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Visiting the Brown Robin Nature Reserve in Grange-over-Sands

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 January 2017 | UPDATED: 14:45 13 January 2017

Man in wildflower meadow at Brown Robin, a Cumbria Wildlife Trust nature reserve near Grange-over-Sands

Man in wildflower meadow at Brown Robin, a Cumbria Wildlife Trust nature reserve near Grange-over-Sands

© John Morrison / Alamy Stock Photo

Visitors are attracted to the Promenade but this lovely old coastal resort also has a less well-known but equally beautiful nature reserve.

Grange-over-Sands signGrange-over-Sands sign

TRAVELLERS approaching Grange-over-Sands by road or rail know they have arrived when they pass the three baronial hotels on the way in. The Cumbria Grand, The Netherwood and The Grange display the Victorian splendour which makes this town on the borders of Westmorland and Lancashire north of the Sands such a popular place for visitors and residents alike.

The imposing hotels obviously trade heavily on their stunning views across Morecambe Bay and their proximity to the Lake District. But unbeknown to visitors and even some residents, the hotels have a hidden gem nestling in the hills immediately behind them.

Slowly but surely the secret treasures are becoming more widely known and appreciated by the community. Turning backs to the bay and climbing is counter-intuitive but is rewarded by even better views from Brown Robin Nature Reserve which covers 66 acres, half of it woodland and half grasslands. It was acquired by Cumbria Wildlife Trust back in 1977.

The origin of its name, describing a juvenile Robin before it acquires its distinctive red breast, is obscure. The Grand Hotel was known as Brown Robin House when built by the Liverpool sheet metal magnate turned banker W.E. Maude in the 1840s, becoming a hotel in the 1880s.

Cumbria Grand HotelCumbria Grand Hotel

Before that, local Jacobean connections indicate a link with a Scottish fable about a princess’s secret lover, called Brown Robin. But no-one knows for sure. The wooded land was used for charcoal and potash making, based on coppicing of the trees.

The Victorians planted some exotic trees but now are mainly classic indigenous hard woods - hazel, oak, Ash, birch, yew and a few residual hornbeams. The surrounding meadows made up a working farm, now derelict, during most of the 20th century until acquired by the trust.

Their honorary volunteer reserve manager is Tony Saunders, born and raised in Knowsley, and the head gardener at the Grand for the last 30 years. ‘I act as the eyes and ears of the trust, letting them know what is changing,’ said Tony.

It is obvious his influence is far greater than that. His eyes light up when describing how the reserve has developed under his stewardship. He leads migratory bird walks, with the prize spot being the rare Hawfinch, small flocks of which migrate from Eastern Europe to Grange to breed.

There are 20 species of wax cap fungi to be found on Blawith Bank, including the magnificent Ballerina, a pink variety whose gills unfurl to resemble a dancer’s tutu.

And the grasslands have recovered from over-grazing with the help of a small herd of cattle and native plant Yellow Rattle which clears patches for other wild flowers to flourish, so the hay meadows are a blaze of natural colour in summer. The flowers in turn attract butterflies such as the rare Fritillaries.

In January the main task is coppicing, harvesting the wood for homes for insects, or for making charcoal prized by local artists, or the many workshops in traditional skills run by Tony, some of them with Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Peter Jones.

These include carving spoons, knives and other wooden tools, making bows and arrows and other ancient woodland skills.

One group of local children made a bug hotel at these sessions, and it now sits opposite the railway station, just ten minutes walk from the reserve.

Local schools and families through outdoor clubs make regular visits. A leaflet enticing visitors to take woodland walks are displayed at the tourist information office in Victoria Hall in the town’s High Street. ‘The reserve is an absolutely fantastic place that everyone should see,’ said Peter Jones.

But Tony is well aware of the risks of too may visitors spoiling the very environment they come to see. ‘We want people to come and use the reserve, to learn more about nature and wild life, but we don’t want crowds. It is a matter of finding a balance,’ he said.

There is good reason for Grange to engage with its wildlife. The town is embarking on a period of expansion, which makes some residents nervous of changes in the future and loss of natural habitats.

A 25% increase in population is predicted over the next ten years, with 500 homes being built to add to the 2,000 which already exist. That will take the population from 4,000 to 5,000.

The house building is part of a programme across South Lakeland to deal with the huge demand for properties. But it has not been universally welcomed. Most of the new homes, including 200 planned over the next ten years by the Holker Estate, are on the west of the town so it will, in effect, join up with neighbouring Kent’s Bank, just as was originally intended.

One supporter of the growth is Peter Endsor, current deputy Mayor, who will take over the reins later this year. He runs the Birchleigh Guest House in Kent’s Bank Road and is also president of the Chamber of Trade.

Peter believes the extra income from the rates precept will help improve local amenities, as will the influx of new customers for all the local services. ‘There will be more money to spend in the town, and more foot-fall, especially from relatives of residents who come to visit the town,’ he said.

He visited Grange for 40 years before moving from Manchester to here settle five years ago. One of his priorities when he takes on the Mayor’s chain will be the Lido, an undoubted eyesore on what otherwise has been a rejuvenated and busy Promenade.

‘It won’t ever be a swimming pool again, but we are sure we can find a leisure use. A consultation exercise is near completion,’ he said. Another sleeping giant is The Commodore pub in the centre of town which had become run-down but has just been taken over by new management and is undergoing a major refurbishment.

Grange has the feel of a town full of New Year resolutions. But just like its Nature Reserve, it knows that it needs to find a balance between expansion and maintaining its charm.

Grange but true

• Grange is first mentioned in the ancient Cartmel Priory Registers in the 15th or 16th century when it was recorded as ‘Grange-with-Kentisbank’.

• Its name probably derived from the old French ‘Graunge’ meaning ‘a barn’ or ‘granary’ where the monks stored some of their grain.

• It grew slowly as a small fishing village, and during the 18th century it had occasional shipping, hence the name of the pub which dominates the town centre even today: The Commodore.

• By the 1820s, Grange was described as a ‘Beautiful sea-bathing village’, and there were a small number of villas and hotels, including the Crown Inn at the top of the hill (where the mini-roundabout is now).

• As a town, it only really begun to develop in the Victorian era with the completion of the Ulverston(e) and Lancaster Railway in 1857. This enabled the town to become a popular seaside resort. Piers were also built to take steamers from Morecambe and Blackpool.

• Until the coming of the railway, the main communication route was the roads across the sands from Kents Bank to Arnside and Hest Bank.

• Edwardian Grange was known as the ‘Torquay of the North’. The promenade was built in 1904 and then extended, and is now over a mile long, and traffic free – being between the railway and the sands, with numerous access points.

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