The shore at Beckfoot, on a sunny, windy day in May: the Solway is a churned, pale brown, and a wavering white line far off in the Firth marks where the incoming tide is beating against a sandbank.
Towards the bottom of the shore a patch of darkness covers the sand and I head straight down towards it; across wave-smoothed sand that is stippled with the coils and holes of lugworm burrows; splashing through shallow pools; crossing pebbly scaurs deposited by glaciers and now slippery with weed … and the darkness is as I had hoped, a bank of peat and embedded roots and fallen trunks of trees. The submerged forest, re-emerged from its burial by sand and shingle.
During the past twenty years or so, the forest and peat have appeared and disappeared on the shore between Beckfoot and Allonby, sometimes near the top of the shore, sometimes mid-shore. Some exposures are small areas of peat with perhaps a few fragments of wood, and perhaps overlying – or underlaid by – slippery grey clay. Some exposures are more dramatic: for several years a large stretch of the mid-shore near Beckfoot was covered by a sheen of clay poking out from beneath thick peat banks in which were preserved fallen branches and the bases of trunks with radiating roots. Gradually they disappeared again, partly hidden by the shifting sands, partly broken by the waves; but I had noted the empty shells of piddocks – boring bivalve molluscs – and their burrows within the compacted fibres of the peat. That must have been at least 10 years ago. And now, at the start of 2021, the storms and tides have scoured away the sand and shingle lower down the shore, and revealed part of the Solway’s story yet again.
There is much more about this complicated dance between the sea and the land, and glacial interventions, in the ‘Changeable Depths’ chapter of my book The Fresh and the Salt, and elsewhere on this blog (‘Cold cases’) but here I want to return to the piddocks, Pholas dactylus.
Imagine a mussel with its two blue-black shells (‘valves’), and now imagine these valves as yellowish-white, and rough with rows of sharp projections like tiny teeth. Unlike the stream-lined shape of the mussel, the piddock is fatter, like a thick but tapering cylinder. From a young age, mussels are sedentary, attached to a hard surface; piddocks are sedentary too, but trapped. Like the mussel larva, the minute planktonic piddock adheres to a hard surface by a byssal thread, but then starts to burrow in, using its muscular foot and rocking its shells so that the ‘teeth’ grind and grate its surroundings. Eventually, safe inside its rock-walled burrow, it feeds by filtering out organic particles from the sea, sucking in and expelling water through muscular siphons; its body and shells grow, it enlarges the diameter and length of its burrow – but not the entrance. A piddock’s burrow is its home for life.
Piddocks are normally found at or below the lowest intertidal level, down to about 35 metres. According to the MarLIN website their burrows have been found in ‘a wide range of substrata including various soft rocks such as chalk and sandstone, clay, peat and very occasionally in waterlogged wood.’ And here they are, in the peat, the tips of their empty shells still visible within the sediment-filled burrows.
The forest grew across the ‘Solway plain’ perhaps 10,000 years BP (dates vary according to which stretch of the shores is considered) but was gradually encroached upon by wetlands, sphagnum and peatbogs until about 8000 years BP. The glaciers had been melting, the sea-level rising; the land rebounded, relieved of the weight of ice, the relative sea-level fell; this to-and-fro continued for several millenia but, finally, the sea won and the waters of the great estuary usurped the territory of the peatlands. There would have been a meeting of land-based life with the chill, saline waters of the sea – at first perhaps with storm-driven spray, then with waves and tidal flows. Marine and estuarine organisms would have met with a strange new environment too, but they were the ones who prevailed. Piddock larvae would have encountered a new substratum, delightfully soft compared with rock, and made their homes. These molluscs, according to David Smith, a geomorphologist who has researched the Solway’s changing sea-levels , could have been living and filter-feeding within the sublittoral peat as long as 6000 years ago.
At some stage the sea-bed and the shore-levels changed again, and the banks of underwater peat with their preserved dead trees and their living marine fauna, were gradually overlaid by several metres of sediment and shingle. Now, a few thousand years later, these traces of former inhabitants of land and sea – of trees, of compacted mosses and other vegetation, and of marine animals – have been revealed again, to present-day humans walking on the shore.
I prised out an intact piddock shell and gently opened it and, there within the accumulated mud and sand was a mudshrimp! Mudshrimps, Corophium, are found in their millions in U-shaped burrows in the mudflats and at the edges of the saltmarshes higher up the Firth; mudshrimps, the charismatic little animals that are such an important theme in The Fresh and the Salt. Here was a little Corophium, alive and wriggling its long antennae, having made a home in a newly-revealed but pre-existing and very ancient burrow!
Later I also found the shell of a hazelnut buried in the peat, another reminder of the woodland that once spread across edgelands that were inundated to become a wider, deeper Solway Firth.
The piddock shells, the nut shell – and that mudshrimp – made this re-discovery of the submerged forest a complete and unexpected joy: three small objects that raise many questions about the past but also present many questions about the uncertain future of these liminal spaces.
It is a low spring tide, chosen especially because it allows us to scan a vast area of the shore. Above Mawbray Banks, pilot Andrew Lysser turns the gyroplane in a circle, its rotors buzzing and clattering, and I lean out – held only by my seat-belts – and attempt to take photos of the various rows of stones below us; triangles, rectangles, straight lines and right-angles. The lines are spaced across the pebble-stippled shore, some as continuous lines, others interrupted by bands of sand.
Many years ago, while I was walking down the shore to the far-off mussel beds on the Ellison’s Scaurs with marine biologist Dr Jane Lancaster, we had come across parallel lines of boulders between which lay a fairly smooth passage of sand. My friend Ronnie Porter of Allonby, who had told me the names of the great erratic boulders and rocky scaurs on the Allonby shore, had said that these lines were known as ‘the roads’, and had perhaps been cleared to allow boats to be pulled up, or to allow baited lines to be strung across. Jane sent photos to some colleagues who speculated that they might be boundary markers for catching fish or collecting cockles. Later she forwarded two aerial photos to me, not of the parallel ‘roads’ but of a triangular shape with a linear ‘tail’ – and that of course led to further investigation.
So, in March 2014 I took the photos with me for orientation and searched the mid-to-lower shore for the geometrical shapes. As I noted then, “it was a bright morning, but the wind was eye-wateringly cold. The shore has been re-modelled by the January storms so that comforting landmarks are no longer there; sand, that once hid much of the rocky, pebbly mid-shore, has been sluiced away and moulded into domes and hollows. Stones, each formerly a little ecosystem of adherent organisms and weed, are bright with the tatters of mussel-shells and broken barnacles.”
It was thrillingly easy to find the triangle and its tail; many of the stones were greyish and rounded, others were paler granite from the Scottish side; there were several large glacial erratics which seemed to serve as markers. I spent a long time pacing the lines, noting how shallow pools of water remained trapped on the landward side of corners.
And so this led to my gyroplane flight , to understand the relationship of the stone shapes to the shore itself and to the longshore drift and line of the ebbing tide. From above I marvel at the straight dark lines, as though the marks have been stippled with a crumbling stick of charcoal upon the smeared brush-strokes of the pebbly scaurs. And now it seems obvious that the corners had been built to trap the ebbing tide, to capture fish as they attempt to follow the falling sea. Perhaps the long lines of stones served like low dams to guide the outflowing water into the traps? These structures were surely built by people who understood the often complex movements of water on the shore, where the tides and currents were influenced not just by the Moon but by the weather and the rainfall, influencing the rivers and becks that flow into the giant estuary that is the Solway Firth.
When Hale  was surveying parts of the Scottish coast for fish-traps he found similar stony structures on the shores of the Beauly Firth in North-east Scotland. Archaeologist and aerial surveyor Jamie Crawford flew over those lines of stones for his BBC Scotland ‘Scotland from the Sky’  series and – when we exchanged photographs – he agreed that the Mawbray lines indeed looked very similar.
But were the fish traps formed only of the stones, or were wooden and net structures perched on top of them?
In their archaeological investigation of fish-trapping methods in the Severn estuary, Chadwick and Catchpole  found a wide variety of traps based on stone. In some cases, small piles of stones indicated their use as anchors for wooden poles. Elsewhere, rows of stones apparently anchored lines of post-and-net structures. But they also found densely-packed lines of stones that acted as traps on their own, with a gap at a corner where the trapped fish would have been funnelled into a net or basket. Similarly, traps with nets, and traps made of walls of stone, have been found on the Irish coast. Mark Graham, of Grampus Heritage, has carried out many archaeological studies related to the Cistercians on the Cumbrian Solway coast, and he kindly pointed me to a paper about fish traps on the Irish coast, where – in Strangford Lough in the 12th century – “The concentration and intensification of the stone trap fisheries represents an investment by the Cistercian community underlining the status of the stone trap as a major economic resource. The export of fish to the home of the order (Holm Cultram on the Solway Firth, England) was part of a maritime trade corridor that linked Ireland and Britain that was utilised by Edward I to feed his army in Scotland in 1298.”  
As a suitable local ‘project’ during Lockdown3, in March 2021, I went back to the Mawbray shore with a clearer idea of what to look for. The stones are much less tightly-packed together than in the traps shown in the Severn photos – but the Solway’s tides are strong and regularly shift sediment and rocks on the shores. Stone traps or weirs at Minehead in Somerset are still in use and require frequent rebuilding; see Fig 7 in Historic England report  where a man is lifting a very large boulder! There was an area near a corner where the rocks were closely abutted, their smooth sides facing inwards. Could this have been the entrance to a funnel? So far I have seen no signs of any wood – even though wooden structures relating to the saltpans and possibly more than 250 years old are still preserved further down the coast at Crosscanonby .
Given that wooden structures such as stake nets and poke nets – all of which are high maintenance, both in positioning and cleaning [referenced in videos about haaf-netting by Annan Common Good, 8] have been commonly used along the Scottish shores even until recently – it’s quite possible that a simpler form of trap could have been used on the stonier southern side. Fish become trapped and are scooped up with hand-nets: flounder and plaice, dogfish and skate, codling and even bass…
The tide was very low, the water long drained from the middle shore, but several of the shapes were still retaining shallow pools of water. I paced one long straight row and it was nearly 200 metres long. Much further down the shore, I could just pick out more dark lines and telltale glimmers of caught water. Different rows might have led the water into traps, or been built by different fisher families.
My friend and professional photographer James Smith flew his drone over the area in 2018 and again this month and the triangle, part-rectangles, and long leading edges are clearly visible.
When were they built and by whom? There is no trace of the lines on the OS maps for 1844 or 1866, nor on the Admiralty chart for the area of 1875. A brief note in the NW Coastal Zone Rapid Assessment  states that “The trap is similar to those recorded at Nethertown and St Bees and is therefore interpreted as medieval in date” [my italics], although there is no obvious evidence for this assumption.
The traps could be older; they could be younger; they could be a mixture of ages, some re-purposed to create others. Their stories seem to have been lost even from oral history: my local enquiries have produced no answers. We will probably never know (see my article  on the Impermanence of Colonisation).
My thanks to my industrial archaeologist friend Dr Peter Stanier for tracking down some relevant papers; to Mark Graham for the paper on Irish fish traps and for discussions; and to Don O’Meara, Science Advisor and Inspector of Ancient Monuments in the North-East, Historic England for discussions.
The tides and currents have sorted the sizes and colours of the shingle, and here on the upper shore near Crosscanonby I am walking over shapes that are large – and predominantly red: lumps and discs of the New Red Sandstone characteristic of the St Bees’ formation to the South-West, but also bricks; bricks of all ages, some broken and faded, some still sharp-edged and clearly stamped with their place of origin along the Cumbrian coast. Here too are slim black ovoids of sea-smoothed coal, and speckled white pebbles of granite that originated in the hard rock on the far side of the Firth. Between this shingle-band and the sea the bitter wind is de-focussing the shore with sweeping sheets of sand, and the distant figures of two sea-anglers are blurry as they leave the turning tide and walk companionably across the dark, scattered pebbles of the glacial scaurs, their long rods wavering above their heads like antennae.
To my left the land at the top of the shore rises abruptly to form a low and undistinguished hill – yet Swarthy Hill was enough of a rise for the Romans to use it as vantage point from which to keep an eye on the coast and sea, and to build one of their Milefortlets, Number 21. Head down, eyes streaming, I take my bearings from the hill and the wall of stone-filled gabions that protects the coast below it, and I fight the wind, working my way in a transect down the shore, looking for remains of the seaward works of the salt-pans.
Several years ago I took a flight along this coast in a gyroplane so as to get an aerial view and a better understanding of the inter-relationships of places and structures and the sea. Swarthy Hill and these Crosscanonby Saltpans were our turning point before we headed northwards back to Carlisle, and it was possible to pick out the land-based structures – the main pan, a rough outline of the brine pit and the rough darkly-vegetated ash-heap.
The Saltpans, the property of the Lamplugh family, were constructed in 1634 and were worked until the late 18th century. The works are (or perhaps more accurately were – see below) reckoned to be the best-preserved direct-boiling saltworks in England. A diagram from More Plain People  shows outlines of the original saltworks: two circular pits (pans), the remains of a boiling house, an ash heap and, across the road, a row of stables and cottages at the base of Swarthy Hill. In the early 20th century, there was also a caravan site and a small collection of holiday huts but as the Firth nibbled away at its edges, so the caravan site had to be abandoned and the final hut “fell into the sea in 1966”. Continuing erosion and storm-damage, and the construction of a cycle-path, have obliterated even the memory of the dwellings.
There are much older, medieval saltworks developed by the Cistercian monks of Holme Cultram Abbey on the Upper Solway’s saltmarshes, and there are traces of other 18th century works along the coasts . Salt was necessary for preserving meat and fish – non-local salt was used in the Allonby herring fishing industry until even the mid-20th century . Importantly, salt was also a valuable commodity to be traded.
As with any industry it had its own lexicon: sleech (salty sand), kinch (the pit where the sand or salt water was collected); ‘badgers’ – the licensed traders of salt; and place names like Salta and Saltcoates.
At Crosscanonby, though, it seems the salt was obtained by ‘direct boiling’ of seawater – in other words, seawater was pumped up to the works and heated. It’s thought that seawater was pumped to the lower, brine pool for storage and to allow some of the sediment to settle; then pumped into the bigger pan (sometimes referred to as the kinch) and from there into the boiling-house. Here it was collected into large iron pans which (according the the author of the Salt Makers chapter in More Plain People), “probably measured 9ft by 8ft and 6 to 8 inches deep”. The water was then slowly heated and evaporated to concentrate the salt as crystals, and these were collected into wicker baskets or boxes to drain before being transported and sold. The energy – for the pumps and the heating of the pans – was provided by coal, probably from the nearby Dearham coalmine. John Martin  notes “There is a large heap of ash showing that only the poorest quality of coal must have been used as it contains such a large amount of fused material and burnt slate.”
Over the years the tides have partly-hidden, then re-exposed and pummelled the wooden structures on the shore so that unpicking their stories has not been simple. On this day of battering wind, I reach the square box-like structure that pokes up about 50 metres down-shore from the gabions. The remaining timbers are still solid, the sides of the box buttressed by diagonals buried in the sand. I feel the sodden wood, which has been part of the saltpans’ history for more than two hundred years.
What was its function? For a long time it was thought the structure formed the base of a tower: water was pumped up to the top of the tower and then fed by gravity through pipes to the brine pit at the top of the shore. The model in the exhibition room at Holme Cultram Abbey shows just such a process.
But more recently, Andrew Fielding has re-investigated the archaeological remains and, talking in a Coastal Conversations seminar , thinks that the ‘box’ structure was nothing to do with a tower, but was actually something like an inspection hatch through which ran a pipe. On opposite sides of the box are semi-circular cut-outs, into which a pipe would have neatly fitted.
In October 2019 Fielding was fortunate to find part of a wooden pipe on the shore, in line with the hatch and the brine pit, and he suggests that water was brought in at shore-level and then pumped up to the works. Further down the shore, there are still sections of four posts sticking up from the sand, and perhaps these marked the original water-intake or another hatch.
I found the hatch and I found the posts; kneeling down in the wet sand I could see that the posts, the hatch and the brine pit formed a straight line. Circling, (but often distracted by the patterns of the blowing sand and the colours of the shingle), I hunted for traces of the pipe, wanting to see its texture and diameter, and more easily visualise the role it played; but it had gone, either buried again or broken. Later, however, when sorting through my related photos, I noticed a thin dark line on the shore between the hatch and the pans (circled in blue on the photo on the right): surely part of the pipe, caught in an aerial view in 2015. Unknowingly, I had seen it – an opportunity missed.
And then, returning to the shore a month later – I found the pipe! It had been partly uncovered again and at first looked merely like a balk of timber, but I scrabbled away the pebbles and sand and found the hollow centre. This tree might have been cut down more than 250 years ago – and then a hole was augured lengthways through the trunk to make a pipe, that would flex and would not rust. This seems like a very special piece of timber.
Salt was taxed, and tax requires tax inspectors or specialised Salt Officers. In the churchyard of St John’s at Crosscanonby and placed prominently near the church’s door, is a large lichen-speckled, red sandstone tomb:
“Here lies the body of John Smith of Birkby who was salt oficer at Netherhall and Cross cannonby Pans for 29 years, He was a good Neighbour, faithfull to his Friend and cheerfully relieved y poor. He departed this Life .. day of March ….Anno Dom 1730. Aged 64 years.”
Around the sides of the tomb are relief depictions of skulls, bones, and cautionary words. Unusually, although it is now fuzzy with moss and eroded edges, there is also an engraving of John Smith in side view, seated at a desk, quill pen in hand: doubtless checking the tax returns for the Lamplughs’ salt manufactory.
For many years, volunteer work-parties for the Solway Coast AONB tidied the Crosscanonby saltworks, strimming and cutting back brambles and rank grasses so that it was still possible to investigate and admire the stone walls of both pans. But storm damage and erosion, cuts in funding and the pandemic have meant that the works are no longer so closely cared for; the overall arrangement is becoming difficult to decipher.
The floor of the larger saltpan, with its walls of cobbles and blocks of sandstone, was lumpy with rich brown molehills on the day I visited. I wonder if the soil there has a high concentration of salt and, if so, do the earthworms taste different?
 More Plain People, Holme St Cuthbert History Group, 2007 p92
 For more on Solway saltworks see Chapter 8, Sea-food in The Fresh and the Salt. The Story of the Solway (Birlinn Books 2020)
 Andrew Fielding 2020. Coastal Conversations, Salt production along the SolwayFirth, organised by the Solway Firth Partnership and the Solway Coast AONB. The relevant section on Crosscanonby is between 13-17 minutes in the video.
In January and February this year, people living at Bowness and along the Upper Solway started posting photos of tidelines – not of drifts of hornwrack, kelp and driftwood, but of ice and snow. As the freezing weather continued, so the ice built up over the shores, and was then lifted off during the high spring tides and stormy seas and re-deposited in piles.
To walk across the frozen shore was thrilling and hazardous – the shapes and the colours a source of wonder; the channels in the mud outlined by glistening white curves; folded and crumpled sheets, stippled with white and grey; uneven piles of opaque white sponge-y floes.
Artist Alison Critchlow  was inspired not only by the visual aspects, but also by the ‘crumpy’ (her word) sound of walking over it, and the crackling of shards as the tide pushed them across the shingle. She told me, “I want to draw the sensation and sound of those walks and so I’m trying out new ways of making marks. I thought it would be interesting to replicate the way I was experiencing it … So in the drawings I am thinking about the transparency, the thin plates, their movement floating in on the tide and the sound of walking out across and through it. Also that marvellous bubbling effect that happens sometimes and the wonderful sound of the incoming tide dissolving the frozen tideline.”
For me, the mutability and impermanence of the ice is another expression of the mutability of the Solway’s shores.
Alison, too, finds inspiration in “witnessing a movement held still, a fluid made solid. The colours, fluid/solid shapes and the transparent nature of it are visually fascinating. I also want to draw its fragility. The ice forming and building up is mesmerising, not least because its formation can be seen in every crystal… It is breathtakingly beautiful and it seems to me makes visible a fundamental process in the shaping and reshaping of our planet.” She says, “Drawing this process feels important. Replicating the icy layers, [their] build-up and removal, [using] floating ink, tearing, printing, marbling, dying, spraying, sanding, adding, drawing over and under, I have even painted onto bits of ice and let them thaw onto the paper.”
There have, of course, been periods of intense cold before. On Boxing Day 2010 surprisingly thick floes lay tumbled along the tideline. I wish now that I’d paid more attention to the size, structure and longevity of those floes; and that I’d been more curious as to their origin in relation to the Solway’s margins. So often, it requires hindsight to raise the important questions: the answers might have told me more about the origin of the disaster in 1881.
In January 1881 water froze along the shores and rivers, and when the next high spring tides arrived, the sheets of ice lifted off and pushed westwards by the ebb; cracking and breaking into floes, some reportedly six feet thick, many of which were swirled against the cast-iron pillars of the railway viaduct that crossed the Solway between Bowness and Annan. The damage was immense, and the events of those several days – the sights and sounds – are described elsewhere . A presumed victim was the ‘Hare in a fix’– a hare which was trapped on a floe that was being swept out on the tide (raising interesting questions about the population of hares on the Solway’s margins in the late 19th century, and their intelligence – but perhaps the hare was brighter than we think? See ).
As for this year’s floes – where did they form? With travel restrictions and extremely icy roads, it wasn’t possible to tour around to look. Roger Golding’s photos from Bowness show a covering of ice and remnants of snow on the upper intertidal flats: here the thin layer of freshwater run-off from the saltmarsh perhaps combined with spray from the saline waters of the Firth would have formed an ever-thickening layer.
Seawater freezes when its temperature drops to -1.8 degrees Celsius. In an estuary the salt concentration varies with the weather and the state of the tide; the concentration of salts in the sea is normally 35 parts per thousand, but as it mixes with fresh water from rain and the rivers and becks this alters; fresh water, being less dense, can ‘float’ on top of the salt water, depending on the turbulence, and freezes at a higher temperature. But tasting the ice to try to determine its origin wouldn’t help: salts are excluded from the crystalline structure formed by the linking of the water molecules – so the ice would be (almost) suitable for a G&T. At the Poles, excluded salts may form syrupy ‘brine channels’ between the plates of ice, but melted sea-ice does not make a good ‘British’ cup of tea, and Franklin, Scott and other polar explorers relied on freshwater ice from glaciers (or snow).
The Solway’s ice does not have the clear brilliance of a Fox’s glacier mint – it is opaque, and sometimes discoloured with incorporated sediment. There are rough crystals like those in the Slush Puppies that churn sickeningly inside glass cylinders in seaside cafés; there are solid white layers, and weak bubbled strata. The more I look at it and consider it, so I realise the greater is my ignorance: the formation of these ice-floes and thin sheets is a research project in itself: for materials scientists, chemists, rheologists – and poets, artists and writers too.
The growing ice-sheet quite dramatically reduces the area where wading birds can feed, so that they have to fly and forage further afield, burning extra calories in the process: but they are at least homeothermic (endothermic or ‘warm-blooded’) like mammals. The recent pictures from Texas, where turtles stunned by the unusual freezing weather were being brought indoors to warm up, are a reminder that ‘cold-blooded’ animals like amphibia and reptiles are very reliant on the ambient temperature and their own behaviour (such as basking) to survive. This is even more true of the trillions of invertebrate animals that live on and within the shores and saltmarshes, the ‘invertebrates on the edges’ that are part of the complex and inter-connected web of life, of prey and predator [5 and 6]. Some are known to have anti-freeze molecules in their blood, but others are not so fortunate and if unprotected within burrows, or under stones or algae, may well die.
In 1860, naturalist Philip Henry Gosse wrote: “After the intense and protracted frost of February 1855 the shores of South Devon were strewn with dead and dying Anemones … which rolled helplessly on the beach” . There are more recent reports of dying, stranded starfish on the Scottish east coast, paralysed and killed by the freezing weather at the very low Spring tides, and last month piles of burrowing bivalve Molluscs, razorfish mixed with some large clams, were washed up at Mossyard Bay near Gatehouse of Fleet on the Galloway coast, the razorfish shells still glossy, their pale muscular feet and siphons extended in death: cause of death very likely the low sea temperatures, and especially the freezing of the sands and mud during low Spring tides.
(I am very grateful to the Solway Firth Partnership for forwarding these photos, which were taken by Peter Garson, to whom all credit is due.)
In early February I drove towards Bowness, hoping to see the floes on the shore (I missed them, they’d already been shifted by the tide) but the River Wampool – where four months earlier I had watched and heard a tidal bore  – was choked with ice that was moving sluggishly downstream with the river and the outgoing tide; a friend who lives near the mouth of the river at Moricambe Bay reported that the ice had come in from the bay ‘on every tide’.
Out on the Wampool, thin plates of ice were piled against the bridge supports, and raised high along the banks; the scene was eerie, empty of life and sound, as if the moving waters had been silenced by their floating blanket.
My thanks to Alison Critchlow and Roger Golding for their willingness to let me use their photos and for talking about the winter’s ice.I’m especially grateful to Alison for sharing her sketches and paintings – do look at her website.
Godfrey ‘Dog’ Holden and Judith Brown have been friends for years, climbing together extensively during the 1990s and early 2000s. Here they look back on discovering those early delights of climbing on the Solway sea-cliffs in Dumfries & Galloway.
On a clear, bright day of the kind that does occasionally occur in Cumbria, despite rumours to the contrary, the sea-cliffs of the Scottish Solway coast caught both the sun and the eye of my great pal and climbing partner, Dog Holden, as he made his daily commute to work.
Driving north along the roads of the English side of the Firth, the view across the estuary is particularly fine, the low morning sun often illuminating the cliffs and bathing the hills of the distant hinterland in a soft, hazy light.
“I thought surely the big sea-cliffs I could see across the Solway Firth must be great for climbing,” Dog explained. “But when I asked climbing friends from Cumbria they knew nothing whatsoever about them – and that just whetted my appetite to find out more.”
Back in the 1980s the hills and sea-cliffs of Dumfries and Galloway were not particularly well known within the climbing community, and – in those pre-google days – information was hard to come by. Moreover, despite being so clearly visible from the English side, it was a long drive around to get there, especially before the A35 was ‘improved’.
“On the first exploratory trip, I had to follow my nose as well as the map to find the cliff that had especially impressed me as having good climbing potential. Well, it was certainly quite big and steep, but it mainly consisted of barely consolidated sands. The name of the area is Sandyhills, which I suppose should have been some sort of clue.”
Although disappointing from a climbing point of view, the quiet beauty of the area made a deep impression, inviting future visits and further investigation. This revealed that there were indeed good cliffs for climbing further West of Dumfries, close to Kirkcudbright.
“At an early opportunity we made the trip to Borgue, close to Gatehouse of Fleet and from there to a good although rather busy campsite at Brighouse Bay,” Dog says. “I was with my late wife, Anne, who was not a climber, and our beloved Labrador, Harter, who was a great hill walker, but not built for rock-climbing, so this trip was purely investigative. We had only the sketchiest of information but by following the coastline east we eventually found our way to a complex area of sea-cliffs which clearly offered good climbing potential. These were below the hill named Meikle Ross with fine views over the island of Little Ross and the beautiful seascape to the sweep of the Cumbrian coast. One could even make out the steep headland of St. Bees Head, south of Whitehaven, and the Isle of Man on a clear day.”
In fact it turned out that quite a lot of climbing had been done in the Meikle Ross area. Furthermore there were several areas of coastal cliff further west – as far as Burrow Head on the southern tip of the so-called Isle of Whithorn and up the west coast around Portpatrick.
Reconnaissance done, it was time to tackle the actual climbing. Over a long weekend sometime in the early 1990s, Dog and I, armed with a few vague route details on some bits of paper, embarked upon our first experience of climbing on the Solway sea-cliffs. We chose Meikle Ross, on the coast to the West of Kirkcudbright, as the place to give it our first shot.
Climbing on sea-cliffs has complications and considerations over and above those involved in climbing on inland crags. Many host large colonies of sea-birds during the nesting season and so must not be climbed during the spring and early summer in order to avoid disturbing the birds during this critical period. Some cliffs can only be accessed at low tide, making timing critical.
But the main challenge tends to be actually locating the crag. Unlike an inland crag, sea-cliffs are generally invisible to the approaching climber, except in the unlikely event of arriving by boat. The bases of most sea-cliffs are gained either by a death-defying scramble or, more usually, by means of an abseil. This adds a degree of tension to sea-cliff climbing. Once down, you are committed to making a successful ascent of the route. The only other way back up would be to climb up the abseil rope – assuming you have left it in place and not pulled it down after you to use as your climbing rope. Although such an escape is possible in extremis, it involves both technical skill and a deal of ‘faff’ and is considerably harder than they make it look in the movies.
To further add to the excitement, the tops of the Solway sea-cliffs tend to consist of very steep grass growing in about an inch of top-soil, devoid of stout, well-rooted trees on which to secure the abseil rope. We were forced to resort to abseiling down the cliffs from a rather rickety fence that served to stop the sheep from straying onto the steep grass. We used an extra rope for this exercise, given the height of the cliff and the distance up the slope to the fence-line. There is a handy mid-height ledge system running across the main cliff, the so-called “Limehouse Blues” area which makes most of the routes accessible even at high tide.
The rock hereabouts and on much of the coast west of Kirkcudbright is a “greywacke” sandstone. This tends to be brittle and so needs careful handling. However, winter storms often clear the cliffs, or at least the lower sections, of loose rock so there are not too many unstable blocks and few rubble-strewn ledges. (An exception is the crag at Burrow Head which is pretty unstable).
Given the general lack of climbing ‘traffic’ on these crags back then the cliffs carried a generous covering of flora, including a tough short sea-grass and cushions of attractive sea-pinks. On that first day’s climbing I found the thrift flowers made a cheering contrast to the daunting steepness of the rock. For some inexplicable reason, the pull of gravity always feels stronger when climbing above the sea. So, although the actual climbing routes were generally clean of vegetation, I was rather over-sensitive to the occasional feel of brittle, grey-green lichen crumbling beneath my feet. However, I was only the ‘second’, Dog having led the route with his usual calm aplomb. I was climbing with the full security of the rope above me – though with the suspicion that my leader was probably anchored at the top to nothing stronger than a fence-post.
Such minor inconveniences aside, we found the climbing at Meikle Ross to be excellent with some striking and pleasant routes. Lichen notwithstanding, the atmosphere was not as intimidating as so many sea-cliffs are. Everybody we went on to introduce to the area very much enjoyed the quality of the climbing and the “feel” of the setting.
This first trip began our fairly extensive exploration of the whole of southern Galloway, including the Isle of Whithorn and crags along the west coast. One of the latter, at Laggantulloch Head, south of Portpatrick, is particularly remote and formed of excellent granite, rather than the more typical greywacke. Granite is the predominant rock of the Galloway inland crags, including the dramatically named Dungeon of Buchan in the remote Silver Flow area at the heart of the Galloway Forest Park – spectacular climbing accessible by a very long walk/cycle rather than a short, scary abseil.
Much easier of access, especially from Cumbria is the delightfully situated Clifton Crag, not on the coast but with the sea close by and with excellent views across the Firth.
What was particularly enjoyable about the coastal climbing 20-30 years ago was both the aspect and seclusion. Although possibly busier today, now that there is a good climbing guide to the area, it is doubtful whether it gets too much traffic. This is partly due to its remoteness from the main mountain areas and centres of population but also due to the general seriousness. Sea-cliffs are not climbing walls. Climbing them always carries the frisson of an uncertain outcome, which is the hallmark of true adventure. Like the sea itself, they are mutable, constantly changing. Although this is true of all crags, the pace of change on sea-cliffs is intensified through the working of waves and wind, of salt and sand. For example, although some of the crags now have metal abseil posts in place, those posts themselves corrode quickly in the salt sea air, becoming potentially more dangerous than the rickety fence-posts we used.
All aspects of sea-cliff climbing require judgment and self-sufficiency to a high degree. That is part of the satisfaction of climbing on these crags, a satisfaction fully realised by the surroundings. During the climb one is focused on the rock, the lichen, the sea-pinks, maybe glancing up to a sky that is – hopefully – blue and cloud-free; occasionally looking down to check the placement of your feet but letting your eye be caught by the play of light on water and seaweed and on the bands of golden sandstone. You hope that your movements are in tune with the beauty and the solitude.
At the top, climbing turns to a graceless scrabble up the lethally steep grass and it is with some relief that you reach the doubtful security of whatever metal or wooden post your leader is tied to. But then you move to safer ground, among the grazing sheep, where you can relax and enjoy the view of the Cumbrian coastline and the northern fells, looking splendid across the Solway Firth.
For more information about climbing in Galloway see the relevant chapter in the Scottish Mountaineering Guidebook “Lowland Outcrops” – the section is written by Stephen Reid of Needlesports in Keswick, who has an unrivalled knowledge of the Galloway hills and crags.
John Biggar also has a good website with many photos and detailed information about the areas described here and many more besides.
There are several free, beautifully-illustrated booklets about the Dumfries and Galloway coast and its rocks and placenames, available as downloads from the Solway Coastwise project.
Judith Brown’s book ‘Happy Climbing Tells No Tales’ (Open Mountain, 2007) was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountaineering Literature in 2007 (copies are still available at Needlesports in Keswick).
Quick lime, slaked lime – words for limestone that tell different stories, a remembrance of chemistry lessons. If limestone, CaCO3, is heated carbon dioxide is driven off to leave calcium oxide, CaO – quicklime or burnt lime – a crystalline, alkaline and caustic substance. If water is added the material hisses and spits, giving off heat, as it becomes hydrated to form slaked lime, Ca(OH)2.
From the words for these differing states of lime other tales are derived, of roadstone, mortar and plaster (1), slag from iron-making (2), and fertilising arable fields. And these tales of industry have their beginnings in the digging and blasting of limestone from the earth.
Limestone forms great blocks of geology around the perimeter of the Lake District: to the North-East at Penrith, further South at Shap, and to the West just inland from the coast. It is a Carboniferous rock that has its origins in warm shallow seas, when ‘Britain’ lay far to the South of the equator: single-celled animals, corals, brachiopods and shelled molluscs extracted calcium ions and carbon dioxide from the water and used them to construct their crystalline skeletons of calcium carbonate. When the creatures died, they fell to the sea-floor and over millennia were compressed and lithified. The continents moved and split, land masses rose, volcanoes erupted, and sea-beds were hidden miles deep. But erosion by glaciers and weather exposed them again and now there are limestone massifs halo-ing the Lake District’s mountainous hard rock interior – available for quarrying and (in the case of the precious limestone ‘pavements’ of clints and grikes) for conservation.
Small lime kilns are slotted into hillsides and escarpments like eyes, their brows an arch of brick or stone; single ‘pots’, or double, even triple, side by side, usually arranged so that broken limestone and coal can be fed into the top and, after the burning, quicklime scraped out from the bottom. The quicklime from these small kilns was probably used locally for spreading on arable fields and pastures, to reduce the acidity and improve the productivity of the land. (3, 4)
But there are several majestically large commercial kilns too whose origins were closely linked with not only the West Cumberland coalfields but also the large deposits of haematite or iron ore in the West of the county. Near where I live and well-hidden from public view are the Wardhall – or Warthole – limekilns.
The track runs straight, sloping gently downhill towards the River Ellen. It’s January and the fields are full of chocolate-brown Herdwick hoggs with white legs and faces, brought down from the fell farms to over-winter on the richer lowland pastures. In the way of Herdwicks, three of the young sheep have escaped and are browsing on the brambles along the track; they stare at us and, knowing they are doing wrong, sheepishly sidle back into their field, having remembered exactly where they broke the fence.
The track is firm underfoot and runs for nearly a mile, lined on each side by tall flailed hedges of hawthorn, ash and elder that, even leafless, limit the view. Then suddenly we are out, onto a flat area, glistening with ice and green with moss, that is raised above the river valley like a belvedere. There is an unconvincing rusty-wire fence at the abrupt edge – and a steep vertical drop, a cliff-face of dressed sandstone blocks. Although it’s impossible from here to tell, we’re on top of the kilns and although they are now covered over, we’re standing on the entrances to the pots into which coal and quarried limestone would have been dropped.
We back-track to a thin strip of damp woodland beside the track, and scramble down a bank, through brambles and the stalks and flat dry heads of cow parsley, frost-rimed; clamber down a low brick wall onto what might have been a platform or loading area, and then onto a plain of straggling grass and shallow moss-filled pools overlying rubble and broken brick. Now we’re at the base of the enormous flat front of the bank of kilns. The entrances to the four pots are like half-bottles, each framed in perfectly-cut and aligned sandstone blocks. David Johnson, an expert on Cumbrian lime-kilns, notes that the kiln ‘has an unusual design in that the draw arches reach almost the full height of the kiln front face’ .
The interior walls are dank with green algae and liverworts, part-hidden by ivy. Scrubby, boggy ground and straggling ash trees make reaching the openings difficult – but at the back of each deep arch are small brick-edged openings, supported by rusting metal. In one arch the openings are blocked, one by horizontal rusty iron doors; another by a solid tumble of grey and black stones. These openings are the draw-arches or ‘drawing-eyes’ for the fire-pots, and the doors were used to control the air flow into the kiln; Graham Brooks (5) told me “it was a technical job trying to keep the temperature of the fire in the pot at the right temperature – too low and the limestone didn’t burn, too high and you could get a fused mass depending on the amount of secondary minerals in the limestone.” Limestone and coal would have been layered in from the top, “usually in the ratio of three limestone to one coal.” The quick lime would have been raked out, probably straight onto the waiting railway wagons. In two other arches, spectral effusions of white, streaked, limestone ooze out from the eyes – slow waves of calcium carbonate re-petrified – decorated with the jagged teeth of stalactites. Within the massive stone structure, the hidden pots of the kilns must still contain limestone – through which water has trickled down, dissolving the calcium salts, the concentrated brine seeping out year after year.
When lime-burning first started here isn’t clear, but Graham Brooks, in his research into Cumbrian limekilns (5), states that the Warthole kilns, “were rented out to the Gilcrux colliery company prior to 1852 when they were advertised to be let by Mr Richardson of Dovenby Hall. (The present kilns probably date to after this time.) The Solway Haematite Iron Company, Maryport worked the quarries and kilns in the 1870s.”
In other words, the 19th century limeworks were associated with coal and with iron ore, haematite – so the quicklime would have been used in the production of iron. If haematite is heated to high temperatures, molten iron is liberated – and the added limestone (which is oxidised by the heat to quicklime) or even better, quicklime itself, bonds with the impurities from the fuel (coal) and the ore to form slag, which floats on top of the molten metal (6, 2).
This was also the age of railway building, especially in Cumberland. Between 1840 and 1845, the railway from the coastal town of Maryport to Carlisle in the North was completed – the section from Maryport to the coal-mines at Arkleby (very close to Wardhall) was finished in July 1840 (7). The 25-inch Ordnance Survey map for 1865 (8) clearly shows the M&CR running alongside the River Ellen, with sidings that connect with a fan of four lines from the Warthole Limeworks (where, curiously, only three – not four – pots are shown). Also shown is the track that brought the limestone down from Warthole Quarry to the South-East of Warthole Guards Farm – this was the sloping inclined plane or tramway, down which rope-linked tubs laden with stone would pass, and down which we had walked between the wintry hedges. Gravity ensured the tubs would reach the flat area at the top of the kilns and, as they rumbled down the rails, their weight would pull a train of empty tubs back up to the top; the double line of rails midway as a passing place can be seen on the map, and there would probably also have been a winding-drum with a brake for the rope. Rails fan out to the rock-faces in the quarry, too. The deep quarry is still there, now partly obscured by a tangle of trees and vegetation.
But by the time the OS map was revised in 1891 (9), the M&CR sidings have been removed; Ward Hall Limeworks are marked as Disused, and the tramway is marked as ‘Old Wagonway’; there are no longer rails for tubs in the ‘Disused’ quarry. Iron and steel production was still centred on Workington, but cheaper iron ore was being imported from Spain and the economics of transport were changing rapidly; the M&CR’s Arkleby station was closed, the Solway Junction Railway (10) would also soon be closed.
Interestingly, the 2007 obituary of Donnie Bewick (11), a former neighbour of ours, notes that “During the war, Donnie drove for Gilcrux hauliers, Johnston Bros, many times leading lime into Scotland from Warthole limeworks, Plumbland.” Presumably he was transporting limestone taken directly from the quarry.
Here, then, is another lost story. There will surely still be local memories, some of which might go back a couple of generations, but at the moment Covid restrictions mean they can’t be accessed… Further details of the stories must wait.
Many thanks to my friend and industrial archaeologist Dr Peter Stanier (who also accompanied us to the kilns on our first visit in 2004) for useful discussions and weblinks.
1. ‘What’s a clay dabbin?‘: lime mortar and rendering; these houses are also covered in The Fresh and the Salt, the Story of the Solway, chapter 2, ‘Changeable Depths‘ (more photos on the related website).
2. Workington iron and steel furnaces, and slag; see also The Fresh and the Salt, the Story of the Solway, chapter 2, ‘Changeable Depths’ (more photos on the related website).
3. An index, plus photos, of Cumbrian limekilns by David Kitching.
12. David Johnson: Since writing this post I watched a Westmoreland Dales webinar where David Johnson talked about the variety of kilns in Cumbria and the Westmorland Dales. He has also published a very well-illustrated and informative book, Lime Kilns, History and Heritage (2018) Amberley Press.
“Mr Cash went to Beckfoot … the submerged forest was not visible and I regret to say the residents he inquired from had not even heard of it”. So wrote Brian Blake in his 1955 book The Solway Firth, which is illustrated by black-and-white photographs taken by J. Allen Cash. Fortunately, Mr Blake himself did find the forest later, and was “delighted with [his] luck” when he walked South from Silloth.
I first went to look for the forest back in 2004, and regularly found the stumps and roots of the ancient trees in roughly the same area of the shore near Beckfoot for many years. But it was not just the trees that made this forest area special: as I wrote back in 2004,
“the patches of black are like shadows along the sharp edges of channels in the sand. Walk down towards them, and the shadows resolve themselves into banks of peat. Poke them with your toe and feel how dense and sodden they are, smoothed by the friction of waves and sand. Walk on them and feel their sponginess. And gradually you will become aware that the dark organic mass is not only peat, but supports here a horizontal tree-trunk, or there a stump that radiates roots. Wander around and you will find trunks and branches, single and entangled, embedded in the peat and sand; and erect stumps, 20-30 cms high, their tops flattened as though cut by a chainsaw. The wood is still fibrous, soft and dark; you can crumble it and tease it apart, as though it were any rotting log in a woodland. But the difference is that this woodland thrived about 8000 years ago.”
The trees had died, their roots waterlogged as by a beaver-dam, their bodies gradually preserved as the sphagnum mosses grew ever upwards in the wet climate of the time, and compressed into acidic, anaerobic peat.
The forest and peat could be seen for more than a decade, but a few years ago during a sequence of winter storms, the peat was thrashed and fragmented by the waves, the wet and fragile wood vanished, and nothing remained visible of the woodland that had stretched across that earlier Solway Plain. But that patch had been just a small area: underneath the new and ever-changing profile of the mid-shore near Beckfoot – where shingle had been swept away, rocky scaurs (relics of glacial deposits) had been exposed, and sand had been piled in sessile waves and tiny ripples – the horizon containing the forest and peat and clay would still be present. It was a comfort to know that this evidence of the formation and changing development of the turbulent Solway Firth was still there – but hidden, from sight and perhaps from memory.
So, in January this year, after weeks of strong north-westerly winds and storm surges and Spring tides, I went down to Beckfoot again – wondering, hoping, that the secret of the submerged trees might once more have been revealed. The shore looked so different from the previous autumn that I was failing to find my usual ‘markers’. The cloud was low and the air was grey, and across the Firth Scotland had (very sensibly) taken leave of the Union and was no longer to be seen. A mixed flock of gulls sat and preened near the water, keeping a silent watch on my movements, and I apologised as thirty or more oystercatchers failed to hold their nerve and rose up in a flock, trilling with indignation.
I zig-zagged between the the tidelines, hoping to find ‘treasures’ like goose barnacles attached to flotsam, but the long mounds of tangled wrack and twigs were too tightly woven together by the waves. Dark shapes ahead were merely small boulders and rounded pebbles of a newly-exposed scaur.
Looking up to watch a curlew come gliding over the dunes, its outspread wings motionless as it let itself be carried by the wind towards the distant water, I saw that, higher up the shore towards the battered dune faces, there were smooth dark plates of … something. Not peat, as I had expected, but sheets of heart-stoppingly slippery, grey clay: the same type of clay that in the earlier exposures had lain beneath the peat layer that had preserved the forest. Had the peat been broken up and washed away, or was this one of those places where salt- or fresh-water had temporarily inundated the peat bog? Perhaps there had been a meeting of sea and river water, where the suspended sediment had flocculated and fallen – or perhaps the sea had broken through a barrier and washed out clay that had been deposited at the bottom of a still, small lake?
The clay’s surface was speckled with embedded fragments of wood – and there was a tree-stump with radiating roots; there were some fallen branches or perhaps more roots, half-buried in the clay. And more stumps, sticking up defiantly despite their age.
Intriguingly, the surface of the clay was pock-marked with tiny holes, the entrances to burrows. I broke off a piece and found the burrows had been filled in with yellowish sand.
So much has happened – and not happened – during this year. One dramatic event happened on the Allonby shore, a short distance West of Beckfoot, during the high spring tides and storms of November. This wild weather broke open the dunes at Allonby to reveal a band of glistening clay at least one metre thick; the clay’s surface was patterned with bright brown deposits of iron salts, and black fragments of embedded vegetation decorated the smooth horizontal plates. (On a later walk I saw similar torn and decaying fragments of seaweed and twigs decorating the edge of a shallow pool, washed in and then dropped by the leaving tide.)
At the north end of this band of clay, a dark headland of peat jutted onto the shore. It was speckled with sand, and twigs and pieces of small branches were embedded – but these seemed more like collected flotsam rather than the remains of growing trees. A piece of what looked like black paper projected from deep within a broken edge and, picking at it, I was puzzled to find that it was a partly-exposed ‘mermaid’s purse’, the empty egg-case of a thornback ray. Nearby, the surface of one area of peat was coated in a hard crust of red-stained sand.
It’s like a detective story, a very cold case, with a complicated time-line. From the time the glaciers melted, about 10,000 years ago, until the present day, the levels of the sea – the Firth – relative to the land, have changed many times. You can see it most obviously where lines of pebbles sandwiched by layers of sand are exposed in the dunes – these are ‘raised beaches’ that show the different levels of the shore over time.
The height of each incursion doesn’t mark a simple water-line along the shore, for there would have been hollows and sandbanks, that either kept out or trapped the water: along the shore today you cross undulating sand-waves, find your way interrupted by water-filled channels, and discover that the former course of a beck across the shore has been changed by newly-banked shingle. Marine débris sinks in the still water, layering its patterns onto the settled sediment.
The patterns of newly-exposed clay and peat at Allonby suggest this might have been a soggy area like the lagg fen that circumscribes a bog, where trees find it hard to grow; after the sea-level rose and the fen was inundated, the hollow trapped water-borne detritus; sometimes sand was deposited on top of the peat; a ray’s egg-case was caught in a crack and later buried. Later, when the peat and clay were higher and drier, fresh water seeped down through the peat and onto the clay, carrying red iron salts that accumulated in holes and hollows. And here at Allonby these colourful ferric salts accentuate another puzzle: tubes with hard, ochreous-red walls projecting upwards from the clay.
Tubes and burrows
Peat and clay are not dead and sterile environments – all manner of creatures, from invertebrates to single-celled bacteria and micro-algae – are adapted to make these substrata their homes.
Piddocks are extraordinary: these bivalve molluscs (think of them as much fancier relatives of mussels) normally live, protected, inside rock below low-tide level. The animal’s shells are intricately patterned with sharp, toothed ridges and, by extending and retracting its muscular foot, and shoogling its file-like shells, the piddock gradually bores in, living within the burrow, enlarging the diameter – but not the entrance – as it grows, feeding on particulate matter in the sea-water. Burrowing would be laborious, unless the larval piddock finds and colonises a bank of peat that has been uncovered by the sea. Twice I have been excited to find peat that has been riddled with piddock burrows – one time the white shells of the long-dead animals were still trapped inside. That newly-revealed peat contains piddocks and their wide-diameter burrows, shows that this is not the first time it has been uncovered: it must have been exposed to the sea at a subtidal level for at least several years before it was buried again beneath the sand.
And what of the tubes in the clay at Beckfoot, found in January this year? Some were U-shaped, many were infiltrated with sand.
Mudshrimps dig U-shaped tubes of this approximate size; the tubes of mud-dwelling ragworms are more branched. Clay is much denser than the mud where these creatures normally live – but perhaps it was softer and muddier before it was compressed … It’s frustrating not knowing who constructed those shelters, and when.
And finally, to those strange reddish tubes jutting upwards from the Allonby clay: some of them are nearly a centimetre in diameter; their walls are hard, the material filling the cavity difficult to identify. Further along the exposure, though, are narrower tubes, and tubes in longitudinal section, some of them branching, many with traces of red pigment outlining the edges. What creatures constructed these?
But that is the wrong question, the wrong ‘Kingdom’ – the origin is plant not animal. In places filaments stretch between the broken ends of tubes and it’s clear that the burrowers were roots, and the walls of the tubes have formed around them, the clay hardening and taking up the ferric salts. Some are fine and fragile, others stout and thick-walled.
These tubes, then, are much more modern and unconnected with inundation by the sea. At the edge of the eroded face of the dunes, the mat of vegetation that stabilised the surface now teeters, and roots of the grasses and other plants dangle in the air.
Having seen this new evidence of the Solway’s geological history, I went back to Beckfoot to see whether more sections of the submerged forest had been uncovered. But the small area of trees and peat that had been revealed in January had vanished – all that remained was the clay; peat and trees had been battered and swept away when the very high spring tides and strong winds had churned the sea into brown, froth-edged breakers.
However, the layer of red clay was still visible further to the North. It occurs at various places between Allonby and Beckfoot, and is coarser and more granular than the grey boulder clay. It would be possible to roll it into a ball, and press a stick through it to make a hole, smoothing the edges with your thumb. You could make a loom-stone or a fishing-weight, similar to those that I and others have found along the shore.
For more about the Solway’s geological past and the ‘dance’ between the land and sea, see The Fresh and the Salt. The Story of the Solway, published by Birlinn Books September 2020, and the related website.
Back in 2015 near Dubmill Point on Allonby Bay I finally found what I’d been searching for: the ‘ship’s keel’ for which Ship’s-Keel Scaur is named. It was hard to believe that I’d failed to find it previously, but there were several similar fruitless hunts on other occasions.
Its timbers were as hard as iron, the keel (if that is what it was – its profile had been much transformed, holed and distorted and overgrown) was home to a variety of marine species, a microcosm of the animals and algae on the shore. Sandy tubes of the honeycomb worm, Sabellaria; mats of barnacles; a few limpets; grazing winkles; predatory dog-whelks, which had laid mats of their orange vase-shaped eggs under overhanging timber; beadlet anemones, Actinia; green Ulva algae. Footprints in the sand showed that wading birds have been sheltering in its shadow.
Although 6 or 7 metres long, the keel blended into its surroundings on the scaur, providing yet another stable surface against the shifting sands; its encrusted chain bled oxidised iron. The wood is scarred by deep rectangular excisions, which I now realise have been caused by present-day hacksaws. Someone I know who has been responsible for one of these wounds told me that he and his friend had been extracting copper nails. He showed me the wedge-shaped nail, several inches long and tapering at one end.
I went back later in the year on a ‘big tide’ to examine it more closely, and soon had to retreat as the water rose quickly and quietly around it. In less than 15 minutes the keel was invisible beneath the sea.
Allonby Bay is infamous as a place where ships wrecked on the Solway’s sandbanks – and their contents – have come ashore; it was also the site of a business in ship-breaking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I have written about this – and suggestions for the origin of the ‘ship’s-keel’ – in much more detail in my book The Fresh and the Salt, and there are also extra images on the website.
I’ve returned to the wrecked timbers and chain (when I can find them) several times over the past years and I wanted to record here a pictorial time-line of their gradual break-up and disappearance. An unexplained piece of the history of this coast and the Solway Firth goes with them.
Almost eighteen months later …
One year later, 2019, and the profile of the shore has dramatically changed as sand has been swept up from further West and deposited over the rocks; Ship’s-Keel Scaur and its glacial origins are barely recognisable.
Another year passes, the ‘Covid year’. When I re-visit in September 2020, sand has shifted yet again, rocks and remnants of the wreck are visible. But the ‘Ship’s-Keel’ is barely a memory of its former self. There is no sign of the chain; the encrusting and sheltering algae and animals have almost vanished from this now inhospitable former home.
Its timber is tough, but it may soon be gone – and eventually no-one will remember the reason for this Scaur’s name.
The tidal bore on the Solway approached “… with a hoarse and loud roar, and with a brilliance of phenomena and demonstration, incomparably more sublime than if the wide sandy water were densely scoured with the fleetest and the most gorgeously appointed invading army of horsemen; before the first wave can be descried from the shore, a long cloud or bank of spray is seen, as if whirling on an axis, and evanescently zoned and gemmed with mimic rainbows, and the rich tintings of partial refraction, sweeping onwards with the speed of a strong and steady breeze”. Gazeteer for 1848, p679.
So wrote a possible observer in 1848, seemingly carried away with the eloquence of his prose. Fifty years later, George Nielsen described the tidal bore approaching the River Eden “with great speed”; “the wave is white with tumbling foam; a great curve of broken surf follows in its wake; and the white horses of the Solway ride in to the end of their long gallop from the Irish Sea with a deep and angry roar”. And indeed, there are much earlier accounts of people being swept away and drowned by the bores that rushed up the rivers: in February 1216 followers of the Scottish king Alexander II, laden with spoils from pillaging Holme Cultram Abbey, were crossing the ford on the Eden when the incoming tidal bore overtook and drowned 1,900 men.
The first time that I experienced the Solway bore I was actually out in the Firth just to the West of Bowness – standing chest-deep in the water, in a line of haaf-netters (see chapter 8 in The Fresh and the Salt, and the website for more photos), fishing for salmon. Distant Criffel had been blotted out by the rain that was beating in our faces, but a dark line with a wavering white crest appeared on our seaward side, moving upstream towards us and accompanied by a low roar. There was laughter, and a shout of ‘Whose idea was this, then?’, and we all hastily waded for the shore. It was not a large bore, perhaps only 30 centimetres high, but it seemed animate in its purposefulness, pushing on up the Firth. Behind it, the brown water rose quietly up the mudflat and spilled silently, frothy-edged, into the creeks. After the bore had passed, we carried our nets back into the water and resumed our fishing, shifting positions in the line as the incoming tide rose higher.
The second time I saw a bore was at Grune Point at the edge of Moricambe Bay: it’s only in retrospect that I understand what I saw – I was sitting on the edge of the saltmarsh with artist Lionel Playford, and as he sketched we were chatting about the patterns of stillness and turbulence on the water as the tide slowly rose in front of us. A shallow layer of water had covered the mudflats and was calm and glossy, when what seemed merely a low wave less than 10 centimetres high curved around the point and, itself unshowy but silvery, over-rode the smooth surface. It poppled against the saltmarsh’s edge and carried on past us up into the creek.
There are perhaps a dozen estuaries in Britain where a tidal surge, bore or aegir occurs, and even then they are not easy to predict, but the main requirements are that the incoming tide is funnelled into a narrowing estuary; that a big spring tide is due; and there should not have been much rainfall to swell the outflowing rivers. The Severn bore is the most famous, but others include bores at Arnside on the River Kent by Morecambe Bay, and on the Rivers Eden and Nith that empty into the Solway.
On the weekend of October 17th and 18th, 2020, spring tides with ranges of about 10 metres were predicted, and rainfall had been (unusually) low for Cumbria and Dumfries & Galloway. Alerted by the hashtag #solwaybore, people were already posting photos and videos of various bores on social media: Stuart David captured images of kayakers by Burgh Marsh on the Solway; Paul Crabtree uploaded a video of the bore in the River Eden at the head of the Solway; Kate Parry had been picnicking by the River Wampool, which opens into Moricambe Bay (not at all the same as Morecambe Bay), when she had been surprised by a noisy bore; her phone video was subsequently picked up and shown by the BBC.
On the Sunday I too visited the Wampool and was thrilled to hear and see that bore for myself. The river was low, and a flock of gulls was resting and arguing on a sandbank down-river. Suddenly there was the sound of sighing and shushing, and the gulls flurried up onto the surrounding fields. And then it came – a glinting line of water, rushing inland. It wasn’t a single wave, but a train of several smooth wave-forms chasing the front-runner in orderly fashion. The leader hit the supports of the bridge, and split around them, then its edges swashed and broke noisily along the banks. But all the while the waves kept pace with each other, even as the front poured and rattled over a small shingle bed below the bank.
As with that Solway bore, the front pulled the tide behind it so that the water reached up the banks in minutes. Comparing the height against the bridge supports before and after the bore passed, nearly two metres of height had been gained in 10 minutes.nd the current, brown with sediment, raced on upstream, with lumps of tree-trunks and timber swirling on its back (see videos on the website). Brown foam spun in eddies below the bank and the sound now was of rushing, splashing water. How far inland did it travel? I wish I knew where its energy had fizzled out. It would be a fine thing to fly in a gyroplane on a day when a Solway bore was expected, and to watch the Upper Solway fill and spill into the rivers.
I’d naïvely thought that the bores would happen shortly after the tide turned, but this is not the case – and when you look at the map and see the areas that the Upper Solway includes, it begins to make more sense that the bores often occur much later in the tidal cycle, sometimes just before predicted high tide. To confuse predictions even further, the tidal cycle in the Upper Firth is far from cyclical – the ebb takes a disproportionately long period compared with the flow.
At Torduff Point on the Scottish side, for example, there are only 2-3 hours between low and high water – the left-hand side of the curve is very steep; the rest of the nearly six-hour cycle is taken up with the ebb. But at Carsethorn on the mouth of the Nith, and at Silloth on the west side of Grune Point, the six-hour cycle is fairly standard. (Note that the vertical scales are different for the two graphs below; these graphs, and those for other tidal predictions can be found here.)
To imagine the Upper Solway basin filling up evenly, like water in a bath, is wrong: there are the river channels, the sandbanks, the vast disc of Moricambe Bay, the friction created by the shallows and the scaurs, the hollows and channels around Port Carlisle …. I’ve waited at Grune Point during the big spring tide, waited for the tide to flood, knowing the time of low water at Silloth – and slowly, very slowly, a glimmer appears in a distant channel nearer the Scottish side; after two-and-a-half hours the sandy and muddy expanse of Moricambe Bay is still exposed, even though it’s only ‘just around the corner’ from Silloth. Then suddenly, after about three hours, the tide arrives, and rapidly fills the bay, bubbling and hissing at the edges of the sculpted mudflats and the small cliff-edges of the saltmarsh. And still it continues to flood in, until at least an hour-and-a half past Silloth’s high water time.
It is at that late stage that the dammed-up pressure of the tide suddenly overcomes the force of the outgoing fresh water from the rivers – and breaks through. So the bore on the Wampool exploded up-river at about the same time that high water was due at Torduff Point; the bore on the Eden – further to the North-East, also roared up-river at about the same time.
And as that bolus of water pushes up the river it forces the river’s flow to temporarily reverse; the turbulence at the edges sweeps up the sediment; sometimes the bottom of the leading edge is slowed by friction against the river bed so that the peak of the wave topples over into an aerated white crest. The dynamics of every bore, even in the same river, are always different, dependent on the relative flows of fresh and salt, the heights and the weather. It would be so easy to become addicted to looking for bores, to become a ‘bore bore’ …
Here are links to videos and blogs about the bores:
Stuart David on Twitter: the bore at Burgh Marsh, October 2020
“At Rockcliffe [Marsh] it’s about the birds, it’s about the saltmarsh as a vegetation community; it’s about the geological interest in the development of saltmarshes. Many other saltmarshes have been enclosed and changed because of agricultural methods, but the Solway marshes haven’t suffered to the same extent.” Bart Donato
Giles Mounsey-Heysham, the owner of Castletown Estate and Rockcliffe Marsh, refers to Bart Donato as the Estate’s “guru from Natural England” (NE), which made Bart laugh when we met in a café near Kendal in August 2017, but it was immediately obvious that he was very enthusiastic about his involvement with Rockcliffe.
He explained, “The Marsh has been part of an agricultural system for a thousand years or so – it’s not wild, it’s not a natural marsh, but a by-product of the agricultural system set on a natual landform. Local farming systems were once dictated by local needs, but over time have become subsumed within agri-business on a global scale – we have to try to buffer the system.”
Giles had asked for his help back in 2004 because “the grazing régime wasn’t working.” The result was that the Marsh was put into the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme, with funding for managing the saltmarsh better for birds. The rôle of NE is look at and secure Rockcliffe’s SSSI designation. “We look at the natural heritage, and think what’s the right management to look after that asset,” Bart explained. “We have to look at the flora and fauna and work out what’s best to support them. As for birds, it’s not just the breeding waders but also the wintering populations, the really big flocks of barnacle geese.”
Managing the grazing
“We don’t have the magic grazing system [for the birds],” Bart acknowledged. “We probably never will because the market drives things like the time and the type of grazing stock.” Geese “like a bowling green” but breeding waders prefer rougher vegetation, so the challenge is to balance this, to manage the grass growth to provide a mosaic. “We’re bringing the Marsh back to something more goose-y and breeding-wader-y.”
I imagined the long, muscular tongues of cattle, ripping off the grass, and the crisp snipping by sheep. That year the Marsh was also a temporary home for a herd of gypsy horses, black- and brown-and-white, and Bart said he “was quite excited to see them – they take on the rougher vegetation like tufted hair-grass, they take it down, and they behave very differently from the other stock.”
In the winter, most of the sheep and cattle are taken off. “The Marsh needs to be grazed enough to stop it growing, yet to keep a bit on it until the geese come again,” Bart said. “The winter grazing is problematic because of the marsh’s great size, the creeks and the winter tides.” Ultimately, “The tides are in control – creeks become quagmires, the pens get churned up.”
Total inundation of the Marsh also, as might be expected, has dramatic effects. For many years Mike Carrier was Honorary Warden for Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s involvement with the Marsh, and in his report for the period 2006/2015 for NE and the Trust, he wrote: “Both tides and weather play an extremely important role in the everyday life of Rockcliffe Marsh. Complete tidal inundations of the whole marsh occur perhaps no more than two or three times per year … When they do occur, the effect is to leave parts of the marsh under water for days particularly in the winter when little or no evaporation or natural drying out takes place. Should complete inundations take place during the [bird] breeding season, the effects can be catastrophic.”
Anatomising the Marsh
Bart talked about the need to manage the grassland as a mosaic of ‘bowling green’ and tufts and longer vegetation, to encourage breeding and grazing birds. But the HLS scheme was also about managing Rockcliffe as a saltmarsh, a mosaic of wet ground and creeks and open water amongst the vegetation, “a Swiss-cheese effect of water-bodies and big sheets of water.”
To do this, it was important to understand how the saltmarsh forms and develops. Rockcliffe isn’t only growing outwards, it’s growing upwards too. At the edges, ‘pioneer’ plants like Pulcinellia grass, Salicornia (samphire) and, as at RSPB Campfield further down the coast, the alien grass species Spartina, establish a root-hold. The meshwork of roots stabilises the trapped silt and forms a tiny island. Small changes in water-currents cause more sediment to be deposited and the islands fuse. Sediment accretion raises the level of the new-formed ‘land’, plants colonise, more sediment is trapped … and so a terrace is built up and the diversity of plants increases.
The Solway Firth has famously sediment-laden tides, the sea often the colour of milk-chocolate during strong winds. When the incoming tide reaches the head of the Firth at Rockcliffe and meets the outflowing freshwater of the rivers, it deposits its load of silt. Moreover, during storms, sediment also washes down the rivers “from everybody’s fields”, Bart said, and much of this gets trapped upstream of the ‘neck’ of the Firth at Bowness, so that above-average amounts of riverine sediment are deposited too.
Upward growth, though, is caused by ‘topping tides’, the high Spring tides that happen when the Moon and Sun are in alignment and their gravitational pull is greatest. Then, the water, “brown with muck”, creeps in through the creeks and overspills onto the Marsh. The vegetation creates at its base a layer of still water from which the sediment precipitates out. On a big tide, there’s a relatively long period of slack water at the head of the Firth, which means a longer period for sedimentation to happen; as much as 1cm of silt might then be deposited within a few tidal cycles amongst the grass and herbiage. When Giles had given me a tour of the Marsh he had jumped off the quad near the elbow of the Esk, next to a line of fence posts. “They’re gradually getting buried,” he says, lifting his hand to indicate they were nearly one-third higher when knocked in.
The sediment deposition affects the creeks and pool formation too. In the café, Bart got out the PlayDough, and fashioned a blue creek in a purple Marsh to illustrate what happens. When an incoming tide overtops the banks and spills onto the Marsh, the vegetation traps sediment close to the creek, so that levées gradually form along the banks. As the tide drops, the water on the Marsh cannot escape and forms ephemeral pools, stretches of open water, which slowly decrease by evaporation.
But at one stage in the marsh’s earlier management for sheep, drainage ditches were dug and the levées breached so that the standing water could drain back into the creeks. Now, under NE’s management, the drains have been blocked, the gaps in the banks filled and wet flashes have been dug for waders. The hydrology of the Marsh is being restored to its former state.
(Note: there is much more about other marshes and merses of the Solway, and specifically also about Rockcliffe Marsh in my book The Fresh and the Salt: the Story of the Solway; Birlinn, 2020; see https://thefreshandthesalt.co.uk/chapter-four/ )