To understand how something works, you need to understand not only its design, but its interconnections and interactions with its surroundings.
So it is with the Solway Firth.
My ongoing fascination with the Firth’s ‘design’ is why I have recently flown over it, and have walked across it at low tide. The new experiences and perspectives are adding to my glimpses of ‘understanding’ all four dimensions of this segment of sea and shores.
An aerial view
Last week I took a flight in a gyroplane to get an aerial perspective: but all did not go to plan (*).
The plan was to get to Carlisle Airport for 7.30am so as to fly South-West to the upper end of the Firth and then fly down the coast to reach Allonby Bay at low tide. Low water was due at about 0930h, and would be a good tide, as low as about 0.4 metres – perfect for over-flying and photographing the exposed rocky scars, the named boulders and the strange lines of stones along the shore. Andrew Lysser, who runs Cumbria Gyroplanes based at Carlisle, was completely unfazed by the fact that he’d have to get up at 5am to reach the airport and do pre-flight checks: as he said, “It’s good to have something make you get up in the morning.” Andrew not only takes people up on flights but is also a gyroplane instructor and experienced aerial photographer (some of his photos of the large vessel Scott Pioneer entering Silloth harbour can be seen here), and he very generously offered to take additional photographs for me.
At the aircraft hangar I was fitted with flying suit, scarf and helmet; hung my camera’s lanyard round my neck; found my gloves; discarded my notebook. Andrew explained some of the mechanics of the ‘plane to me, gave me a few important tips about communication and emergency procedures (this wasn’t EasyJet – I listened!); and then we went outside to look at the gyroplane. The open-sided flying-machine, with rotors that looked ridiculously flimsy, and a motor that sounded like a wasp, was rather shocking. Getting in required some flexibility.
Andrew checked with the control tower; told them our plans, was given clearance, and we motored across to the runway, then accelerated along it, waiting for the top rotor to reach 200 revs/min. As I watched our shadow to my right, I saw a gap open below the shadow of the wheels and the runway and I knew we had become airborne, smoothly. My mouth was so dry with nerves I could barely reply to Andrew’s questions, and I felt very exposed; there was nothing between me and ‘outside’, only the seatbelt holding me in.
He calmly pointed out the warehouses and alterations to the airport perimeter for the new Stobart expansion; a mansion belonging to someone well-known; the huge expanse of Carlisle’s railway marshalling yards. It became easy to enjoy the experience. We were seeing places which, screened at ground-level, I hadn’t even known existed. We spied.
But, less than a half-hour into the flight, a grey curtain approached the coast from the South, obliterating the fells, the fields and woods, the Firth, the Scottish hills. The rain was driving North and East towards us. If we couldn’t find a ‘hole’ through it, or fly around it, we would have to turn round: too much rain damages the tips of the rotors – but in any case we would not be able to see anything, and without a lid over us, we would get wet.
The wall of rain looked solid and wide and low, and even though we flew North again to find an edge, there was no way round. Instead we flew back into the sunshine towards the Border, over Rockcliffe Marsh and village, Lanercost Priory and nearby Naworth Castle – and over an unusually secluded village near Longtown.
The saltmarshes and the channels in the Firth
But the unexpected consequence of this short flight was that the design and functioning of the margins and channels and shoals of the Firth had become much clearer.
We flew over the saltmarshes of the Upper Solway, beyond which the outgoing tide had left sandbanks and mudflats glistening in the sun. A great advantage of the gyroplane is that you can fly low and fairly slow, which gives you plenty of opportunities for a detailed look. The vibration precludes taking legible notes – and, with my lack of skill, good clear photos – but here are some observations:
Burgh (‘Bruff’) Marsh: three cattle start running, tails up, but the rest continue grazing, unconcerned. Bright white dots on land and water are gulls; a cormorant takes off, its beating wings leaving a V of spray; Andrew tells me he has seen salmon when they are running upstream.
The darker, flow-patterned beds of the rivers Eden and Esk show clearly beneath the surrounding shallow water.
The uninspired monument to Edward I stands in the middle of the marsh, well away from the track: the king died while leading his men back to England across the Solway,and for a while his body lay in state in the fortified church of St Michael at Burgh-by-Sands.
Burgh Marsh is intercut with creeks and straight lines of drainage; water shines silver and blue amongst the green.
At Port Carlisle, the port is silted with mud in shades of brown, grey and green, the dilapidated harbour wall a tumble of red sandstone; the end (or start) of the abandoned Carlisle canal remains just visible.
Bowness-on-Solway curves up and along a rise in the land; coastal mud now reaches up towards the road, and is etched with the patterns of currents where the incoming tide sweeps round the English side.
A rectangular stub of stonework is all that remains of the Bowness to Annan railway viaduct. Even the channel holding the ebbing tide is shallow, and sandy shoals cast off the water. A couple of weeks previously, Mark Messenger, haafnetter and owner of Glasson’s Highland Laddie pub, had told me it was now possible to walk across the Firth here on a good low tide, for the first time in his memory.
And so towards the Campfield RSPB Reserve, where – having previously walked on springy grass and leapt across narrow inlets – I suddenly understood the three-dimensional nature of the saltmarsh. The lower level is jigsawed by glistening creeks, but the green sward rises in ever-dryer steps towards the narrow road that follows the coast. The RSPB’s scrapes for wading birds have been inundated by the tide, and retain the water.
Then we circled, rain spattering against the windshields, as we searched for the edge of the cloud. We briefly followed the traces of the Port Carlisle canal that lay parallel to the road, before re-entering bright light and colour.
Three days later, I crossed the Firth on foot near Bowness and, at low tide, felt the force of the Rivers Eden and Esk.
For longer illustrated articles about the saltmarshes (including the experience of wildfowling at dawn), the shifting sands, and haafnetting in the incoming tide see Solway Shore Stories. There are shorter pieces about, for example, the changing sea-bed, on this blog.
(*) Plan B, to fly down to Allonby, has been scheduled for the Extreme Low Water Spring tides in early September
A post about crossing the Firth on foot will follow very soon.