The Solway viaduct

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The Solway is as smooth as silk, the water slipping in around the embankment that points a stubby finger towards Scotland.

We have reached the embankment’s distal end by stepping and teetering along the sloping wall of dressed red sandstone blocks – St Bees’ stone, mica flecks glinting – that fit neatly together and, where they have been disturbed, reveal an infill of sandstone rubble. Out at the point, storm-driven waves have destroyed the embankment’s integrity; blocks lie tumbled and shattered – and a line of rusty cast-iron pillars is all that remains of the Bowness end of the Solway railway viaduct.

It is more than 80 years since the viaduct and its railway were dismantled, and little remains to show the embankment’s former purpose. Now, its upper surface is hidden by a scarcely-penetrable tangle of grasses, bushes, gorse and bramble; below this thicket, the red sandstone appears ancient, aged by whitish-grey patterns of lichen, but then it grows youthful once more, fresh and rosy, where it’s been exfoliated by the friction of the waves. Green algae, thin intestinal sheets, skirt the lower edge where it touches the sandy shore.

A hundred years ago, we might have heard the chuff-ing of an approaching train, and the rumble and rattle of wagons crossing the iron bridge, swathed in smoke, but today, the hottest day of the year, the only sound is the gentle sussuration of the incoming tide.

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The viaduct was part of the Solway Junction Railway (SJR) that ran from Brayton, via the Abbeytown and Kirkbride Junctions, to Kirtlebridge in Scotland.

(The diagram by AfterBrunel is licensed for use under Wikimedia Commons)

On March 28th 1865, Alexander Brogden, Director of the Solway Junction Railway Company, accompanied by many dignitaries and hundreds of the townspeople of Annan, handed a mahogany-and-silver spade, with a mahogany-and-silver wheelbarrow, to Mr Ewart, the local MP, who cut the first sod.

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From The Carlisle Journal, March 31st 1865

Between then and 1869, when the viaduct was officially opened, barges carried building materials to the site: perhaps the stone for the Scottish and English embankments was brought by rail and road. Where was the stone quarried? In which country were the pieces of wrought-iron and cast-iron made? I try to imagine the activity on land and out in the Firth, the different craftsmen – seamen, stonemasons and metal-workers – the thudding of the pile-driver, the hammering, the shouting, the sounds of the sea and the wind. For nearly four years, that region of the Upper Solway, the villages, the pubs, the roads and marshes – the wildlife – must have been transformed.

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As for the viaduct itself, it “was effectively a trestle construction with 193 spans of 30 feet; each pier consisted of five cast iron columns of hollow section, 12 inches diameter; the outer columns were raked, acting as buttresses to the three inner load-bearing columns. The columns were founded on iron tubular piles that were driven by a steam pile driver, after an unsuccessful attempt to screw them in to the substrate.” (Wikipedia). There is much more about the design and construction of the viaduct, including these drawings by Brunlees, in The Engineer, April 9th 1869 (page 252).

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James Brunlees’ engineering diagram, from Grace’s Guide

John Howes, in his typewritten document  (quoted in full on Peter Burgess’ informative Cumbria Railways website) talks about the viaduct being “one of the greatest engineering feats of the day.” Quantities, measurements, are quoted lovingly in all the articles about the bridge: “.. a sea embankment 440 yards long on the English side, and one of 154 yards on the Scottish, which gave the foundations of the 1,954 yards-long bridge. The track was 34 feet above the sea level [mean high water?] supported by a pillar every 30 feet, whilst cast-iron used amounted to 2,900 tons together with 1,800 tons of wrought iron.”

The engineer responsible for ‘one of the greatest feats’ was James Brunlees (1816-1892), who also designed the Morecambe Bay crossing and the docks at Whitehaven. Brunlees’ career is a delightful story of serendipity and determination. His father was gardener and steward for Mr Innes, the Duke of Roxburgh’s agent in Kelso and, according to one of Brunlees’ obituary writers in 1892, intended his son to become a landscape gardener. However, the surveyor Alexander Adie, who was working on the estate, allowed James to help him, and “the useful assistance he rendered that gentleman was acknowledged by the presentation of a theodolite” with which James subsequently “in the summer evenings” made a plan of the farm. Innes was so impressed that he asked James to survey the Duke’s property. Eventually, he was able to attend classes at Edinburgh University, after which Adie appointed him as his assistant – and with new appointments and continued study, Brunlees became a well-known railway and maritime engineer, twice President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and knighted in 1886.

(These images are from the excellent website, Solway Plain Past & Present, of the Holme Cultram History group)

The crossing over the Solway was opened to freight in 1869 – from September three freight trains ran each way every day, and a passenger service started the following year.

The purpose of the SJR was to transport iron ore, haematite, from the West Cumberland mines, directly to foundries in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, avoiding the long dog-leg to Carlisle.

The wrangling between the various railway companies who feared a loss of freight business – the Caledonian, the Maryport and Carlisle, the Glasgow & Southwestern – about the proposed SJR was protracted and too complicated to discuss here.

Sadly, the income from the transport of iron ore didn’t live up to expectations; in 1873 the SJR, by then in debt, sold the Scottish side of the line to Caledonian. By the mid-1870s cheap Spanish iron ore was being imported directly to ports in Ayrshire and income fell even further.

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As airline pilot Mark Vanhoenacker explains so lucidly in Skyfaring, his aerial, four-dimensional view of our planet is strongly dominated by water, in all its liquid, frozen and particulate forms. So too is the character of the Solway Firth and its fringes: the sea and its tides, the rivers and estuaries, the bands of fog, the Mosses and the glittering jigsaws of the saltmarshes.

(images from my gyroplane flight)

Forms of this wateriness caused delays and the final downfall – literally – of the Solway viaduct.

Although by 1869 freight trains could pass along the whole SJR, and passengers were permitted between Kirtlebridge and Annan, passenger traffic to Bowness was delayed until March 1870. It was the sogginess of Bowness Moss that had caused the problem. The SJR’s Directors reported to a shareholders meeting in Westminster in October 1869,

“unexpected delays …prevented the earlier opening of the line, particularly those in connexion with the crossing of the Bowness Moss.   … Additional works had been required on the Moss, but the difficulties of this part of the work were now mastered. …  It had been considered advisable to postpone the opening for passenger traffic until the line over the Moss had been thoroughly consolidated by the running of goods and mineral traffic over it. The report of Mr. J. BRUNLEES, the engineer, stated that during the past half year continued attention had been given to the drainage of Bowness Moss, and it was now so far consolidated that the passing of loads had very little effect on it. He had reported some time ago that the goods and mineral traffic might be conducted with safety at a moderate speed, and with engines of medium weight.”

According to John Howes, it had been “necessary [on Rogersceugh Moss] to sink bundles of wood, or faggots, into the marsh in order that a firm bed might be provided” .

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On that hot, humid day, we left our bikes in the green, shady lonnin that marked the southern corner of Bowness Common and the RSPB’s Reserve, and walked along the track that divided boggy, re-wetted Moss from heathery carr. In search of longer, wider views we were heading for Rogersceugh Farm (pronounced Roger-scuff), built on a view-point above the Moss, on the whale-back of a drumlin.

Flies buzzed in clouds, clegs lurked and settled; there were wild raspberries to eat, and splashes of scarlet Robin’s Pincushion parasitising the wild rose stems. And then a chance encounter, of the sort that I’ve come to expect and hope for round the Firth: men out on the heather, heaving a thin rod out of the peat and upwards to the sky.

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Peat-coring

Peat-corers. They had just reached the clay, they said, at 5.5 metres; they were surveying the depth of peat each side of the track, because the farm buildings had been sold, and the route of the track might be changed. ‘It’s a bad day for clegs,’ one of them said.

It is said that when the track for the railway was built across the Moss, the workers had to cut down 50 feet to find a solid substrate.

Further on, cattle stood in fields each side of the track. A red car appeared, reversed and stopped. A small, white-haired woman got out and walked to a fence, stood talking to the beasts who came towards her. She smiled at us as we came closer. “Clegs are bad. You’ve got bare legs.”

Another chance encounter: she introduced herself as Dot Harrison, former owner of the farm, who had “heard the cattle blaring” and had driven over to see what was wrong. Had we seen the waterlily pond? she asked. There were red and yellow and white flowers. “The farm belanged til Lord Lonsdale so mebbe he had them planted. I did wonder if the ducks had fetched them in…” We mentioned the ‘dismantled railway’ featured on the OS map. “It’s right here, look,” she turned round and pointed at a gated track behind us, now overgrown and barely-distinguishable as the former line. “And you see the concrete there?” – blocks almost buried in nettles and brambles – “there was a hut there for the railway. That concrete was made to last!”

We wondered about going across the field to look for the rest of the line, but the cattle were fractious, the ground was boggy, the clegs were bad; it would have to wait for another day.

“Aren’t you scared to walk over the Moss?” she asked. “I would never do it! When I lived here there were adders, hundreds of adders. I was scared stiff of them. When the men came to dig the drains they used to go out in their lunch-break and catch them.”

We said we’d only seen a couple on the Mosses in several years, and later that day a friend from Solway Wetlands group told us he hadn’t seen any this year, even in places where he had formerly reliably found them.

As we walked past the derelict and decaying farm, the hot air vibrated with a threatening, rumbling mutter. At each side of another lonnin, out of sight but within smell and sound of each other, two bulls were arguing over who was dominant; seeing us, one turned our way and blared.

The water-lilies were not in flower, although the pond’s surface was obscured by their leaves. The view, of the Northern fells, the wide water-dotted Mosses, the Firth, the Dumfries and Galloway coast and hills, was spectacular. A nearby line of dead birches, bare branches glistening white, marked what was possibly the ‘dismantled railway’, built across the once-deep and soggy peat.

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Water damaged the viaduct during the winter of 1874/5. It had entered some of the pillars and frozen, its expansion causing the cast-iron to crack. Eleven load-bearing pillars and 20 ‘rakers’ had to be replaced or repaired, and holes were drilled in the pillars above high-water mark to allow condensation to disperse.

Then, in January 1881, exceptionally cold weather caused the rivers and fringes of the Firth to freeze. When the melt began, huge ice-floes formed and were pushed at speed down the Solway, crashing into and piling up against the viaduct. Initial damage was quickly repaired, but the damage became more severe within the next few days, and on February 4th the Edinburgh Evening News reported: “The damage to the pillars begins at a distance of 400 yards from the English coast and extends in varying degree to about 100 yards from the Scotch side. … there are altogether 44 entire piers gone, two of them double piers of 10 columns each; and other pillars have been broken at intervals in other places, making the total number of pillars broken over 300. … there are two complete gaps in the bridge where piers, girders, plates and railway have completely disappeared.”

The viaduct was broken.

Later a report by the Railway Inspectorate (quoted in the Wikipedia article) notes “…when the momentum which would be acquired by a piece of ice twenty-seven yards square and in places six feet thick (the dimensions of one piece actually measured), upon a tide running at ten miles an hour is considered, it is not surprising that cast iron columns twelve inches in diameter, seven-eighths of an inch in thickness, which owing to the long-continued frost were in a very brittle state, were unable to resist the shock.”

After that, the state of the viaduct and the railway fluctuated. The viaduct was repaired, goods and passengers were permitted to cross, the fortunes and finances of the railway companies varied; the First World War saw trains carrying West Cumberland ore and pig-iron from Workington to Clydeside, and supplies to the new Eastrigg munitions works.

Judy McKay’s name is on a cliff at Fleswick Bay, beautifully carved by her stone-mason father James. Her family owned sandstone quarries on the West Cumberland coast and had an arrangement with a quarry at Annan.

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James McKay, stonemason (Thanks to Mrs Judy Beeby for this photo)

She told me that her father had learnt some of his craft at Annan, and although the family lived at St Bees’ village, Jim would cycle all the way to Annan, by way of Sandwith to pay the men, then up the coast to West Newton, and finally to Bowness-on-Solway. And then, as she said, “At that time the railway bridge across the Solway was the quickest route to Dumfriesshire, and the railwaymen would allow James to carry his bicycle across the bridge.”

However, by May 1921 the structure was declared so defective and dangerous that Caledonian announced they would no longer use the viaduct. Passage of trains across the Firth was finished.

Thereafter, until it was demolished, its gappy and airy bed, “swaying and clanking in the wind”, was used as a crossing by trespassing pedestrians, especially it is said, men from Scotland who came across to the English pubs on Sundays!

In 1934, “Arnott  Young & Co.of Glasgow, who had purchased the whole system, began demolition work on the Viaduct; and so firm did they find the old structure that a considerable amount of blasting was necessary, in spite of its having been condemned as unsafe some 13 years ago” (John Howes‘ document). Chris Puxley has an interesting photo of the boats involved in the demolition in his article in the Solway Buzz (see footnote).

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At the Whitrigg junction, a modern house, ‘Whitrigg Station House’ has been built on the site of the old station; there’s no sign of the railway bridge across the River Wampool. A woman weeding beneath her front wall smiles and flaps her hands, and says, “The clegs are bad today.” At Bowness, the stone station building is a private house, hidden by trees.

The pillars on the Bowness embankment are warm in the sun; a few rusty bolts remind us of the noise and bustle, and doubtless dangers, of the viaduct’s construction. The pillars remain as a monument to “one of the greatest engineering feats of the day”.

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Footnote: I’m very grateful to Chris Puxley (‘Captain Slog’ in the Solway Buzz newsletter) for alerting me to his 2014 article about the viaduct. He has included some particularly interesting photos (see page 13, Issue 129).

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