Miles of unspoilt coast, abundant wildlife, and a rich history – so why has no one heard of Walney Island, wonders Dixe Wills on the next leg of his bus tour of Britain
“No, Walney Island.”
“No, sorry, never heard of it. Did you just make it up?”
This exchange was typical of ones I had with friends when I told them I would be visiting England’s eighth largest island. It’s intriguing, really. The Isle of Wight, Sheppey, Canvey et al never suffer from such an all-embracing lack of recognition. Even really fiddly islands like Brownsea, Lundy and Lindisfarne have found renown. So how come Walney has slipped through the net?
I was pondering this as my bus negotiated the busy streets of Barrow-in-Furness, a town tucked into the bottom left-hand corner of Cumbria. The 300-yard bridge connecting Barrow to Walney was built exactly 100 years ago and still stands today, a fine example of solid no-nonsense Victoriana. Such is its significance to the islanders that they threw a huge party to mark the occasion and repainted the whole thing in its original 1908 black and gold livery. The 12,000-odd Walneyites, as I was soon to discover, are immensely attached to their island and it doesn’t take much of an excuse for them to celebrate the fact that they live there.
And the place where the majority of them live is a small town on the far side of the bridge. It’s a community that very much wears its history on its sleeve. Established to house some of the tens of thousands of workers who migrated to Barrow to service the mighty Vickers shipyard, I encountered Amphitrite Street, Powerful Street and the wonderfully incongruous Himalaya Avenue (Walney is as flat as a pancake) – all named after ships built in the yard across the water. The settlement itself is called Vickerstown (what else?).
However, I was keen to search beyond the bricks and mortar to discover what an artist friend had promised me was the island’s real gift to the visitor – its stark and wild natural beauty. Walney is shaped like the side view of a saucepan lid, with the handle, if it had one, pointing south-west. At about 11 miles long but never more than a mile wide, you never have to go far to get a fix of the Irish Sea. And, unlike many parts of the coast I’ve visited so far, on Walney you don’t have to battle past endless shoreline houses, shops and other sundry seaside trappings to get a view of the blue horizon. For as far as I could see, in both directions, there was nothing but open defenceless grassland to keep the waters at bay.
But where to explore first? I asked a couple walking their dog what they thought I should see. Thirty seconds later, I had been furnished with a hatful of ideas and a somewhat unusual starting point. “Before you do anything else, you really ought to visit Mr Walney,” they agreed. Mr Walney, it turns out, is a man named John Murphy. “Everyone on Walney knows John Murphy.” And within two minutes they’d kindly given me a lift to his house.
Perhaps it’s something about small islands, but I found that everyone here exuded a natural friendliness. John was no exception and, on learning of my quest to get to know Walney, he immediately proposed a tour. Since the walks he has led here for the last 15 years have become so popular that they can attract over 300 people at a time, I could not have asked for a better guide.
We headed out in search of one of the world’s rarest flowers. The Walney geranium is one of an astonishing 450 species of flowering plants carpeting the island and, as its name suggests, it grows nowhere else on the planet. In the south of the island there’s a National Nature Reserve, a grey seal colony, and the largest gullery in Europe – 10,000 pairs of lesser blackbacks and herring gulls call Walney home. There are also fine views of tiny Piel Island, accessible with care at low tide and sporting a mediaeval castle, a few primitive 18th-century houses, and a pub whose every landlord is crowned The King of Piel – a tradition harking back to the time when Lambert Simnel landed there with an army on his doomed quest to wrest the throne from Henry VII.
Heading north, we passed over the highest point of the island, Hillock Whins, a vertigo-inducing ridge 20ft above sea level. Walneyites have some idea of how the people of Tuvalu feel. It’s along this line that the island will eventually snap into two, John says, “But that’s a while off yet, with luck.”
The north end, not to be outdone, also boasts views of the Isle of Man and has a National Nature Reserve of its own where natterjack toads abound. We cruised up there on all but empty roads – with nearly everyone living in the dead centre of the island the remainder is left largely untamed and practically deserted. John pointed out sandy Earnse Bay, a big name in the world of windsurfing and the setting for this year’s National Kite Surfing Championships. Not for nothing is the island known as “Wet and Windy Walney”. It’s claimed to be the most blustery lowland site in Britain and there’s an extensive offshore wind farm to back up its case.
Yet far from being the back end of nowhere, I discovered from John that Walney is on the Cistercian Way; and is the start/finish of the new W2W (Walney to Wear) cycle route, specially designed for people who find the C2C a bit wimpish.
I asked John whether leading walks here had become his full time job. He shook his head: “No, I never charge for the walks – I do them because I’m proud of where I live.” It’s taken me a single day to confirm that he has every right to be.