Words by Liz Corlett. Images by Phil Kneen
“Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The beauty of Morecambe’s body may have been in a protracted decline but its soul is replenished twice a day. Morecambe Bay, and those tides which come and go in long, deep breaths, are genuinely remarkable. Covering over 120 square miles, the scale of the bay in relation to the town verges on epic; it’s like stepping through the back door of a small terraced house to find, not an equally modest backyard, but a prairie stretching to the edge of sight. Morecambe’s loss of vitality has somehow served to magnify the actual and symbolic dimensions of the bay: on an overcast day, all life seems to leach into its expanse; when the sun comes out, the same expanse gleams with a sense of possibility.
Despite its lunar starkness, the bay supports teeming populations which in turn support the town: for centuries, shellfish have provided livelihoods, the dangers of which have also, notoriously, taken lives away. The area’s rich birdlife brings visitors to the town, which honours its seabirds, endearingly, in a number of sculptures.
Reminiscent in hue of cold tea and wet cardboard, neither the waters of Morecambe Bay nor its sand and mud flats – wetly exposed when the tide withdraws like a coverlet dragged from a bed – are classically alluring. But Morecambe people (‘sand grown ‘uns’) love and take pride in their bay, in the same way that people who live in flat landscapes feel attachment to their big skies. For one, there are the sunsets: lavish, cinematic affairs which demand to be watched until the last ember dies. Passing a care home on the seafront one evening, I see an elderly lady doing just that: standing at the window, her face saturated in the glow.
And then there’s the view of the Lakeland fells, uninterrupted and often startlingly clear. It’s that view which anchors Tony Vettese, who has run The Old Pier Bookshop on Marine Road Central for nearly twenty years. Despite the impression of magnificent disorder – the shop appears to be made of books, crammed together in self-supporting, higgledy-piggledy structures – Tony knows the whereabouts of every book for sale. But it’s his familiarity with the territory outside which gives him the greatest pleasure: “Where else would you get a view like that? I wouldn’t be anywhere else. That’s why I’m here, seven days a week. On a clear day, you can see every single peak – all 199 of them”.
On West Promenade, there’s a memorial to Commander Charles Gerald Forsberg OBE, RN, a long distance open water swimmer of some distinction. He notched up 29 crossings of ‘his beloved bay’ and the memorial represents his retirement wish to ‘sit facing wonderful Morecambe Bay and imbibe the matchless view’. However, it far from honours that wish to the letter: captured in the throes of front crawl, he’s imbibing more water than view. The statue of Eric Morecambe also faces inland, presumably so that visitors can corral the town’s most celebrated son and one of those famous sunsets into one photograph.
The irony in offering the sunsets and the views as reasons to visit Morecambe is that they’re attractions which are ‘happening’ elsewhere, on the horizon. What’s more, the proximity of Morecambe to the Lake District – a mere 30-40 minutes’ drive – is regarded as one of the town’s selling points but it could just as easily be an incentive to, well, keep driving. And yet, that’s somehow to miss the point: Morecambe, curiously gentle and passive, feels well-suited to watching and dreaming, longing and waiting, focused on some vision which seems close enough to touch while remaining teasingly out of reach.
In its golden age, Morecambe was once pitched to visitors as ‘the Naples of the North’ and, for several people I meet, the appeal of that immense view is that “you could be anywhere. Switzerland, Italy….anywhere”. You could be – but you’re not: you’re in Morecambe. And on this front, I happen to agree with Tony Vettese: you won’t find better than this.