Lytham St Annes lifeboat crew - the heroes of the cockle bed

PUBLISHED: 22:21 08 December 2011 | UPDATED: 20:25 20 February 2013

Lytham St Annes lifeboat crew - the heroes of the cockle bed

Lytham St Annes lifeboat crew - the heroes of the cockle bed

The sedate town has been inundated by cockle-pickers – reminding us how important the lifeboat is to this coastal community. Amanda Griffiths reports Photography by Kirsty Thompson

Lytham seafront is normally an oasis of calm for visitors and locals taking a bracing stroll beside the Ribble estuary. But in recent months it has looked more like a town at the centre of a frantic gold-rush as boats, lorries and hundreds of strangers have shattered the peace.

This particular gold comes in the unlikely form of cockles. With an estimated 8million worth of them on the sandbanks exposed at low tide, fishermen from as far away as Russia have descended on the small coastal community eager to make up to 1,000 a day.

While theyve taken away lorry-loads of shellfish, they have left behind a lot of mess strewn on the beach and a band of increasingly irritated locals.

Worst still, many were there illegally and these inexperienced cocklers have been rescued with monotonous regularity by the lifeboat crew. It didnt take long for people to draw parallels with the 2004 Morecambe Bay disaster. Nor has the significance of a much earlier tragedy been missed.

As rumours grew that the beds would be closed earlier than expected, Martin Jaggs, coxswain mechanic of the Lytham St Annes crew, said: Its difficult to say how often the lifeboat normally gets called out. It depends on the tides and the weather, but maybe once a month. So being called out 15 times since September, most of them in the last two weeks, is a lot of extra pressure on the crew who are volunteers and have jobs.

Having said that, saving lives at sea is what we do and what we are trained for. The people Ive spoken to are supportive of what we do but there is some agitation about the fact that were being called out so much.

There are local fishermen who have been working the river for 30 or 40 years and do so without incident.

But its amazing to see others heading out in 16 foot inflatables with 16 people in them, some wearing life jackets and some without. They have no idea what danger they are putting themselves in.

There are rumours theyre going to close the beds early but I think thats a shame for the local fishermen and it could just make things worse. The people who are already fishing illegally will continue to do so.

All this just goes to prove how important the RNLI is to the town which is preparing this month to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the worst lifeboat disaster in history the Mexico disaster in 1886 when 27 men lost their lives trying to rescue the crew of the German barque, Mexico, wrecked on a sandbank in the Ribble estuary.

Three crews from Lytham, St Annes and Southport were sent out to the stricken vessel. Lytham launched first, reached the ship, rescued the crew and brought them back to dry land. St Annes launched second but was not seen again until the boat was found capsized on Southport beach the following morning with all 13 crew drowned. Southport were the last to launch, and the crew got very close to the vessel before a huge wave capsized her. Only two men survived.

David Forshaw is a member of the Lytham St Annes lifeboat crew and Lytham Heritage Group which is commemorating the anniversary with a special exhibition at the towns heritasge centre until December 11th. It is the worst disaster for the RNLI and, hopefully, it will remain the worst, he said.

Fellow Lytham Heritage Group member Steve Williams added: Hopefully the exhibition is very balanced. We already had a good collection from Lytham and St Annes, but the people at Southport Botanical Gardens who had their own exhibition have lent us their collection. The museum there is closed now, which is a shame, but it means that for the first time everything is back together in one place.

The chance to see and touch things that were actually there is amazing. The exhibition aims to take you right through the story from Lytham lifeboat in the 1850s, to the Mexico disaster and very quickly brings you to the lifeboat today.

It is hoped this exhibition will eventually form part of the revamped museum in the old lifeboat house next to the windmill.

A lifeboat museum was opened in the boat house for the 100th anniversary and kept going until the it needed refurbishment and shut in 2004, said David. We found that when the museum was open it was surprising how many relatives would come in and say their great, great uncle was on one of the boats.

Its no surprise that Heritage Group members are proposing a revamp not just to the boat house but also to the windmill. The 1 million project aims to bring more visitors to the windmill and highlight other points of interest in and around the town including Lytham Hall.

The project hopes to sees the sails all four, one is currently missing and millstones of the iconic windmill turning once more and the boathouse turned into an interactive experience for visitors. Alongside this are plans to create heritage trails.

Another member of Lytham Heritage Group, John Hayfield, said: We submitted a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund in late November. Hopefully we will find out in March next year if weve got it and can then undertake an 18 month design period.

If all goes to plan the windmill (which opens between April and September and already attracts around 25,000 visitors a year) will close to visitors in 2013 to get ready for opening in 2014 which should coincide with the completion of the Lytham Hall restoration project.
Its likely to cost around 1 million and well probably have to raise about 450,000 in matched fundraising but the better we make the experience the more people will come.

In the boathouse we dont just want people to come and read boards, we plan to recreate the Charles Biggs lifeboat from the Mexico disaster in some way with an audio visual experience which will allow people to become part of the lifeboat crew for ten minutes or so.

The RNLI are supporting us locally and we hope to get the backing nationally. In fact, everybody we have spoken to so far about the project has been very supportive and enthusiastic.

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