My walk of life: Reading the sands
For nearly half a century, Cedric Robinson has been guiding walkers across the treacherous beaches of Morecambe Bay as the latest in a long line of Queen’s Guides to the Sands. He tells us his remarkable story…
Nearly 50 years ago I was out picking cockles on Morecambe Bay, miles away from the shore, when I saw someone approaching. It had to be someone local who knew the Bay well. You need to know what you’re doing on the sands to make it out that far. Gren Harrison, the Western Sea Fishery Officer came into view – ‘the Policeman of the Sands’. We were chatting away when he mentioned that the Queen’s Guide to the Sands was retiring and suggested I should apply.
I know the Bay like the back of my hand and I’ve seen the quicksand out there swallow up horses, tractors and all sorts. They don’t come back up again. The places where there’s quicksand can change twice a day with the shifting tide, which comes in so fast – as fast as a galloping horse – it’s caught out many a walker over the years and the currents are incredibly strong. But if you understand the Bay and can ‘read the sands’, it’s possible to navigate a safe pass.
Many locals believe there have been Guides to the Sands since the time of King John. But there are no records before the reign of Henry VIII. When I was appointed, the walks were not very well known and there was no great fuss among the local people, but of course it was an honour and it changed the lives of me and my family. My wife and five children moved to Guide’s Farm – the house and smallholding that come
with the job. A lot of work had to be done on the place but our friends helped. The pay is only £15 per year, so Guide’s Farm is the main part of my salary, plus people who come on the walks often give tips. The days and times of the walks depend on the tides, starting from May and continuing until autumn.
I must’ve made the journey across the Bay hundreds of times now. The distance varies with the movement of the tides,
but it’s about 8 miles. We usually get
across in three hours, although it can take longer. At first there’d just be a handful of walkers with me, but today there can be anything up to 700 at a time. Fifty years ago I was a local lad who’d barely even met anyone from outside my village; nowadays I’m used to mixing with folk from all walks of life. I’ve led quite a few famous people across the sands, such as Melvyn Bragg, Judith Chalmers, Bill Bryson, Ian McKellen and Michael Portillo. I think my most memorable crossing was sitting next to Prince Philip aboard a coach he was driving pulled by four magnificent horses. At the end there was an enormous crowd of people waiting and I remember him saying, “Stand up, Cedric, it’s you they’re here to see”. Nice chap.
You can’t cross the Bay without getting your feet wet because you have to pass through the River Kent. On a good day it’s only knee-high. Wellies are useless – the water just comes over the top. I go barefoot. My wife Olive advises people what to wear when they phone to book the walk. She’s as devoted to the job as I am. I couldn’t have managed without her help. I have an old naval telescope I use to keep an eye on the tides from my house. When I’m out on the Bay, Olive uses it to keep an eye on me and to see whether I’m on my way home for dinner. The walking gives me such an appetite and she always has a good meal waiting. Sometimes my son joins me. He’s a keen cyclist and in good shape, but he finds it exhausting. It is hard work, but it’s kept me fit. I’m not far off 80 now, but I don’t see any reason to stop any time soon.
The walks are so popular they’re bound to continue after my time. I’m not sure who’ll replace me, though. I see the young men tearing about the Bay on quad bikes and tractors and it really makes me wonder. This job needs someone with a lot of patience, who takes care, and has time for people.
Mind you, my dad lived until he was 102, so I reckon I’ve got a good few years left in me yet. Why would I stop doing something I enjoy so much that keeps me in such good shape? Even after all these years I still feel excited as the new season approaches.
Interview by Julia Buckley
Cedric’s autobiography Sandman is available from Great Northern Books, priced £15.99
Interview by Julia Buckley
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