Cedric Robinson - By Royal Appointment in Morecambe
PUBLISHED: 01:04 23 December 2009 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013
Cedric Robinson is the longest serving Queen's Guide to the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay Interview: Paul Mackenzie Photographs: Kirsty Thompson
THE tragedy of February 2004 when 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives was a reminder to everyone of just how dangerous Morecambe Bay can be. And no-one knows the bay better than Cedric Robinson, who has worked on the sands all his life and, after 45 years in the job, is now the longest serving Queen's Guide to the Bay.
Cedric's knowledge of the bay, its sands and its tides, was crucial to the various investigations into the disaster in the months that followed. But in an exclusive interview with Lancashire Life he revealed his fears that a similar incident could once again bring death to the sands.
'I don't think any lessons have been learned from what happened that night,' he said. 'Since they re-opened the cockle beds people have been out cockling illegally again.
There are still unregistered people out there cockling with no knowledge of the sands. I'd say about 99 per cent of them are Polish lads aged about 18 who can hardly speak a word of English. 'There's beauty all around in the middle of the bay but it is terribly dangerous and even some locals still don't realise how deadly the sands can be.'
Cedric had been guest of honour at a dinner in Preston on the night of the tragedy and returned home with his wife Olive shortly before midnight. 'We saw the helicopter and the search lights out on the water,' he said. 'It was a dark night, with quite a breeze and it was bitterly cold.
'I didn't sleep a wink all night. I had visions of those poor souls out there in the dark. It all looks the same in the dark. Maybe they saw the lights at Barrow and tried to swim but it's about 12 miles. They wouldn't have known.
Those poor souls. Those poor, poor souls.' Cedric developed his knowledge of the sands as a fisherman working, as did his father, on the sands and in the channels that criss-cross the vast bay. 'We'd be out fishing day and night, depending on the tides, fishing for shrimps, flounders, cockles, mussels and white bait. During most of my younger days I was out on the sands in the dark, and it really is dark out there, so you have to know what you're doing and where you're going.'
He was heading home to Flookburgh after a fishing trip in the early 1960s when a local fisheries officer told him about the vacancy for a guide. 'I'd never heard of the guide and didn't know what it was about but he suggested I should apply for it, so I did and I had to go before the committee and Lord Cavendish and they gave me the job.'
That was 45 years ago and Cedric - a former trombonist with Flookburgh's successful brass band - is now the longest serving Queen's Guide since the post was established in the first years of the 16th century. 'When I took the job I started getting calls from newspapers and television people who came to interview me because I was a young man doing an ancient job.
More people came to hear of the walks and more people started coming. My predecessor had taken one walk a year and on my first walk there were 20 people, including me and Olive. On one weekend this summer I guided 1300 people across the sands. The winters and springs were much colder when I started and I only used to lead walks between May and August. It's different now, we can walk from April to October.
'I've never been paid for the walks, I get an annual grant of 15 a year from the Duchy but I get the house as well. We had a modern house before we moved here and it was a bit of a culture shock, especially with a young family. It's a farmhouse and it's about 800 years old.
There was no electricity, no heating and we had one gas lamp. We had Tilley lamps hanging up for about two years after we moved in. The flannel used to get frozen to the sink.'
That's not going to happen any more. The house, which stands on the western fringes of Grange just about as close the sands as it's possible to build, now has electricity, a modern kitchen and this winter they've even had an immersion heater fitted so they'll no longer need to light a coal fire to heat the water for a bath after a day on the sands.
The walls of the living room and hallway are decorated with awards, certificates and honours presented to Cedric over the last 45 years, during which time he reckons he has guided almost half a million people safely across the bay. 'The walks grew gradually,' Cedric added. 'If I'd had all those thousands right from the start it would have been difficult. I was shy and quiet when I first started and I'd never had to deal with people before, only fish and they don't ask difficult questions. Now, though, I give lectures and talks and I don't mind doing it at all.
'Over the years we've had all sorts of people on the sands, celebrities, television crews, horse and carriage clubs. People come from all over the country, and we get calls from people from America who book their trips to coincide with our walks. For a simple fisherman I've not done so bad.
'I look at the tide tables at the start of the year to check when we'll be able to walk. There are all sorts of things that can change the state of the sands and I can read the sands and I know exactly what I'm doing out there. I'm not a worrier but I am very conscientious. I never go on the sands without writing the tide times on my hand and from that I can tell to the minute when the tide will reach any part of the sands.
'It won't be easy to find the next guide when I finish. The younger generation aren't used to thinking about the dangers. But my dad died when he was 102, I'm 74 now, so I should have another 40 years left in me!'
Cedric's latest book Between the Tides is out now, priced 14.99.