There's an ethereal beauty to Arnside in winter

Arnside Tower was a writing retreat for novelist Elizabeth Gaskell

Arnside Tower was a writing retreat for novelist Elizabeth Gaskell - Credit: Jon Flinn

It’s the day after winter solstice and the slow march towards the light of spring has begun in the fields and woods around Arnside. 

In the shadow of a wood the grass is still frosted and a gentle but cold breeze is blowing back from Silverdale towards the town and the Kent estuary. 

Out in the open fields there are glassy pools of water everywhere. Alongside the path, streaming fronds of weed in the dyke beside the railway stretch like grasping fingers through the clear water as a rumbling train heading north towards Grange sends a heron up from its perch and into the air.  

Even the footpath is under water in places and away to the right a large pond has formed. The distances and perspective don’t seem right but somehow, and against all probability, reflections on the pond perfectly mimic the profile of the hill north of Arnside Tower. 

We’ve come looking for peregrines up ahead in the cliffs of Middle Barrow Quarry and are taken back by the scale of the place – the towering quarry walls of limestone and endless expanse of flat stony floor gouged out from the rock. 

From a distance it’s a grey landscape, made bleaker still by winter and the low sun already plunging large sections of the quarry into shadow as it disappears early over the top of the quarry.

The viaduct carrying the railway line across the river Kent at Arnside

The viaduct carrying the railway line across the river Kent at Arnside - Credit: Kirsty Thompson

You have to look closer for colour. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of stick thin saplings – buddleia, willow and birch – are springing up, single branches curling like whips from the quarry floor. The long thin birch shoots still have the red bark of youth. They will turn silver and, if left unmanaged, will quickly turn the entire quarry floor into a dense and impenetrable forest. 

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Every now and then there’s a low, ground covering plant, leafless now but with small red berries, like a quarry version of cotoneaster. 

There’s the sound of a pheasant and a pair of ravens wheeling high above head, tracing the line of birches and fir trees that fringe the edge of the top of the quarry – but there’s no sign of the falcons. 

The path through Eaves Wood towards the Pepperpot provides more light and it’s an unexpected relief to leave the gathering darkness of the quarry behind.

The pepperpot and the view to a wintery horizon

The pepperpot and the view to a wintery horizon - Credit: Jon Flinn

Even in the depths of winter there’s an abundance of green thanks to the yew trees and bright  mosses which characterise so much of this region’s woodland and threaten to smother anything – or anyone – that lingers too long. It’s on the stone walls that mark the limits of the wood, on the curved boulders which litter its floor, on the tree roots that protrude into the path winding up hill and has completely clothed the fluted form of a fallen tree which lies alongside the way in vibrant green velvet. 

Something in a nearby tree catches the eye – a bright red felt poppy has been incongruously placed in the higher branches and stands out among the green moss. 

The woods have been carefully coppiced and tightly packed sticks of hornbeam and hazel shoot from the ground in a competition for light. Like lanky teenagers, they grow up before they grow out and achieve proportion. 

On the summit of King William Hill, it’s still a bright afternoon. The sun is sitting right behind Heysham Power Station and the tide is low enough to reveal the twists and turns of the river channels snaking out across Morecambe Bay. Inland though, the valleys to the south are disappearing under mist and the air is cooler and damper on the journey downhill towards Arnside Tower. 

Walkers linger around the ruins as an oystercatcher sets off in flight across the fields down to where the magic pond has formed in the fields below. 

A moss covered log adds a touch of velvety green to the scene

A moss covered log adds a touch of velvety green to the scene - Credit: Jon Flinn

Ahead the path winds through hornbeam coppices revealing occasional glimpses of the Kent estuary before finally arriving on the muddy banks. It’s barely 3pm but a flock of mallards has huddled together on the water and lies motionless as if it has settled in for night on the slowly turning tide. 

The remaining western light of the estuary and open sea behind us is fading by the second. Ahead, the Kentmere Horseshoe is lost in cloud but the cheer of coloured lights on the Christmas tree by Arnside pier and the comforting glow of a waterfront pub welcome walkers into the village. 

There’s no hurry to move on, or to leave winter behind. The day has gone but we are where we need to be.