Walney Island: A Jewel of Natural Beauty and Historical Richness

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  7. Walney Island: A Jewel of Natural Beauty and Historical Richness

Nestled off the coast of Cumbria, Walney Island is a fascinating blend of natural beauty, rich history, and vibrant community life. This comprehensive guide explores the island’s geological origins, historical milestones, and the lush biodiversity that makes it a haven for nature lovers and history enthusiasts alike. 1

The Evolution of Walney Island

Geological Beginnings

The foundation of Walney Island is predominantly Red Sandstone, estimated to be about 150 million years in age. The island’s formation is believed to have been initiated with the retreat of the Ice Age approximately 24,000 years ago, a time characterized by the melting of vast ice sheets. This significant geological event converted the River Duddon into an enormous glacial lake, draining through what is now known as the Walney Channel. As the glaciers withdrew, they sculpted a distinctive channel that isolated three smaller landforms from the mainland, which eventually coalesced to form the present Walney Island. Over the years, the island has experienced several breaches by the storms of the Irish Sea, with the latest recorded in February 1983. The island’s coastlines are adorned with erratic boulders, a testament to the glaciers’ westward journey from the Lake District, and the exposure of Red boulder clay, especially near Biggar Village, showcases the island’s dynamic geological past.

Etymological Roots

The name ‘Walney’ is enveloped in a tapestry of history and conjecture. It is believed that the suffix “-ey,” found in Old Norse, which means “island,” is a component of Walney’s name. The prefix “Waln” may trace back to “Vogn-ey,” translating to “Island of the Killer Whale,” a notion that resonates with historical descriptions of Walney Island resembling a beached whale. The earliest mention in historical records is found in the Domesday Book as “Hougenai,” which might mean “Manor of Hougon.” Through the ages, the island’s name has undergone several transformations, reflecting its rich tapestry of historical and cultural shifts.

Human Footprints

The traces of Walney Island’s earliest settlers remain shrouded in mystery, though the unearthing of flint arrowheads from the 1930s hints at a Neolithic human presence. It is widely held that Norsemen, venturing from the Isle of Man and Ireland in the late ninth century, were among the island’s initial settlers. The 1600s brought the devastating blow of the plague, significantly reducing the island’s population, with many victims believed to be interred near the site of the historical ‘old vicarage,’ now the Ferry Hotel. In contemporary times, Walney Island is home to a vibrant community of around 12,000 residents, with ongoing developments designed to support its expanding population. The transformation of areas once known for industrial and kennel operations into residential spaces marks the latest chapter in the island’s ongoing evolution.

Overview of Natural Walney Island

Walney Island is a haven of natural beauty and ecological diversity, featuring two principal nature reserves, North Walney and South Walney, both under the stewardship of the Cumbria Wildlife Trust. While it’s challenging to catalog the entirety of its biological richness, some notable highlights stand out:

  • The South Walney Nature Reserve, established in 1963, is celebrated for having Europe’s largest ground-nesting colonies of herring and lesser black-backed gulls. It’s equipped with marked trails and observation hides for enthusiasts to observe wildlife in their natural habitat.
  • The North Walney Nature Reserve presents a blend of history and ecology, showing signs of human presence since ancient times. Its varied landscapes, including sand dunes, heaths (both wet and dry), salt marshes, and grasslands, support a plethora of rare plants and boast a significant population of the UK’s natterjack toads.

The island’s plant life is as diverse as its habitats, featuring species like the medically valuable foxglove, common in wooded areas, and the salt-loving glasswort in its salt marshes. Its animal residents range from the increasingly rare house sparrow to the protected natterjack toad, which is currently facing challenges due to habitat destruction. Distinctive plants such as sea holly and sea lavender flourish in Walney’s unique seaside conditions, complemented by the historically significant Walney Geranium, known since 1732 for its striking pink blossoms.

The story of Walney Island intertwines the natural world with human influence, from ancient communities to ongoing conservation initiatives. For those seeking an in-depth exploration of the island’s natural marvels, “The Natural History of Walney Island” by Tim Dean is an excellent resource.

Intriguing Aspects of Walney Island’s Past

The 1631 Plague Epidemic

Walney Island witnessed a severe plague epidemic in 1631, which led to the tragic death of half its population of 250, including vicar William Bowett. This event significantly delayed the appointment of a new vicar until the island was deemed free of the plague. A mass burial site for the victims was established near the current Ferry Hotel, in an area historically known as ‘Sepulchre,’ a name that persisted until the mid-1800s.

The Windmills Legacy

Documented evidence, such as a map from 1662, reveals that Walney Island once hosted five windmills, collectively referred to as ‘Kings Mill.’ While their exact locations remain unspecified, they were identified as North End Mill, North Scale Mill, Biggar Mill, Little Mill, and Southend Mill, situated south of Dalton. Today, only the sites at Mill Lane and North End Farm are widely recognized. Initially, locals were mandated to utilize Roose mill for their milling needs, under the directive of William Sandys, the ‘Receiver of Rents for the Lordship of Furness.’

Royalist Invasion during the Civil War

In 1644, amidst the Civil War, Royalist forces, after defeating the parliamentary troops near Dalton-in-Furness, aimed their efforts at North Scale, suspecting it to be a refuge for sailors from the Piel Harbour fleet. Their first attempt to land was successfully repelled by local resistance. However, on their return, they found North Scale abandoned and, in retaliation, set fire to every house except for two belonging to Royalist sympathizers.

George Fox’s Visits

George Fox, the initiator of the Quaker movement, made a notable visit to North Scale in 1652. His first visit garnered the support of James Lancaster, despite the absence of the local curate. A later visit, however, was met with aggression from the villagers, leading to Fox being assaulted and only narrowly avoiding serious harm thanks to Lancaster’s intervention. Although Fox never revisited Walney, his teachings found a foothold among some residents, including Lancaster, who would later accompany Fox on missions to the Americas.

Exploring Walney Island: A Tapestry of History, Community, and Natural Splendor

Walney Island, a jewel nestled in the Irish Sea, is a mosaic of history, culture, and natural beauty. From the historic airship sheds that whisper tales of early aviation adventures to the serene and picturesque beaches of Biggar Bank and Earnse Bay, the island offers a diverse array of attractions. It is home to traditional villages like Biggar Village, where community spirit and historic buildings create a charming atmosphere, and to modern facilities such as Combe House Care Home, providing care and comfort to the elderly. The Duddon Estuary and Morecambe Bay frame the island, showcasing the rich biodiversity and natural beauty that make Walney a haven for wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

The island’s infrastructure, including the vital Jubilee Bridge, connects it to the mainland, while places of worship, recreational parks like James Dunn Park, and educational facilities such as the Mill Lane Adult Training Centre cater to the spiritual, leisurely, and educational needs of the community. Walney’s landscapes are adorned with unique features from the tranquil Moor Tarn to the architectural intrigue of the Round House, each adding a layer to the island’s rich tapestry.

Historical sites such as Walney Fort and the atmospheric Saint Mary’s Graveyard offer a glimpse into the island’s past, while the Walney Airfield and Walney Lighthouse & South End underscore its ongoing connection to both aviation and maritime navigation. With recreational spots like Sandy Gap and the South Walney Caravan Park, the island is a perfect retreat for those seeking relaxation or adventure in nature’s lap.

In essence, Walney Island embodies a blend of historical significance, community vitality, and natural splendor, making it a unique and cherished part of the landscape, ripe for exploration and appreciation.

Walney Island Hospitality: A Guide to Pubs, Clubs, and Hotels

  • The Crown Hotel: A historic hotel offering a cozy atmosphere, traditional pub food, and comfortable accommodations, making it a favorite among locals and visitors alike.
  • The Queens Arms: Known for its warm welcome, this pub serves a variety of beers and ales, alongside a menu of classic British pub fare in a friendly setting.
  • Vickerstown Cricket Club: A hub for cricket enthusiasts, this club offers not just a venue for matches but also a social space for events and gatherings.
  • The George Hotel: A charming hotel with a pub that prides itself on its hospitality, offering guests a comfortable stay and a selection of fine food and drinks.
  • The Periscope: A unique bar with a nautical theme, known for its vibrant atmosphere and an excellent selection of drinks, making it a popular spot for an evening out.
  • The Nautical Club: A maritime-themed club offering a relaxed environment for socializing, with regular events and a selection of drinks catered to its members.
  • The King Alfred: A traditional pub with a rich history, offering a wide range of beers and spirits, complemented by hearty meals in a cozy atmosphere.
  • The Castle House Hotel: This hotel combines comfort with elegance, providing guests with luxurious accommodations and exquisite dining options in a picturesque setting.
  • The West Shore Bowling Club: A welcoming club for bowling enthusiasts that offers both indoor and outdoor greens and a social club for members to enjoy.
  • The Ferry Hotel: Located near the ferry landing, this hotel is known for its scenic views, comfortable lodging, and a pub that serves delicious local cuisine.
  • The New Inn: A friendly local pub offering a wide selection of drinks, live entertainment, and a warm atmosphere for a casual night out.
  • The Bankfield Hotel: Offers guests a blend of traditional charm and modern comforts, with a bar and restaurant serving a variety of dishes and drinks.
  • The Brow Head: A cozy pub known for its welcoming atmosphere, offering a range of beers and ales, and a menu featuring home-cooked meals.
  • The Sea View (Neptune): Offers stunning sea views, making it a perfect spot for enjoying a drink or meal while looking out over the water.
  • Furness Golf Club: Not just for golfers, this club’s bar and restaurant are open to all, offering a relaxing environment to enjoy a meal or drink after a round of golf.
  • Vickerstown Institute: A community hub offering a range of recreational and social activities, with a bar for members to gather and socialize.

Walney Island Sports & Leisure: A Snapshot

Water Sports

  • Walney Windsurfing: Harnessing the strong breezes off the Irish Sea, Walney Island offers exceptional conditions for windsurfing enthusiasts of all levels.
  • West Coast Sea Kayaking: With the surrounding waters of Morecambe Bay and the Duddon Estuary, sea kayaking is a popular pastime, offering paddlers stunning natural scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities.
  • Kite Surfing: Walney Island is a noted hotspot for kite surfers, with the 2007 BKSA Kitesurfing Championship Round 2 highlighting its perfect conditions for the sport. The event’s excitement can be relived through YouTube videos, showcasing the island’s suitability for high-adrenaline water sports.

Team Sports

  • Walney Central ARLFC: A cornerstone of the local sports community, Walney Central Amateur Rugby League Football Club has a proud history and a passionate following, promoting rugby league across the island.
  • Walney Rovers: This football club is a key player in the island’s sporting life, fostering a love for the game among locals and providing competitive opportunities for athletes.
  • Walney Island Football Club: Another pillar of the local football scene, this club offers residents of Walney Island the chance to engage in the beautiful game, supporting both youth and adult teams.


  • Walney to Wear Cycling: An adventurous cycling route that challenges riders to traverse scenic landscapes, connecting Walney Island to the Wear region.
  • Walney Wheelers: A cycling club that welcomes members interested in both leisurely rides and competitive racing, promoting cycling as a healthy and environmentally friendly mode of transportation.

Nature and Observation

  • Walney Bird Observation: The island’s diverse habitats, from its sandy beaches to the salt marshes and nature reserves, make it an ideal spot for bird watching, attracting both casual observers and serious ornithologists.

Air Sports

  • Lakes Gliding Club: Although not directly on Walney Island, this club offers individuals the opportunity to experience the joy of gliding, soaring over the stunning landscapes of the Lake District and Morecambe Bay, accessible from the island.

Walney Island Timeline

A concise timeline capturing key historical events, reflecting Walney Island’s rich heritage and evolution over centuries. From medieval records to modern developments, this timeline illustrates significant moments that have shaped the island’s identity and community.

  • 1247: The earliest records of North Scale are documented within Furness Abbey archives.
  • 1558: A license was obtained for the construction of a windmill at what is presently known as Mill Lane (west).
  • 1568: Foundation of St. Mary’s Church, Walney, marking the establishment of a religious edifice on the island.
  • 1631: Walney Island was struck by the plague, resulting in the demise of half of its 250 inhabitants.
  • 1644: The Royalists’ incursion into Walney during the civil war.
  • 1652: George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement, made his inaugural visit to Walney.
  • 1735: George Case became the inaugural individual interred in Saint Mary’s Churchyard, predating recorded evidence of the church’s existence.
  • 1741: Rev Samuel Hunter assumed the role of Curate at Saint Mary’s Walney.
  • 1802: Rev Samuel Hunter’s tenure as Curate of Saint Mary’s Walney concluded.
  • 1805: Rev John Troughton was appointed as the Curate of Saint Mary’s Walney.
  • 1813: Dr William Close was laid to rest in an unmarked grave at Saint Mary’s Churchyard.
  • 1839: Rev John Troughton’s service as Curate of Saint Mary’s Walney ended.
  • 1853: Construction of the Barrow Baptist hut in South Walney.
  • 1856: Conversion of Michaelson Chapel into a school.
  • 1865: Opening of the ‘original’ Crown Inn at North Scale.
  • 1868: The Ferry Hotel commenced operations.
  • 1869: Opening of The New Inn at Biggar Village.
  • 1870: North End Mill ceased operations.
  • 1871: Walney’s population was recorded at 339.
  • 1872: The expansion of Barrow boundaries to incorporate Walney-Island, Sheep-Island, Piel-Island, and Foulney-Island.
  • 1873: Opening of The Neptune Hotel (Sea View) on Tummer hill.
  • 1881: Opening of the ‘Methodist New Connexion’ Chapel on Teasdale Road.
  • 1882: Reconstruction of The Crown Inn at North Scale.
  • 1886: Commencement of coal exploration on Walney to support the Steelworks in Barrow.
  • 1887: The Neptune Hotel (Sea View) on Tummer hill was destroyed by fire.
  • 1891: The island’s population was tallied at 474.
  • 1897: Initiation of salt extraction on Walney Island, building on test samples extracted since 1870.
  • 1898: The Isle of Walney Estates Company announced plans for the construction of Vickerstown (Vickerstown).
  • 1899: Acquisition of the Isle of Walney Estates Co. by Vickers Ltd.
  • 1899: Construction of The Castle House.
  • 1900: Laying of the first foundations for the Vickerstown Estate, including Vickerstown Home Farm.
  • 1901: Formation of the Vickerstown Association Football Club.
  • 1902: A year marked by numerous inaugurations, including Walney Park, Vickerstown (Latona Street) School, Vickerstown Cricket Club, the Vickerstown Institute, the opening of the Church of England Parish Hall at Knox Street, commencement of the ‘Mudlark’ ferry service, the debut of the Vickerstown Chronicle, and the catching of a small octopus in Walney Channel.
  • 1904: Completion of the Vickerstown Estate (north) and cessation of the Vickerstown Chronicle.
  • 1908: Opening of the latest Church of Saint Mary the Virgin and Walney Bridge.
  • 1909: Start of construction for the first naval airship and extension of the tram service to Walney Promenade.
  • 1911: Extension of the tram service to Biggar Bank via Ocean Road.
  • 1913-2012: This period encompasses the construction of residential streets, the transition of Walney Park to Barrow Council’s control, wartime activities, advancements in airship technology, the reopening of Walney Bridge as Jubilee Bridge, discoveries of prehistoric sites, housing developments, the establishment of nature reserves, and modern infrastructural and community enhancements.

Walney Island Shipwrecks

The history of Walney Island is marked by numerous shipwrecks, underscoring the perilous conditions seafarers have faced near its shores over centuries. The “Back of Wanna” area, in particular, has been notorious for shipwrecks, with a notable speculation that one of the Spanish Armada’s ships was lost along this coast. This theory is supported by finds of ancient ordnance near Biggar, about two miles southeast of the island, which locals repurposed into farming tools. These finds led to excavations in 1838 by C. D. Archibald, uncovering several pieces of historical significance.

Shipwrecks on Walney Island span from the 18th to the 21st century, involving a wide variety of vessels from sailing ships to steamships and yachts, underlining the treacherous navigation challenges posed by the island’s surrounding waters. Notable incidents include:

  • The loss of the “Ruby” in 1777 inbound from Jamaica, and the “Alexander” in 1790.
  • The early 19th century saw multiple wrecks, including the “Thomas & Jane” (1802), “Sally” (1806), and “Fame” (1806), with several crews saved from these mishaps.
  • The mid-19th century was particularly hazardous, as evidenced by the wrecks of the “Earl of Selkirk” (1841), “Arcturus” (1841), and “Lady Eleanor Rodgers” (1843).
  • The latter half of the 19th century continued to see vessels like the “Duke of York” (1854) and “Glenkins” (1865) succumb to Walney’s waters.
  • The turn of the 20th century did not see a reduction in shipwrecks, with the “Cock of The North” (1900) and “Fairy Queen” (1902) meeting their demise near the island.
  • The early 20th century witnessed the tragic loss of the “Vedra” in 1914, carrying Benzene and exploding, resulting in the death of 31 people, with only one survivor.
  • World War I also saw the sinking of the “Limesfield” by UB-57 in 1918, a stark reminder of the strategic significance and dangers of the waters around Walney.
  • Recent wrecks include the “Irmgard” in 2006, indicating that the challenges posed by the sea near Walney Island persist into modern times.

These shipwrecks not only reflect the hazardous maritime conditions near Walney Island but also serve as somber reminders of the risks undertaken by mariners throughout history.

The Timeless Splendor of Walney Island

Walney Island stands as a testament to the intricate dance between nature and human history, a place where the echoes of the past meet the vibrant pulse of the present. Through our exploration, we’ve traversed from the island’s geological origins and etymological roots to the indelible marks left by its inhabitants and the lush, natural beauty that defines it today. Each chapter of its story, from the ancient settlers and their enduring legacies to the thriving wildlife and community spirit, contributes to the rich tapestry that makes Walney Island a jewel of natural beauty and historical richness. As we close this comprehensive guide, we are reminded of the island’s unique ability to enchant and educate, inviting us to appreciate the delicate balance of preserving our heritage while embracing the future. Walney Island is not just a destination but a living narrative, continually evolving and inspiring those who step upon its shores.

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