Outside London: The Cliffs of St Bees
Those of you reading this who live in London will know that it can be a bubble that’s difficult to escape from. Every so often, I like to leave London behind for a few days and see what else is out there. I take my interest in local history and my Cemetery Club member status with me, and usually there’s a thing or two to be learnt about the past and those that dwelled in those places long before I arrived there.
This week I’ve been in Western Cumbria visiting friends – that stunning part of northern England where the mountains meet the sea and every thought of the bustling conurbation from which I emerged, soot covered and jaded, melts away in a haze of fresh oxygen and natural beauty so stunning that there’s no picture I could take that would ever do it justice. Whilst there, staying in the quiet port town of Workington, I drove down the coast on the morning of what would turn out to be the hottest day of the year so far, not to mention the day our new Royal was born, to the remote seaside village of St Bees. I was attracted there because I like bees, and also because my Lake District guidebook described it as a ‘lovely’ place and promised me cliffs that I could sit atop and gaze down at my empire whilst pretending to be a pirate.
The guidebook also warned me that I might be underwhelmed by the seaside portion of town (which is the first bit you come to when you drive in off the coastal road) and that I should under no circumstances leave without going into the village proper, and immersing myself in history and quaintness.
So I drove in, found the beach and thought ‘well, if this is what lovely is then I need to rethink my life’. The tide was in, there were stones and groynes and an expansive caravan park that yielded droves of noisy, unkempt children and adults not wearing enough clothes. There was a stark looking tea room, called Hartleys (I hope very much that it was full of jam) and a flag proclaiming that the village has this year won a Seaside Award, the criteria for which I can only assume is possessing some sea. I didn’t like it. I climbed the cliff (St Bees is one of three starting points for the Coast to Coast walk, which spans 190 miles and finishes in East Yorkshire. One day I may do it) and after some near fatal slipping about on the sandy verges (I was once again wearing inappropriate walking footwear, and Sheldon would have rolled his eyes) I parked myself atop a ledge which sat upon the entrance to a spectacular cliff face cave, and spent a while gazing out at the sparkling ocean whilst trying not to get bitten by weird buzzing cliff beetles.
Then I climbed down and left, because St Bees was not pretty and I was not having that. ‘Maybe I’ll go to the rum museum in Whitehaven’ I thought, and then I took a wrong turning on the way back to the dual carriageway and found myself in the village, which is not visible from the beach or the cliff top. And yeah ok, the guidebook was right, because it was beautiful.
The tiny post office boasted ‘local new potatoes here today’ on a handwritten sign, there were farmhouses and barns and wonky thatched roofs, signs written in Cumbrian and a wee little, oddly shaped Methodist church jammed between two houses, looking like it had got there by accident, or been there a lot longer than the rest of the village.
Set on the side of a valley, overlooking the rest of the village was a grand old priory church that looked like a mini cathedral, with a beautiful, secluded graveyard around it. As I wandered through it, I was reminded strongly of rural Normandy, where I had been the previous month – every village there, no matter how tiny or near to the neighbouring villages, has a giant, usually Catholic Church, and a graveyard full of every person that has lived in that village since time began. This is what was happening here, in St Bees. It was somehow reassuring to know that I was surrounded by near enough every villager from this part of the world from the last hundred years or so. I suspect the culture here is worlds away from that of Victorian London, where the affluent were fighting to get in to one of the Magnificent Seven, no matter which part of the city they hailed from. Here, you lived here, you died here, you were buried here. One big local community of the dead.
However, not *quite* everyone who had lived in and loved St Bees had opted for the village cemetery. I find it neverendingly interesting the choices people make about their own physical location in this world after death, and that’s why my most touching discovery of the day actually did occur up on those cliffs at the start of my visit. Just next to the verge I chose to sit on, situated on an outcropping of wild grass covered rock that proved more than a little treacherous to get to in my shoes and whilst carrying quite a lot of expensive photography equipment, was a mini cemetery. Three gravestones in total, all tiny, two adorned with text and bunches of artificial flowers and one – the most beautiful of all, just a wooden cross, driven into the top of the cliff and gazing out to sea for all eternity.
Who these people were I’ll never know, but they obviously loved St Bees, and these cliffs, and the sea enough to choose up here as their final resting place.
I would argue it was just as majestic a spot as a plot in West Highgate or Brompton. But in a completely different way.