The secrets of saltmarsh stints (The Solway saltmarshes 3)

The saltmarshes of Skinburness & Calvo, Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats and Burgh on the Upper Solway are divided into stints. The stints are privately owned but unfenced, and so the marshes are ‘shared grazing’ – the letting of which is auctioned annually. It sounded simple, but after I’d met Eileen Bell (*), Secretary of the Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats Marsh Committee, I realised I’d been naive.

google earth & captions

modified from Google Earth

That day, I drove along the edge of the Firth under an orange-yellow sky, its dusty light louring over the flatlands (**); the red ball of the sun showed fleetingly through the hurrying clouds. But the forecast rain hadn’t appeared, and when I reach Eileen’s house she at once suggests we get booted up and go out onto the Marsh.

We head West in the Land Rover through the village, and down a lonnin past the barns and red sandstone of Orchard House (“That’s where I was born and brought up”), past  another farm by a large pond where mallard and a moorhen scull undisturbed. That farm was hers and her husband Willie’s, but they have handed it over to their younger son, Edward; their other son, Richard, has the farm across the road. Eileen’s family have lived in this area for three generations; she tells me her paternal grandfather “worked tirelessly for the Marsh”.

We park by a gate that leads onto the Marsh. The entrance has clearly been a favourite gathering-ground for cattle, as it is poached by their hooves to a slurry of ankle-deep mud. Clinging onto the fence we teeter round the edge and onto the close-cropped turf. The Firth is barely visible, a distant sliver of silver.

The Marsh is bordered by the River Waver and the River Wampool where they open into Moricambe (or ‘Hudson’) Bay, and its extent is much greater than I had previously imagined. There is no sign here of the creeks that carve deep muddy fractals through the outer edges.

Eileen explains that the Marsh is actually made up of three separate parts, Saltcoats, Middle and Wylie. Although well-grazed, the landscape is not monochrome, but a palette of greens and ochres. “You see over there,” she points, “it’s different from this top part. The green colour changes, it’s a different sward, a paler green – that’s because it’s more tidal, the big tides cover it.”

By the gorse-covered raised ground at the top of the Marsh there are large tree-trunks that have been carried in by the overtopping tides.

newton arlosh oct17 (1)

New fencing on Saltcoats Marsh

Further along we come to a new fence – actually a trio of fences in close parallel lines – that heads out towards the Firth. The inner fence is higher and looks more robust, and Eileen tells me that it’s made of high-tensile wire, while the flanking fences are of barbed wire. It’s not just to keep the cattle separate, but to stop them coming into physical contact, a measure supposedly to stop the spread of TB (TB, apparently originating in imported Irish cattle some years ago, is now present in parts of Cumbria.)

The Marsh is a SSSI and qualifies for Higher Level Stewardship payments, which have helped towards the cost of the fencing. The whole marsh is fenced, even at the water’s edge. “Burgh [Marsh] isn’t fenced – but it’s all fenced here, so the cattle are less often mired.”

That’s important. Eileen says she can remember her father having to dig cattle out of the creeks with ropes and spades. “Before it was fenced, cattle would get out onto the sand at the Wampool. I’ve crossed the Wampool to Anthorn! The cattle were out on the sands, one night after supper, and we had to go down and get them. We herded them to the other side, and then we had to get permission to put them in a farmer’s field that side. And then we had to go back with a wagon in the morning and get them.”

The Bells breed pedigree Friesian cattle, and Eileen and her husband Willie were founder members of the British Friesian Breeders’ Club. As we drive round to our next stopping-point, we talk about the impact of the 2001 epidemic of Foot-and-Mouth Disease. Even now, Eileen clearly finds it a very difficult topic. “We’d built up the herd over forty years,” she says. “They all had to be killed, two-to-three hundred animals. I remember Willie bringing the bull – he was a big bull and no-one else wanted to do it – out of his pen to be shot, I think that’s when Willie lost heart… But we had some semen stored. And then other members [of the Friesian Breeders’ Club] started getting in touch when they heard what had happened. We were offered brilliant stock – it brought a lump to your throat to think they’d give you such stock.”

She goes quiet for a while, then we turn down another lonnin and arrive at a field where there is a cattle-crush and large metal cattle-pens, built a couple of years ago.

newton arlosh oct17 (9)

Cattle-crush and pens

Now, in October, the cattle are due to be brought off the Marsh and, as she points out, “You’ve got to have somewhere you can bring the cattle in”, so they can be sorted and dispersed. Some will be sold, some will be used for breeding, some will be fattened: the Bells’ heifers will go off to be served by their pedigree bull.

During the winter months the grass is kept down by geese – barnacle geese, over-wintering from Svalbard and Greenland, often come over from the WWT’s reserve at Caerlaverock on the Scottish side of the Solway to graze. “And if the grass doesn’t look good they’ll come into the barley fields – and I usually let the farmer know so he can chase them off!”

Our next stop is on the edge of Middle Marsh, nearer to the village. Young steers come galloping across a field to snort and snuffle by the gate, perhaps hoping that our Land Rover, with sacks in the back, means food. We squelch down a track between two hedges, one trimmed to almost suburban neatness, the other rich with red, wizened haws and deep-purple sloes as large as damsons. A heron extends his neck and lumbers into the air.

Again, the Firth seems far-distant and scattered cattle are indistinct specks. There is no sound other than the faint hissing of wind in the grass. Eileen tells me how she has always loved being out on the Marsh, by herself and with the children; her face lights up as she points out several hundred starlings, previously hidden, which have lifted off the grass and now perform a small murmurration before settling again. And now, too, the yellow-orange sky suddenly clears, and the sun is warm on our faces: colours brighten and the Marsh seems more alive.

Picking our way back to the lonnin we pass large circular water-troughs by the gate, and though the grass is now wet enough that the cattle don’t need to drink, nevertheless the ground has been churned to sloppy mud, through which a quad bike and a very muddy border collie are splashing towards us.

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The Herd heads out on his quad bike

Eileen introduces Steven, the Marsh Herd – he tells her that he’s decided to move the cattle off a couple of days early because big tides and high winds are due (ex-hurricane Ophelia is blasting in towards the West). Eileen tells me later that Steven “is brilliant, absolutely brilliant. He’s disabled, but he knows the cattle, he learns who they belong to.” The Marsh Committee pay the Herd and “He does everyone’s cattle. And if he has a problem he shouts for help.”

Later, from Eileen’s house, where we are having tea with scones and bramble jelly, we can see the distant cattle starting to move westward in a line. I can just make out the quad bike chivvying them, darting round them like a border collie. One beast with divided loyalties breaks away and heads back towards a group that hasn’t yet started to move; Steven circles and sets them moving, galloping after the others. “He’ll be moving them to the pens I showed you. There’s a big ditch down the middle of the marsh, but there’s a bridge, and they’ll know where to go, they’ve been out there since May.”

The owners of the Marsh’s stints meet once a year, and decide who will be on the Committee. At present, Eileen is Secretary (“I like it, I get to meet all the people. I was thinking the other day, I might just carry on until I’m eighty – if no-one else wants to do it!”), Willie is Chair, and their son Richard and two others make up the other members.  Eileen says, “I first got involved when I was about nine! I was given the balance sheet to type out. We did it with carbon paper in those days. Mum would do a lot of the writing” – she shows me a book filled with neatly written notes – “and my sister was Secretary in 1974.”

The area of the Newton Arlosh saltmarshes is 440 hectares (about 1100 acres). So, what size is a stint?

‘Carrying capacity’

I now discover that a stint isn’t a set area. And the measure depends on the grazing offered. “One stint can be let as a ‘stint-and-a-half’ because of the abundance of grass.” Eileen laughs and shakes her head at my expression. “So if I have three stints, I let them as four-and-a-half. But it’s a temporary measure, it depends on the grass.’

In other words, as  Winchester and Straughton explain in their interesting paper on ‘Stints and sustainability’, stinting refers to the ‘carrying capacity … a notion of the total number of animals that should be allowed to graze there.’ Further, ‘once calculated, the total number of animals which could be supported would be apportioned between those having a right to graze.’

Knowing the ‘carrying capacity’, the number of species and livestock that can be grazed on each stint can be varied depending on circumstances (such as the abundance of the grazing).

On Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats, two cattle are permitted per stint. They must be heifers or bullocks – cows in calf are not permitted not only because of the danger of contagious abortion, but also because it would be difficult and time-consuming to deal with an awkward calving out on the Marsh. Eileen checks her book, and tells me that this year the available stints have been let to 12 farmers, with from six to 63 head of cattle. No sheep are permitted on the Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats Marsh.

The Marsh Committee of Skinburness & Calvo Marsh, in contrast, allocates either one head of cattle, or two ewes and four lambs, or four geld sheep per stint (and after August 1st, this changes to four sheep or four lambs per stint).

sheep, skiddaw and saltmarsh at grune

Sheep on Skinburness & Calvo Marsh at high tide

At Burgh Marsh, the grazing is not as good, so the allocation is only one head of cattle to a stint – although in 1794 William Hutchinson stated that it was

burgh marsh from hamilton

(from The History of the County of Cumberland, by William Hutchinson, 1794)

There was a time when the Solway salt-marshes were extensively used for over-wintering Fell sheep and ‘saltmarsh lamb’ was much valued, and the rent would pay the Marsh Herd’s wages, but this seems to have all but died out.

For all these Marshes, the stints are auctioned annually on an evening in late March, and this year’s ‘stinting day’, when animals may be brought graze, was May 1st or 2nd. Animals must be gathered in from across the Marshes and removed, with the help of the Herd, in mid-October. But since these saltmarsh graziers are dealing also with the Solway Firth, those start and finish dates are dependent also on the tides and weather. Ultimately, the Firth is in charge.

“I’d rather not disclose.”

Eileen smiles to take the edge off her refusal. I’d asked how many stints there were on Newton Arlosh & Saltcoats Marsh. When I probe a little more, it seems that the availability of stints affects the price, so the numbers are not disclosed even at the auction! “One time the prices got really high, but they’ve settled back down now,” she told me. Certainly, back in 2011, the rent rose to as much as £110 per two-cattle stint on Newton Arlosh; it seemed that word had got around that cattle did well there because the grass was rich so no expensive fertiliser was needed (as might be the case on inland pastures) and the salty grass reduced the likelihood of infection by parasitic worms.

hope's catalogue2017

Hopes of Wigton are the auctioneers, and I asked Betty Graham, an acquaintance of mine who works there, if she could explain the secrecy about the number of stints for auction.

She laughed, and told me, “It’s a strange rule! We’re never allowed to tell anyone on the night how many stints we’re auctioning. We can give little hints, like ‘not many left’, or ‘we’re down to the last few’ … On Newton Arlosh, we auction them in lots of ten, it’s twenties on Skinburness & Calvo…”

Moreover, the number of stints to auction changes every year. “It depends. Some owners” – like Richard Bell – “graze  their own, but others let them. Some of the stints have been passed down for generations. A lot of the owners are, shall we say, senior citizens, but there are some younger ones too. The number is set by the separate Marsh Committees. We don’t know until the night!”

hope's catalogue2 edited2

from Hopes’ 2017 catalogue


*Eileen Bell was a contributor to the ‘Remembering the Solway’ oral history project; the recording of her memories will be deposited in the Carlisle Archives

** This NASA visualisation shows how Hurricane Ophelia picked up Sahara dust and smoke from the Portuguese wildfires and spun it up over Britain and the Solway



Posted in coastal history, Foot-and-Mouth epidemic, saltmarshes, wetlands | Tagged , ,

The Solway saltmarshes 2: Rockcliffe Marsh

“The marsh is not set in the way that the English landscape is set.”

Two lines of hoofprints, large and small, dropped down from the saltmarsh and meandered across the firm sand towards the low-tide mark, then looped back landwards. The heifers were no longer in sight; indeed only a few of the several hundred head of cattle out on the Marsh were visible, as black- or brown-and-white specks, so vast is Rockcliffe Marsh.

Wind hissed across the drying sand of the empty foreshore; an oystercatcher trilled; a heron called harshly, once, as it flapped heavily across the estuary to Scotland.

Rockcliffe Marsh is surrounded on three sides by water: it dominates the head of the Solway Firth, bounded by the River Eden on the South and a loop of the River Esk on the North.  Like all salt-marshes, it is low-lying land, jig-sawed by muddy creeks.

‘I got cut off by the tide one time,’ Imogen Rutter tells me. ‘I’d been on a transect right to the other end of the Gullery, near the pioneer marsh, and I realised the tide was coming in. I had to wade through knee-deep water to get back! It’s quite scary, the speed the water comes in, really impressive.’

Imogen Rutter was Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s (CWT) Summer Warden for 2017, employed to monitor the numbers and species of breeding birds on the Marsh. She was my guide on a quiet but overcast May morning, and we walked out along the high bank that was built to protect the landward side, then dropped down onto the Marsh.

Within a half-hour we were far out amongst the cropped turf and creeks. It would be easy to lose one’s bearings, without the distant bank to orientate oneself. There are other markers too, less easy to see on the Marsh’s slightly undulating surface: wooden posts mark the few bridges across creeks, and a dotted line of white posts marks the route for wildfowlers, where they may cross the Marsh but may not shoot. By one of the bridges, we found the scattered remnants of a gull. We poked around looking for the leg-ring and found it on a dismembered bright-orange leg: it had been ringed in Norway at Skagerrak Museum, and had died here on the border between Scotland and England.

The growing marsh

Maps drawn three hundred years ago show that Rockcliffe Marsh was little more than a small outgrowth of the border between Scotland and England. Since then it has grown and grown, extending out into the Firth between the main river channels.

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(Aglionby’s 1590 and Crawford’s 1832 maps from Annals of the Solway)

It is one of the largest saltmarshes in Britain, at about 1100 hectares, but its margins are constantly changing through accretion and erosion; one year it grew by 26 hectares. This, and the fact that it is farmed as well as (or despite) having multiple layers of protected status, makes it an intriguing and special place.

The Marsh and its considerable foreshore are owned by Castletown Estate, and when I contacted the owner, Giles Mounsey-Heysham, in mid-July, he immediately suggested we meet and he would tell me more about it. As we chatted, we looked at photos and plans, and at maps spread out on the table in the estate office. Measurements of the Marsh’s perimeter have been made since 2001, using GPS and a quad bike; more recently  the Environment Agency’s high-resolution LIDAR maps of elevations across the Marsh are being used to inform work on water-retention.


LIDAR map; loops of  Esk & Eden north & south of the marsh. Arrow shows embankment

Giles took over running the estate when he was twenty-one, due to the early death of his father; he will retire and hand over the management to his son in 2019, and in the past fifty years or so the use and management of the Marsh has undergone many changes. Since the late 1990s it has been managed both to preserve its importance as a saltmarsh and for grazing stock. Giles’ enthusiasm for the Marsh is obvious and he was very keen to take me out and show me its many facets.

So, two days later, wearing waterproofs and a helmet, I was given a ‘tutorial’ on driving a quad and then left to practise in a field while he courteously retreated to the office. I was very relieved when (clearly having observed my timidity through the window) he suggested I ride on the back of his quad instead. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve sat on a board on the back of a quad, travelling over very uneven ground on the margins of the Solway, so I knew what I was letting myself in for! But it was well worth the couple of hours of discomfort (and occasional rapid elevation) to travel across and around the margins of the Marsh.

We stopped briefly to watch two haaf-netters standing in the shallows in the mouth of the River Eden, then drove beyond the embankment and onto the saltmarsh. Although many of the creeks are small or dry, all have names.

Scanned map

We made a large looping diversion to avoid the wide inlet of Stony and Yellow Creeks, and later at Near Gulf, Giles told me to climb off and wait while he drove the quad down the muddy bank, into water that churned black under the wheels, and up the glossy brown incline on the opposite side.

A crossing was possible – he returned to collect me. Judging by the sheets of spray, the trick is to drive fast through the water. He had been telling me stories of guests who had become stuck in creeks, and he laughed (kindly) when I said that that if I’d been driving my own quad I would definitely have been left whimpering in the mud. ‘We don’t get cross when people get the quads or the pick-up stuck – it happens all the time.’

To the South was a raised carpet of gold, where the now-dead stalks of thrift had formed a glorious pink carpet not long before. This huge new area of salt marsh, consolidated by grass and thrift, had developed in the past six years. Near the mouth of the Eden, an island had recently grown and was already hazed with green.

We drove across a bridge towards the Gullery, and then dropped down onto the pale sand of the foreshore, which stretches way out into the Firth, and headed North. Opposite the mouth of the River Sark, near Gretna, another island, potential future salt-marsh, is growing. From Sarkfoot Point we could see the distant stream of lorries and cars grumbling along the motorway to the East, where Metal Bridge crosses the River Esk.

The grazing

Stock are the economic lifeblood of the castletown estate. When Giles took over the estate, there were a thousand head of cattle, “with one man on horseback to keep an eye on them.” “One farmer had been putting his cattle on for  about 50 years, but then the rules for the stocking rate changed and farmers were no longer interested.  So we started putting our own cattle on – we now have quite a big beef enterprise, 800 cattle, of which 500 are our own.”

There are also 2500 sheep in the summer, about 800 ewes – mules, Texels, and Romneys – and their lambs, although they were not out during our quad-bike expedition. We saw them later in the steading beyond the embankment, being dosed and checked amidst a cacophony of noise as they milled around in the pen, watched by muddy dogs.

Earlier, on Eskside, about 50 gipsy horses, black-and-white and brown-and-white, raised their heads to stare, then galloped away, flanked by their foals, whinnying and kicking up their heels.

There may be hundreds of acres of useful grazing, but a saltmarsh also presents problems – the hazards of sticky mud and creeks and river-banks.  Giles tells me about trapped cattle, stuck in a muddy creek by the Eden with the tide coming in. The fire-brigade, the coastguard and local helpers all worked hard to get them out. “The fire-brigade used their pressure hose to act like a lance and wash the quicksand away from around the animals’ feet.”

Since then the estate’s technique for rescuing mired animals is to bring out a quad-bike and trailer with a pressure-washer and tank of water.

‘Alphabet soup’

Back in May, Imogen and I picked our way across the uneven sward and around the creeks, larks filling the air with song, occasional lapwings whistling and diving around us.

Then suddenly, a sheet of birds rose up in the distance, wings beating heavily at take-off. Flighting, the flock came towards us – hundreds of barnacle geese, flying low over our heads, talking to each other, perhaps grumbling at the disturbance, and heading across the Eden to Burgh Marsh. And then another black-and-white sheet rose, and then another, stirring the air with their wingbeats. My skin prickled as geese flew over and around us, changing the Marsh’s character, inhabiting the air completely with their bodies and their sound.


Barnacle geese take flight

But in a few minutes they were gone. Within a week they would probably have left until the autumn, having built up their strength by grazing on Solway grass for their long flight back to Svalbard, and their short breeding-season.

Rockcliffe Marsh provides grazing for farmed mammals and for geese, but it’s not just a vast expanse of pasture. It also has many conservation designations (the ‘alphabet soup’ of acronyms): it’s an SPA (Special Protected Area), is part of the Solway Coast AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), the Solway SSSI and the SAC (Special Area of Conservation) and the Ramsar site; a new Marine Conservation Zone has been proposed for the area around Rockcliffe. (For an explanation of these off-putting acronyms – and why we should care about them, especially now, please read The acronyms’ stories.)

Because the marsh is so comprehensively protected under national, European and international laws, its management is overseen by Natural England (NE) as the government’s ‘statutary body’ – and over the years NE have built up a good relationship with Giles and the Estate.

For the important question is, how can the needs of the tens of thousands of birds of different species – feeding, migrating, nesting – be balanced with the potentially conflicting requirement to raise stock, and with the international importance of the Marsh as a saltmarsh?

Management for wildlife:

At Rockcliffe 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 refers to Bart Donato as the Estate’s “guru from Natural England”, which makes Bart laugh, but when we meet in a café near Kendal in August, it’s immediately obvious that he is really enthusiastic about his involvement.

He explains, “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 natural landform. Local farming systems were once dictated by local needs, but over time have become subsumed within agribusiness on a global scale – we have to try to buffer the system.”

The rôle of NE is look at and secure the SSSI designation. “We look at the natural heritage, and think what’s the right management to look after that asset …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.”

In 2004, Bart said Giles asked for his help because “the grazing régime wasn’t working.” The result was that the Marsh was put into the Higher Level Stewardship scheme, with funding for managing the saltmarsh better for birds.

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 imagine the long, muscular tongues of cattle, ripping off the grass, and the crisp snipping by sheep. Bart “was quite excited to see the horses – 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 says. “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:

‘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.’ (from Mike Carrier’s 2006/2015 report for NE and Cumbria Wildlife Trust):


The power of the storm


During Storm Desmond (winter 2015/16), the Marsh was underwater. The extent and power of the flooding is made obvious by the trunks and roots of trees, deposited across the marsh and against the bank.


The Gullery

Giles drove me out to the Gullery in mid-July. There were Lesser Black-backed and Herring gulls standing and sitting on the cropped grass all round us, and several Greater Black-backs in the distance, but as we approached the area enclosed by the electric fence, hundreds of birds – previously hidden amongst the tall grasses, thistles and rough vegetation – lifted off into the air, wheeling and screeching in a dense cloud. A fledged chick, speckled brown, scurried with extended neck into the longer grass. Fortunately I was wearing a helmet: Imogen had told me that “getting dive-bombed by gulls and pooped on is not so much fun!”


The Gullery

The Gullery has been a cause of changing concerns over the decades. Giles told me, “In the olden days I can remember when there were about three pairs of nesting gulls. By about 15 years ago that had risen to more than 10,000 nesting pairs, and the cattle couldn’t venture into the Gullery.”

When the breeding numbers were high, the gulls attacked the cattle, dive-bombing them and chasing them away, and rank grasses and thistles grew in abundance. But gradually “the cattle took it back and grazed it down” – at the same time as the gull numbers were declining.

Mike Carrier, Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s Honorary Reserve Warden at Rockcliffe for 22 years, has collated all the results gathered by CWT’s Summer Wardens since 1969, the start of the Trust’s involvement in monitoring birds and vegetation. The graph for the Lesser Black-backed and Herring gulls shows how dramatic has been the fall in numbers in recent years, from the peak in the 1990s.  This is not a problem confined to Rockcliffe but has been seen nationally and in other Cumbrian sites such as South Walney Island too, the reasons for which are much discussed.

gull graph mike carrier's report

From Mike Carrier’s report for NE & CWT

The new Higher Level Stewardship agreement for the Estate provides for an additional three kilometres of electric fence along the bank, from the Esk to the Eden, which, it is hoped, will decrease access by ground-predators such as fox and badger. But this year, despite the supposedly predator-proof strands of electric fence around the Gullery, Imogen counted only 344 pairs of adults and 15-20 chicks, and noticed fox scats and short-eared owl pellets in the Gullery.

Anatomising the saltmarsh (with PlayDough)

Bart Donato had talked about the need to manage the grassland as a mosaic of ‘bowling green’ and tufts and longer vegetation.

But the HLS scheme is also about managing Rockcliffe as a salt-marsh, 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’s 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 Campfield further down the coast, the alien grass species Spartina, establish a root-hold. The meshwork of roots stabilises the silt trapped by the plant 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”, as Bart says, 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.

Near the elbow of the Esk, Giles jumps off the quad and shows me 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. And as the Marsh rises, the top of the protective embankment becomes relatively lower. “We’ll probably have to raise the height of the bank again before too long.”


The sediment deposition affects the creeks and pool formation too. In the café, Bart gets out the PlayDough, and fashions a blue creek in a pink surrounding 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.

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 are being blocked and the gaps in the banks filled, to restore the hydrology of the Marsh to its former state. Under the terms of the HLS agreement, NE have also been blocking drains, digging out wet flashes for waders, and heaping shingle into scrapes for breeding ring plover. (Ironically, when the Marsh was used for turf-cutting, gravel was dumped on the grass to make a track; this became the ring plovers’ favourite nesting-site – at that time there were 24 pairs, instead of the 3 pairs this year.)

Ungrazed, the Marsh flowered.

In 2001, the Foot-and-Mouth epidemic struck, and millions of sheep, cows and pigs were slaughtered. Giles lost most of his cattle and sheep. The Marsh was not grazed, and was later cut for hay.

Jacqui Kaye, CWT’s Summer Warden for Rockcliffe Marsh in 2001, wrote that

 “Every large creek was edged with the longest vegetation, typically tall grasses and Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris), in addition to Common Birds Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus). This gave the impression of yellow rivers running through the Marsh, as they followed the creeks. .. Further down, a lilac swathe of Yorkshire Fog (Holcus lanatus) covered a strip from the top of Yellow Creek to the Eden.  [at the Fleam] the creeks were edged with daisies (Bellis perennis), Thrift (Armeria maritima), grass which was calf-length in height, tall buttercups and patches of mid-thigh length Spear Thistles (Cirsium vulgare). … On leaving the Marsh, heading back across New Bridge the final impression was of First Field, apparently a mono-crop of the white, daisy-flowered Scented Mayweed (Chamomilla recutita), divided only by the path in the middle.”

And Brian Irving, former Manager of the Solway Coast AONB, once told me

“It was the first time in my lifetime that I saw the marshes really flower, you know. The first time in their history of grazing – an increased level of genetic diversity going on because the plants were allowed to flower and set seed, rather than propagate by roots and suckers. Stunning, the quality and texture of the marshes. A once-in-a-lifetime sight – and it was there for all the wrong reasons.”

Ungrazed, the Solway’s saltmarshes were transformed. The sky above Rockcliffe Marsh was loud with the singing of larks.


Posted in coastal history, conservation, Foot-and-Mouth epidemic, saltmarshes, wetlands | Tagged , ,

The Solway saltmarshes. 1



Dawn over Calvo Marsh (photo: Ann Lingard)

At first light on a Sunday morning in late September, Norman Holton sat on the edge of Campfield Marsh near Bowness on the Solway. On the Scottish side the starlings were, as usual, gathering in great wheeling clouds, and as usual there were several sparrowhawks flying above them, attempting to pick off a few for breakfast. This time, though, the starling-cloud spiralled round and round, and the mass of birds coalesced and flew across the Solway. Norman estimated that there were two million birds: “They were flying low, about 10 feet above the water, coming straight towards me. I couldn’t see the ends of it, from Cardurnock to beyond Herdhill Point, the flock was so wide. It must have taken 10 minutes to pass over – it lifted slightly to pass over the marsh, flying right over my head. The noise! And the wind of their wings, the draught! I was absolutely plastered in crap. But it was fantastic – the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up just telling you about it!”

(Photos taken from a gyroplane flight: see The design of the Solway, an aerial perspective)

Norman Holton [*] was Senior Sites Manager of the RSPB’s Cumbria Coast Reserves until 2016, and not one to exaggerate about bird numbers. The Campfield Reserve, based at North Plain Farm, and situated between Anthorn and Bowness-on-Solway, has 2 miles of coastline and about 50 hectares of saltmarsh, as well as about 500 hectares of arable land and raised bog, and it is host to thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of wildfowl and wading birds. But on the day I first met Norman, back in 2004, the tide was well out and the bird-flocks had dispersed to feed across the miles of glistening sand. Our wellies made perfect prints in the overlying layer of mud as we, too, left the saltmarsh and walked out into the estuary.

There was food all around us: small shore crabs scuttling; patches of tiny black flecks that were snails, Hydrobia; the surfaces of shallow pools suddenly churned by the skittering of minute fish and gammarid shrimps; sandy coils ejected by lugworms; minute holes made by burrowing shrimp-like Corophium; and the empty shells of cockles and pink tellins that, when alive, had burrowed in the sand near the low-tide mark.

Even though the Scottish coast was only three miles away across the Firth and houses and cars startlingly clear, the space and emptiness – and silence – were almost overwhelming. Sheep and cows were grazing the marsh in the distance, the sun was a pale disc above the haze, and for a while, until the tide turned and the birds returned, there was peace; a privilege.

sheep and cows saltmarsh

Grazing stock at Campfield Marsh (photo: Ann Lingard)

If you stand on the bridge at Boustead Hill, between Drumburgh Moss and Burgh by Sands, and look North-East, the salt-marshes of Burgh and Rockcliffe are pale green and deceptively smooth. Cattle are grazing or dozing, and beyond them lies a gleaming sliver of water in the channels of the Esk and Eden; there’s little movement except the speeding rectangles that are lorries on the distant motorway near Gretna – it’s all very domesticated and safe. But common sense as well as the notices warning of quicksands and dangerous currents will tell you that it’s probably not a good idea to wander on the sands here at the head of the estuary, that the sea will come charging in when the tide turns. Of course you could hurry to the safety of that smooth green saltmarsh … Norman spoke about a day on Rockcliffe Marsh when the tide came in fast, quickly rising to cover the grass; grabbing his tripod and telescope he hurried back towards his car, trying to watch for hazards in the turbid water – and fell into a deep creek. “It was February, freezing cold,” he said, “it took me ages to get to the car and I had no dry clothes.” “So what did you do?” “Put the heater on high, stripped off and drove home in my underpants.”

However, on a warm August day at Campfield he led me across the saltmarsh, stepping over deep potholes, jumping across creeks, and following the cattle-trails that divert around the meanders and oxbows of the water-courses; it is certainly not a smooth, safe surface.

campfield saltmarsh4 march16

Accretion and erosion after the winter 2015 storms (photo: Ann Lingard 2016)


The topography of marsh is always changing, a balance between water and plants. Norman pointed to a metre-high tower, capped with grass but with steep bare sides: some of the towers and hummocks collapse, while elsewhere the sediment builds up, the amount changing every day with every tide.



Despite the mutability of the lower reaches, if you look carefully at the marsh and its surrounds you can see that there is a logic to the structure. The single-track road is built on a raised beach, and the marsh steps down from it in three tiers. At the top there is gorse and tough creeping couch-grass, thistles, clumps of pink-flowered rest-harrow, and low purple asters; damp hollows are filled with rush, Juncus, and sedge. Walk towards the sea and you step down a small “cliff” of sand onto the next tier, where the salt-tolerant grass, Pulcinellia maritima, is like shiny wire, and there are low broad-leaved plants like silverleaf. The vegetated cushions, speckled with pink thrift, taper down towards the sand and there, at the edge and marching outwards towards the sea are the “pioneer species”.

Solitary, upright, their limbs pointing defiantly upwards, they appear intrepid and surreal. I had a distinct impression that they would advance a few centimetres, triffid-like, the instant I looked away. Some had gathered a little sand around themselves to form an embryo island, some of the islands had accumulated a tuft or two of grass; each island would consolidate and grow and the marsh would spread outwards. The plants are samphire or glass-wort, Salicornia, pale-green and fleshy. Norman said he used to fry them in butter and eat them when he was an impoverished RSPB worker on The Wash, and he picked off a piece for me to try. It was juicy and salty and delicious. I was an instant convert.


On the seaward side of a small green island is a mat of a surprisingly spiky plant, Spartina anglica. Spartina, too, is a pioneer and in more than one sense, for the genus is an import from America.


Spartina on the right-hand side


“It’s an absolute pain,” Norman told me. “Once it gets a foothold it spreads and spreads.” The seeds come in on the rising tide, and get deposited as the tide goes out; they germinate and grow and trap silt, raising the level of the marsh.

Later we found perfect unblemished mushrooms, but the most exciting though inedible find was a crumbly, grey deposit, thumb-sized, that glitters with fish-scales when I picked it up. Otter droppings! I’ve been told (by an otter-spotter) that otter spraint smells of violets unlike that of mink which stinks – and it certainly smelled sweetish, although “violets” didn’t instantly come to mind.

Down the coast, the sea nibbles away at the dunes, sea-walls and shores. The northerly longshore drift and storms that stir up the shallow Solway ensure that at high Spring tides or when the wind is driving the water up the Firth, the waves deposit their load of silt on the saltmarshes. A so-called “mucky tide” may deposit a few centimetres of sandy silt, and thus the potholes gradually get filled in and vegetated, the meanders get cut off – and the grass becomes salty and unpalatable, ungrazed until the next rain.

It’s astonishing to realise that the Solway marshes have been grazed for over 1000 years. Grazing has made them the globally – not just locally – important places that they are, the place where “the world population of barnacle geese”, as many as 30,000 birds, overwinters, for example, and because of this the marshes have a string of initials after their names: SSSI, SAC, NNR … all those somewhat distancing though extremely important conservation gradings (see The Acronyms’ Stories).


007 summer shower cattle John R flickr

“Summer Shower – Grazing cattle on Campfield Marsh.” John Rogers

(My grateful thanks to John for permission to use this image)

In 2001, during the Foot & Mouth crisis when the grazing stock was “cleared”, the Solway’s salt-marshes changed dramatically. Brian Irving, Manager of the Solway Coast AONB which includes the Skinburness marsh near Silloth, told me: “It was the first time in my lifetime that I saw the marshes really flower, you know. The first time in their history of grazing – an increased level of genetic diversity going on because the plants were allowed to flower and set seed, rather than propagate by roots and suckers. Stunning, the quality and texture of the marshes. A once-in-a-lifetime sight – and it was there for all the wrong reasons,” and he enthused about the overall orange hue, the buttery-yellow, the coppery tones of the fescue, and the pink drifts of thrift.

003 rogers' sea-pinks june10

Thrift at Campfield. (With thanks to Judith Rogers)

Most of the marshes are predominantly common land whose area is divided into “stints”; a Marsh Committee allots each grazier a certain number of stints, each of which may carry a set number of cattle or sheep. The animals roam free, the stints are not limited by fences – except around the RSPB Reserve, where a neighbour’s Texels, probably muttering about their right to roam and humming “the other man’s grass is always greener” were that day chomping at the turf. However, they casually, without quite appearing to capitulate, wandered back towards their home stints when they saw us. Campfield is grazed by up to 100 beef cattle between May and October; in theory the stocking density is 0.6 units per hectare, the optimum to get the sward “into condition” for feeding and nesting birds and to minimise trampling of lapwing and redshank nests.

Norman told me that his system for managing the grassland was simple: “When I came here 12 years ago my complete knowledge of farming came from ‘The Archers’. But with the help of the local graziers we’ve learnt to balance the birds’ needs with the cattle’s needs. Basically, when the grass is up to my ankles it’s about right, below that I need to take a few stock off. Managing the grass looks very scientific, but in the end, it’s how far it comes up your wellies!”


Redshanks prefer tufts of grass to nest against; lapwings like to nest in open areas; roosting waders prefer short grass so they can watch for predators when the tide pushes them off the mudflats. The diversity and number of birds that come to the Solway coast is astonishing, and sightings are well-logged on many websites and blogs – for as well as the expected waders like dunlin, knot, red- and green-shank, godwits, curlews, oystercatchers, and the species that prefer the fields and wooded fringes like the plovers, tree-sparrows, linnets and so on, there are sightings of cranes, spoonbills, egrets, red kites, short-eared owls and ospreys. While Norman and I searched the edges of the small pools on the upper tier of the marsh for natterjack toadlets, a green sandpiper swooped down to the water, and a ruff had been seen the day before.

Then there are the geese. Their arrival is an event of local importance, something to anticipate. “Are the geese back yet?”: everyone is listening for their honking and calling; looking upwards, away from the flickering masses of knot and dunlin skimming over the sands and the black-and-white binary flashes of the oystercatcher flocks, hoping to see geese circling to land instead of passing over in a V.

In mid-September, the first of the Pink-footed geese start flying in from Iceland; most carry on to The Wash and Martinmere from Iceland, but a couple of thousand remain on the Solway. Those who went further South start moving North again in the New Year, and from mid-January to mid-March you can see them in vast numbers on the salt-marshes and fields. Barnacle geese from Svalbard arrive on the Solway in early October, and they stay, right through to the end of April and early May.


Barnacle geese on a  field next to Campfield Marsh

It is during that period, from mid-September to April, that the grasslands and the carefully-managed sward on the saltmarsh are especially important as they provide grazing for the geese that are escaping the Arctic temperatures of the far North.


But you don’t have to be a “birder” to fall under the spell of the salt-marshes – even here, where the Firth is narrowing down, constrained by its banks at the top of the estuary, it seems to be the sense of spaciousness and wildness that exerts the strongest emotions.

“It’s the wilderness … to come back to the Solway and sit on the saltmarsh at dawn … Everything has got its place. The birds start to fly off the sands, the golden plover first, then curlew, godwit. Every dawn is different because of the tide – the different height, different wind, it’s very variable. It’s rare for there to be the same conditions from one day to the next. I love the dynamism of the tides and the wildness of the marsh. On the seaward edge there are no street-lights, you can’t hear any traffic. Even after all this time it still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck,” Brian Irving told me.

John and Judith Rogers’ house overlooks the Solway, and the salt-marsh’s character is part of their lives: it can be “transformed in moments by a storm sweeping in from the Irish sea: the wind picking up – hail showers sweeping across, pushing the tide relentlessly into the creeks and channels and overflowing, even on to the roads… But all this can change again within the hour. The tide goes out, the clouds disappear … sunlight sweeping across the mud flats; highlighting swathes of golden gorse; catching the sudden glint of gulls and flocks of waders wheeling back and forth …”.

And Brian Hodgson, a wildfowler (see The Wildfowler’s Story), told me, “I just like being out here and being part of it, the early morning, the solitude of it.”

norman head

In memory of Norman Holton.

“If I was a cow, I’d be happy on the marsh! It’s just the best place to be”

(Photo: Ann Lingard, 2004)



[*] Norman Holton died in the autumn of 2016; a great ‘Solway man’, he continues to be very much missed by his many friends and colleagues.


This is the first of a series of posts about the Solway saltmarshes. The second is about the ever-changing (and growing) Rockcliffe Marsh at the head of the Solway Firth.

The first version of this article was published in Cumbria Life in 2004; I have since updated it with extra information and photos.

RSPB Campfield Reserve, tel: 016973 51330, is a reserve that is open to all. The Solway Wetlands Centre is also there, with an information area and a comfortable room in which to sit and drink coffee!

There is an excellent blog by John and Judith Rogers on what is to be seen at the Campfield Reserve.

Posted in Foot-and-Mouth epidemic, saltmarshes, Spring & Neap Tides | Tagged , , ,

Capturing memories: the ‘Remembering the Solway’ oral history project

naomi rts2

Pupils from Kirkbride Primary School look at ‘Household Objects’ (photo: Naomi Hewitt)

‘I’ve enjoyed every single bit of it – every interview, every person has been a sheer gem,’ Jean Graham told us at the celebration that marked the end of the oral history project, Remembering the Solway. ‘And how marvellous it is that all these people are gathered here enjoying a few hours of reminiscing – and it isn’t a funeral!’

Naomi, currently Assistant Manager of the Solway Coast AONB and former Manager of the SWLP, has overseen the project since its inception about three years ago; Remembering the Solway has been one of the 29 schemes in the Solway Wetland Landscape Partnership’s four-year HLF-funded project.

‘We wanted to capture the memories of people who have lived and worked on the Solway Plain,’ Naomi Hewitt said. ‘The idea came from Sarah Hodgson of Drumburgh Farm – she waylaid me with the idea, and she persisted, she didn’t give up! Jean Graham was another great advocate for the idea.’

The unusual land- and sea-scape of this small corner of England that is tucked in next to the Solway Firth and the border with Scotland was sure to have imprinted unusual stories in the minds of those people who have lived here, in some cases for as long as 90 years.

So, more than three years ago, there was a meeting in the Methodist Chapel at Port Carlisle to make plans and, Naomi said, “We knew we had the foundations of a good project.”

They brought in Susan Child from Creative Horizons, an expert in oral and community history, and she trained the nine volunteers in how to gather oral history, how to do the recordings – and, importantly, in the ethics of carrying out recordings.

As Sarah Hodgson said at one of the planning meetings at the Chapel, “Interviewees need security, they need to know we’re not going to be rummaging through their belongings. Many of them are in their eighties or nineties and we tiptoe round until we get the opportunity to record them, we can’t just plough in.”

There is so much information, so many memories, to gather and preserve. Naomi explained, at the celebration, “We knew we were time-limited, so we decided to concentrate on on the central and North areas of the Solway Plain, from Kirkbride up to Burgh and down to Cardurnock. And being able to use the chapel was great – it’s such a great community and historical asset.”

I went to a couple of the planning and update meetings in the little white-washed room at the chapel, and ideas were flowing fast as to which topics needed still to be covered, who could be contacted and, hopefully, interviewed. There was a buzz of laughter and chatter over the coffee and biscuits. “The group had a huge amount of energy,” Naomi said.

Which of the many topics should they choose? Farming, peat-cutters, ferrymen, the WRENs who came in the War, the Anthorn Camp, the Shooting Range at Burgh, turf-cutting for (it was said) Wembley, the people who were in service, the Home Guard …?

The list was finally narrowed down to farming; the railways; peat-cutting; fishing; growing up; and the Solway itself.

The group held frequent Open Days throughout the two years so that everyone interested could come and meet their friends and hear how the project was developing. I went along on a mid-June afternoon in 2016. There were about twenty people crammed into the tiny room, as well as the recording volunteers. Cake and cups of tea were being handed out, and around the room were boards and tables with photos, scrap books, letters and several transcripts of recorded interviews; people were poring over them, exclaiming, pointing out friends or acquaintances in the photos, this sometimes leading on to suggestions for further interviewees. Susan Child was sitting in the corner feeding letters and photos into a scanner. After a while she put on her head-phones and we all settled down to hear one of the recordings, then Jean Graham, a local writer and poet as well as one of the volunteer interviewers, read three poems based on her interviews and her own experiences.

In the last year the pace has increased: there was the film to be made, the transcripts to write, the recordings to tidy up, the booklet to publish.

And finally, on July 14th 2017, the end of the project was celebrated with a lunch at the White Heather Hotel, Kirkbride. More than 150 people came, and the room – and the lengthy queue for the buffet lunch – was echoing with conversations and laughter. As Jean told me, “Some of these people probably haven’t seen each other in years – they’re not always able to get about, they’ve been isolated on their farms …”

Tables around the room were piled with memorabilia such as farm implements, peat-cutting tools, kitchen equipment and school-books.

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(For more stories about peat-cutting on the Solway Mosses, the tools and techniques, see Ask the fellows who cut the peats.)

The celebration also included a showing of the film, made by Tony Wilkinson of Red Onion Video, and the ‘launch’ of the free booklet that includes extracts from some of the interviews.

In all, there have been 46 recorded interviews, involving 53 people (some of whom were unable to do a final recording through ill-health). Each person who had been recorded received a CD of their own interview to hand down to their families, and the written transcripts will be given to the Cumbria Archives at Carlisle.

‘It was an agonising task to choose clips for the film and for the book,’ Naomi said. ‘They’re very much tasters of the wider archive. And we know the archive will be preserved for generations, though the book and CD will have a shorter life.’

There were hints that future funding may be secured to continue the project: after all, there are still several important topics that have not been recorded, like hound-trailing, ferries, ‘HMS Nuthatch’ and so much more!

We all have stories to tell, some may be dull and repetitious but others are important in reminding us of how our attitudes have changed, and how we have changed the world around us.   Many of us will be wishing, far too late, that we had encouraged our own parents to record their memories in some way. Even though aural recording technologies change, the oral stories can still be captured using the simple technology of pen and paper.


RTS book cover


Note: The transcripts will be donated to Carlisle Archive Centre by the end of 2017.

Susan Child talks about the delivery of the Remembering the Solway project, at the Solway Heritage Conference, Burgh-by-Sands 2017

Remembering the Solway’: the film, starring David Hume (peat-cutting on the Moss), Margaret Sharples (railways on the peat-moss), Geoff Hodgson (bird-nesting), Daphne Hogg (swimming at Port Carlisle), Allen Hodgson (farming and milking), Jean Graham (playing on the peat-moss)

Posted in coastal history | Tagged , , ,

Snippets 13: “A hare in a fix”

A hare in a fix (Carlisle Journal, February 4th 1881)

The polar bear on the ice-floe is the iconic image of climate change and the warming of our seas. Here on the Solway Firth nearly 140 years ago, the climate had changed in the other direction – towards a bitter winter. If ‘social media’ had existed, this hare would have been the iconic image for that time.



The hare, although presented on a plate, is not still.

Legs scrabbling, eyes bulging,

she tests her sea-legs.

The ice-floe zig-zags across the watery border

between the lands,

buffeted by waves, spinning,

so that the hare no longer knows

which is Scotland or England

(if she ever did).


She is immersed in noise, the sound

of wind and rushing water;

ice groans and rasps

and iron squeals against iron.

Men’s arms point like guns,

and she flattens, black ear-tips

pressed into her soft back fur.

The floe thuds against dark pillars,

tilts, swings free.

The hare, shivering, splays her legs, and

pounds her feet against the unforgiving ice.

Then, body too cold to melt a hollow,

she squats, past fear.


But when the fast-ebbing tide wedges

the floe against a sandbank,

the hare opens her eyes.

Her back legs unfold and gently catapult her ashore

onto a cold, moist island lacking green.

Leaving the ghosts of foot-prints,

she scoops out a shallow form.


Until the tide turns.





A gull screeches in low, head tilting,

hoping for a meal in the huddle of fur.

The hare opens her eyes and watches its flight.

“Bugger this for a shit start to the year,”

she mutters.

And stretches.

“I’ll go where he’s going, thanks.”

Scrabbling aboard the beached floe,

she kicks off.

Her back legs unfold and catapult her afloat

as the slack tide turns

and pushes the ice-raft back upstream.

Gliding ashore on the Scottish side,

she slides off onto glistening mud,

leaving deep indented footprints.

“Och aye the noo,” she tries,

in her Cumberland accent,

and she staggers stickily upwards

towards the green edgeland.


The explanation of why there were ice-floes on the Solway Firth and why the hare heard the noise of iron squealing against iron, is in Chapter 10 of Crossing the Moss – the intriguing Victorian and present-day story of the raised mire or ‘Moss’ of Bowness Common and the Solway Junction railway.

This was a project in which photographer James Smith and I collaborated, with support from the Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership (to whom, needless to say, we are very grateful!).

The mental image of the hare on the ice-floe was too good to waste (and why she found herself there, in deep winter, raises many questions with regard to extreme cold, hibernation, food and foraging).

If, like me, you have had enough of sad and disturbing news, choose the alternative ending …

Posted in Snippets, Solway Viaduct & Railway, Spring & Neap Tides | Tagged , , ,

What’s a clay dabbin?

“The first thing people do is stroke the walls – it’s tactile, there’s something about it that makes people want to touch it.” Alex Gibbons



March 2017 (before the floor was made)


On April 28th 2017 the first clay dabbins building to be constructed on the Solway Plain for more than a century was officially opened.

It has been an interesting story, driven along by the boundless enthusiasm of Peter Messenger, Chris Spencer and earth-buildings specialist, Alex Gibbons.


Last July, Clayfest 2016 – a week-long celebration of traditional building techniques, organised by Earth Buildings UK and Ireland (EBUKI), Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership, and the RSPB  – was taking place at the RSPB’s Campfield Reserve. Tents and campervans formed a small encampment behind one of the barns for, despite Clayfest being held at Bowness, on a corner of the Upper Solway coast, people had come from as far away as the USA and the Netherlands to take part.

There were talks, and tours, and workshops on the ‘rammed earth’ technique of building, and on techniques for making and using earth plasters. Chris Spencer, Manager of the Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership, was running the clay dabbins workshop, using the traditional method of layering straw and wet clay to build a bird hide overlooking the pond.

I had dropped in briefly half-way through the festival, on the hottest day of the year. It was lunchtime and everyone was sitting in the shade, chatting and eating healthy-looking mixtures of vegetables and fruits but Chris immediately broke off from his more substantial lunch to give a quick tour.

In one of the barns a mound of reddish local clay was ready to be mixed into plaster; more clay was down by the developing bird-hide. “Three hundred tonnes,” Chris said. “It was dug up from near one of the ponds just along the track.”

In the ‘rammed earth’ area, plywood was being cut and screwed together to make the large arch-shaped ‘form’, into which clay would be pounded.

Further along, what looked like sandcastles were lined up in front of a straw-bale wall; books and a whiteboard suggested theory rather than practice had been occupying the time. “They do a lot of talking,” Chris explained with a grin.

Down by the pond, Chris’ group had not only been talking but had been working hard. The hide was progressing fast, the first layers of dabbins already in place on top of a low drystone wall of red sandstone blocks.

Next to it, the early stages of the Clay Dabbins House – which would eventually be an exhibition area to explain the Solway’s clay dabbin heritage – were baking gently in the sun, the layers of straw and stamped wet clay now hardened and firm, the walls awaiting a roof and inner and outer lime-plaster coatings.

In one of the Reserve’s other barns, an intriguing array of jars and earth materials were being laid out for a Clayfest demonstration, but more eye-catching was the future roof of the clay dabbins building. Here were baulks of oak which had been cut and chiselled into traditional curves; holes drilled, offset, ready to receive the wooden pegs that will hold the pieces together – a functional structure, yet sculptural and majestic.

What and where are the clay dabbins buildings?

Before we tell the story of Campfield’s little clay dabbins house, let’s look at clay dabbins buildings in general, a type of vernacular architecture found previously on both sides of the Upper Solway, but now mainly – and in decreasing numbers – on the Cumbrian side.

In a landscape formed on glacial till, gravel and mud, with very little ‘country rock’, how do you build a dwelling? You use the materials to hand – the earth and clay, and straw, and whatever trees you can fell for timbers. You need some stone too for a plinth, the foundation of the walls, lest rising-damp gradually liquefy the clay construction; perhaps the ruins of Holme Cultram Abbey or the Roman wall can provide a source, otherwise cobbles or field-stones must do. And if your friends and neighbours will help you tread and mix the clay with straw, then the walls will rise quite quickly.

‘It is conceivable that it could be done in a day, using lots of people from the village, say. People with the fitness of the 18th century, rather than someone like me who stops for an egg sandwich!’ Alex Gibbons.

The advantage of the dabbins method is that it is quick. Peter Messenger is a local expert on the Solway’s dabbins buildings, and has written a delightful and well-illustrated article with practical instructions about their repair.

 A serviceable mixture [of earth for the walls] could contain 30% (by weight) of stone/gravel (from 5mm to 40mm); 30% of coarse and fine sand; 15% silt and 25% clay. There are examples on the Solway Plain where the proportion of silt and clay in total can be as high as 80% and these walls are as hard and compact as others which have 50% of stone and gravel. So there are no hard and fast rules.”

dabbins3 campfield may16

Sandstone plinth, layers of clay dabbin and straw

By adding straw, the whole becomes, essentially, a ‘composite material’ – the straw lends strength and prevents cracking. The amount of water added to the mix is critical (neither too much nor too little, cf Goldilocks).

The ratio of straw to mud is when it looks about right! You get in as much straw as possible, it adds tensile strength.Sand helps with the plasticity, so it’s not too claggy.” Chris Spencer

Then the well-trodden mix is lifted onto the wetted plinth, and spread and trodden again.

Peter Messenger writes that

“The layer should protrude a little beyond the line of the plinth (c. 50mm) and once a depth of c.100mm has been reached a thin layer of loose straw is spread over the surface of the lift. This will appear to be about 50mm deep but once the next layer has been laid on top of the straw its depth will reduce to about 15mm or less.”

 These interleaved layers of straw act to suck out the moisture from the mixture, and because all the layers are thin the wall can be built to its full height without having to allow intermittent periods for drying-out.

During construction, lintels for doors and windows are put in place, and traditionally the supports for the roof were wooden ‘crucks’, tied together by wooden cross-trees, often with purlins running the length of the roof.

Various materials – including turf and heather – were used for thatch, and the walls were rendered inside and out with lime-render, to prevent rain penetrating the dabbins and causing it to slump.

A few years ago, I joined one of Peter Messenger’s walking tours around Burgh-by-Sands, where several dabbins buildings (variously decaying or restored) and cruck barns remain. He showed us a typical ‘long-house’, the living end of which was separated from the byre by a cross-passage; on another house, the cement-rendering had come away to show the layered dabbins underneath. A handsome cruck barn behind a farmhouse had been recently patched with new dabbins.

An early 1900s survey found about 1500 dabbins buildings around the Solway Plain, but by the time Nina Jennings carried out her own survey nearly twenty years ago there were only about 300 remaining. Her 2003 book, Clay Dabbins: Vernacular Buildings of the Solway Plain is the classic reference book, containing entertaining stories of some of the home-owners – and Jennings herself was an extraordinary woman, who started a degree in electronic engineering, was a member of the anti-war Committee of 100, active in CND, and a keen walker and skier; she died in 2015.

dabbins distribution maps board2

Dabbins houses in 1910 & 2006 (Peter Messenger, Interpretation Board no.2)

Peter Messenger’s own surveys have found many dabbin buildings in a sorry state of disrepair, with damaged rendering and unstable walls. The problems are caused by water ingress – “Waterlogged clay turns to mud, which slumps and collapses.”

He was instrumental in persuading Alex Gibbons, a William Morris Craft Fellow specialising in earth buildings, to move to Cumbria and become practised in restoring dabbins buildings.

They, and Chris Spencer of the Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership (SWLP), realised that to help people – owners  surveyors, builders – understand how to protect and repair this special type of building on the Solway Plain, a practical demonstration would be not only useful but an entertaining (and muddy) project that could gather local volunteers – of all ages – to its heart.

And so, on April 25th 2016, the dabbin building was started, with financial and other support from a large number of organisations: it was part of a four-year grant to the SWLP from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and has been constructed on the RSPB’s Reserve at Campfield near Bowness-on-Solway.

Building the Clay Dabbin House

It’s been a wildly popular project. Hundreds of volunteers have helped, including a group of land-agents and RSPB wardens, fit retirees and conservation volunteers of all ages. “A group of building inspectors came out to do several training days – before that they had no idea about dabbins buildings,” Alex said. Chris worked especially with groups of school-children: more than 150 students came from seven local schools. “Local kids came from villages where there were clay dabbins buildings. They used their hands – hand-balling the mixture – and then forks. It was a great opportunity for them and we loved having them around. It helped that it was fantastic weather!”

The plinth of Penrith sandstone was laid, marking the base of the 4 metre by 5.5 metre building. “There’s no damp-proof course,” Alex explains. “The stones have gaps between them. As long as you use breathable materials, any water should evaporate. It’s all about being able to get the water away again.”

Mixing the clay and sand and straw is heavy work. “We used a tractor to do a batch-mix. It lifted the clay really, really high then dropped it, a big splodge,” Chris laughed. “We built it in four-inch lifts, then put a layer of straw on top. Then you immediately build the next layer on top of the straw, which binds it all together. As we got higher we put up staging, so we could raise the floor level and then just tipped the material onto it. This stuff is incredibly, incredibly heavy – so we used a tractor bucket to lift it.” The sides of each layer are sliced off flat where they slump over the layer below.

Constructing the building with the help of volunteers inevitably took longer, because it depended on availability of volunteers, of Chris and Alex – and, of course, on dry weather. As Alex said, “If I’d been building it with a team of guys that I’d trained, I reckon we could do the clay walls in three weeks  – obviously with the help of a tractor, too. It is conceivable that it could be done in a day, using lots of people from the village, say. People with the fitness of the 18th century, rather than someone like me who stops for an egg sandwich!”

By May 2016 the dabbins layers beneath the window were in place; by July the wooden window-frame had been incorporated and the timbers for the roof had been prepared (see photos above).

Some of the oak – for the wall plates, the ridge beam, rafters and so on – was sourced locally, from wind-felled trees at Setmurthy.

“We went for truss construction in the end, not cruck,” Chris explained. “Mick Read, the joiner, is a genius with oak!”

Mick, who lives across the border in Canonbie, told me that he started as an engineering apprentice, then went into carpentry making furniture, and his interest in wood led him to tree surgery, “specialising in portable chain-saw milling. It’s small-scale equipment, quite light to transport – but time-consuming and slow. Basically, I have the option of going into a woodland, selecting a tree, and then milling the wood that has a bend in it.” In other words, producing timber that has two flat sides and two curved sides.

He found the oak for the truss – the tie beam, king post, truss members and wind braces – “at the back of the Canonbie sawmill. There was a ‘firewood pile’ of oak trees. The owner said ‘Take anything you like’. He let me chainsaw it and take it away, and gave it to the dabbin for free!  I milled it at my house, framed it, then dismantled and labelled it, and brought it here.”

Mick also made the wedge-shaped pegs, and drilled the off-set holes in the beams. ‘You hit the pegs in, and the wood shrinks and tightens up the pegs. It’s quite an old way of construction.’

In August, he supervised the lifting and fixing of the truss roof timbers. As project photographer Fiona Smith and I watched, Chris and volunteers had little trouble steering the timbers into place. Chris was full of admiration: the tractor-driver “just dropped it onto the tenon on the kingpost and it fit so well we just had to give it a knock with a hammer.”

We hastily found a sprig of hawthorn and Fiona climbed up to nail it in place for the ‘topping-out’ ceremony.

topping out

Fiona ‘topping out’

Wilson Irving got a small bursary from SWLP to take part in the EBUKI 2016 festival, and has worked on the dabbins house throughout. “I came on training days, and to the workshops on making dabbin and heather thatching. I was involved more or less from the beginning. I didn’t do the drystone wall at the bottom,, but I helped with the dabbin, put on the wooden wall plates – they rest on the dabbin and spread the load of the roof. And two of us helped Alex build the gables. I enjoyed it all – but seeing the truss go up was the best bit.”

That was Chris’ favourite moment too. “It was all good! But lifting the roof timbers on was very good, it felt like it was marking a sense of completion, the mud work was over.”

Over the next couple of months, the rafters were nailed in place and the thatcher William Tegetmeir from Scarborough, “a real craftsperson” according to Chris, laid the heather thatch. The door and window were completed and the building was water-tight – but not yet weather-proof.

The rendering of the inside and outside walls

render tests rsz

Render tests

was done by Alex early this year. “The outside was done by harling – using a scoop-shaped trowel and throwing it on.  I used a limewash of pure lime putty mixed with pure clay putty – the clay is screened down and water added.” In contrast, the inside walls are smooth, with flat plaster that reflects the light.”

Then there was the floor. “The base layer [of the floor] is about four inches thick, it’s rubbish, screed – everything that didn’t go through the screen. The top layer’s screened-down mud mixed with the sand and tamped down.”


Tamping down the floor

John helped with the tamping, and we went to help again on the day the ox-blood was to be added.

As we arrived, two dumpy bags of Dalston sand were being delivered to the dabbins’ door. “You’d think we could go and get some sand from the Solway just up the road,” Alex said, “but it’s all too muddy.This sand’s slightly rough, it holds together well.” He squeezed some to show us, and it kept its shape.

And the ox-blood?

“I heard about blood from various people – it’s one of those folklore things.”

We were using dried and powdered blood. We tried mixing the powder with water to various consistencies, and there was much hilarity and discussion about the best way to apply it to the surface of the floor.

“I’m calling it experimental archaeology,” Alex said. “It sounds better than saying I don’t know what I’m doing! When I’ve looked at old floors, they’re always really black.”

In the end, Alex painted on the mixture. Apparently it was very smelly and ‘furry’  a week later!  But on the day of the official opening, April 28th 2017, it was clean and firm, although it was generally agreed it would probably need a linseed coating to ‘fix’ it.


Three pupils from Kirkbride Primary performed the official ribbon-holding and cutting, and the building  – now fitted with solar-powered LED lights and very helpful interpretation boards – was open, a year after it had been started.

As Chris Spencer said in his opening speech, “Many hundreds of people have helped – with the drystone walling, the clay-building, the thatching – it’s been quite an amazing year centred around the building.”

The dabbins house “shows how the Solway vernacular buildings were made. It’s also important to show that they are under threat around the Solway Plain. We hope from this to help people understand how to care for them and mend them.”

And then, of course, there was Elizabeth’s cake…

Posted in archaeology, architecture, coastal history, conservation | Tagged , , , ,

Snippets 12: In praise of Bowness Moss

rogersceugh march17

Bowness Moss, looking towards the Solway; Rogersceugh Farm on its drumlin in the foreground (Copyright James Smith, with thanks.)

Bowness Moss or Common is one of the South Solway Mosses National Nature Reserves, NNR [1]. The near-pristine centre of this raised mire is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, SSSI;  it’s also a Special Area of Conservation, SAC. Acronyms are alienating but the reality of their being is important: I’ve tried to explain why in The Acronyms’ Stories [2] of the Solway Firth.

I could write a paean of praise to Bowness Common by searching for metaphors and complicated synonyms to exercise your mind, “sympathising in some fuzzy way with the totality of nature and the interconnectedness of things”[3].

Or I could write a check list – tick, tick, tick – of everything I have seen.

Here is the list, summoned from my memory not from a note-book, of some of the plants, mosses and animals I have seen amongst the hummocks, ‘lawns’ and bog-pools of the central mire (there are many more but they are currently nameless because I need some expert tuition in identification).

10 species of Sphagnum moss

Bog rosemary

Bog myrtle



Cross-leaved heath

Bog asphodel

2 species of cotton grass

2 species of sundew


Assorted sedges and grasses


Frogs and spawn



Roe deer

Fox scat & otter spraint

9 species of dragonfly and damselfly

Caterpillars and pupal cases of oak eggar moths





Reed buntings




According to Fortey [3], “A list of animals and fungi could become tiresome, but it is necessary to grasp the true richness of nature. Think of it as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories…”

Now enjoy trying to imagine how those ‘compelling and interacting stories‘ might play. This requires some effort and certainly some patience, but perhaps it will imprint in your mind the importance of the Moss – of any Moss or peatland. Perhaps, by creating the stories in your mind, instead of being handed the words on the page, you will start to understand the characters and the sense of place; perhaps you will enjoy a sense of ownership.

So, imagine those stories in three dimensions: burrow into the ancient peat, bask in the sun on a boardwalk, hide amongst Sphagnum floating in a pool, flit above the heather, rise up into the air.

And then throw in the fourth dimension, of time: imagine what is happening around you on your ‘virtual Moss’, minute by minute (as a damselfly flits), day by day, week by week, through the seasons … the years of growth past and future.

Imagine the smells, of wetness and hot, dry heather.

And then try to imagine the sounds – what might you hear?

But imagine too, and above all, the silence; a silence that is comfortable with itself.


The impact of humans on Bowness Common has been a grimace on the face of its geological history and now we’re working to smooth out the wrinkles. Let’s hope that we can continue to feel, in Paul Kingsnorth’s words, “that the natural world, the non-human realm, is not an obstacle in the way of our progress but a part of our community that we should nurture” [4]. Imagining the interacting stories on the Moss might help.

[1] The Solway Mosses

[2] The Acronyms’ Stories

[3] Richard Fortey, 2016. The Wood For The Trees. The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood. Collins

[4] Paul Kingsnorth, 2017. What future for environmentalism in the age of Trump?

Posted in conservation, peat, bogs and moors, Snippets, wetlands | Tagged ,

Ask the fellows who cut the peats


Peat-cutter’s barrow, tools & foot-boards. Scale model made by Mr Malcolm Wilson (see below)


“I just went and asked for a job – I fancied gaan cuttin’ peat. The foreman said, ‘I’ll take you up on the moss’ – and what a walk it was! A big wide open space, peat stacks everywhere. And I thought, I’ll have a bit go at it.” And so Thomas Holden and his cousin went to work on Kirkbride Moss.

The Solway Mosses – Wedholme Flow (which includes Kirkbride Moss), Glasson Moss, Drumburgh and Bowness Common – are unusual in that they are raised mires, not blanket bogs, and as such are very special. They are now of course protected by several important conservation designations but previously they were used as turbary – where individuals and families had their own ‘stints’ to cut peat for fuel – and then commercially for compost and other products.

The Cumberland Moss Litter Company at Kirkbride was started by a Dutchman, Henry Engelen. This might seem surprising, but peat-cutting and drying on a commercial scale requires well-founded knowledge of cutting and draining the landscape, and the Dutch had been designing and overseeing peat-works in England and Scotland since the late 19th century. Indeed, a Lodewyck Engelen (Henry’s father?)  is recorded as among ‘the Dutch’ who came across to work with the Midland Moss Litter company on Whixhall Moss in Shropshire in 1926.

“My mother’s side of the family were Dutch, too,” Engelen’s son (also Henry) told me. “Her father came to Airth in Scotland in about 1920, and they had Blackburn Moss at Fauldhouse near Bathgate.”

It was there, as a young woman, that she met and married Henry Engelen; they moved to Horwich, near Bolton in Lancashire, where Engelen set up the  Lancashire Moss Litter Company in 1931; next in his sights were the deep peat Mosses to the South of the Solway and so, Henry Jr told me, “He bought up some of Wedholme Flow, and they had two mills near the hangars on Kirkbride airfield. He used to travel there on a motorcycle, and lodged at Whitrigg.” Once the Cumberland Moss Litter Company was established at Kirkbride Moss, the whole Engelen family moved up to Cumberland.

Patrick McGoldrick, now in his seventies and living in Carlisle, was born in Ireland; his father came over to Scotland in 1927, where the family later joined him. I first met Patrick and his twin sister Bridget at Port Carlisle, where they were taking part in the oral history project, ‘Remembering the Solway’ [1], and later I visited them at their home to hear more of his stories about working on the Moss. Patrick, with a shock of white hair and a soft Scottish accent, told me about his father: “Dad worked on at least four mosses in Scotland, the last moss was Blackburn [2], in Fauldhouse about three miles from Bathgate. It was owned by the Dutch, they were all owned by the Dutch. Some got worked out, they were not as deep as Kirkbride [Moss]. At Kirkbride you could dip your big ash pole in as far as you could and still couldn’t feel the bottom.” (Frank Mawby, former Reserves Manager for Natural England in the North-West, told me that coring had shown about 10 metres of peat in some places on Wedholme Flow – and that it must have been even deeper before the mire was damaged by cutting.)


Bridget and Patrick McGoldrick (peat-cutter), and Tommy Atkinson (peat-mill worker), at Port Carlisle 2016

“The boss said to my Dad, ‘My son-in-law, he’s a big man down in England, at a place called Kirkbride in Cumberland – and he’s desperate for skilled men to work.’ I was fourteen-and-a-half at the time – it was just at the start of the school holidays – and me and my Dad landed down in Kirkbride. There were four ex-RAF sheds, me and my Dad got one [to live in].” Patrick’s mother stayed in Blackburn with his seven sisters, and moved down later.

“We got there and Henders [the foreman?] said, ‘There’s a lot of stacking to do, some of it’s just stooled, some just walled’– so we went stacking.  I helped Dad. As life went on, after eight weeks, the school-board man came looking for us. ‘Why’s that laddie not at school?’ But by then it was tattie-picking time – we had a week off school for that – so I was able to stay on. Dad went on cutting and I got a job at a farm at Kirkbride. Every time I could I went to the moss with my Dad.”

Stooking and sticking and batting

Stooling/stooking, walling, stacking; stickers, bats and spades: the language for cutting and drying the peats varies from country to country and region to region. The shapes of the tools vary, too, as do the patterns of piling peats to dry.

Tools were personal and precious. “My Dad used to look after his tools, he had a big stone and a file to keep them really sharp. We always carried our tools over our shoulders. Then we went back to Ireland for a week’s holiday and he put them in a ditch that had running water in it, to keep the handles tight. When we came back the tools were missing. He said, ‘Patrick, where did I put my tools? I was sure it was in that ditch but they’re no’ there. Somebody’s pinched them.’ There was this big guy, broad, Big Stan the Pole, and he wasn’t a grafter, his tools weren’t good. Big Stan would have fought anybody. And Dad said, ‘Aye, he’s cutting peat, I’m going to see his tools.’ And there was the stripping spade, the tools, all with my Dad’s initials on them – he’d carved them on the handles. Stan was in the ditch working and my Dad says, ‘That’s a good set of tools you’ve got here. They’re mine.’ ‘No. No, Frank, you bugger off.’ And Dad picked up the spade and put it to Stan’s throat – he got his tools back! Anyway, Stan got some more tools. And then I saw them, sitting on the bank, and my Dad was sharpening his tools for him!”

“Your tools – the blades were never rusty,” Thomas Holden told me. “You stuck them in the peat at the end of the day, and they came out really clean and shiny, it must have been the acid in the peat.” Thomas had got in touch with me when he heard that I was interested in talking to Kirkbride peat-cutters, and had invited me to his home in Aspatria; he had started cutting peat when he was in his thirties, and later had driven the workers’ bus. Even though he is now in his seventies, he still had happy memories of that time, although “it was hard work, but I was younger then. You got worked-in!”

Patrick had explained how to use the various tools. “You put down a line then cut a mark along the line with the sticker [Dutch stikker], it’s flat with a handle, and very very sharp, about 15 inches long.Then you stripped off the heather, with like a turfing


Swan-necked spade: scale drawing (2″=1ft) by Malcolm Wilson

spade.”  He still has his father’s spade and went to fetch it from the shed. The shaft is curved (‘swan-necked’), the blade pointed; he showed me how he’d cleaned it and repainted the metal part green, then demonstrated in the sitting room how to push it in at an angle and lift the turf.

The layer of heather and grass stripped off the top was thrown down into the ditch “with the heather up so it widnae die back”, to keep the bottom of the cut drier and to protect the underlying peat.

“The bat was used for cutting the peats, its blade was only 4-5 inches wide—” (he drew a little diagram on my note-pad – it looks a bit like a cricket bat, with its long, narrow blade). Standing in the cut, “You cut in at an angle, then lifted out the peat and heaved it up onto the bank.”

In July 2017, at the ‘launch’ of the oral history project Remembering the Solway, some of the peat-cutting tools were on display:


Mr Wilson’s models

Another person who contacted me about the Kirkbride peat-cutting was Malcolm Wilson; he told me he was 88 years old, and his family had lived in North-West Cumbria – Calvo, Holme Cultram and now Silloth – since the late 1700s. He used to go out on the Moss where the lines of peat-stacks “were like a village, nearly”. Malcolm has been a model-builder for most of his life, building yachts, barques and ships like the Bounty from scratch, making and assembling all the parts himself. Some of his exquisitely detailed models have even been sold at Christies. But in the 1980s, the manager at Fisons – the company were still cutting peat commercially at Kirkbride – asked him to make models of the tools and barrows as gifts for members of staff who were retiring.

Malcolm had visited the Kirkbride workings to measure the tools, and in the course of a few years, he had made six or seven scale models. Now, as the warm Spring sunshine flooded into his front porch, he unrolled the scale drawings that he had made in 1989 and showed me photos of the beautifully detailed finished pieces. Suddenly, movingly, the reality of what Patrick and Thomas had been describing became very clear. And before I left, Mr Wilson gave me his precious drawings and photos, insisting that he was glad that they were going to someone who would appreciate them. I shall treasure them.


Scale model of barrow, tools and foot-boards, by Malcolm Wilson


The area for commercial cutting at Kirkbride was mostly brown peat, and not used for fuel, but individual and families had stints around the edge of the Moss. According to Thomas, “Some of the peat was like butter, but it was more fibrous where we were cutting ‘cos it was used for gardens.There was peat being cut for fires too – that was black peat. It was dark and thick, and it curled up like a banana when it was dry. They used a different tool, like a bat but with a blade on the side so it was L-shaped, it could cut the bottom and the side at once.”

This blade with a flange  would have been like the Fenland ‘beckett’, Irish ‘slane’ or Scottish ‘flauchter’ [3], or the tairsgeir of the Outer Hebrides. Artist Anne Campbell, with the help of Finlay Macleod and others living on the Isle of Lewis, has produced a glossary of Gaelic words relating to the moorlands, and especially to the cutting and stacking of peat. The words are collected together in a delightful pamphlet Rathad an Isein [4]: all parts of the tairsgeir have their own name, so important is the cutting of the peats on the island. The book’s title means The Bird’s Road – the narrow gap left on top of the bank between the cut edge and the gàrradh, the stook or stool.

The cuts and drains

The peats, then, were dug out along a line or cut. “The cut was 22 metres long – it was all in metres because of the Dutch,” Patrick said. “The stacking area between the cuts was 10 metres wide – that was the bank, there was room for the stacks and walls and the rails.” These lengths, equivalent to 1 chain and a half-chain, were standard distances for constructing ditches to drain the peat on, for example, Thorne Moor [5]  in Yorkshire, and Bowness Common for the Solway Junction Railway.

Patrick’s father “was a grafter. He could cut one-and-a-half lengths in a day.” And Thomas was full of praise for the Irish workers: “Those Irish fellas, they could cut a straight line, it was spot-on … The Irish, they were dab-handed, they used to cut the peats a lot bigger than we could. You couldn’t fault their peats. The tidier they were, the easier they were to stack. They had their own patch of the moss, and they looked after that lump of moss…”

“You got [paid] the most for cutting,” Patrick told me, “’Cos that was the hardest work. First you cut one peat length, then two down, then the two bottom ones. And you’d throw them up onto the bank.” Usually, one man would cut, another would do the stooking, but Thomas and his cousin seem to have worked in tandem.

Peat is wet, about 95% water, 5% solid material; if its integrity is damaged, all that water will escape. Peat-cuttings, then, were wet and slippery places, and ditches had to be dug at the ends of the banks to allow the water to flow away.


Scale drawing of a footboard, by Malcolm Wilson

Thomas Holden told me, “Every so often the ditch would lift ‘cos the peat rises, so you had to cut another depth off the ditch. … It was surprisingly how wet it was. You’ve got boards on your feet, you walk like a duck!” He laughed and stood up to show me, walking bent-kneed, bow-legged, across his sitting-room.

“The deeper you cut the wetter it got. We wore footplanks to stop you sinking. You had a piece of wood with the corners cut off. Then the bottom of a boot nailed on, and you put your wellies in and laced it up – we’d get bits of leather to strap the boot in, see?” Patrick explained.

 Piling the peats to dry

All peat is wet, and the best peat, low down, was the wettest. Drying the peats seems to have been a complicated process on Kirkbride Moss, perhaps influenced by the Dutch way of doing things (‘stooling’ is a Dutch word for the first set of peat-piles).

Patrick tried to explain the three stages to me, lifting and stacking imaginary peats in his sitting-room.

First, there was stooling or stooking: heavy work, piling the new-cut peats 4-5 high, with one bridging across the top of each stook, in a way that would allow air to circulate. There would be about 5-8 stooks along the side of the cut. Stooking started sometime after Easter, and the amount they could do would vary. “My Dad could do about five a day. He’d tell me, ‘stand in the ditch, Patrick, it’ll save your back,’  because you’d be having to lift the peats and it was easiest with the first rows.”

Thomas called this stage ‘walling’ rather than stooking. “You’d put two down then another two on top crossways so the air blows through the gaps – up to about five peats high.” I had taken along some wooden blocks and he showed me what he meant.

The stooks were left for one or two months to dry, depending on the weather. Then, according to Patrick, the peats were taken from the stooks and built up into small towers eight peats high, with a hole in the middle; more peats were stacked, slanting, against the towers. “You might have 6-8 towers along the bank. The air could get through everything and that’s how they dried.” This was walling. “Walling would be finished the middle of July, it would all be dry by then.”

Finally there was the stacking. “When it all got dry, it was time to stack. We had two barrers, they were long with wooden wheels, the legs were short, mebbe six inches high.”

Thomas explained further, “There were planks, we’d lay them each side of the walls and across the ditch at the end. We’d pile the peats on the barrer – they were quite light by then so you’d get on as many as you can – and wheel the peats along the planks and over the ditch. There’d be a space six or seven metres wide up the middle, you’d throw the peats roughly in the middle, then start to put them on the ground … building them up. The air gets reet through the stack. On the top you lay two peats so the water drains off. You get knackered throwing them up.” “The stacks would be all in a row right across the moss.”


Walls and stacks on Solway Moss. Courtesy of Cumbria Image Bank

“In the middle of your workings you might have 60 rows of walling,” Patrick said. “Dad would go way up the bunker [bank]– he’d run his barrer up and he’d build a tower to start about 12 peats high. Then you’d build the stack up against it, you’d empty your barrer and fling it all into the middle. The peats were then put in singly, up to 10 feet high. You put standards, peat standing up on end, then a whole row right the way round again. The stack would be like that—“ Patrick holds his hands up at an angle—“ to let the rain run off.”

It was all piece-work, Thomas said. “The foreman would come along and he’d make a note of how many peats you’d cut, how much you’d stacked.”

“You can imagine if it was bad weather you wouldn’t be earning much. But [Patrick’s Dad would] work to build up the peats so there was always walling and stacking to do. He’d put his wages on the mantelpiece every Friday night, he never opened his wage-packet. And Henders would come along and say ‘You two men have done as much work as these three other jokers’.”

Rails and locomotives


Narrow-gauge rails, Wedholme Flow, 2016: thanks to Mark Graham of Grampus Heritage

The dry peats then had to be taken to the mill – in waggons or bogies, drawn by a small, narrow-gauge locomotive. This meant that temporary rails had to be laid along the banks beside the stacks.

Patrick had started on the Moss when he should have been at school, but “at 15, they could legally employ me – and at that time you went to work filling the bogies. We could put the rails down even when we were young, we were strong. The only time we’d get to drive the locomotives was when we were putting the rails down!”

“The rails were tied to the sleepers by fish-plates and transported on a flat bogie, in pieces 4-5 yards long, piled 5-8 high on the bogies. Two men could lift them and put them in place. They were laid down all this way and that, it was hard to move the cart. I lost a few bogies in my time! There were sets of points too, to send the bogies to the different stack areas.”

Frank Mawby told me, “It was by all accounts an incredibly wet mire and I recall Pete Wanning [a later foreman] telling me that when they began the drainage of the main dome the bog sunk so rapidly that almost every morning they had to re-do the railway line because it buckled and distorted the tracks.”

Thomas, too, remembered the uneven-ness of the tracks. “The lads’d put their laal railways down, narrow gauge it was. It was all up and down, they’d need to chock up this bit, and let down that bit – there were some queer angles, like. The lines would be across the gutters and along beside the stacks – the lads’d stand on the stacks and throw the peats in the bogies. There’d be some fun with them, like, the bogies coming off the tracks …”

He talked about the locomotives being electric “with loads of batteries stacked on them, just sort of humming along. We used to ride on them sometimes ‘cos it was a long way to walk.”

Patrick’s memories were of diesel locos: “They were big diesel engines – originally from the First World War, 22-inch narrow-gauge. And they got a lot of the locomotives from the mines, the pits.” There was a driver – but Patrick had been able to drive too. “They could be hard to start. They had big crank handles, we used to tie a rope onto the handle and shout ‘pull!’ When it was cold, you got a peat and soaked it in the diesel, then you’d light the peat and put it over the air filter.”

According to a letter shown me by Henry Engelen Jr, Fisons (who took over the Cumberland Moss Litter Company) “arranged for a locomotive which [they had] donated to the Lakeland Mining Museum to be rebuilt for display and named Henry Engelen”. I went to look for it, so I could send him a photo, but although several men, young and old, who lovingly repaired and reconstructed old locos, were there, sadly none had any knowledge of that particular engine. I was, however, shown other engines from the Mosses – but none were intact, all were in various stages of decay, patiently awaiting repair.

The mill

At the mill, “The first grind, that was granular, very fine, and it was all baled between four pieces of wood and wire, and then compressed. Then there was the tailings, that was rough stuff used for horticulture. Even during the war, the army came and used it for packing bombs – you know, they had nothing else for packing, eh?”

Henry Engelen told me, “The peat was milled for horticultural use, and also used to make firelighters. They sliced the peat, and then the pieces, like fingers, were treated with paraffin and then wrapped in cellophane – that came from the factory at Wigton [where the plastic film for banknotes is now made].”

Cutting peat was hard manual labour, but Thomas thought it would be better than working in the mill: “When the mill-workers come out of the mill they were absolutely brown with all the dust. And it was noisy in there, really humming, you knew when they were milling.’

Out on the Moss

It was unremitting hard work, but what comes over strongly is how much Thomas, and Patrick and his father seem to have enjoyed being out on the moss.

“And see, you’d see all the wildlife. Cuckoos – my Dad would never disturb cuckoos. There were dragonflies, and adders there too … The only thing my Dad would grumble about would be the midges – but he’d have his pipe and he’d puff the smoke. Even in the rain it was good.”

(My thanks to Judith Rogers for these photos from her blog about Campfield Reserve)

For Thomas, “Mind you, I enjoyed it, there was a lot of freedom, there was nobody chasing you, like. What I liked about it as well, there was always a lot of birds there [he’s been a keen bird-watcher since about 12 years old]. There were cuckoos in summer, nesting in the meadow pipits’ nests – they nested in the stacks, and there were wagtails nesting there too. And I remember another thing, all the snakes – adders. One fella said he’d chopped more snakes in two than he’d hardly cut peat. The adders’d be curled up on the path, and they slithered away when you came.”

“On the moss, we’d get really dry, we used to run out of drink in the hot weather. We’d gaa across the fields and gaa to the farm and get bottles of lemonade – they made it there. We was absolutely gasping. … You could start at any time of day, some of them took their wives – it doesn’t mattter, as long as you get the peats.”

In contrast, “if it was really cold you could make a fire. If it was gey windy, where you’d stacked the peats you could take peats out and make an alcove, like. The peats would burn away faster than … they were that dry and light.”

Or, if you were near the mill, there were old railway carriages and, as Patrick recalled, “an old bus which was a bothy for the workers. We’d eat our pieces in there – we called it our ‘piece’ [that’s the Glaswegian term] and the men from Aspatria and Wigton, they called it their ‘bait-tin’.”

He remembers his father as a hard-working, kind and honest man: the photo in the sitting-room shows a man with a broad, kindly face. “He was only a small wee man – he had hands like leather. He was a grafter. As soon as he finished with his piece he started again. I always remember him, working away with his pipe in his mouth. He’d put it on top of a peat and forget where it was. Then later he’d be saying ‘You know, Pat, I’ve covered that pipe of mine again.’ In stacking the peats in the Springtime he’d find his pipe again and he’d always say ‘that’s the best smoke I’ve had for a month!’.”

But the men and the methods moved on.

In 1958, when he was nineteen, Patrick left the moss to work as a shunter on the railway.

Thomas left in 1963, having shifted from cutting peat to driving the bus for the peat-workers from Wigton. “It was the winter of ‘62/’63 – it was that hard winter, there was snow on the ground for months, everything was frozen. The covering of short moss, all over, it was solid. We went on the dole, and then I went to work on the chicken farm at Heathfield. I didn’t go back to the Moss after that.”

Henry Engelen Sr, meanwhile, went to Germany “to look at the automated cutting there, and he imported German cutting machines – which could cut, chop, lift and lay, so that the hard labour was done away with.” Engelen eventually sold the Cumberland Moss Litter Company to Fisons. After a management buy-out in 1994 Fisons became Levingtons; then Scotts took over the peat-cutting and milling in 1997, until peat-harvesting ended in about 2000.

The Moss was skimmed and ‘harrowed’, the heather all gone, the peat exposed and drying out. Patrick took his father back a couple of times, but they were upset at the changes, the lack of heather and vegetation, the lack of birds.

(My thanks to James Smith for these aerial photos)

Since 2003, Kirkbride Moss and Wedholme Flow have been in the care of Natural England, and work is ongoing to repair and re-wet the damaged peatlands. If the many wetland species of Sphagnum moss can re-colonise, they will capture and store rain-water, the virtuous cycle of wetland restoration can re-start, and the mire will gradually rise up again. This could take several decades, but the first steps have been made.

We appreciate, now, (even though this often means re-learning, and reminding others) how unique and important the Mosses are in terms of their vegetation, their animals – birds, vertebrates ranging from lizards to roe deer, and invertebrates such beetles and dragonflies –  and their importance as a carbon-store and record of the past.

The peat-workers, too, appreciated the wildlife and special-ness of the place, but in those days climate change and carbon stores were not part of the vocabulary. ‘Natural capital’ means different things at different times: then, peat was there to be harvested and sold, and peat-bogs provided work.

As for Henry Engelen Sr, after he retired “he liked his music, and his ballroom dancing – he’d often go dancing five times a week!” his son told me.“He bought the old British Legion hall at Silloth because it had a good wooden floor, perfect for dancing, and he took the floor away and used it in St Cuthbert’s Hall at Wigton.”


I am grateful to Patrick McGoldrick and his sister Bridget, and to Thomas Holden, for their warm hospitality and willingness to tell me about their experiences; to Susan Childs of the Remembering the Solway project for introducing me to Patrick; to Frank Mawby for helpful discussions about awards, stints and the history of Wedholme Flow; to Mark Graham of Grampus Heritage for the photo of the remnants of the narrow-gauge track at Wedholme; to Henry Engelen for a long phone conversation; and to Malcolm Wilson for his great generosity.

[1] Remembering the Solway, a video based on the Oral History Project with Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership and the NE Civic Trust; see especially the first two interviews (David Hume, Margaret Sharples) about working and playing ‘on the Moss’.

[2] Blackburn Moss ( probably Easter Inch)

[3] Ian D Rotheram (2009) Peat and Peat Cutting. Shire Publications, Oxford

[4] Anne Campbell (2013) Rathad an Isein, The Bird’s Road: a Lewis moorland glossary. Faram, Glasgow

[5] Martin Limbert (2012) Peat exploitation on Thorne Moors see especially the chapter on The Dutch (sadly the images are missing)

Cumbria BogLIFE Project

Posted in coastal heritage, conservation, industrial heritage, peat, bogs and moors, wetlands | Tagged , , ,

Time-warps and gnomons


Lines of sand-scape, Allonby Bay

It was a fine bright morning, there was still a sprinkling of snow on the fells, but Spring was clearly on its way; I’d spent too much time at my desk writing and longed for the changed perspective of the shore, and so arranged to be dropped at Allonby. Solway Coast AONB had asked for volunteers to help with a beach litter-pick at Silloth, so my husband had offered to help. We agreed I’d meet him at Silloth two-and-a-half hours later, which would allow plenty of time even if, as expected, I was distracted by rock-pools, tidelines and stones.

twentymans sweets2

Twentyman’s sweetie shelves

From Twentyman’s store, with its eclectic mix of goods and rainbow stacks of sweets, I walked along the ‘new’ cycle-track on the grassy bank by the shore – a bank that was built by the council to prevent the shore-side houses, some of which were formerly herring-salting sheds, being flooded by high, storm-driven tides – and then cut inland to walk beside the beck. Otters have been seen in the beck, despite its proximity to the houses, and one of my shore-walkers saw a kingfisher.

On the other side of the beck is the Ship Hotel, a blue plaque marking the fact that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins stayed there in 1857: it’s all too obvious from his story ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices’ that Dickens found the village very unappealing [1]. The tall red sandstone reading room, commissioned by the Quaker Thomas Richardson, and just a hundred yards along the road, drew his scorn too.

I crossed the fast-flowing muddy waters of the beck by a wooden footbridge, soon passing the long building of North Lodge, Thomas Richardson’s holiday home. The central house is flanked by ‘cottages’ in which single ladies and widows could live rent-free.

A small yappy dog leapt out of a car which had just parked, and bounded towards me, tail wagging, its ears as big as bat’s wings. It was hard to believe that 15 months ago, during Storm Desmond, the waves had been crashing over the bank into the carpark, so that those of us who had come to enjoy the wild mood of the Firth had hastily to move our cars up onto the road. Today, though, the tide was low and ebbing, the edge of the water a distant line.

Each time I come to the shore, I marvel how the beach profile has changed, season by season, year by year; sometimes the sea takes, sometimes it restores, the sand and shingle. Strange concrete structures, parts of now-defunct drainage schemes and perhaps the war, appear and disappear.

I continued walking on the grass above the beach for a while, past wooden benches and a shrine of sodden toys and dead flowers; dried seaweeds, a plastic bottle, and a mermaid’s purse – the egg-case of a ray – were tangled in the marram.

A tractor pulling a cylinder of slurry (a ‘pong-wagon’ in our childhood jargon) passed IMG_5025rszalong the road, leaving a trail of – pong. Two small birds zipped past me and perched on the tall dry grasses – stonechats, with proud strong markings of red and brown.

Rather than paddling through the beck that ran across the shore, I climbed onto the concrete outflow to admire Criffel with its hat of pale cloud, across the water in Dumfries-shire; Scotland was a land of misty blues and greens and browns, fronting the blue sea.

The grey mass of Seacroft Farm, perched on Dubmill Point at the North end of Allonby Bay, was for once looking comfortable as the sun dried its salty walls. In the ‘big tides’, with a storm driving up the Firth, spray is thrown over the roof of the house, pebbles and water cascading against the shuttered windows. The coast road becomes impassable, even dangerous, and the storm-surges are only prevented from taking bites out of the Point by the sloping concrete sea-defences, and the blocks of fossil-laden limestone ‘rock armour’.

Further along the shore, piled grunions have been ripped apart by the waves, their wire cages gaping and tangled, stones spilled out onto the shore.

But here, below Dubmill Point, is the Allonby Bay Marine Conservation Zone, barely one year old [2] The sculptural mounds and reefs built out of delicate sandgrains by the honeycomb worms, Sabellaria [3] were not yet uncovered, and the big blocky granite erratic known as Maston [4], a landmark on the low-tide shore, was only half-visible. Thread-like sandy coils on the surface of the sand around me betrayed the presence of young lugworms in their burrows, and a small flock of ringed plovers, previously masquerading as grey and white pebbles, took off from a few metres away; oyster-catchers peep-ed and trilled down at the tide’s edge


Reaching out wooden fingers from the concrete wall, groynes attempted to hold back the drift of sand and shingle that would be pushed northwards by the sea. Their lines of posts mirrored the posts of the abandoned oyster-lines that stuck up from the edge of rocky Dubmill scaur; the tops of the current oyster-lines, with their wire cages of growing shellfish, peeped above the water further out.

And then, round the corner, Silloth was just visible to the far North. Underfoot, drifts of fragmented sea-coal contrasted with the broken white shells of Buccinum, the common whelk.Three clear tidelines on the shore, memories of the passage of the moon, had in places sorted the jetsam by size: large tangles of weed at the top; a middle row of shells; and the lowest row with beech leaves, leaf skeletons, feathery hydroids and flat pale fronds of bryozoan hornwrack.


A grubby Shetland pony with tangled mane stared out from its paddock on the shore side of the row of three houses at Mawbray Banks, and I looked down towards the sea, hoping to see the strange low walls and triangular shapes of what must once have been fish-traps. I have walked these lines of boulders on a low-tide day and have flown above them in a gyroplane [5,6] and can discover no more than anecdote and speculation about their provenance: unlike the boulders in Allonby Bay, their oral history has vanished.

Then up onto the dunes again, through marram grass that, pale and wintry, still struck at my legs like sharpened knitting-needles. All along this shore, to gain the extra height of two or three metres provides a very different perspective; looking back, southwards towards the Irish Sea, the drumlin at Crosscannonby with its Roman milefortlet juts above the shore, and clouds of steam plume upwards from the Iggesund paper-mills further South at Flimby; the offshore wind-turbines on the Robin Rigg sandbank gleam white against the sea and sky.


Marram-grass on dunes near Bank Mill

Then I had a strange experience: there was a figure way down the shore, near the crooked boulder that I use as one of the markers for my low-tide shorewalks; someone walking slowly, crouching down to look in pools. I had never seen anyone so far down the shore, with that behaviour, before. Through my binoculars, I saw that it was a person with white hair, wearing a jacket the same colour as mine, and accompanied by a black-and-white border collie, similar to our own long-departed Hafren. It was like seeing my doppelgänger, through a timewarp of six or seven years: I mentally wished them well.

The dunes were close-cropped, pock-marked by rabbits. A halo of grey-brown fur marked a fight, but perhaps not a death, for there were no bones. In a shallow valley between the dunes I was surprised to find moss and lichen underfoot; the scrape for the natterjack toads contained water, greenish and still, but as yet no spawn. The nearby concrete arrow was a war-time relic, marking the direction for bombing practice for the young pilots from the Solway’s airfields [7].

arrow rsz

Back on the shore, the sand had shifted, large patches of pebbles had been exposed, and shingle had been pushed to the top of the shore and compacted, a raised beach in the making. Another small beck formed rills of light and water as it drained towards the sea, and further along I stood watching a larger braided beck, and puzzled about a regular pulse of water that travelled down it, spreading like a fan. Each time, the noise of the ripples briefly crescendoed, and a large round pebble was tumbled in the rush.

Changes had occurred too where the submerged forest [8] has been exposed for several years.  Now there were only battered peat banks and large pools of water, with no sign of the stumps and roots. A little further on, ridged banks and sheets of rough red clay like terracotta had been exposed – clay that must have been the source for the loom-stones and fishing-weights that you can occasionally, if you are very lucky, find along the shore [9]. The winter storms had damaged the seaward faces of the sand-dunes too, showing the layers of former beaches and vegetation. The holes of last year’s sand-martin nests were ragged-edged.


Past Beckfoot village where there is a Quaker burial ground, and where there was a Roman camp.

White splats, footprints and the occasional feather were clues that gulls had rested here,


Evidence of gulls

preening, on the mid-shore.


I could see my goal in the far, far distance –  a sandy point, and just inshore the pale rectangle of the grain silo at the port. It was more than 45 minutes away for sure. I needed to walk faster, to cover some distance, keeping to the firm smooth sand of the mid-shore – no diversions would be allowed to look at tidelines, sand-ripples or pools…

Out in the Firth, I could see the small green shape that was Beckfoot buoy, which with the Solway and Corner buoys marks the ‘English channel’ for shipping up to Silloth [10]; Criffel was now clear of cloud and the hill-top clump of trees to the West of Caerlaverock merse was as sharp as a gelled quiff.

Jared Diamond, talking about the ability to spot birds in the rain-forest canopy, talks of the transient glimpse and the sense that ‘something is awry’ in the familiar and expected pattern of the surroundings. And so it was on the smooth, domed sand of the mid-shore – a merest flicker that took a second to register. A slim twig, barely 18” high, barely seen, bearing tiny unopened leafbuds, and stuck vertically, so firmly, in the sand. How did it get there? I had seen no footprints for half a mile at least. Its long, thin shadow, was precise as a gnomon. I looked at my watch – and laughed: the time was midday, precisely, and the shadow pointed directly North. Directly North, to where the AONB’s volunteers were now just visible, as small black pins, on the distant sandy point.


Now, with only a half-hour left, I strode determinedly North, cutting a chord across the curve of the shore. The pins fattened into columns, grew tall on a wavering mirage. The sun was right behind me, the shore was otherwise empty, and my husband would see me now and wait. The figures were no longer black – one wore orange, another pale blue. At a quarter-past-twelve they bunched together, and shrank in size until they vanished. For a moment I felt completely alone and bereft, unable to believe that nobody had waited.


Lees Scaur lighthouse  – the ‘Tommy-legs’

But the sun was warm, the Firth was blue, Scotland was close across the water, and I had some attractive fragments of pottery in my rucksack. The ‘tommy-legs’ lighthouse stood like a spider-crab at the edge of the tide, and the varying sound of my footsteps over the alternating bands of sand and fine shingle was delightful.


Half-an-hour later I finally reached the carpark by the port. The tide was out, leaving the mud of New Dock to be enjoyed by a flock of dozing redshank.

I admired the mountain of beach rubbish the AONB volunteers had collected – and I finally had time to pause for coffee from my thermos, before getting a lift home with my husband!





Not long into this walk, I realised how intimately I had come to know this shore – both in the minute sense and from a larger viewpoint – and (less intimately!) some of the people who live and work along it. Below are links to earlier articles on my blog and website about some of the things I saw on this walk: each will also have links to information and articles by other people, all of which will help you to follow up on the ‘stories’should you be interested.

[1] ‘Hobbling through Allonby with an Idle Apprentice’

[2] ‘Big moon, big tides,at Allonby Bay’  andAllonby Bay MCZ, a slimy, dangerous place?

[3] The Sabellaria reefs

[4] ‘The naming of stones’

[5] ‘Loom-stones and fish-traps’

[6] ‘The design of the Solway: an aerial perspective 2’

[7] ‘Hudson Bay’

[8] ‘The submerged forest’

[9] ‘Loom-stones or fishing-weights?’

[10] ‘Piloting a ship up the Firth to Silloth’

Posted in Allonby, Marine Conservation Zone, tidelines | Tagged ,

Lighthouses of the Upper Solway: a guest post by Captain Chris Puxley

For many years, Captain Chris Puxley was Harbourmaster of the Port of Silloth and  a ship’s pilot, bringing ships up the Solway’s unpredictable channels from Workington. He has always been interested in the Port’s history and has written a book about it, The Port of Silloth, and amassed a fine collection of photos, charts and documents. He was also, until December this year, a regular contributor to the Solway Buzz (as ‘Captain Slog’) reporting on shipping movements and events at the port.


I first met Chris back in 2010, when I was writing an article about the port, and we met again when I wanted to find out what it was like to pilot a ship up the Firth to Silloth. Both those articles were published in Cumbria Life, but I have subsequently added to them and they form part of my Solway Shore Stories collection – and you can read much more there about the Port of Silloth and Chris’ role.

‘Lighthouses of the Solway’ was his final column (see page 13) in the Solway Buzz (he has decided to hang up Captain Slog’s peaked cap) I am grateful to him for allowing me to reproduce it here, with photos from his own collection. Silloth is now the only functioning port for cargo ships on the Upper Solway, so it’s good to learn about the ways in which they – and fishing vessels – are alerted to ever-present dangers.


The lighthouses of the Upper Solway

East Cote Lighthouse


The East Cote lighthouse was established in 1841, as a navigational aid for shipping proceeding to and from the quays at Annan and Port Carlisle – it initially shone a red light out over the Solway. For many years it was manned by Silloth man, Edward Dalglish, and later it was maintained by the Silloth Port Authority.

Although sited at a fixed position for most of its life, in the 1850s it was reportedly placed on a short trackway so that it could be moved to shine a light down the latest navigable channel, whilst in transit with the Silloth Pierhead lighthouse. The shape of the wooden structure has changed little over the years, receiving a major overhaul in 1997.

It currently shines a fixed green light down the Silloth approach channel.

Lees Scar Lighthouse


Aerial view of Lees Scar lighthouse at low tide (photo: Ann Lingard)

Located on a shallow outcrop of hard clay (scaur or scar) to the south west of Silloth Docks, it was commissioned in 1841 as part of the suite of navigational aids for vessels trading to and from Annan and Port Carlisle.


It was equipped with a fog bell, and various old charts indicate that it shone a white or a red light. It was and still is maintained by the Port of Silloth. For a while it was manned by a keeper called Tommy Geddes, from whence it acquired its local name ‘Tommy Legs’.

In the Carlisle Journal of Friday 7th September 1906, there was an article reporting the drowning of the Silloth lighthouse-keeper Samuel Jardine on the previous Saturday. He had been in the job for some time and usually walked out to the Lees Scaur (sic) lighthouse at Low Water, when it was safe to negotiate a number of depressions across the dunes to reach the scaur and climb the tower. On this occasion, he had been seen proceeding to the lighthouse rather later than was expected. As it got dark, it was noticed at the dock that the light was not shining, so the Silloth tug was sent to investigate. The lighthouse was found to be locked and unattended. Sadly, at 5.30am the following morning the body of the keeper was found face down on the sands by a walker on the beach. The Coroner concluded that the deceased, being late for work and whose watch had stopped at 7.15pm, had been caught by the incoming tide on the Saturday evening on his way to the lighthouse. A verdict of “Accidental drowning” was returned.


On 1st July 1911, the Dockmaster at Silloth came across the Lees Scar lighthouse-keeper in town, at a time when he should have been manning his lighthouse – to make matters worse he was drunk. Suspending him from duty, a deputy was arranged to take his place. When the deputy went to take up his duties at about 8.30pm, he found that the lighthouse was on fire. The blaze had been noticed by others, who had reported seeing a figure running away from the scene. The regular keeper was later arrested and sent for trial at Carlisle Assizes, where he was found guilty of having feloniously set the lighthouse on fire. An emergency light was rigged on the structure until it could be repaired.

The lighthouse continued to be manned until 1938, when the structure was declared unsafe.


Lees Scar lighthouse as it is today

The light was re-established in 1959 as a result of the gradually collapsing pier. The elaborate light housing on the top platform is now long-gone and the legs’ bottoms have been reinforced with concrete. For a while in the 1970s-80s a small glass fibre cabinet on the top platform housed the light batteries, which were re-charged by a wind-powered generator, but this arrangement was replaced around the year 2000 by a solar-powered light, which now flashes green every 5 seconds.

Silloth Pierhead Lighthouse


This attractive timber-built lighthouse, which was established in 1857 at the extreme end of the new Silloth Pier and maintained by Silloth Port Authority, had to be abandoned for safety reasons when the end of the pier began to subside during the early 1900’s.

With the loss of access to the pierhead, a replacement light was erected near the end of the stable section of the pier. As the pier gradually deteriorated, the light marking this structure was also moved, to indicate the pier’s extremity at night.



Pierhead light in the 1930s and the 1960s

Barnkirk Point Lighthouse

Located at Barnkirk Point, at the entrance to the River Annan, this light was built and commissioned in 1841, as one of the navigational aids for the small docks at Annan and Port Carlisle. When the dock at Port Carlisle closed, the lighthouse was managed and maintained by staff at Silloth Docks. It was equipped with a fog bell and had two fixed white lights, one shining down the Firth, whilst the other shone upstream towards Port Carlisle. The lighthouse was decommissioned in the 1960s and was destroyed by fire shortly afterwards.


Southerness Lighthouse

Located on Southerness Point, Dumfriesshire, it is the second oldest lighthouse in Scotland, commissioned in 1748 and completed a year later. The structure was improved in 1805, under the guidance of the famous lighthouse builder Robert Stevenson, but it was not lit until 1881. The structure was owned and maintained by the local lighthouse authority, to act as guidance for shipping using a navigable channel to the River Nith and the small dock at Carsthorn, which served the busy trading town of Dumfries. As trade ceased to that dock, the lighthouse beacon was extinguished and the structure decommissioned in 1931.


Still visible from Silloth, the 17m tall, rectangular white tower is now cared for by the owners of the nearby caravan park.



Posted in coastal heritage, Guest Posts, ports | Tagged ,