Sunday, 29 June 2014

Hilbre Island - the cruel sea cheated

On to my next personal challenge. To walk over the sands to an offshore island, and return.

The island in question was Hilbre Island, a small lump of sandstone (one of three lumps, actually, strung in a line) off the west coast of the Wirral. Wikipedia has an useful description of it at

It's not an island at low tide - only when the sea has turned and is coming in. The challenge was to visit the place while the tide was out, and get away before it began to creep around the island - which would mean, if caught, an uncomfortable few hours in the dark until I could splash my way off. I came equipped with a torch, to help me locate somewhere to huddle out of the wind - the porch of one of the unoccupied houses on the island, for instance - and I was wearing my anorak, and there were wellies on my feet. I'd also brought a bottle of water, but rather daftly no emergency chocolate.

The island is a nature reserve, and there is a bird observatory on it, and it once had a lifeboat station. There are also several well-maintained houses which are occasionally occupied as holiday homes; but there are no permanent residents now. As I approached, someone on a mountain bike freewheeled off in the direction of one of the smaller islands in the trio. I didn't see him again. By the time reached Hilbre, I had the entire place to myself. It wasn't creepy, but it was an odd sensation, being there alone.

But I'm not telling this tale in proper sequence.

I should set the scene. When in New Zealand in 2007, M--- and I had a disturbing experience in connection with a tidal island like this one. It was a place called Manganui Bluff, on Ninety Mile Beach, just off the neck of land that thrusts northwards towards Cape Reinga, the cliffy John O'Groats of the North Island. See,_New_Zealand for a description of the Beach. And here is a view of the Bluff that I've posted before (see my post The New Zealand legacy on 29 January 2014), which shows the Beach stretching away to the south, and how this low-lying rocky outcrop faces the Tasman Sea breakers that roll in, and dash themselves on it:

As you can see, there is sand at low tide between the Bluff and the shore proper. You can also easily imagine how a series of especially big waves might surge across that sand, and, even at low tide, cut off anyone who happened to be on the Bluff. This actually happened while M--- was on the Bluff, and I was on the sand, taking photographs. M--- was scared of the crashing waves, but clearly daring herself to set foot on the Bluff. She was encouraged by the sight of a car somehow driven onto the beach on the landward side of the Bluff. There were people fishing on the rocks, as giant waves crashed nearby. We thought they must be mad, and taking a big risk with getting their car off again, because as you can see, the sand was wet all around the Bluff, even at low tide. And we thought the tide might have turned, and was starting to come in.

I was very dubious about joining her, and for a space contented myself with taking shots of the surf, the birds, and the strange clouds hovering over the sea.

Then I decided that I should be with her, show some solidarity, and take some shots of those thundering breakers close up. So I walked back towards the Bluff. Hmmm...there was a lot less dry sand than a short while ago! And the car and fishermen seemed to have gone. It was time to quit. But M--- was still on the Bluff, apparently oblivious to being cut off. I could see her standing on the highest part, seemingly fascinated by the immense waves. (She later told me that every wave seemed to shake the Bluff, as if it were on the point of disintegration)

Just then, big waves came in on either side, and spread rapidly across the sand. I had to retreat. Those waves had become a knee-high tsunami, and as they reached me I felt their power to knock me over. By the time their force was spent, I was soaked to the waist and a long way back from the Bluff. Disturbingly, there was no sand now: it was all covered in water at least a foot in depth, which meant it must be two or three feet deep closer to the Bluff, where M---'s escape route lay.

We called to each other, but the noise of the surf was too much. I walked forward as close as possible, trying to find a shallow patch that she could use to get off the Bluff. I saw one, but couldn't at first direct M---'s attention to it. Then she understood. But more big waves came in. It began to look at if she would get marooned. Then for a few minutes the waves were smaller, and she had a brief chance to wade across the shallow bit and make her escape. I thought she would not make it. She seemed so slow. I could see a fresh batch of big waves approaching. But then suddenly she was with me, and we splashed our way towards the dunes and safety. One of those huge-sigh-of-relief moments!

The memory of that near-disaster was in my mind as I considered the wisdom of walking over to Hilbre Island. Of course, there was no frenzied surf in the Dee Estuary. On the other hand, there were plenty of places in the North West where the sands were treacherous and the tide, once in flood, could overwhelm (and had overwhelmed) unwary people caught in it. And there was mud or quicksand to think about - for which Morecambe Bay (not a million miles away) was notorious.

My tide-prediction app confirmed that I would find the tide out, but slightly on the turn, early in the evening. I made up my mind to face the challenge. But the phrase coming in faster than a galloping horse, meaning the sea once the tide was in flood, and the mental image of myself floundering about in ever-deepening water, wasn't pleasant.

I got to West Kirby in broad daylight, parking Fiona in a residential road off the sea front, where she would be quickly discovered should I go missing:

At this time (half past eight in the evening, with an hour and a half to go before sunset) I felt that I had ample time to walk briskly over to Hilbre and return before the light failed. It was roughly four miles there and back. Perfectly feasible. For goodness sake, a stroll over to the island was recommended in the official Wirral tourist booklet. No possible danger.

And I had a proper 1:50,000 scale Ordnance Survey map up on Demelza's screen, with GPS switched on, and my position marked in red:

Even so, it looked a good way off:

However, there were vehicle tracks to follow. I'd be able to keep to the firmer sand, and avoid mud, if I used them as my Best Approach:

Well, this plan worked fine for a while, and I made good progress, although I soon saw that wellies, especially pale blue wellies with hens on them, were not ideal for keeping up a cracking pace. And yet knee-high waterproof footwear was necessary. The sand became progressively more saturated the further I was from the shore. The vehicle tracks disappeared, and I had to guess where to best walk. And, close to the the island, a water channel loomed:

Wary of mud - I hate mud - I found a way across, and then suddenly I was under the sandstone cliff. It had recesses. Cue for a pee. (I hoped the mountain biker had long gone) Then I found an easy way up onto the turf, and explored the place. By now it was quarter past nine, later than I'd intended, and the light wasn't what it had been. It felt odd, having the place to myself. I felt as if somehow I was trespassing, although I wasn't. The houses - some of them shacks really - looked as if they might be occupied, even though it was quite clear that they were shut up and contained nobody who might come out and ask what I was doing there:

I found the old telegraph station, and took a shot of myself in front of it, to prove that I'd made it to Hilbre.

If I don't look too cheerful, it was because I felt under some pressure to get off the island asap, and begin my return journey. The open sea seemed closer to the island than I had thought:

But I felt I ought to inspect the old lifeboat station at the northern tip of Hilbre, even if it added ten minutes to my stay. It must once have been manned all the time. There was the remains of a fireplace. But otherwise it seemed cheerless and lonely, set among the rocks. I suppose it was last used during the Second World War, by then perhaps just a place to put a few men with rifles, or to make signals to shipping:

Time to go. Very much so. I found another way down off the island, through the older houses, pausing briefly for a last triumphant shot:

Now, which way? The light was getting tricky. I got across the water at the foot of the sandstone cliff, but immediately felt myself sinking into mud. Ugh! Did I mention that I hated mud? That being swallowed up in mud was one of my nightmare scenarios? Worse still if it happened in the dark? I trod carefully this way and that, seeking firmer ground. But I just sank deeper. It was horrible. Supposing the disgusting mud came over the tops of my wellies, and filled them, and I sunk so deep into the slime that I couldn't pull my feet out?

Don't panic! Be calm. I managed a rather fuzzy photo:

Then, having taken a good look round, I extricated my boots from the suction with a slurping noise and, without falling over, made it to a firmer surface. But I was hemmed in by a dodgy-looking mixture of mud and sand. The best plan seemed to be to follow the water channel, which had little pebbles in it, suggesting a non-sinking route; although this took me off a straight line back to West Kirby. Minutes passed, and it got suddenly much darker. Then I was onto proper sand, and could get out Demelza without fear of dropping her into a grey slimy morass. I consulted the map for my best direction:

By now West Kirby was almost lost in the dark! So I simply made a beeline for the orange lights in the far distance. It was slow going for tired feet in clumsy wellies, but twenty past ten saw me limping gratefully up to Fiona.

Mission accomplished! I had escaped from the clutches of the mud, and the sea had not claimed another victim. I did wonder how I would have fared, enduring if absolutely necessary an enforced overnight stay on the island. I'm not going to give it a go now. This was a single performance only, with no encore.

I've now discovered this amazing blog post, which is full of gorgeous daytime photos and lots of island history:

1 comment:

  1. I think you didn't have enough time to do the visit justice Lucy. Perhaps getting there earlier would have made all the difference. Happy to see you made it to shore....eventually! LOL

    Shirley Anne x


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