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Off The Beaten Track on Walney Island Nature Reserve

Nature Trail at South Walney Nature Reserve
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Walking Off The Beaten Track on Walney Island

How often do you go out walking off the beaten track? It may be easier to stick to familiar trails but walking, especially in an unfamiliar place, brings unexpected rewards. We recently discovered a coastal nook of Cumbria that’s so unlike the rest of The Lakes it felt like another county. In this post, encouraged by a collaboration with Mars, we explore the Walney Island Nature Reserve and offer some ideas on the benefits of walking and tips on ways to get the family engaged in getting out together off the beaten track.. 

Map of Walney Island

We’ve never really explored Walney Island and it’s almost off the map of Cumbria, perfect for an off the beaten track adventure

It’s not all about the seals

The first rule of seal spotting. Don’t miss high tide. Like we just did. That’s when the seals haul out on the beach for easy spotting. But they don’t hang around.

“People are coming back and saying they’ve seen lots of seals today but the tide is going out now,” explains Heather Chislett, a volunteer warden at Cumbria Wildlife Trust. “But high tide was an hour ago so they’ll mostly be gone now.”

We’ve come to South Walney Nature Reserve on a mission to spot seals.  Seal spotting is an easy way to persuade the kids out for a walk; especially young kids, and it’s one of the few places in Cumbria with a reliable seal colony. Even as she speaks, Heather spots our disappointment.

“They might still be around! You never know. Look out in the bay for grey seals and common seals. When they come bobbing up you can tell them apart by their different noses.”

She shows us the public sightings board at the warden’s hut and enthuses us to look out for other things, lots of other things. Birds, bugs, bees and plants. A toddlers paradise. This place is not just about the seals.

Checking what's on the menu at the South Walney Nature Reserve

Arriving at South Walney Nature Reserve, the warden’s hut gives lots of clues as to what we might spot.

We should at least score a duck

“You should see lots of eider ducks and terns,” says Heather. It doesn’t sound too exciting until she explains that Walney Island Nature Reserve is also a rare English breeding ground for eider ducks with around 800 pairs. Beyond Walney we’d have to go much further off the beaten track, to Scotland in fact, to see them in the wild.

“I think we might have seen some kind of a bird of prey on the way in,” I venture, revealing my level of birding expertise.

“Ah, somebody said they’d seen a Sparrowhawk,” says Heather. I check. It’s on the list and I feel a little but more like a twitcher.

“Try the red trail,” Heather suggests. “It’s about three miles and takes you to the hides.”

We head off across the reserve towards the lighthouse and I almost wish I’d brought my binoculars.

South Walney Lighthouse

The South Walney Lighthouse

It’s good to go walking

After a summer of cycling it feels good to go walking again. It’s such a simple pleasure. You don’t need any fancy gear, you can do it anywhere and it’s free. Walking seems to be in the zeitgeist lately; for fun and for health. According to BBC News, new research is proving links between walking and positive mental health and doctors in the future may even be prescribing forest walks. If you need more convincing then apparently walking can help you live longer and feel sexier too.

Get off the beaten track

Over the years we’ve done many local walks in south and central Cumbria. We even spent a week walking across Cumbria a few winters ago. But we don’t always get off the beaten track. That’s something Mars were keen for us to do as part of a campaign celebrating the humble Tracker Bar’s 30th birthday.  Their ‘Get Off the Beaten Track‘ campaign encouraged families to get out and experience the benefits of walking more and walking together.

Enjoying a tracker bar in the hide at South Walney Nature Reserve

Taking in the views and some energy for the next leg of the journey.

Getting away from the herd

As we begin our Walney Island Nature Reserve walk the sun comes out and we can see for miles, across to Piel Island with its pub, campsite, King and castle, another great spot for a microadventure and to the Lakeland fells beyond. It’s wild, flat and peaceful on the reserve yet only a few miles from the shipbuilding town of Barrow and not much more then a dozen from the high fells. As we head towards the lighthouse and the shingle banks where the seals might be it feels less and less like the Cumbria we know.

Just minutes into our journey we come face to face with our first sighting, a herd of the Highland cattle grazing on the salt marsh. I don’t recall Highland cattle being on Heather’s list but I add them to my ‘things I spotted’ list as we negotiate our way around a cuddly looking mother and daughter intent on obstructing the path or transfixed by the views.

Cattle on South Walney Island Nature Reserve

Our first encounter is with Highland cattle, soaking up the sunshine and the views across to the castle on Piel Island

The reserve at the end of the road

South Walney Nature Reserve is a haven for wildlife. Situated at the almost uninhabited southern tip of Walney Island there is virtually no traffic and relatively few human visitors, especially compared to Lake District honeypots.  There is wildlife in abundance though.

In winter a quarter of a million birds come from all over Europe to feed on the ragworms, lugworms and cockles that lie beneath the surface of the bay. In summer, birds such as arctic, sandwich and little tern arrive to breed in the salt-marsh – a complex mosaic of mud and water that provides them with food, shelter and a nesting ground.

On this sunny September day, it is a gentle meander for us and even with small children it would be an an easy walk. But birds regularly battle a wind that’s powerful enough to produce electricity for up to 250,000 homes, from a complex of 102 wind turbines situated 15km off the western shore, in one of the world’s largest off-shore wind farms.

Shingle banks on Westtern side of Walney Island look out onto the offshore wind farm.

The western side of Walney Island has a different energy, shingle beaches look out onto a large offshore wind farm.

Learning about our environment

The paths in the reserve are unexpectedly full of interest, with lots to learn about and many interpretation boards that tell not just of nature but of industry past and present, with connections near and far.

Around the lighthouse lies a disused salt works; built in the 1890’s it had a short life, closing in 1909 when salt prices dropped and it became unprofitable. In the middle of the saline lagoons lies a working oyster farm, one of the largest oyster nurseries in Europe, producing seed oysters that are shipped to oyster farmers around the UK, France and Ireland.

Oyster Farm at South Walney Nature Reserve

The oyster farm on the South Walney Nature Reserve grows oysters in the saline lagoons left behind by quarrying in years gone by.

The vastness of The Bay

At low tide the surrounding bay is the largest expanse of sand and mud flats in the UK. The ebb and flow of tides in and out of the bay have helped form shingle beaches around the southern ends of the island, great spots to look for some of the best shingle flora and fauna in the country. On a good day, looking across the vastness of Morecambe Bay from the west shore of the island you can even spot Blackpool Tower, some 30 kilometres into the distance. It’s a good day and I add it to my ‘spotted’ list.

Western side of Walney Island looking across to Blackpool and The Tower

The western side of Walney Island is different in nature. On a good day you can see across to the Blackpool Tower. Can you see it?

The natural world in close up

As we make our way around the reserve we stop at the various hides to take a few minutes rest, read about the local wildlife and see what we can spot through the slotted windows. Pier Hide looks out onto the old wooden pier from which salt was once shipped and where the seals are said to come to bask and feed. But there don’t seem to be any around.

Beyond the hides we find much to see amongst the grasses. We find a crab carcass and make a hair decoration. We spot bees, butterflies, and rabbits and no seals. But we do find blackberries, lots of them. Some good enough to eat, although many look like the birds got there first.

Walking in the South Walney Nature Reserve, hides and Piel Castle in the background

We wander from hide to hide at the South Walney Island Nature reserve, seeing what we can spot among the grasses. 

We walk, talk and forget about time

We walk for two hours. And only go three miles. People often ask us how we get the kids to cycle 1000 kilometers or walk a long distance route and in our experience the key is to not make it about the exercise or activity but to focus instead on something else of interest – the sights, the sounds, nature, music, each other. So don’t go for a walk – go seal spotting, bird watching, blackberry picking or head out to make art from nature, make a shape in the landscape, take photographs or write a poem.

Blackberries ripening on Walney Island

Don’t go for a walk, go blackberry picking. But you’d better be quick.

Make a success of your walk

James Cracknell and the Woodland Trust are supporters of Get Off the Beaten Track and seem to agree that making it fun, interesting or educational is key not just to motivating people to walk but to making the experience more inherently valuable. (Not that feeling fitter, sexier and living longer aren’t valuable).

If you’re looking for ideas on how to liven up a walk then do check out Cracknell’s tips for families which include ideas like finding and using natural materials to make faces in the woods, seeing how many different types of trees you can identify (perhaps using this guide from the Woodland Trust) or tracking and following animal footprints.

“So we failed,” I say as we leave the final hide and head back to the Warden’s hut.

“What do you mean?” asks Hannah.

“No seals on my list.”

She runs her berry stained fingers down my ‘things I spotted’ list. “No, but we can make a lovely blackberry and apple crumble.”

Looknig for seals in the hide at South Walney Nature Reserve

Seals? Where were they?

Your off the beaten track walking adventure

If you’re keen to do an off the beaten track walking adventure do check out the various tips and advice available on the Get Off The Beaten Track web pages and share your achievements using the hashtag #tracker30. We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas for off the beaten track adventures. Do leave a comment below.

Time for a snack on Walney Island

After all that walking we’re ready for a snack. Something from South WalneyNature reserve and a little something we brought with us.

Disclosure Note: This post is a sponsored collaboration with Mars, who provided some tracker bars to keep us going off the beaten track. The idea, experience, prose, photography, opinions remain, as ever, entirely our own. 

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • What a fun little trip of a place I never have heard of. Off the beaten path leads to moments like this, serene pauses in life that are just beautiful.

    • It’s often the places we’ve never heard of that yield the greatest delights. I guess that’s what exploring is all about, finding those little treasures that give you cause to stop, notice, think.

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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