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Dramatic St Bees Head

The high sandstone cliffs of St Bees make a formidable bastion against the Irish Sea.

Distance 3.3 miles (5.3km)

Minimum time 2hrs 15min

Ascent/gradient 460ft (140m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Track, grassy paths and lane, 11 stiles

Landscape Elevated fields, rocky bay, cliff top and open seascapes

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 303 Whitehaven & Workington

Start/finish NX 948146

Dog friendliness Good for fit and active dogs under strict control

Parking Tarnflatt Hall by private access road to lighthouse, small fee payable at farmhouse

Public toilets On sea front at St Bees village

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1 From the parking area within the farmyard return to the surfaced road and walk back along to the top of the hill marked by the telecommunications mast. Take the track on the right, Hannahmoor Lane, signed 'Coastal Way - Fleswick Bay'. Proceed through the gate and continue along the track, dipping at first and then rising, to climb the shoulder of Hannah Moor. Keep along the track crossing four stiles and gates. There are grand views east to the Lakeland fells and west out across the sea to the Isle of Man. The fourth stile has waymark arrows showing the path to fall diagonally down the next open field. This appears to be a cereal growing field and there is no obvious worn path. Perhaps the draughtsmen who drew the green right of way had a slip of hand here and it may be prudent to cross the field directly before descending right, down the line of the far boundary. About half-way down the slope, a stile leads over a fence before the way exits the field by another stile at the bottom. Go right to a stile leading over the fence and follow the path and steps down into the little ravine. Near its base a path bears off to the left and leads out through the mouth of the canyon to the delights of Fleswick Bay. A natural sun trap, and a popular sunbathing and swimming facility for the hardy natives of west Cumbria, this bay is a wonderful place to watch birds.

2 Return to the path and continue. Cross a stile and, beyond this, cross the little stream to skirt back left along a slippery shelf of sandstone. A further stile leads out on to the open hillside and the steep path, with sections of steps, rises to the cliff top. There are fine views across Fleswick Bay to the cliffs of the South Head. Follow the path along the fence which runs close to the cliff edge. Cross two stiles. At regular intervals stiles over the boundary fence provide access to safe viewing areas.

3 These viewing areas, built by the RSPB and maintained by a seasonal warden, offer an opportunity to inspect the noisy bird life nesting on the cliffs below. Many thousands of birds return here each spring to lay their eggs and hatch their chicks before returning to sea where they spend three-quarters of their lives. Most prolific are the guillemots, which resemble dumpy little penguins. Some 5,000 of these birds squeeze precariously on to the narrow open ledges. Razorbills, not so common, can also be seen here along with fulmars, gulls and some 1,600 pairs of kittiwakes.

4 Just beyond the second stile along the top, a pinnacle flake of rock can be seen. The gap isn't far, though the rift is very deep. Named Cloven Barth on the map this feature is known locally as Lawson's Leap after a character who thought, fatally, he could make the jump across. A little way beyond this, on intercepting a concrete road just before a white building with a little square tower, go right, up to the lighthouse. The first lighthouse here was built by Thomas Lutwige c1723. It consisted of a round tower of some 30ft (9m) in height, supporting a large metal grate on which coal was burnt. It lasted until 1822 and earned the considerable accolade of being the last coal-fired lighthouse in use in Great Britain.

5 Pass the lighthouse, taking the gate which leads on to the road, and continue back to Tarnflatt Hall.

This walk makes a strenuous, though rewarding, round of the North Head of St Bees. North Head forms an imposing headland of sandstone looking out across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man and over the Solway to the hills of Galloway in Scotland.

Here you'll find the most spectacular sea cliffs in the north west of England, home to an important nesting colony of seabirds. The cliff top is largely owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and this route will be most interesting in the spring and summer months, when the birds are in residence. Even so, the autumnal and winter gales can provide their own attractions. When huge breakers roll over Fleswick Bay to smash against the cliffs this becomes very much a walk on the wild side.

While you're there

St Bees Lighthouse was automated 1978 and is now monitored by Trinity House Operations Control Centre at Harwich in Essex. The house and associated cottages now serve as holiday homes. The white tower was built to the design of Joseph Nelson in 1822.

Where to eat and drink

The nearest inns are at Sandwith where both the Dog and Partridge and the Lowther Arms serve traditional and ample bar meals.

What to look for

The cliffs of St Bees Head are the only nesting site in England for black guillemots, and they are a relatively common sight around Fleswick Bay. They are identified by the big white wing patch on an otherwise black body and, when out of the water, by their legs and the inside of their beaks (gapes), which are bright scarlet.

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