It was a freezing night in February and 24 undocumented Chinese workers had been sent by their gangmaster to pick cockles from the sands of Morecambe Bay. By morning all of them were dead, swept away by a fast-moving tide.
For Karen Lloyd, the disaster in 2004 was the moment that Morecambe Bay and its treacherous sands were put ‘firmly on the global map’. It was also the point at which she realised that even as a local she tended to ignore the coastline and head instead for the more celebrated fells and valleys of the Lake District.
The Gathering Tide is the story of a year spent walking the edgelands of the bay in an attempt to build a different picture of the area, something to counter what she experienced as ‘the collective feelings of despondency and responsibility that many local people felt following the disaster’.
To say that the cockling tragedy haunts The Gathering Tide is to make it sound like a melancholy book. It is not. To walk round the bay with Karen is to learn about art, history, wildlife, geology and more. You meet Cedric, the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, and the redoubtable Peggy Braithwaite, Britain’s only principle female lighthouse keeper, who moved to Walney Island as a child, crammed into a boat with her grandmother and the family piano. You visit a Neolithic axe factory, the grave of Sambo the slave boy and an island that some people say doesn’t exist.
At the same time, the elements that produced the tragedy pervade the narrative. This is a book about living on the edge, about blurred margins and the unreliability of memory. It’s about not trusting surfaces and being prepared for sudden shifts of perspective. Everything is unpredictable: the ebbing tide rushes back in; channels change course without warning; sands sink. There are huge skies with shape-shifting clouds; the reflections come and go: you never see the same thing twice.
It’s also a book of exquisite nature writing. The birds in particular stand out. Two crows fly ahead of Karen ‘like Gothic tour guides’. A flock of chaffinches take flight from a hedge ‘like a handful of pink and grey leaves snatched away by the wind’.
Karen Lloyd can write lyrical prose with arresting images but she’s also full of common sense and dry humour. Like her acknowledged mentor Kathleen Jamie, she refuses to over-wild her landscapes: her boys are there with Molly the collie and she never lets us forget she’s a real person out for a walk, eyes watering with the cold, checking her watch to make sure she gets back in time to cook.
By the end you want to go there to see for yourself. You realise the shifting landscape will yield different perspectives for each person who visits. You sense that despite Karen’s acute and detailed observations, there is much, much more to uncover. You realise, as Karen did, that the bay might spark surprising memories, a new perspective on yourself.
The Gathering Tide: a journey around the edgelands of Morecambe Bay by Karen Lloyd. Published by Saraband in January 2016.