10 August 2022
Patrick joins 20 other Land Rovers and the all-important guides for an exciting Morecambe Bay crossing
Whenever the talk turns to great drives or memorable trips, then the seasoned former LRM editor Dave Phillips is always quick to talk fondly of the times he drove Land Rovers across Morecambe Bay, home to the largest area of intertidal mudflats in the UK. In fact, he calls the drive across the 310 square km of constantly shifting sands the greatest and most exciting 4x4 adventure in all of the UK.
Over the years I have done a greenlane or two in the UK including the legendary Welsh big ones, Bastard Lane and Strata Florida, but no one I know, has done a crossing of Morecambe Bay in recent years. It has always felt like the one that got away and my UK off-roading bucket list never felt complete because of it.
Organiser John Kesterton and wife Valerie
This all changed when I received an email from John Kesterton of the Midland Rover Owners Club (MROC) 4x4 Response group, he wanted to know if I would join them on a crossing of Morecambe Bay. I replied that I would be absolutely delighted to accept the invite. I then asked JLR for a new Defender for the occasion so that we would be the first to take one across Morecambe Bay.
For the geographically challenged, Morecambe Bay lies in the north-western corner of England. It’s surrounded by some of the most eye-catching landscapes in all of the UK with the legendary Lake District to the north and the Yorkshire Dales to the east.
Standard or tricked up, they were all keen to have a go
Just for the occasion I was in a new Defender 90 P300 HSE which has a starting price of £55,755. It had a few extras on such as the front jump seat (£815), off-road tyres (Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure £255), electronic active diff with torque vectoring (£1020) and privacy glass (£490). Even though the second row of seats could not fold entirely flat, I was still able to load the back with two paddle boards and lots of other gear including a big fridge and battery pack. With the back full of gear the ClearSight interior rear view mirror is a lifesaver as it offers great all-round views of what is happening behind the Defender.
As the crossing can only be done at low tide, we meet at the Silverdale Beach carpark at 2.30 pm for the expected departure an hour later. I pull up next to a 2010 black Range Rover; its occupants are putting on walking boots. A quick hello and a chat confirms that they too are here for the crossing. I do like the mix of vehicles we have attending, including lots of Defenders of course, and even a Mad Max-style Freelander 1. I also spot the first three generations of Discovery. The MD of Britpart Paul Myers and his lovely wife Julie are in a bright blue rally Defender V8. Luckily this is not a race.
Michael and family lead the charge
As the 3.30 pm kick-off approaches we see two tractors approaching from the Cumbrian side of the bay (we are on the Lancashire side). One of them is driven by Michael Wilson, the official Queen’s Guide to the Sands; with him is his wife Joanne and a few other volunteers. Michael is wearing a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company Hat, from the movie Forrest Gump. Michael is a first and foremost a shrimp fishermen who has been fishing here for all of his life. He knows these sands like the back of his hand and without his skilful guidance we would not be able to do the crossing due to the fast flowing tides and quicksand, finding a route through the big sandy bay takes skills that no one in our convoy possesses. Michael has done this crossing more times than most, apart from for the legendary Cedric Robinson, who has been guiding people over these sands for over 60 years. Today there is no sign of Cedric though I hear he did make an appearance when a bunch of nudists recently did a crossing. Who can blame him?
Michael gives us a fairly straightforward briefing before our departure. “There are a couple of soft spots that we need to be wary of; if I stop then you can stop but if I don’t stop then best you keep those wheels turning.” He also advises that we should try and stay out of each others’ tracks and drive two abreast. All the Land Rovers line up for a photo op on the Silverdale beach and then we head off, with one tractor leading the way and the other bringing up the rear.
The advice is to make your own tracks to avoid driving through softening sands
I use the Terrain Response 2 to select Sand mode on the Defender 90; as we are on coils I cannot raise the drive height. The first section is probably the easiest bit, the sand feels solid, but the further away we get from the coastline, the more the conditions seem to change.
The first sign that this drive is anything but normal happens when we start to see small pools of water on the surface of the sand. Gradually the size and regularity of these pools increases. I open the sun roof so that I can stand on the front jump seat and look at the rest of the convoy as we are near the front. It looks nothing short of spectacular; nearly 20 Land Rovers of every shape and size driving towards me on the white sands. They look like the charge of the Light Brigade. The blue skies make a perfect drive even better.
For the most part the sand was pretty hard and easy going
Things quickly change as we enter one of the water channels that we need to cross. The water does not seem to be too deep, about 15 cm at best. Besides, it doesn't matter as driving through water is always fun. The shallow water does not last long, from my vantage point through the sunroof I notice that one or two of the Land Rovers are struggling for traction, their wheels spin and churn up the sand. Will they need to be recovered by the tractor? Fortunately they're able to find harder bits of sand which helps them to plough on.
It was not all plain sailing as you had to power through the soft bits
The water gets deeper and deeper. The tricked-up Defender just behind us takes a different, wider line and heads into deeper waters. Soon the salt water is splashing over its bonnet. The wind has picked up and the water is choppy, we are now literally driving through the waves with land a couple of miles away. This is the last place in the world where you want to get stuck or break down in a leaky Land Rover, especially with the 10 metre tidal range they have here. Still they all come forward, even the Discovery Sport and the standard Freelander 1. What a great advert for Land Rovers this is.
The crossing is one of the best 4x4 trips in the UK
After what feels like an eternity the water does get shallower and shallower until we are back on the hard sands again. Michael decides to call a halt. Everyone climbs out of their Land Rovers with big smiles on their faces. They know that we have just done something very special. We are about halfway across the seven or so mile crossing and after a ten minute break Michael urges us to get going again.
The one thing I have noticed when crossing the bay is that even though the finish in Cumbria might look close, it does not look much closer than when we set off in Lancashire about 30 minutes ago. This is normally the case when crossing a featureless landscape; I found the same when driving across Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans and Australia’s Simpson Desert.
We have another smaller, less dramatic water channel to cross but I am determined to not get stuck so that we can reach the finish just south of Kents Bank, as someone had told me that there is a sticky toffee pudding factory near there (and it closes in 30 minutes).
The final third of the crossing is on some slightly softer sand but once our tyres break the surface, the underside is pretty hard and we are able to speed along. It’s pretty incredible how one large bay can have so many different types of sand.
As we near the end of the crossing there are a few bumps and lumps to contend with. Incredibly we have had no dramas at all. Once off the sands and on a solid road we all stop. Some, with petrol engines, lift their hoods to make sure all is running as it should.
The new 90 on coils with sand mode selected coped very well
This has been a doddle for the new Defender, the first one ever to do the crossing of Morecambe Bay. I have watched videos of others doing the crossing and things can get a little tense when the water gets extremely deep or the sand gets very soft. Maybe we just got lucky or maybe we just had a good guide who took us along the best possible route. I like to think it is the latter. All I know is that I will never ever undertake a crossing of Morecambe Bay without one of the Queen’s Guides.
Now that I have ticked the Morecambe Bay crossing box I can confidently say that it is without a doubt one of the most exciting and spectacular things you can do in the UK in your Land Rover. Before saying our goodbyes Michael says that the next time we come and do the trip we can add the River Leven crossing and finish somewhere near Ulverston. Where do I sign up?
Want to give it a try?
Every year thousands of walkers raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for various charities while doing the guided crossing with Michael Wilson and his team. In fact, people have walked, run, cycled, gone on horseback and driven 4x4s across Morecambe Bay. If you would like to plan a crossing then I suggest getting in touch with Michael Wilson by email: [email protected], or see guideoversands.co.uk.
Midland Rover Owners Club (MROC) 4X4 Response
Thanks to John Kesterton and the friendly MROC 4x4 Response team for inviting LRM and Paul Myers from Britpart to join them on their guided Morecambe Bay crossing. The MROC is one of the many 4x4 response groups in the UK who like to assist local authorities and the emergency services in times of need. For more see mroc4x4response.co.uk.
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