Being a Ranger attached to the Trust’s Morecambe Bay properties is something of a misnomer if you think about it. There are a few locations where we own out as far as Mean High Water (Heysham, Jack Scout and Silverdale Cove, Plumpton) but you don’t manage Morecambe Bay (or “range” it I suppose), or own it, or do anything with it. It isn’t property in any normal sense of the word. It is another place altogether: a true wilderness ultimately beyond the management control of man, and long may that continue.
And vast, it is vast. When the tide goes out it disappears beyond the horizon exposing an extra 100 square miles of not-quite land.
Working and living in sight of Morecambe Bay you see it many different moods.
The most dramatic and extraordinary was surely at Christmas, when a sea of tortured, mangled pack ice came down from the Lake District fells and littered the sands. Our stately Victorian promenades became for a while the decks of a cruise ship looking out over Antarctic wastes.
But in its way last week was just as dramatic too. For a single Wednesday the force of the westerly gales drove the sea towards the land and was strong enough, it seemed, to prevent the tide from going out. The white horses of the waves rolled in and crashed against our rocky coasts. It felt like proper sea, the Atlantic. Usually we only get that feeling of proper sea on the spring high tides when the saltmarsh strips submerge and the sea-sick smell of mouldy salt and vinegar crisps fills your nose, and your daydreams.
The more usual view is of something hovering between land, sea and sky - a flatness of mud and creek that seems too treacherous and insubstantial to either walk on or sail on - emptiness with just the occasional small gaggle of wading birds or black-headed gulls.
But step out on to it (preferably on a Cross Bay Walk if you want to stay safe!) and like a test of faith it doesn’t collapse beneath you but is surprisingly firm and land-like. (On Morecambe Bay you are more likely to see a fisherman’s tractor than a boat). Step out on to it bare-foot and you are rewarded with a range of textures. Out there are hard flat sands (and not just at Sandside, where they bake into a golden beach when the high tides are low and the sun is hot); grey sandy rivulets that press painfully into your arches and where you can leave footprints; powdery silts and sloppy brown muds that ooze between your toes but supports you, ankle deep; soft mud-flats pock-marked with warm, calf-deep basins; rivers hundreds of metres across but only thigh-high where those with the know-how tread for flooks (flounders), pull them out by the gills and strap them to their belts like rabbit pelts. And the infamous quicksands too. Many are air-pockets trapped by collapsing creek banks, wet bubbles beneath dry crusts, ready to trap the unwary. But if you stand in one place for too long and work the mud beneath your feet you can slowly feel the ground loosening, stickily.
And if you do stay in one place for too long, beware! In many places - like Jack Scout where I was today - the sands are so flat that you can watch the tide creeping in at walking pace; turn round and by the time you have it may have already surrounded you.
I love the rushing of the incoming tides. On one of my first weeks living and working here I was lucky to drive along the Sandside road just as the Kent ‘bore’ wave was racing and smacking against the salt-marsh where the estuary turns north towards Sizergh and narrows abruptly: a river flowing the wrong way. But a normal in-tide is even more fascinating. Rivers like the Kent, Keer and Leven flow seawards with their big ripples but either side the wider streams of the muddy tide flow in; rivers of water flowing in different directions. On a windy day or a stronger tide the two opposing currents collide and swirl into great eddies, the silts suspended like dirty paint twirling in a water-jar after a paint-brush has been cleaned in it.
Walk in august along the edges of Morecambe Bay and all you’ll see are the scruffy mauve of the sea asters (the last forgotten flowers left in the florist) but back in June for a glorious fortnight we look out on our own equivalent of a desert bloom, a surprising explosion of sea pink (or thrift), all a-buzz with the excitement of insect life and the coming of summer.
My favourite time of all though is the last few minutes of twilight, before the colours go for another day. On a still evening the mackerel skies overhead are nothing compared to the patterns out on the bay. Dark purple bands of dry sand streak with wet silver; the crests of the dark purple wavelets in the creeks capture pockets of silver and gold. The water pools trapped in the muddy riffles as the tide retreats also reflect the last of the daylight; they are light-pools trapped amongst the darkening sands as the day, too, ebbs away.
Then these eyes in the sand seem to slowly shut, their light fades away, and we are left with the last goodnight peeping of the oystercatchers and the bats swooping out of the trees taking insects off the tide-line.