The evolution of Arnside as a major tourist destination
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 October 2017
This has always been a beautiful place to visit but today its allure is stronger than ever - even the red squirrels can’t resist. Martin Pilkington reports
Over recent years Arnside has evolved. Its fine setting on the Kent estuary and the quiet Edwardian charm remain unchanged, but the shops, accommodation and eateries have definitely gone up in the world. The strategy has worked, judging by the numbers enjoying its river frontage, many of them from further afield than was once the case.
Some, it seems, are discovering Arnside as an escape from the holiday hordes encountered in Lakeland. ‘We’re seeing more European visitors now,’ says newsagent Ian Bullough, ‘Twenty years ago that wasn’t the case, but with the over-busy nature of the Lakes we’re getting many more nationalities coming here.’
Lesley Hornsby, of the Promenade’s high-end B&B No 43, adds: ‘This year we’ve had more visitors from places like Israel, Turkey, China and Saudi.’ She too feels Arnside is benefitting from overcrowding elsewhere. ‘One person arrived here thinking they were staying in Ambleside, then went there and said “Thank goodness I’m not!”’
Lesley’s business has been at the cutting edge of Arnside’s upmarket evolution. ‘I bought it 11 years ago,’ she says, ‘and my first guest was a Visit England inspector! We were awarded Five Star Silver that year, and the following one we got Five Star Gold.
There wasn’t much like this in the B&B side in Cumbria then, let alone Arnside.’ Nowadays the coffee shops, foodie pubs and retail therapy along the Promenade are cut from similar cloth.
In the main, however, the major draw for visitors is not indoor comforts but the great outdoors. ‘They want to do the two-hour walks rather than the big treks further north, though it’s said there’s a walk for every day of the year in Arnside,’ continues Lesley. ‘They can do the Knott for the butterflies and Highland cattle and orchids, or stroll to the Coastguard Station. It’s a delightful location.’
Arnside Knott, the hill that rises behind the village, is a fantastic resource for nature lovers, walkers, or those just wanting the best panorama for miles around. ‘The views over the Fells northwards, and southwards over the bay are amazing, and you’ll see Blackpool Tower on clear days,’ says Gemma Wren, who manages the site for the National Trust. They had an estimated 110,000 visitors last year but, with nearly 250 acres of land and its many paths hidden among woodlands, dry-stone walls and the undulating terrain, it can cope without ever feeling busy.
There’s plenty to see on the Knott as well as from it. ‘A lot of the work here is creating a mosaic of habitats, including limestone grasslands, scree slopes, woodlands, scrub, and small bits of heath,’ says Gemma. ‘We’ve got plenty of sunny open spaces for butterflies, and for wood ants to build their anthills. People maybe know us best here for the butterfly work we do. The main species we’re focusing on are the Scotch argus and the dark green fritillary, whose populations nationally have crashed in recent years.’
Gemma and her team are also working with Westmorland Red Squirrels, a charity dedicated to helping surviving colonies in the area and, where possible, creating the conditions for them to spread. ‘In 2015 we started an initiative drawing up a strategy to get major landowners in the area on board, and engaging key bodies like the National Trust, RSPB, Natural England plus landowners and residents,’ says the group’s secretary Bob Cartwright.
Volunteers are putting out nesting boxes for the reds, and have a programme of humane control of the greys which out-compete them for food and spread the squirrel pox that has wiped out so many reds. Bob is hopeful for the future. ‘There may be small havens of reds in the area already that people rarely see, or that go unreported. When we have coordinated grey control the reds can appear remarkably quickly – not always, and not overnight, but maybe over three or four years – and we’ve recently had a confirmed sighting just outside Milnthorpe.’
Arnside has another natural wonder on offer to visitors – its bore, a tidal wave that when conditions are right sweeps inland up the river channel from Morecambe Bay. ‘Plenty of kayakers come for the bore, which is the second biggest in the country after the Severn, though it’s not anywhere near as well known,’ says Ian Bullough.
Mike Hayward, of Lakeland Canoe Club, has enjoyed the bore’s propulsive power dozens of times.
‘You can never tell if there actually will be a bore wave, nor how far it will run for and how big it will be,’ he says.
‘We gather about three or four hours before high water and paddle about 7km into the bay, then just wait for it to come in. The size of the wave depends on the shape of the channel, the height of the tides, direction of the wind and the atmospheric pressure on the day.
‘Part of the excitement is anticipation as you’re not sure precisely when it will arrive. The idea is to get on the wave and ride it – in a river kayak you can play about and do manoeuvres, but in a sea kayak you sit tight and run it straight. Riding it feels like sea surfing.’
All that hill-walking and kayaking must work up an appetite, and there’s a local institution that can satisfy the hungriest of us. ‘This is our 25th year,’ says Simon Miller, whose family runs Arnside Chip Shop, ‘so we’re thinking about what we can do to celebrate that – but probably not 1990s prices!’
Like so much in Arnside, even the chippie has become posher, having undergone a sparkling stainless steel revamp 18 months ago. No need to tinker with the steak puddings, however, which experience reveals are perfect as they are.