By the 12th century a number of Abbeys had been built along the Lancashire and Cumbria coast. The monks that inhabited these acted as guides for travellers, who wished to cross Morecambe Bay. A sequence of crossings at low tide gives access from Hest Bank near Lancaster over the sands to finish at Conishead Bank near Ulverston. The alternative was a long and arduous journey around the coast, adding many miles to the route. The three abbeys with lands adjoining the bay, Furness, Cartmel and Conishead, provided guides to the sands, and this office survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century and still survives today, the salary is now paid by the Duchy of Lancaster. Further south, the monks of Cockersand Abbey guided travellers over the river’s Lune and Cocker. Originally there was a regular horse drawn coach service that crossed the sands. This operated until the arrival of the Furness Railway in 1857, which then provided the first real alternative to this dangerous route.
What is less understood is that the Morecambe Bay crossing formed part of a longer route that linked Birkenhead Priory in the south with Furness Abbey, at the southern end of the Lake District. The monks of Birkenhead Priory operated a ferry to cross the River Mersey and the memory of the route survives in the place name Monks Ferry, which is found on Wirral side of the river. Other references to the route can be found at Monk's Lane near Presall, Chapel Island in the Leven Estuary and Priest Skear, which is an off-shore area of rocks formed by remnants of glacial activity near Hest Bank. Much of the original route crossed coastal marshland, which has now been drained and is used for agriculture. These areas are now protected by earth embankments and in some places the land is below sea level. Looking at an OS map now, a series of ditches cross the landscape, which then drain through sluice gates in the sea defences.
Having crossed the River Mersey the monks would follow the coast northwards to Crosby and the River Alt, before heading inland to Burscough Abbey. There is evidence that the monks had managed the river, a task that the Environment Agency has continued to this day. The monks of Cartmel Priory in Cumbria had held the fishing rights in this area and many kinds of fish and waterfowl were harvested for food.
The route used a known crossing of the Ribble Estuary at Freckleton, which was mentioned in the Doomsday Book, before crossing the River’s Wyre, Cocker and Lune, reaching St.Patrick’s Chapel at Heysham on the Lancashire coast. From here the route continued north across Morecambe Bay to reach the Abbey at Furness and onto Piel Island, which overlooks Morecambe Bay and where the monks used it as a safe harbour, for bringing goods ashore. This part of the route can be retraced by following the long distant footpath, The Cistercian Way. The famous 14th Century Gough Map, is recognised as one of the earliest maps to show Britain and it clearly indicates many of the features of this route, especially the Priories and rivers.
Between the River’s Wyre and Lune was an area of marsh land, known as Pilling Moss, this could be crossed by using a path referred to as Kate’s Pad and had been used since pre-Roman times. This area north of the Wyre, is locally known as “Over Wyre” and much of it is very near to sea level. In fact without the coastal defences, which date back to the 1980's, much of the area would actually flood on a high spring tide. The Romans had actually built a road that ran from Preston, through Kirkham and onto crossing the River Wyre at Stannah. This road, from Kirkham to Stannah, was used in later centuries by Viking invaders coming up the Wyre, and thereby gained the name Dane's Pad.
The landscape has evolved since the 12th century, as has much of the route. However, from Cockersand to Furness even a modern day traveller must head inland or join one of the many guided charity walks that cross Morecambe Bay each year. Travelling used to be a time consuming and hazardous adventure that would only be undertaken when essential. It is now taken for granted, as technology and a constructed landscape has enabled us to move with considerable ease. However, we are not free to travel unhindered. Land use and ownership keeps us to narrow strips of access that give us the right to pass from one destination to another but not to explore beyond this corridor. For many, travelling along these corridors of access is seen as a leisure activity and an opportunity to parade our wealth and progress. Following this historical route now, the landscape has changed considerably, with the hand of mankind firmly making its impression on many of the scenes before us. The accompanying photographic work follows the route used by the monks, as it passes through Lancashire and onto Cumbria. It aims to explore the issues of access, use and changes in the landscape.
Harris & Hughes, "The History of the Wyre", Lulu (2007)
Marshall, "Cockersand Abbey, Lancashire", Landy Publishing (2001)
Crosby, "Leading the Way - A history of Lancashire's Roads", Lancashire County Books (1998)
Marshall, "Lancashire's Medieval Monasteries", Landy Publishing (2006)
"Walking & Cycling Guide to Sefton’s Natural Coast" Sefton Council
Newton, Lymbery & Wisse "Report on the Changing Morphology of the Lower Alt, from Altmouth Pumping Station to the Sea" Sefton Council (2007)
http://www.icep.org.uk/index.shtml - Integrated Countryside and Environment Plan, produce a series of leaflets, describing walks in the Merseyside area. [accessed Oct 2011]