pardoned on account of his age.
In a strange twist to the Simnel tale, each owner of the pub has become known as the ‘King of Piel Island’. It’s a great piece of local folklore.
As you wander up the far side of Walney Island there are great sea views and beaches to explore plus there’s a good chance of spotting seals and eider ducks who never seem to have problems with the wild weather. It must be their in-built insulation of fur and fluffy feathers.
I spotted a couple of seals lurking in the water but didn’t find the main group, probably because they’d hauled up and moved around the far corner of the island.
I’m told that a good place to watch the grey seals loafing around in the waters is down by Lighthouse Bay at the end of the spit.
As well as its wild side, Walney also has a few historical oddities including First and Second World War artillery and gun points.
There’s evidence of pill boxes and gun locations around the island’s coast, neglected and forgotten, but signifying a less peaceful time in the island’s history.
It’s easy to forget that Walney lies in a great strategic defensive position, also reflected in the fortifications at Piel Castle across the channel.
One of the most impressive military remains is Hilpsord Fort which was built during the First World War as an emergency battery, and reinstated during the Second World War,
Amidst the peace of the island it’s weird to imagine the gunners of the Workington 406th Coast-Battery Home-Guard volunteers (a local version of Dad’s Army) doing training manoeuvres here and firing shells weighing 100lbs.
Walney is a great little island with brilliant wildlife and wild walks. Whether you’re a beach comber, bird watcher, seal spotter or plain curious, this is a place not to be missed.
I felt that I’d only skimmed the surface of this remote and wild place which has a special ambience. I’m already planning to return in the spring to catch the surge of new wildlife arrivals. Spring and summer brings a host of sea birds including terns and a large colony of lesser-black backed gulls.
The summer gull spectacle has become known as “dive bomb alley” as 17,000 pairs of lesser black backed and herring gulls zoom around overhead during the breeding season. Spectators are advised to wear protective head gear to avoid being pecked by birds defending their territory.
Don’t miss the spring and summer wild flowers including harebells, yellow-horned poppies, heart’s-ease pansies and sea campion. It’s also the time of year when the island’s famous blue spires of viper’s bugloss shoot up, creating a splurge of blue colour.
This is one walk on the wild side which you won’t want to miss…
Tammy’s top tips – Walney Island
Walney Island is located off the Furness peninsula near Barrow in England’s southern Lake District. If you’re travelling from north or south, take the M6 motorway and turn off to Grange-over-Sands (scenic route)/Ulverston (A590) and follow the signs to Barrow from there.
The island is accessible by a road bridge which is open 24 hours every day of the year (no toll). Grab a local tourist map and pick up a wildlife guide at the RSPB Walney nature reserve to make the most of your trip.
The South Walney Nature Reserve is open 10:00-17:00 daily (closes at 16:00 in winter) – there is a small fee.
To find the reserve… once you arrive on the island turn left off the bridge and drive down Ocean Road for 3/4 mile – then turn left onto Carr Lane and follow the road for about four miles through Biggar village. The reserve is at the end of the road at the far end of the island
There are two circular trails around South Walney from the nature reserve centre – a blue trail (2 miles) and the red route (3 miles). The additional green trail provides a short diversion to the Groyne nature hide off the red trail. The long route is on flat terrain and isn’t too onerous – allow an hour and a half at least.
There are numerous hides for bird and wildlife fans including the Sea Hide, a good viewing spot in spring and summer for watching gannets, kittiwakes and fulmars whizzing by as they fly up and down the coast.
Don’t forget your binoculars to catch a glimpse of the birds and seals on land or in the water.
Getting to Piel Island isn’t the easiest trip in the world and I found myself frustrated by the lack of information so check ahead of your visit.
However, I did establish that boats run from the Roa Island lifeboat station in summer but these gradually peter out in the autumn and dry up completely when the bad winter weather sets in.
Two ferries operate services to Piel Island in summer (subject to tides and weather). Call Barrow Tourist Information Centre on 01229 876505 for the latest information. There is a small charge for the boat service.
Piel Castle is open year round and admission is free. It’s run by English Heritage but getting there is entirely dependent on the boat service running which means that it’s almost impossible to travel there in winter.
There is overnight accommodation for visitors to Piel Island at The Ship Inn during the tourist season.
The South End caravan and motorhome site on South Walney is not far from the nature reserve. This unusual year-round location boasts views over Piel Channel and farmland.
There are also several possible wild camping spots for camper vans on the road up to the nature reserve near the shingle beaches.
For those looking for accommodation on Walney Island, the Cumbria Wildlife Trust hires out the Coastguard Cottages for weekend or weekly trips.
Also worth a look…
The northern nature reserve on Walney Island is well worth a trip in the summer when it is especially rich in wild flowers and plants. It’s also famous for its colony of natterjack toads which can be heard during the mating season. Listen out for them and you can’t miss the racket they make!
Look out for the unique Walney Geranium, a variety of bloody cranesbill with pale pink flowers which grows nowhere else in the world. Look out for this rarity between June-September.
Other attractions nearby include Furness Abbey, built during the 12th Century which has the impressive remains of a Cistercian monastery. It’s located about 12 minutes drive from Walney on the Furness peninsula.
Also worth a detour are the attractive towns of Grange-over-Sands, Cartmel and Ulverston. Other nature reserves nearby include Foulney Island (tern colony in summer), RSPB Leighton Moss, and Sandscale National Nature Reserve (dunes and natterjack toads).