St Bees is a little-known village, yet a place that made a great impact on my life. Known best by keen hikers, St Bees is the start of Wainwrights’ famous “Coast to Coast” Walk. I grew up and went to school in the village, and although I have not returned for many decades now, it is constantly in my memories. St Bees is also home to St Bees School, an international day and boarding school that was founded back in 1583 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Famous pupils here include Rowan Atkinson, aka Mr. Bean. So, what makes St Bees such a special place?
The landscape at St Bees is simply stunning, St Bees Head comprising red sandstone cliffs that tower 80 meters above sea level. A brisk walk up to the head, starting at the main North beach in St Bees will take you to the once-inhabited lighthouse, and stunning views across West Cumbria and across to the Isle of Man (on clear days). St Bees boasts 2 beaches, as well as a caravan park for traditional seaside holidays, a spattering of local shops, and at least 4 public houses. Down at the North beach you will also find the Seacote Hotel, the perfect place to rest up before the start of the Coast to Coast trek.
The Legend of St Bega
The village of St Bees is situated on the West Cumbrian Coast, four miles south of Whitehaven, a town that was dominated by the mining industry up until the 1980’s. The rocky promontory that is St Bees Head, it the most westerly point of Cumbria, and it was here, in the 9th Century that an Irish Nun became shipwrecked. According to the legend, Saint Bega, and other nuns that survived the shipwreck went to ask Lord Egremont for land where they could build a priory.
It was midsummer, and the Lord responded that they could have any land covered by snow the next day. Much to his surprise, the land between the sea and the castle were covered by snow the next day, and the priory that officially dates back to 1130 was built. The priory is, to this day, a focal point of St Begian life, the whole school gathering there for prayer and celebration throughout the school term. Other buildings that dominate the landscape of St Bees are the “Quadrangle”, the original building of St Bees School.
Restaurants, Bars, and Eateries
As St Bees is a village of just 1,800 inhabitants, it is understandable that there isn’t much nightlife to be found in the village. St Bees is a place people visit to get back to nature, learn about historical buildings, and of course, for hiking the Coast to Coast route. Nearby Whitehaven does, on the other hand, have a handful of nightclubs with later opening hours. In the village itself, you will find The Queens Hotel, The Seacote Hotel, The Odd fellows Arms, the Albert Hotel, and the Manor House.
Good pub grub and traditional food is widely available, and for a more elegant choice, Lulu’s bistro in the village is the perfect location for a romantic dinner. Run by a personal friend of mine, Lulu’s also caters for overnight guests during the summer season, her establishment being set in the very interesting old railway station buildings. St Bees is still accessible by train and is a request stop on the Carlisle to Barrow-in-Line. But don’t worry about being kept awake at night by the trains; the service runs during the day and evening only.
Day Trips Out From St Bees
As St Bees is in West Cumbria, it is only a short drive away from the Lake District. Within the Lake District there are too many towns worth a visit to mention all of them, Keswick, Ambleside, Coniston, Bowness-on-Windermere, and Grasmere being some of my personal favorites. Here you will find the homes of the famous Coleridge poets, Wordsworth, and, the miniature Ravenglass to Eskdale train (a must for visits with children).
If you prefer to use public transport, the train line that runs along the Cumbrian Coast will take you through many interesting towns and villages before you reach Carlisle. Here you can take a mainline train to Oxenholme the Lake District, where you will find local bus services that connect the different villages on a regular basis.
The Lake District is famous for its fells and peaks, and you will find endless trails and hikes for all ages and abilities. If you come ill-equipped for hiking, don’t worry. In towns like Keswick, you will find more outdoor equipment stores than you will find food outlets. For a more relaxing day with less hiking involved, take a boat trip on Lake Windermere, or head to Lake Coniston in Keswick and book a boat trip on a Gondola.
Little Known Facts about St Bees
St Bees Head is the only Heritage Coast site between Wales and Scotland that is a Site of Specific Scientific Interest. The town is also a RSPB reserve, and boasts the largest colony of seabirds in the North-West of England. St Bees head is indeed not only the most westerly point in Cumbria; it is also the most westerly point in the North of England.
St Bees School also has its own claims to fame. It boasts the oldest indoor swimming pool still in use in the UK and also the most northerly “Eton Fives” Courts. St Bees School suffered a temporary closure in 2015, but thankfully, due to its trustees, reopened its doors in 2017, breathing life back into the village once again. The village also boasts an enormous amount of listed buildings, when the amount of total buildings is taken into consideration. Both the Priory Church and the Church of St Mary and St Bega are listed buildings, along with many of the other buildings currently used by St Bees School.
St Bees is a hidden gem that is relatively unknown due to its semi-rural location in West Cumbria. It is a village with huge community spirit, a hub of activity during the school year, and the perfect place to take a coastal break during the long summer holiday months.