Wild coastlines, ancient mills and a ruined abbey make Furness a great place to visit

Great British Life: Bardsea is a Lakeland coastal gemBardsea is a Lakeland coastal gem (Image: Archant)

Off-the-beaten track is a phrase invented for one of those quirky tourist attractions which make a visit to the Furness Peninsula well worth the effort.

Gleaston Water Mill is not easy to find: Follow the A590 as far as Ulverston then turn left along the rewarding coastal route, the A5087, through Bardsea, admiring the shimmering mud flats of Morecambe Bay to the left.

At Aldingham, pass the motte and bailey castle clinging precariously to the cliff edge, then turn right at the cross-roads, through the village of Scales, taking the first left down a winding narrow country lane.

Stop to admire Gleaston Castle, a national monument on a working farm. Sadly, it cannot be visited as it is too unstable to be open to the public.

Great British Life: Walney Island conntected by bridge to the mainlandWalney Island conntected by bridge to the mainland (Image: Archant)

Carry on to reach the working water mill, restored 30 years ago by Mike and Vicky Brereton, packed with hand tools and machinery and other artefacts connected to the grinding of corn.

And the couple have added many other features: Dusty Miller’s tea shop, Pig’s Whisper Country Stores and the Grade II listed, poshest pig sty in Cumbria, now a holiday cottage.

Pigs have long been associated with corn mills, as they love to eat the by-products of the process, and happily Vicky has a penchant for everything porcine. The place is packed with every model and toy pig you could wish to snout out.

The mill has been part of local tradition for more than 400 years and the current building dates from 1774. Visitors can still see the 18-foot water wheel in the three-storey Georgian construction made of red sandstone probably taken from the ruins of Furness Abbey.

Great British Life: Dalton-in-Furness is a pretty town steeped in historyDalton-in-Furness is a pretty town steeped in history (Image: Archant)

When the Breretons bought it in 1987, much of the roof had gone, floors had disintegrated and drainpipes and gutters had failed. They began renovation in 1989 and work was virtually completed by 2000.

‘After travelling the world we came back to Gleaston, where I was born, and by chance found this working mill,’ said Mike now aged 75. ‘Having invested substantial time and money in this private project, we would like to ensure its future as a record of history and heritage.

‘We are in the process of forming a private trust, involving two nieces, one a solicitor and another a trained museum curator. A third trustee, and the only one older than 40, is a electrical engineer with a particular skill in doing up old buildings, so the mill should be able to go on for many years.’

While the cafe is open all year, the rest of the attraction doesn’t spring into life until Easter.

Great British Life: Furness Abbey was one of the richest in BritainFurness Abbey was one of the richest in Britain (Image: Archant)

This link with the past is common for dozens of places worth visiting in the Low Furness Peninsula. It has been inhabited by people for at least 3,000 years and the history and archaeology add to the influences left by Druids, Romans, Vikings and the Victorians.

Returning to the coast from Gleaston, explore miles of wild and diverse coastline from the endless sands of Bardsea beach to the atmospheric islands of Roa and Piel.

Despite a population of just 100, Roa Island has a yacht club, a former hotel and a cafe. Overlooking the sea with a south-facing aspect is Villa Marina, a house built for the Furness industrialist William Schneider as a holiday retreat.

Over the years it has served as a fisheries investigation laboratory and as army premises during World War Two. It is now a hotel and on its lawn are seven cannons pointing out to sea.

Great British Life: The Old Mill at Gleaston was in a poor state when they took it overThe Old Mill at Gleaston was in a poor state when they took it over (Image: Archant)

Other interesting buildings include a row of terraced houses built to provide accommodation for ten pilots; and The Watch Tower, a former Customs and Excise House built in 1847.

At the Roa island cafe you can book crossings to Piel Island lying off the southern tip of Furness Peninsula.

It is owned by the people of Barrow but the “King” of Piel is the landlord of the island’s pub, the Ship Inn.

Resuming our whirlwind tour back on the mainland, drive towards Barrow on Abbey Road to see Furness Abbey, which from the late Middle Ages dominated the whole Peninsula.

Great British Life: Mike and Vicky Brereton who have lovingly restored the 400 year old Old Mill at Gleaston over the past 30 years. Mike is touching the Dobbie Stone hung there to ward off evil spiritsMike and Vicky Brereton who have lovingly restored the 400 year old Old Mill at Gleaston over the past 30 years. Mike is touching the Dobbie Stone hung there to ward off evil spirits (Image: not Archant)

Set in the beautiful Vale of Nightshade are its extensive red sandstone ruins. Founded in 1123 by Stephen, later King of England, the abbey was the second richest Cistercian monastery in England after Fountain’s Abbey in North Yorkshire, which it matched for splendour.

Drive on into Barrow and marvel at the magnificent sandstone edifice of the Town Hall, a monument to the town’s period of opulence.

The fortunes of Furness changed dramatically in 1840s and 1850s, when William Schneider found iron ore deposits at Dalton-in-Furness. The iron ore mine and steelworks were, at the time, the biggest in the world. The population of Barrow-in-Furness rose from a few families to 47,000 by 1881.

Iron and steel soon gave over to shipbuilding with Barrow’s docks becoming one of the largest in the UK, with submarine development becoming a speciality.

Great British Life: Piel Island is ruled by a 'king' - the pub landlordPiel Island is ruled by a 'king' - the pub landlord (Image: Archant)

The striking modern building which is the Dock Museum on the channel-side site is a free and inspirational tribute to Barrow’s history from cave finds to shipbuilding tradition and it is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 11-4pm.

Cross Jubilee Bridge to Walney Island and you’ll find not one, but two wildlife reserves. South Walney is home to the only grey seal colony in the region. With stunning views across Morecambe bay, this shingle island reserve is full of interest and a fantastic place for bird watching.

Of the 250 bird species recorded, many are passage migrants on their way to or from breeding grounds. In winter you can see large numbers of waders and wildfowl feeding and roosting. You can also see greater black backed gull, shelduck, mallard, moorhen and coot.

North Walney’s reserve covers an area which has been used since prehistoric times, as evidenced by the many Mesolithic, Neolithic, bronze and iron-age finds.

The reserve’s 350-acres exhibit a great variety of habitats, including sand dunes, heath, salt marsh, sandy beach, shingle and scrub, which combine to make it a nationally important wildlife site.

Leaving Barrow on the A590, call in on the ancient town of Dalton-in-Furness, once the leading communities of Furness, and an important centre for administration and justice.

Here your can see the 14th-century Pele Tower, known as Dalton Castle, built as a place of refuge for monks from Furness Abbey against Scottish raiders.

The Market Place has a unique cast-iron fronted shop, number 51, an elegant Victorian drinking fountain with fluted columns, a market cross and slabs of stone used for fish drying in the 19th century.

Back on the main road is the entrance to South Lakes Safari Zoo, which has had its well-documented problems in recent years, but seems to have settled down under a new management team.

It is home to more than 1,000 of the rarest and most endangered animals in natural environments which enable you to get as close as physically possible. Wander among kangaroos, wallabies, and emus. Free-flying macaws soar overhead. And you can participate in animal feeding or be a zookeeper for a day.

Furness Peninsula, at the farthest tip of Lancashire North of the Sands, is full of surprises.