Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Let's be careful out there.

Each year the Lake District attracts millions of tourists.  Quite how many millions depends on which website you're reading; most agree it's somewhere north of 8 million and let me say from the very start, you are all most welcome indeed.  Tourism is our lifeblood up here and life without it doesn't bear thinking about, but Cumbria is a unique, beautiful and dangerous place and it's important to know what to do to keep the county, and yourselves, in the same condition you arrived in, so here's a few pointers.

Morecambe Bay
Beware of Morecambe Bay.  Many of us will remember the tragedy of the 18 cockle pickers who died in February 2004, but it seems some people have either forgotten or feel they know better.  Each week brings a new story of someone being caught out on the sands and during one weekend earlier this year 33 people needed to be rescued.  So what goes wrong?

Well first of all, check out the pic on the right; Morecambe Bay is stunning.  It's a wonder of nature.  At high tide a vast expanse of sea, at low tide miles of glorious golden sands and meandering streams.  The first problem is the quicksand.  It's impossible to spot and once you're in it, you're in it.  And it starts really close to the shore with people regularly getting into trouble within 100 yards of Arnside Prom. Couple that with a fast incoming tide and the scenario becomes unthinkable.  Many people have been rescued with the tide lapping around their faces and all credit to the rescue services for putting their own lives at risk.

Arnside Sunset
The second major problem is the tide.  It is legendary.  People talk about it coming in at the speed of a galloping horse but I don't believe that to be the main problem; it's not the speed of the tide it's how stealthy it is.  That nice sandy stream you paddled through 10 minutes ago has suddenly become an impassable river, so now what do you do? This is exactly what happened to one couple who were rescued earlier this year; by the time the rescue services arrived the tide was up to their knees and they were holding their dogs above the water to save them.  According to local reports the people who had called for help had begun walking away convinced they were witnessing a tragedy.

But it was fine 5 mins ago...
To stay safe on Morecambe Bay stay close to the shoreline.  Make sure you check the tide tables, available online or in most shops around the bay.  If you absolutely can't resist the urge to explore the bay, then book yourself onto one of the many cross bay walks organised for charity each year.  It only takes a few minutes thought to maybe save your life.

Staying safe on the Fells.  Let's face it, the majority of people who head our way each year are coming to enjoy the fells in one form or another.  And I can't say I blame them.  When I first saw them I fell instantly in love and I am never happier than when I'm out there hiking.  But they are a dangerous place to be; they're tougher than they look, the weather can change within minutes and they're very unforgiving.  Here's a few dos and don'ts to help keep you safe.

DO make sure you're properly equipped, I've put together a short but not exhaustive list here.  I don't care if it's lovely and sunny when you set out, trust me, that's no guarantee of it remaining that way, so take your waterproofs.  It's also a lot cooler on the tops of the fells than it is in the valleys so take some warm clothing with you, it's not an unnecessary burden, it's a life saver.  Don't imagine that it's only the big accidents that have the potential to kill you; a sprained ankle combined with inadequate clothing and an inability to call for appropriate help and direct them accurately to your location can, and does, kill people.

DON'T rely on an iphone app, or a street satnav, to get you around on the fells; there's often poor and/ or inadequate signal and the batteries run down pretty quickly.  If you must rely on electronic gadgetry then get a proper GPS system; no, they're not cheap, but they could save your life.  If, like me, you can't afford something that flash then a simple map and compass will suffice, but only if you know how to use them.  There's plenty of help available online - like this useful video from Trail magazine, but if you're still unsure the ask the assistant in the outdoor goods shop to demonstrate it to you.  Possibly a problem in some High Street chains, but not if you go to somewhere like Fishers in Keswick.

A less attractive lakeland view.
Behave yourselves!  I'm sorry if this next part sounds in anyway patronising, but judging from my first hand experience of the fells, many people still struggle with these basics:


  • Stick to the paths.  Much of the Lake District is open access so technically, you can walk where you want.  But erosion is a massive problem which the volunteers at Fix the Fells are constantly battling.  You may think you're only one person so what harm can it do, but how many other people think that over the course of a year?
  • Close the gate behind you.  Much of the land is still actively farmed so if you open a gate, close it again afterwards.
  • Take your litter home with you.  Scenes like the one we found next to Haweswater are thankfully rare, but the fells are literally littered with tissues, sweet wrappers, plastic water bottles, fag ends, fruit skins/ peels and a myriad of other detritus.  There's a misconception that banana skins and orange peel will soon compost away, but they don't.  Why is it so hard to just take it home with you?  The Wombles of Wimbledon do not spend their summer hols clearing up the Lake District; if you drop it, someone else needs to pick it up, and that's usually a hiker with a conscience, a love of the fells and a bit of space in their rucksack.
  • Keep your dog under control or on a lead.  The fells are a fantastic place for your dog to get a good run and they may never have chased anything in the past, but you still need to keep a close eye on them.  On two occasions I've personally witnessed dogs chasing sheep with stressed and upset owners trying to get them back, but it's too late then.  Even if they don't actually reach the sheep the stress and shock can cause pregnant ewes to miscarry.  As I've mentioned before some local farmers are considering closing permitted paths to protect their livestock, and who can blame them after stories like this.

As I said way back at the start, every single visitor to Cumbria is most welcome, all I ask is for people to stay safe and take care of the landscape.  Have a happy holiday!