Winter evenings are magical at Leighton Moss Nature Reserve. As the sun sinks to the horizon the day’s final rays break through the clouds, setting the tufty tops of the reeds all aglow. The grey sky grows ever moodier as dusk descends. It’s the moment that those gathered on the Skytower, binoculars in hand, are waiting for.
Right on cue, starlings appear in squadrons of two or three, then dozens, then scores. Individually unremarkable, each small, dark bird plays a part in something phenomenal as the groups coalesce and swirl in an amorphous mass through the dwindling daylight.
More and more arrive to form a company many hundreds strong, coordinating their twists and turns as they billow across the sky. They move as a single, shape-shifting body: a murmuration that mesmerises with all its organic fluidity. A final turn sees them pass overhead, their wingbeats adding a crescendo of sound before, coming in low and fast, they drop into the reeds to roost.
The birds’ bedtime chattering accompanies our descent from the Skytower. “If you think that was impressive, come back in a few weeks,” says a warden as we file into the RSPB visitor centre for a warming drink. “Last winter, the murmurations didn’t peak until February. With a few consecutive frosty days, this flock might grow to 100,000. Seeing that many in the air together is unforgettable.”
Such avian aerobatics are the highlight of winter visits, but northwest England’s largest reed bed hosts other wildlife stars. I’d earlier spent an enjoyable half hour watching an otter fishing, announcing each dive with a wave of his tail as he worked his way across a mere. But the landscape itself is an attraction. Leighton Moss sits within the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which straddles the border between Lancashire and Cumbria.
At 29 square miles, it’s one of the smallest of Britain’s 46 AONBs – and overshadowed by the mighty Lake District National Park to the north – but recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of its designation, so its charms are well established and certainly worth seeking out.
It’s a lovely, lived-in landscape of ancient woodlands, meadows and dry-stone walls, with a coastline facing Morecambe Bay plus a smattering of pretty villages. It’s also well connected by train, with both Arnside and Silverdale stations around 90 minutes from Manchester, or three-and-a-half hours from London. From Silverdale it’s just a two-minute walk to the RSPB visitor centre, and a four-minute hop back down the tracks to Arnside, where I’m staying.
The completion of the railway in the 1850s helped turn Arnside from a sleepy fishing village into a smart Victorian seaside resort. Testament to its golden age are the handsome villas lining its River Kent waterfront, beyond which rises the Lake District’s lofty fells.
“It’s the proximity of the Lakes that keeps this area under the radar,” I’d been told when checking into Kentwood Guest House, which greets guests with a helping of shortbread made to owner Alexander’s 96-year-old aunt’s secret recipe. “We get bypassed by people charging up the motorway to Windermere, but that just means Arnside is more relaxed and far better value.”
Like the starlings, human visitors are slow to arrive this winter. “November was the quietest month we’ve had since we opened,” Alexander confided as he showed me to my room, one of two in this three-bedroom guesthouse with views over rooftops to the river. “The cost of living crisis has made people think twice about travelling, but things are picking up from December onwards.”
This is good news for a community that was hit hard by the pandemic. Several local guesthouses and restaurants closed in the past two years – but that has created opportunities for new businesses bringing fresher ideas and experiences. One such is the pint-sized Arnside Beach Hut, which I stumble upon the next morning, before settling at a window seat to watch the incoming tide race upriver.
“We opened during lockdown, when practically nothing else was operating,” says owner Leanne as she froths milk for my coffee. “Although it was tough for many, the pandemic brought the community together and basically breathed new life into the village.”
It’s a positive sentiment echoed at another recent newcomer, Homeleigh Vintage, where I pop in to browse homewares and hand-made soaps. “Arnside is such a beautiful place,” Tracey Leigh, the proprietor, tells me while I shop, “so it’s only fitting that people who come here have beautiful things to buy.”
They have beautiful places to walk, too, as I discover over the next few days. From Arnside, I take my chances with the forecasted torrential rain and follow the coast path via seven miles of mudflats, cliffs and woodland, reaching Silverdale in perfect time for the train back to base. I hike to the top of Warton Crag, the highest point in the AONB, where I’m blown away by the view across the enormity of Morecambe Bay.
Even better is the lovely loop through the parkland of Leighton Hall for a memorable lunch in Yealand Conyers, where the New Inn pub-with-rooms serves food so exceptional it flirts with fine dining.
Later, stepping off the train at Arnside Station in fading light, that rain that’s been threatening finally arrives. As I dash along the waterfront to reach the guesthouse before I get soaked, a party of starlings sweeps over the river, flying in tight formation towards Leighton Moss.
Wintry weather, I think to myself as I take off my waterproofs, has its challenges. But gorgeous walks, great food, lovely scenery and one of Britain’s best wildlife spectacles? It’s a combination worth wrapping up warm and heading outdoors for.
How to do it
Avanti West Coast operates the London-Glasgow railway, with connections to Arnside and Silverdale via Lancaster.
Admission to RSPB Leighton Moss is £9 for adults, or free for members. To join, visit rspb.org.uk.
Find more information at arnsidesilverdaleaonb.org.uk.