Quick-lime, tubs and ghostly kilns

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.

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).

Maryport & Carlisle Railway: from Wikipedia, image by AfterBrunel.

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.

Warthole Limeworks, 25″ OS map
Warthole quarry, 25-inch OS map extract

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.

4. Graham Brooks’ website, Cumbrian limekilns.

5. My thanks to Graham Brooks for his email discussions, and for information about Wardhall kilns

6. British Lime website

7. The Maryport & Carlisle Railway, M&CR

8. National Library of Scotland, OS maps

9. NLS OS maps

10. The construction and destruction of the Solway Junction Railway: Crossing the Moss

11. Obituary, Donnie Bewick 2007

Published 2020 by Birlinn Books

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‘Cold cases’: land-scape puzzles on the Solway shore

“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.

Vanished forest: shingle, sand-waves and a distant rocky scaur

January 2020

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.

November 2020

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.

Piddock holes in the peat

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.

Red clay

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.

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The vanishing keel on Ship’s-keel Scaur

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.

April 2015 The encrusted chain

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.

Steam tug Florence towing barque Gimello into Maryport in a storm, 1883. William Mitchell

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.

April 2018 A traffic cone is trapped beneath one end, put there to mark the wreck?

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.

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Bores on the Solway

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.

Red shows rivers mentioned; blue for Silloth, Moricambe and Torduff Point

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.

The leading edge spreads across the shingle

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

Paul Crabtree: the Eden bore, October 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVxOV49RC5w&feature=emb_logo

Caerlaverock wetlands centre, the Nith bore: https://www.caerlaverock.org.uk/bored-of-isolationdifferent-perspectives-on-the-bore/

The Wampool bore: October 2020 https://thefreshandthesalt.co.uk/chapter-eight/

Mirjam Glessmer, The Arnside bore: https://mirjamglessmer.com/2019/07/31/tidal-bore-in-arnside/

Michael Berry, the Severn (and other) bores: https://michaelberryphysics.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/berry478.pdf 

Tide tables for Torduff Point: https://tides.willyweather.co.uk/dg/dumfries-and-galloway/channel-of-river-esk—-torduff-point.html

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Grazing and Growth on Rockcliffe Marsh

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.

‘The posts were previously this high’

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/ )

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The acronyms’ stories: imagine.

‘Alphabet soup’: AONB, EMS, MPA, MCZ, NNR, SAC, SPA, SSSI – how many more of these acronyms for conservation designations can you recall? Do you know what they mean? (If you don’t – and not many people do – you can find out more on the previous post on this blog.) Do words like biodiverse, conservation, habitat and environment perhaps pass you by?

At the other end of the spectrum from alphabet soup, a war of words broke out between some of the ‘new nature writers’, some accusing others of the over-use of complicated metaphors, mysterious similes and literary allusions that make the reader work too hard to understand what has actually been seen and experienced. George Monbiot wrote that we needed a new language, that ‘language is crucial to how we perceive the natural world’: ‘habitat’ and ‘conservation’ were too dry and alienating. Richard Mabey’s flash of self-awareness in this respect was delightful. Observing and writing about barn owls, he found he was constructing ‘extravagant phrases. …  I was rather pleased with my poetic metaphors, and it was only when I first read this passage out in public that I realised its utter stupidity.’ The moment of understanding came when he realised that the owls were his neighbours. ‘For much of my working life I have been trying to find way of talking about other organisms that neither reduces them to mechanical objects nor turns them into sentimentalised versions of ourselves. Neighbours are fellow creatures, but independent souls. You share their territory (their parish) and often their fortunes, but you can care about them in full knowledge they may not even recognise you.’

This is a fine idea. The small mudshrimp, Corophium, is a near-neighbour of mine; we live in adjacent parishes – he/she within the mudflats that fringe both shores of the Solway Firth, while I live in rolling farmland within sight of the Firth. Corophium is a small pale-brown crustacean, less than a centimetre long and with one pair of very long antennae. Few people have heard of mudshrimps, let alone seen them; they spend many hours each day – hours when the falling tide has uncovered the mudflats – in a burrow or crawling across the thin surface-film of water on the mud. Mudshrimps aren’t ‘charismatic’ or ‘iconic’ like a curlew, watervole, or polar bear, yet their bodies and behaviour are exquisitely adapted to the difficult conditions in which they live. Another of the ways in which our ‘parishes’ differ (there are obviously several) is that Corophium also lives, quite unknowingly, in an alphabet soup. The Upper Solway is an EMS, and has SAC and SPA status; part of the Upper Firth, too, is a MCZ.

Yet these designations, these acronyms, describe living, changing neighbourhoods and parishes. Imagine, then, making a short trip around the north-west Cumbrian coast from Bowness-on-Solway to Anthorn, preferably when the tide is mid-way up and rising; leisurely cycling is a good way of getting about – it’s slow, and you can abandon the bike to explore on foot.

Here at Bowness the Firth, stretching between Scotland and England, shore to shore between Mean High Water Level, is the Ramsar site, and an SAC, SPA, MPA and SSSI. Mudflats and pebbly banks have been exposed. There are tiny holes in the mud, hinting at the burrows of crustacea like Corophium and of snails like Hydrobia; coils of muddy sand on the surface betray the U-tubes of lugworms. They, and several species of burrowing molluscs, use the mud as protection from predators like fish and crabs, but many species of the wading birds busy on the shore are specialist probers intent on finding them. Other snails, and worms like ragworms, lurk beneath small rocks and pebbles, but oyster-catchers and gulls know where to look. As the tide floods in, redshank scurry along the water’s edge; flocks of knot flash binary signals of black and white as they wheel and turn, and curlews pace and probe.

These acronym-ed mudflats are home to hundreds of species of invertebrate animals, millions of animals that are adapted to live and feed and breed in a place where the sea covers and exposes them twice a day, and where brackish conditions can change from one day to another, depending on the state of the rivers and the height of the tide. They are tough and adaptable  animals – within limits – and their numbers and life-styles make the Upper Solway mud a rich feeding-ground for resident and migrant wading birds to re-stock their energy levels.

To the South-West of Bowness, trees and scrub hide the landward end of a stub of red sandstone, all that remains of the former railway viaduct that crossed the Firth. Imagine the Upper Solway during the construction of that viaduct, throughout the five years between 1864-69: barges, pile-drivers, the movement of hundreds of tons of sandstone and iron (and sea-borne sediment), the day-after-day clatter and shouting and banging; the fishing and wild-fowling needed to supplement the meals of all those workers; the disruption and disturbance in the Firth and surrounding countryside. Did they worry about ‘the environment’? ‘Conservation’ and ‘biodiversity’ were not part of the everyday vocabulary. That is now an old story, history, and saltmarshes and mudflats line the shore each side of the embankment’s remains.

But here the story of the Upper Solway Flats conservation area interacts with the story of the Solway Mosses SAC: the railway viaduct, of course, required a railway – which was driven across the raised mire of Bowness Common (Moss) from Whitrigg to the Solway coast. Bowness Common is part of the South Solway Mosses SAC (and is also an SSSI and NNR); part of it is also owned and managed by the RSPB as its Campfield Reserve. The line for the railway was excavated through the peat, which was in places nearly 50 feet (15m) deep. This was (eventually – for a while there were some problems with subsidence) good for the railway, but very harmful for the complex hydrological structure of the mire. Then, peat-bogs were ‘wasteland’. Now, we recognise that peat-bogs and raised mires are very important carbon-stores, and we need to restore and re-wet them so that water-retaining sphagnum mosses can re-establish. Natural England and the RSPB have, over recent years, done considerable work in re-wetting the Moss of Bowness Common, including turning parts of the old railway track into ponds and wetland. You can read more of this extraordinary present-day story, of optimism and engineering, here.

So, bump over the cattle-grid at the entrance to Campfield Reserve, have a cup of coffee in the Solway Wetlands Centre, then walk up the track to the hides that variously overlook grazed pastures, wetlands and lakes. Birds of the hedgerows, of woodland, waterbirds and raptors, and waders from the Solway shore, all take advantage of the variety. Carry on past the wood and out onto Bowness Common, onto a glorious wide-open space dominated by heather, mosses, sundew, butterwort and all manner of other bogplants; here be dragonflies – and butterflies, water-beetles and pondskaters, frogs and newts and lizards …

In the autumn and winter, the stories of this RSPB Reserve – and of the Reserves and protected merses across the Firth at Caerlaverock too – turn a page to a new chapter, that tells of the influx of thousands of overwintering barnacle and pinkfooted geese, and whooper swans. They come here, visitors from far-off Iceland, Greenland and Svalbard, to graze on the Upper Solway wetlands and on the other ‘designated’ areas of the Firth – the salt-marshes.

On the Cumbrian side, saltmarshes stretch South along the coast to Anthorn near Whitrigg, their turf jigsaw-ed by muddy creeks. They too are part of the Ramsar, SSSI and AONB stories, and home to mud-loving and saline-tolerant plants and animals. Small samphire plants appear to be caught in freeze-frame as they stride out across the mud, and pink thrift carpets the close-cropped turf between the feet of grazing sheep and cattle. The story of the saltmarshes is never constant, for the marshes are always shape-changing, sequestering or releasing the sediment carried by the tide; they are the intermediary narrators between the land and sea.

Posted in conservation, Marine Conservation Zone, mud-shrimps, peat, bogs and moors, saltmarshes, wetlands | Tagged , | Comments Off on The acronyms’ stories: imagine.

SACs, SPAs, SSSIs on the Solway Firth: Learning to love the acronyms

Think of [the list] as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories.” [1]

Conservation designations: their borders aren’t marked by posts or buoys, but they are marked by lines on maps, and by co-ordinates and words in documents.               

Native and migrant wading birds don’t know about the borders, but they know that this great seascape of changing tides and rich mudflats and saltmarshes is where they want and need to be. Burrowing crustacea, worms and bivalve molluscs, samphire, sea-kale and pink thrift, the millions of microscopic animals and plants and algae that make up the densely-interwoven life of the Solway Firth – their lives depend on the intricacy and uniqueness of their three-dimensional surroundings.

The sea and estuaries and the many types of coastal ‘edge-lands’ that form this large crooked finger of water that reaches deep into the borderlands between Scotland and England, form a ‘soup’ of acronyms. The Firth and its surrounds are protected from human exploitation and ‘re-arrangement’ by layers of statutory – that is, legally-enforceable – conservation designations. You can investigate their virtual boundaries yourself on the interactive maps on MagicMap [2]: I have included screen-shots here (having enquired of MagicMap whether I might do so).

‘Safe areas’ along the Solway 


Magic Map: Ramsar sites

The large, main, protected area that comprises the Upper Solway Flats and Marshes unites the two countries around the coasts and across the water. This is a Ramsar site – designated as important wetlands under The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands,  an inter-governmental, ie international, treaty which ‘provides the framework for national action and international co-operation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.’

Exactly the same area is designated under EU legislation as a European Marine Site (EMS).  This is quite complicated and I quote from the Solway Firth Partnership’s website: “A Special Protection Area (SPA) is a site designated under the Birds Directive. These sites, together with Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), are called Natura sites and they are internationally important for threatened habitats and species. Natura sites form a unique network of protected areas which stretch across Europe [my italics]. The inner Solway Firth … is designated as an SAC and SPA and is collectively known as the Solway Firth European Marine Site. The [separate] Solway Firth SAC designation reflects the importance of the site’s marine and coastal habitats including merse (saltmarsh), mudflats and reefs. The Upper Solway Flats and Marshes SPA designation recognises the large bird populations that these habitats support, particularly in winter.” [3]

MagicMap: SACs (purple) and SPAs (blue)

It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under UK statutory protection, overseen by Natural England & Nature Scot, respectively. So this multi-layered protected space is not trivial.

And note that a proposal to extend the SPA is still under consideration (the decision has of course been delayed, due to the Covid19 outbreak and Brexit negotiations – we might finally hear this summer, 2020).

Potential SPA extension [4]

Although not strictly within the Firth, there are other international Ramsar sites along the adjacent coasts: the inner part of Luce Bay, and the Duddon and Morecambe Estuaries (again, on the basis of being internationally important wetland areas). They – and the coast at Drigg near Sellafield – are also Special Areas of Conservation, SACs, under EU statutes.

(The Solway’s  importance for birds – so many species, both residents and migrants, and in such numbers – is also recognised by the UK charities the Wildlife & Wetlands Trust with their big wetland and coastal reserve at Caerlaverock, and by the RSPB’s coastal and wetland reserves at Campfield and St Bees’ Head.)

MCZs (map from Living Seas NW)

Over the past few years, DEFRA has designated parts of the English and Irish seas and coast as Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). The Cumbrian Coast MCZ stretches along the shore from St Bees’ Head to Ravenglass, and Allonby Bay MCZ pushes out into the Solway, recognised especially for its important honeycomb-worm (Sabellaria) reefs. The Solway Firth MCZ around Rockcliffe Marsh and the mouth of the R Eden is mainly for the protection of sparling (smelt, or cucumber fish) as they migrate upstream to spawn.

MCZs are designated under the UK’s Marine & Coastal Access Act, which in turn was set up in response to the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

Parcels of protection

The sea, estuaries, mudflats and saltmarshes of the Solway Firth have been parcelled, here and there, into places of protection for our ‘natural capital’ – which, in reality, means the vast numbers and species of other residents of our own land- and sea-scape.

But the Solway’s estuaries and coasts are not solely a product of the sea and the mouths of the many rivers that flow into the Firth because they are also influenced strongly, both in geological time and the short-term, by what happens inland.

If we move inshore, a little deeper into the edgelands, we find dunes, then peaty raised mires (the ‘Mosses’) and areas of carr and wetland where water is retained. Many of these places are special, too, for their appearance and ‘feel’, the colours, the smells, and the very different plants and animals and fungi that live there. And luckily for us – and them – many are under statutory protection.

Most of the UK’s remaining raised mires are around the Solway’s upper end, and the three South Solway Mosses – Wedholme Flow, Glasson Moss, Bowness Common – plus Drumburgh Moss, on the English side, are Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) protected by European legislation [4]. So too is Kirkconnell Flow near Dumfries.

Then there are the National Nature Reserves (NNR), protected by UK legislation: on the English side, the South Solway Mosses, Drumburgh Moss, Walton Moss and Thornhill Moss; on the Scottish side Caerlaverock  and Kirkconnell Flow.

We have the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the AONB, 50 km of coastline stretching from Maryport along the dunes and saltmarshes to Rockcliffe, managed in statutory compliance [5] with the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 (CroW) and overseen by the three local councils, and Natural England; the AONB incorporates SSSIs too. 

And there are many SSSIs, both sides of the Firth, along the coast and inshore; they too are under UK statutory protection through the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and CRoW, and managed by Natural England and Nature Scot. Amongst them, I’ve already mentioned the Upper Solway Flats & Marches – but there are also, for example, the SSSIs of the South Solway Mosses, Finglandrigg Wood, Silloth Dunes and Mawbray Banks, Maryport Harbour, St Bees’ Head, Drigg Coast … and on the Scottish side, Kirkconnell Flow, Auchencairn and Orchardtown Bays, Abbeyhead Coast, Brighouse Bay, Wigtown Sands and the Whithorn Coast…

I haven’t yet mentioned the many GeoConservation Sites (formerly known as RIGS), such as exposures of the submerged forest near Beckfoot, and Birkham’s red sandstone quarry above St Bees’; although some of these are SSSIs and therefore under statutory protection, many are not. And I’m not going to consider the few Local Nature Reserves such as Siddick Pond.

Birkham’s Quarry, St Bees. A GeoConservation site

‘Too much information?’

I’ve gathered this information here

firstly to understand how, and to what degree, the Solway Firth and its edgelands are protected from human intervention, whether from carelessness or from major construction projects;

and secondly, to try to dispel my own despair over lists of acronyms by considering what these ‘designated areas’ mean in real-life terms.

Let’s turn again to Richard Fortey: “Think of [the list] as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories.”  He persuades us to think beyond the check-list of  ‘species found’: to pause, and take time to examine the life-habits of those species.

But his suggestion could equally apply to the list of designated conservation areas along the Solway. SAC? Tick. SPA? Tick. SSSI? Tick, tick, tick … What is the reality of these places on the ground?

Some of these ‘acronyms’ stories’ are elsewhere on this blog.

Sheep on a flooded saltmarsh, Grune Point, Moricambe Bay (AONB, SSSI, SAC, SPA, Ramsar)

Designations, legislations

But what if their story-book gets torn, or if a group of people decide the books are merely clutter and should be thrown out?

If you carry out dredging operations on Ramsar mudflats, place gas-gun bird-scarers on an SAC, drag a trawl across the bottom of an MCZ, or set fire to the heather on a SSSI – who has the power to stop you? Will you get a ‘talking-to’ or be taken to court? And if you are to be prosecuted, under which laws, and in which court and where – a local magistrate’s court, a Crown court… The European Court of Justice will soon have no powers of legislation in the UK. At the time of writing this, we’re waiting on the progress of the new Environment Bill which makes provision for a UK Environmental Court.

The answers to any questions regarding legislation are, as you might expect, very complicated (and might lead you on to further questions such as ‘So, who does own the foreshore of the SAC?’ – and the answer to that depends on which foreshore …).

It also depends whether the damage is done by you, as an individual and therefore ‘third party’ (when you might be answerable to, for example, Natural England [6] and petty crimes might be prosecuted in local courts), or whether the damage occurs because one of the statutory organisations – such as the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), Natural England, Nature Scot – have failed to fully protect or manage a designated site. More serious infringements could well require lawyers expensively well-versed in international environmental law.

After looking into this, and asking questions of my friends and contacts in the relevant organisations, I realised this section could stretch to several pages. So, happily, I can point you to the Marine section of the excellent website , ‘Law & the environment, a plain guide to environmental law’

Also, there is a government website solely concerned with legislation. From the page on Marine Strategy regulations you can, if you wish, click on Section 2, Enactments, and can keep following and clicking (here, for example, is how the MMO has power to bring legal proceedings). And so on, and on, until you forget which question you wanted answered, and need to escape to watch videos of ‘dogs doing silly things’ on YouTube.

Instead, it’s often worthwhile to pause and try to imagine what those acronyms stand for in the real world of the Solway Firth and its edgelands – and feel positive about the future.


1. Richard Fortey. (2016) The Wood for the Trees: the long view of nature from a small wood. Collins.

2. MagicMap http://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx

3. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC) directory of designations for protected areas http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-1527

Natural England’s National Character Assessment NCA no 6 The Solway Basin http://nepubprod.appspot.com/publication/5276440824119296 p22 for Landscape & Nature Conservation Designations (on the English side only)

Solway Firth Partnership’s website explains and illustrates some of the Scottish & English designations http://www.solwayfirthpartnership.co.uk/index.php?page=special-places

4. Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s (JNCC) detailed explanations about characteristics and statutory provisions for raised mires in general http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/protectedsites/sacselection/habitat.asp?FeatureIntCode=H7110

and for the South Solway Mosses http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/protectedsites/sacselection/sac.asp?EUcode=UK0030310

5. The legal framework for AONBs http://www.landscapesforlife.org.uk/aonb-legal-framework.html  

6. Enforcement by Natural England of SSSI policy http://www.sssi.naturalengland.org.uk/Special/sssi/images/EnforcementPolicyNotice.pdf

Posted in conservation, Marine Conservation Zone, mudflats, peat, bogs and moors, saltmarshes, wetlands | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on SACs, SPAs, SSSIs on the Solway Firth: Learning to love the acronyms


Look what I’ve found!”
“Look at that!”
“What’s this?

We do it automatically, hold out the treasure on our hand.

For about 10 years I’ve been taking pictures of what people have found when they joined me for low-tide guided walks on the Solway shore, and it became an interesting and often amusing record of our wanderings. The hands’ owners are unseen in the photos, but the hands themselves are often eloquent about the owner and his or her surroundings. Wedding rings, gloves, nail varnish, or sandy fingers; whether the objects are held lovingly, or with wonder, or with an air of squeamishness … (Quite a few of the hands belong to young people from Settlebeck School, Sedbergh; the Head of Science, Stephen Burrowes and I took them to the Allonby shore a couple of times back in 2005.)

On the tidelines

On the shore

In the pools

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A Solway small-holding

Yesterday I stood leaning on the pitchfork by the glowing ash-pile, just looking around at the trees and the hedges and our sheep. Two weeks ago, on a blue, still morning, there had been a sound like a gun-shot from our wood and the rooks all leapt into the air, shrieking and shouting. My husband went out to remonstrate with (presumably) someone who was shooting into the rookery – and found an enormous branch had cracked off from one of the Scots pines. Luckily no human or other creature was hurt, although some of the smaller trees had been hit. Hence the bonfire out in the field, to burn the brash (the sap-sticky logs have already been sawn and split, and will dry out for at least a year before being used on the wood-burner.)

We run a small-holding of about 2 hectares, in NW Cumbria and looking across to the Solway Firth: woodland, hedges, vegetable and flower garden, pasture for the 6 Hebridean sheep, and a beck which rises from a spring just outside our land and runs through the pond that we created. Our small wood is at least 160 years old, presumably having been planted at the time our Victorian house was built, and has a mixture of native and non-native trees, including a very tall and increasingly straggly redwood, its trunk pitted with woodpeckered holes (where, my birder brother-in-law assures me, wrens might huddle together in the winter).

The previous owner (and the original Victorian owners – they had carriages not cars) kept horses, and the pasture-land had become rank and full of docks; a narrow strip alongside the wood was damp and dull.

After we moved in eighteen years ago we, and two kind and energetic friends, planted many more native trees – including alders, hornbeam, willow, birch, oak, Scots pine, guelder rose, hazel – singly and as a copse, and thickets of hawthorn, blackthorn and wild rose, in an attempt to make the local woodland and garden birds feel more at home, and migrant warblers and other birds to stay.

Some years later chiffchaffs came, and a pair of blackcaps; there are 2 pairs of breeding nuthatches now, a tree-creeper, and Great-spotted woodpeckers, amongst others. We also planted a windbreak in the field, of suckers from the wild cherries, and a mix of other trees and shrubby bushes – all fenced to keep out the sheep, who always enjoy a bit of novelty in their diet.

But a couple of years ago, there was a threat that a limestone quarry might open at the top of the hill behind the house, creating dust and noise and destroying some old woodland in the process; United Utilities had started mutilating West Cumbria in the construction of a new water pipleine for West Cumbria (hundreds of tonnes of concrete are being poured into a new reservoir on the other side of the hill as I write) – and my despair at the effect that this would be having on the wildlife surrounding our village kept growing.

So, last year, we sold 4 of our 10 sheep – the Herdwick ewes, since they were in good condition for breeding – and  planted up a third of a hectare of pasture with native trees. But it was the year of the Beast from the East, which was followed not long after by – unheard of for this area! – six weeks of drought. I don’t like tubular tree-guards, and we’ll remove them when each tree is sufficiently tall and robust to look after itself, but the tubes ensured a warmer, damper micro-climate around each sapling. By scooping water from the dribbling slimy beck with a bowl and into buckets, we managed to keep the trees wet enough in the drought so that we only lost about 8 percent. The survivors are already looking good this Spring, and we recently – with the ‘help’ of our grand-children – planted hawthorn slips to make a hedge along one side.

We’ve learnt a lot about managing woodland during our time here: when to trim branches so that light can reach the smaller species or the wild violets and cowslips; when and what to plant. We pollarded a big old ash by the pond, partly because it had a crack between two branches, but also because it was throwing so much shade that there was no chance that dragonflies would stay.

I managed to persuade my husband that the grass in the wooded areas doesn’t need to be cut like a lawn! At the moment the floor of the old wood is a white froth of cow-parsley, mixed with the deep purple of self-seeded Honesty and a jumble of pink- and white- and blue-bells, all of which are now the ‘Spanish’ type (although I’m sure they were ‘English’ when we first moved in). This has been a good year for celandine and dandelions – and also for cuckoo-pint, whose pale sheaths and glossy leaves have proliferated in every shady patch. Earlier, there was a carpet of snowdrops, followed by daffs – both species seem to proliferate naturally as well as with some help from us (splitting and re-planting clumps when they’re ‘in the green’).

The newest woodland was planted on a pasture which has for decades been fertilised by horse- then sheep-droppings, and kept well-grazed. A range of grasses grew up last year amongst the saplings, plus chickweed, creeping and meadow buttercup, and some milkweed. We had to cut the grass at the end of the summer and remove the cuttings – this was during the hot dry weather when the flies swarmed and I spent the time whining, raking and sweating – but already this year we’re seeing many more milkweed growing and I’m hoping the grey furry-leaved mulleins and foxgloves that I retrieved from inappropriate places elsewhere (the gravel path, the veg garden) will flourish in their new sites.

The pond has evolved with time. When you think of the Lake District you think of volcanic rocks and slate, but that massif is fringed with limestone – and our village sits at the base of a low plateau, where the rain gathers in sink-holes and flows into aquifers, eventually emerging as springs where the limestone meets the harder rock. Our beck is surprisingly ‘flashy’ during heavy rain in winter – very soon the percolating water explodes out of the ground and flushes silt from the field behind us into the pond; then still rising, spreads out onto the mini-floodplain of our field, before finding its way back into the water-course again.  The volume and speed of the water that comes down is spectacular.

But that hasn’t happened this winter, and there has been very little heavy rain for weeks. Last week shingle banks were showing in the River Derwent in both Cockermouth and Keswick (seeing the water so low, it’s hard to believe how high the river rose during the floods of 2009 and 2017, over-topping the defences) and already our pond is so low that it is fringed with mudbanks, and much of the weed is no longer floating but resting, humped, upon the mud. I don’t know how the tadpoles and caddis-fly larvae, the whirligig beetles and various snails are faring – they are scarcely to be seen, presumably finding refuge amongst the water-forget-me-not and watercress and mint; even the base of the reed-bed looks dry and the reeds themselves are not growing as fast as usual for this time of year.

Perhaps there are no longer tadpoles anyway; for several mornings it was apparent that something had been rooting in the water-forget-me-not, patches of which were left floating, roots pointing to the sky. Our trail-camera picked up a male mallard arriving in the dark and leaving at dawn: mystery solved (but see note below, three weeks later). One year a female mallard made her nest on the small island in the pond but it wasn’t a wise move to nest within site of a wood that is so aurally and visibly beloved of corvids – there are about 40 rook and several jackdaw nests, and there is a crows’ nest at the top of the field – and of course the constantly vigilant magpies patrol the hedgerows. The duck eggs didn’t last long.

Last year the introduction of more light to the pond paid off, because it was finally visited by a large yellow-and-black hawker dragonfly and several red-bodied damselflies. But there’s not a chance that they’ll come to stay this year unless the water level rises – and now, in this period of lush growth, the vegetation upstream on the plateau will soak up any rain that falls.

As I stood beside the ashes of the bonfire, which occasional flurries of wind sparked into life, I was trying to remember all the birds and animals that have visited since we have been living here, and I hope that what we have been doing – in the wood, the pond, the fields and hedges and the garden itself – has helped to make them feel welcome and at home. Hedgehogs have bred; an otter visited when the frogs were mating (betrayed only by its pawmarks); bank voles burrow everywhere and a red squirrel visited (but we must have been found wanting because it left after three days). There are pipistrelles, on whom I eaves-drop with the bat-detector, and frogs and toads.

As for birds: 3 species of tit live here and long-tailed tits visit; chaffinches, greenfinches (fewer these days), goldfinches, and recently a pair of bullfinches; the usuals like robins, (lots of) blackbirds; dunnocks; goldcrested wrens and (never-ordinary) wrens; a pair of song-thrushes, and a pair of mistles; the tree-creeper(s), nuthatches, house- and tree-sparrows; the corvids; the Great-Spot… A sparrowhawk hunts frequently through the garden, sometimes sitting on the sandstone gatepost by the kitchen window, glaring around with glittering yellow eyes; a collared dove provides the occasional good meal, but the wood-pigeons are too heavy for him to take on. Last year a buzzard learnt to snatch rooklings from their nests and, dropping down through the trees, tore at their flesh and feathers on the floor of the wood. In the cold spells, siskins and bramblings cluster round the feeders.

And then there is the song of the chiffchaff and the blackcap, and the twittering of the swallows and house-martins, the night- and dawn-calling of the tawny owls …

Except there isn’t. This year, as last, a chiffchaff returned and made me briefly, almost deliriously happy; but he left despite my daily exhortations to stay – presumably no mate came to keep him company. The barn owl hasn’t been seen for at least two years; the work on the water-pipeline seems to have scared the hares away; the local tawnies haven’t been heard for at least 8 months; only 4 swallows have (finally – 3 weeks late) returned, of which only one pair is probably ‘ours’ and will nest in the hayloft; so far I have seen only one house-martin. The heron that used to visit hasn’t been seen since last summer. The hedgehogs began to shuffle around in day-time last year, and were later found dead – a sure sign they had succumbed to some infection. Spotted fly-catchers nested in the Clematis montana for a few years when we first arrived, but they didn’t return one summer and I have never seen one again.

It is so easy to become upset and depressed at what we have lost and are losing, and some days it is very hard to be positive, especially in the face of such global losses and anthropocene-induced extinctions. But then I make myself stop and watch and listen, and make a tally of what we do have; think what we – perhaps – have managed to accomplish, in looking after our ‘neighbours’ and making them feel that our land is, actually, theirs too. And I have to hold on to those thoughts, and rejoice in the sound of even that single pair of swallows, chattering to each other excitedly as they swoop around the barn and yard, as they come back home for the summer.

Update, May 29th 2019.


Yesterday a female mallard and nine ducklings swam and scuttled down what remains of the beck. That male mallard flying in after dark must have been coming ‘home’ to visit her – somewhere near the pond she had, after all, had a nest. What a brave little female – and what a triumph to have kept that nest and eggs so well hidden.

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Tidal Power proposals on the Solway: an update

Out on the Firth

When I first blogged about this topic, back in October 2015, I explained why the Solway Firth is being considered as a suitable estuary for the construction of tidal power schemes, and the basic ideas and technology behind the schemes. Please do read that post first, if you have time, as the background of the companies – and the people involved – also provide good stories.

This post is a short, factual update – two of the original players have (probably) departed, and one (or two?) new players have entered the pool. The B-word has, of course, played havoc with decision-making, and as a result, with financial backing.

Barrages and weirs

  1. North-West Energy Squared.

A system of barrages (sorry – ‘gateways’) across estuaries in the NW of England, including across the Solway Firth from Workington to Kirkcudbright; read the earlier blogpost for details of the plan, and the CEO’s comments.

NWE2’s uninformative website no longer exists, though the company is still listed and took on 2 new directors in September 2018.

Note: ‘barrage’ is now a dirty word in the context of estuarine power generation – it’s considered an outdated and disruptive technology, very expensive to construct, with too many problems relating to environmental changes and remediation.

 2. Solway Energy Gateway

The idea of an ‘electric bridge’, proposed by Nigel Catterson, across the Firth between Bowness and Annan, along what has been called a ‘brownfield site’ (Arup) – the line of former Solway viaduct.

This would be a ‘weir’, fixed to the sea-bed and with 6m vanes which can be raised or lowered, creating a difference in head (see my earlier post for an explanation); the vanes could be dropped flat at slack tide. Power would be generated via Venturi turbines .

SEG also plans also to construct a foot- and/or cycle-bridge across the Firth – this idea has met with considerable enthusiasm in public consultations on the Scottish side. Nigel Catterson is working with Scottish councils. It has also been suggested that the scheme could contribute to flood defences of Carlisle.

Note: The bidirectional turbine technology is as yet untried in sediment-laden fast-flowing tides. At lowest Spring tides, there small amount of water in the channel is mainly from Rivers Esk & Eden – though the ‘weir’ would hold back water (salt and fresh) to create a head of pressure.


Russell lagoons are U-shaped, joined at each end to the coast

Ullman offshore lagoons are circular (‘doughnuts’), free-standing in the estuary

  1. Tidal Lagoon Power

TLP’s original proposal was for 6 Russell  lagoons – Wales (Swansea, Cardiff, Newport, Colwyn), Bridgewater Bay, and the Solway (Workington-Dubmill Point).

All emphasis has been on Swansea, the smallest:  Charles Hendry, in his January 2017 review of tidal power for the government, strongly recommended the Swansea project should be funded and built as a ‘pathfinder’ – ie allowed to run for 5 years, with its financial viability and its effect on the environment being monitored, before decisions were made about further schemes.

Despite the Environmental Impact Assessment having been carried out, and the supply-chain companies being on board, the Westminster government continually dithered about granting approval or approving the Contract for Difference price. In June 2018, Minister Greg Clarke stated the project would be too expensive, and would not give value for money, and so the government would not back the scheme.

The Welsh government is still keen to support the Swansea scheme and other players – financial and constructual – have come forward (December 2018). And TLP announced this month (February 2019) that it plans to go ahead without government backing, by signing Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) with other companies. TLP also has a new plan, to float solar panels in the lagoon, increasing power output by an estimated one-third.  As reported by the Guardian‘s energy correspondent Adam Vaughan, ‘The plan is to secure enough signed PPAs by the end of the year to enable a final investment decision in early 2020, with construction starting shortly afterwards. If that timetable were met, the project would be generating power in 2024 or 2025.’

But whether or not the Swansea lagoon will ever be built is still far from clear.

Tidal Electric (see below) submitted a response to the Hendry report, in favour of their own offshore lagoons

Note: Should Swansea ever go ahead, and be deemed successful as a ‘pathfinder’, Tidal Lagoon Power would then most probably focus attention on building another Welsh lagoon, eg Cardiff Bay.

TLP’s Solway project is now unlikely.


A new suggestion since my 2015 blogpost: a Russell Lagoon.

These notes are from my conversations with Michael Osborne, Director, ARUP, Whitehaven. October 2018 and February 2019.

The wall of the proposed coastal tidal lagoon could be 18km (12 miles) long from just North of Maryport to Mawbray, effectively around the outside of the Allonby Bay Marine Conservation Zone.

The emphasis would be on local sourcing of rock materials. Ideas include: the bund core of waste slate from a quarry near Askam in Furness; outer rock armour – slate blocks or granite blocks from Askam in Furness or Kirkmabreck quarry near Creetown; inner rock armour might be red sandstone possibly from a quarry near Maryport – sandstone is more easily colonised by algae and marine animals. The water off Allonby Bay is fairly shallow so the wall would not need to be too large, but the deeper channel just NW of Maryport could be where the bi-directional turbines are sited.  The grid connection would be inshore of Maryport. .

Michael Osborne recognises the importance of the Allonby Bay Marine Conservation Zone. ‘It includes the sea-bed, and we must respect that – otherwise what would be the point of the designation?’

Note: this coastal lagoon option leaves Maryport harbour entrance and the mouth of the River Ellen open (unlike the Tidal Lagoon Power scheme); goes outside Allonby Bay MCZ; and the scheme could reduce the current rate of coastal erosion. This concept of a coastal tidal lagoon has been raised through the Maryport Delivery Plan.

This proposal currently has no financial backers. Michael Osborne thinks that the way forward for tidal power in general is for the government to support renewable energy schemes, including tidal, as a matter of policy. Regardless of policy tidal energy projects should be competitive with other energy sources.

The Labour Party have indicated an interest in renewables including wind, tidal and wave power.

3. Tidal Electric Consortium

A new suggestion since my 2015 blogpost: an Ullman lagoon (CEO of Tidal Electric is California-based Peter Ullman.)

Dr Amir Eilon (the sole Director of Ullman Offshore Lagoon; the rest of Tidal Electric’s Board are based in the US or Switzerland) has given two presentations to the Solway Firth Partnership in Dumfries, the most recent in association with syndicate members from Ecotricity and DEME (Dredging Environmental & Marine Engineering; Belgium)

Eilon has previously also discussed ideas for a Russell lagoon in the Solway (see ARUP, above).

This second presentation in December 2018 focussed only on the proposed Ullman lagoon – either off Hesten Island (D&G) or off Allonby Bay MCZ; the power generated would be onshore-d to Cumbria, where the existing grid has capacity.

The circular wall, 16km in perimeter, would be constructed of geotubes covered by locally-sourced external rock armour, with sluice gates and turbines in a block. The plan is for 55 turbines, producing 388 MW; the estimated cost of approximately £710m depends on rock source/price, turbine price etc – in other words, on several currently known unknowns.

Ovals indicate possible lagoon sites in the Firth (from Tidal Electric’s presentation slide)

As for siting, if the lagoon is constructed in 10m depth of water, fewer and bigger turbines are required; if in shallower water, for example 5m, 100-150 smaller turbines might be necessary. From the geological point of view, the English side is better, because of the sandstone bedrock, but it is also more exposed (and next to the Allonby Bay MCZ); on the Scottish side near Heston Island, the sea-bed is more pitted but is more sheltered.

Since the lagoon is not connected to the coast, there is no access other than by boat (‘We don’t do tourism’), so there would be no H&S constraints with regard to visiting tourists. The wall would therefore be cheaper to build, have a much lower profile and therefore much less visual impact than the wall of a Russell lagoon.

Note: The syndicate will not commit to further work on the project unless they receive assurances that the government is willing to support tidal power generation. Eilon was supposedly meeting with the UK government’s Energy Minister in January 2019, but that meeting has now been postponed until March. Interestingly, Tidal Electric’s website now refers to this as a ‘Scotland’ project, (rather than a Solway project, as previously): make of that what you will!

A general point about timescales

Even if a lagoon, of either sort, should be given approval tomorrow – the time to power generation is in the region of about 7-8 years.

Scoping, modelling, working out risk mitigation, gaining the necessary permissions, public consultations, planning applications, agreeing Contract for Difference price with the government and so on would take 3-4 years.

The actual construction phase – requiring movements of large amounts of material by land, rail and sea; dredging; cable-laying; building the walls and turbine housing; building onshore works and offices; environmental remediation etc – would take a further 3-4 years.

And my personal view

It is such a startlingly obvious idea, to capture the mighty energy of the seas that surround our islands – the waves, the predictable tidal flows – and to convert this into the electrical power that we will increasingly need (imagine all those electric cars). The technologies and designs are challenging – for unstartlingly obvious reasons – but are exciting and always advancing.

Until fairly recently I believed that nuclear power should also be part of the portfolio, partly because West Cumbria already has such a concentration of nuclear expertise, and the influx of jobs and the continuing necessary financial support would be vital for the area’s economy: but my opinion has changed (as has, it seems, the government’s, although for different reasons – the new nuclear build proposed for the Moorhouse site has been cancelled).

Wind, water and sunshine could together provide a smoothed-out supply of energy for our use. But we also need the technology to store the electricity and release at peak demand; we need large-scale technology to split water to release hydrogen, which can be burnt – cleanly – to generate power.

All this is possible, even though as a country we are coming to it much too tardily and with only a fragmentary long-term plan. We should be concentrating our research and resources on adding tidal and wave power to our portfolio. More than ever we need to stop using fossil fuels to provide energy. The current extremes in climate breakdown hint that we may already be too late.

So: power must be generated where there are ‘big tides’.

But in the Solway Firth?

I swither.

The Solway is so ‘unspoilt’ by humans, and most of the changes that occur are natural, the result of interactions between storms and tides and rivers.

So I hate the thought of the years’-long, major, disruptions to the Firth of constructing the lagoons: the noise, both air-borne and water-borne; the traffic on land and sea; the dumping of rocks; the hauling of cement; and around it all, the swirling sediment.

I swither again. I remember how the Solway’s margins – the mudflats and the saltmarshes – have changed over thousands of years, and I think that the Firth and its non-human inhabitants will, eventually, adapt.

And yet … This ‘intervention’ would be so dramatic, a mere eye-blink in geological and evolutionary terms, that it would require the Solway’s creatures – the salmonids that pass through to breed, the fish that browse on the sea-bed, the micro-organisms and invertebrate animals that live on or in the mud and sand and rocks, the algae and saltmarsh plants – to survive and feed and breed despite ‘the storm’.

Already the numbers of so many of the creatures and plants with whom we share this space have plummeted. For many more, in this precious and protected finger of the sea, this disruption could be the final straw.

NIMBY-ism? No: it’s not my backyard, is it? It’s their’s.

I cannot swither any more.

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