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 ,

SACs, SPAs, SSSIs: what do they mean (and should we care)?


Aerial view of Upper Solway at a very low tide

Think of [the list] as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories.” [6]

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

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

This is why the Upper Solway is protected from human exploitation and ‘re-arrangement’ by layers of statutory – that is, legally-enforceable – conservation designations. You can investigate their virtual boundaries yourself on the excellent interactive maps on MagicMap [1]. I have included screen-shots here for simplicity (having enquired of MagicMap whether I might do so) but you can ‘layer’ the designated areas if you go to the MagicMap website.

‘Designations’, ‘directives’, ‘habitat’, and hosts of unmemorable acronyms (2, 3): I’m well aware that these are a turn-off for those of us who aren’t professionally involved in looking after our country’s wildlife, but there is a way of appreciating them, which I explain elsewhere.

‘Safe areas’ along the Solway    

First, though, let’s look at our Solway Firth, the sea and estuaries and the many varieties of coastal ‘edge-lands’ that form this large crooked finger of water that reaches deep into the borderlands between Scotland and England.

The large, and main, protected area of the Solway Firth is the Upper Solway Flats and Marshes, which unites the two countries around the coasts and across the water.


Ramsar sites (in green). From MagicMap

This is a Ramsar site – designated as important wetlands under The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands,  an intergovernmental, ie international, treaty which ‘provides the framework for national action and international co-operation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.’

Exactly the same area is designated under EU legislation as a European Marine Site (EMS). This is quite complicated and I quote from the Solway Firth Partnership’s website:

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


SACs (purple) & SPAs (blue). From MagicMap

It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) under UK statutory protection (overseen by Natural England & Scottish Natural Heritage, respectively. So it’s not trivial.

And note that a proposal to extend the SPA is currently under consideration (for more details, a map, and how to respond, see the Solway Firth Partnership’s website.)


Proposed SPA (from Solway Firth Partnership’s website)

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

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


MCZs. Designated (green) and Recommended (yellow). From MagicMap

Over the past few years, DEFRA has been designating parts of the English and Irish seas and coast as Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs). The ‘Cumbrian Coast MCZ’ stretches along the shore from St Bees’ Head to Ravenglass, and ‘Allonby Bay MCZ’ pushes out into the Solway, recognised especially for its important honeycomb-worm (Sabellaria) reefs . Three deep-sea muddy areas in the Irish Sea, with their own special animals, have also been put forward for consideration by DEFRA in the next round; one of these is Mud-Hole near to the Cumbrian coast, home to ‘Dublin Bay prawns’ (aka scampi, Norway lobsters, Nephrops). The ‘Solway Firth’ recommended MCZ  has been re-entered into this tranche for consideration, as a site of importance for smelt.

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

Parcels of protection

The sea, estuaries, mudflats and saltmarshes of the Solway Firth have been parcelled, here and there, into places of protection for what economists would call our ‘natural capital’ – as though it is something to be used or exchanged – but for what in reality are the vast numbers and species of other residents of our own land- and sea-scape.

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

If we move inshore, a little deeper into the edgelands, we find dunes, then peaty raised mires (the ‘Mosses’) (4) and areas of carr and wetland where water is retained. Many of these places are special, too – for their appearance and ‘feel’, the colours, the smells, and the very different plants and animals and fungi that live there.

And luckily for us – and them – many are under statutory protection.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Too much information?’

I’ve brought this information together

  • firstly to understand how, and to what degree, the Solway Firth and its edgelands are protected from human intervention, whether from carelessness or from major construction projects;
  • and secondly, to dispel my own despair over lists of acronyms by considering what these ‘designated areas’ mean in real-life terms.

Let’s turn again to Richard Fortey: “Think of [the list] as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories.”

He persuades us to think beyond the check-list of  ‘species found’: to pause, and take time to examine the stories and life-habits of those species. But his suggestion could equally apply to the list of designated conservation areas along the Solway. SAC? Tick. SPA? Tick. SSSI? Tick, tick, tick …

And what of those ‘stories’? I invite you to investigate them by turning to The acronyms’ stories on my Solway Shore Stories website, and starting to read from the section headed ‘Imagine’. I hope these might help an understanding of the reality of conservation designations.


Ewes on the flooded saltmarsh, Moricambe Bay (AONB, SSSI, SAC, SPA, Ramsar)

Designations, legislations

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

If you carry out dredging operations on Ramsar mudflats, place gas-gun bird-scarers on an SPA, drag a trawl across the bottom of an MCZ, or set fire to the heather on a SSSI – who has the power to stop you? Will you get a ‘talking-to’ or be taken to court? And if you are to be prosecuted, under which laws, and in which court and where – a local magistrate’s court, a Crown court, or the European Court of Justice? Post-Brexit, will we have a UK Environmental Court? (In answer to the latter question (Q329) at the Environmental Audit Select Committee, Andrea Leadsom of DEFRA stated we will not. But Ministers’ statements are rarely set in stone.)

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

It also depends whether the damage is done by you, as an individual and therefore ‘third party’ (when you might be answerable to, for example, Natural England (7) and petty crimes might be prosecuted in local courts), or whether the damage occurs because one of the statutory organisations – such as the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage – have failed to fully protect or manage a designated site. More serious infringements could well require lawyers expensively well-versed in international environmental law.

After looking into this, and asking questions of my friends and contacts in the relevant organisations, I realised this section could stretch to several pages. So, happily, I can point you to the Marine section of the excellent website, [8] ‘Law & the environment, a plain guide to environmental law’

Also, there is a government website [9] solely concerned with legislation. From the page on Marine Strategy regulations you can, if you wish, click on Section 2, Enactments, and can keep following and clicking (here, for example, is how the MMO has power to bring legal proceedings). And so on, and on, until you forget which question you wanted answered, and need to escape to watch videos of ‘dogs doing silly things’ on YouTube.

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

Footnotes and useful websites:

My sincere thanks to Dr Emily Baxter (Senior Marine Conservation Officer, NorthWest Wildlife Trusts), Dr Brian Irving (Solway Coast AONB) and Clair McFarlan (Partnership Manager, Solway Firth Partnership) for their help in pulling together this information. Any mistakes are mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Law & the environment, a plain guide to environmental law http://www.environmentlaw.org.uk/rte.asp?id=270

9. Government legislation website http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2010/1627/contents/made

Posted in conservation | Tagged , ,

Snippets 11: big moon, big tides, at Allonby Bay

On Monday night the full moon, its face very slightly squashed, shone down on a stormy Solway Firth. The brown silt-laden waves pounded ashore and shortly after midnight the incoming tide that was battering the sea-defences at Dubmill Point reached its highest level at just over 10m above Chart Datum. And then, as physics ordains and, despite the northerly wind driving the waves ashore and trying to fight the sea’s retreat, the tide dropped and dropped, and the newly-exposed shore at Allonby stretched further and further into the Firth. As is the way of the Solway, the good low tides are not at convenient times, and thus early on Tuesday morning the Allonby shore (1) was deserted, apart from one man and his dog.

The sun rose behind Skiddaw in the North Lake District, hidden at first by heavy cloud, but then breaking through to shine on the righteous in Dumfries-shire, leaving us Cumbrians – for several minutes – in the gloom.

I didn’t waste time investigating the mid-shore rocks with their dense coating of small mussels but walked and splashed straight down to the water’s edge, to follow the tide out before it turned. Past the wreck of the ship’s keel, still decorated with green algae, beadlet anemones, barnacles and the sandy tubes of a small colony of the honeycomb worm Sabellaria; noting in passing that the heavy, rusty chain had broken away from its fixture.

I rescued an upside-down hermit crab that had been stranded on the sand; two others had been ‘rescued’ by gulls.


And then I was where I wanted to be: amongst the Sabellaria (2), amongst a strange shorescape of dark sculptures, projecting from the water. On a low tide such as this, the reefs and mounds and clumps appear to stretch out endlessly into the Firth. They trap pools of still water which reflect their beguiling forms.

Sunlight was creeping towards me, turning the reefs golden as it touched them; this was a time to stand still, to watch as the shore was transformed.

Now colours appear: shining sheets of the green sea-lettuce Ulva, filamentous red algae like Ceramium, flat red fronds, and the brown blades of young Laminaria and the crinkly sugar-kelp Saccharina. A sea slug, the Sea-Lemon Archidoris (whole, but tentacles and gills retracted), the banded red-and-white tentacles of dahlia anemones, Urticina felina, that are part-burrowed in the sand, small orange ‘blobs’ of Baked Bean tunicates …

The Sabellaria reefs provide a haven for other sessile animals: sponges –the  lumpy green blankets of the breadcrumb sponge Halichondria, pale fingers of Haliclona and, unusually, the pink sponge Adocia cinerea; there are delicately branched hydroid colonies and the flatter colonies of the bryozoan Hornwrack, Flustra: all of them animals which are fixed in place, and must wait to trap passing food.

I wander amongst the pools, lifting weed and stones, bending to peer under rocks and poke amongst the reefs. Today I am alone, I’m not a ‘low-tide guide’ with responsibilities, and there’s time and space in which to rediscover that ‘sense of wonder’ which, in this troubled year, I’d felt I was losing. For this is not just a matter of ticking off a mental check-list of ‘species found’, exciting though that is. It’s a time to think about the life-styles of these animals and algae, to think about how they live and feed and, above all, to think about their inter-connectedness and inter-reliance. And how the state of the Solway Firth – the height and times of its tides, its temperature, its energy, the sediment it carries – affects the stability of these reefs and their occupants.

Time passes, there is a stillness everywhere, even amongst the few gulls and wading birds.

Then gradually I become aware of a gentle noise, a bubbling of water amongst stones, as if from a beck. The sea is returning.


Scum on the water

Some of the lagoons are still emptying into the sea but now there is a pale scum of bubbles on the surface, the sure sign that the tide has turned and the incoming water is picking up sediment.


I have to leave – and I know this is the last time that I’ll be amongst these special, low-shore reefs until the next very low tide, several months hence.


On the way back I make a diversion to look at the oyster lines, where American oysters, Crassostrea, are packed together in suspended cages. Filter-feeders, they open their shells and filter the water across their broad gills when the tide comes in, trapping organic particles and extracting oxygen. Despite, or perhaps because of, the Solway’s sediment-laden water they seem to be growing well; some are more than 10 cms in length. They will be sorted and sent away to cleaner waters off southern England to complete their growth.

A few years ago, on one of my shore-walks the oysterman Wilf Morgan opened shells with his pen-knife and handed them to the walkers to eat. A few weeks later, I found an opened shell and half a lemon on one of the posts.


(1) Allonby Bay on the Cumbrian coast, was designated a Marine Conservation Zone this year. See also my post ‘A slimy dangerous place?

(2) There is much more about the Sabellaria reefs and platforms along the Cumbrian coast on my Solway Shore Stories website.

Posted in Allonby, Marine Conservation Zone, Sabellaria, honeycomb worm, Snippets, Spring & Neap Tides | Tagged

Snippets 10: stone stoops

an old stoop

The iron bracket hints at the old stoop’s former purpose

Gateposts don’t normally attract our attention, so it is easy to miss the fact that many of the ‘posts’ supporting field gates on the Solway Plain are not posts at all, but are the traditional red sandstone pillars – known as ‘stoops’. Aged by the weather, streaked with rust, their bright colour dimmed by pale encrusting lichen, they book-end wooden or metal gates – or, rusty brackets the only hints of earlier purpose, empty spaces. They were set in the ground at a time when farm-machinery smaller, but as tractors and combines have ballooned in size, so these field openings have often become too narrow for access; stoops have been broken or removed, replaced with wood or concrete posts that are atypical of the landscape and not aesthetically pleasing.

One of the ‘heritage landscape’ projects of the Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership has been to commission new stoops and reinstate these traditional features of the Solway landscape.

With the help of the Solway Coast AONB, the Solway Wetlands team identified potential sites for replacement and, Chris Spencer, the Project Manager, told me, “landowners were approached with the offer of replacing missing or wooden or concrete gateposts with the sandstone stoops”.

Twenty pairs of stoops were ordered from the Cumbrian Stone company in Penrith. The pink stone, glistening with quartz particles, is typical of the Penrith red sandstones, ‘aeolian’ sandstone, formed by in wind-blown dunes, and was quarried from Bowscar Quarry to the North of Penrith (1) and subsequently cut, shaped and carved by masons at Cumbrian Stone before being delivered to the RSPB’s Campfield Reserve near Bowness-on-Solway.


Here, on a windy and bitterly cold day in March, people gathered for a ‘stone-carving workshop’ arranged by SWLP under the guidance of stone-carver Tom Baron, who showed participants how to mark out and then cut the outlines of the herons that were to be carved on the two stoops for the Reserve.



Later in the year, holes were dug and the stoops installed, with the help of Dinsdale Moorland Services (2), in gateways around the Solway Plain. Local blacksmiths produced the bands to enable the gates to be hung.


stoops in place from twitter

Chris Spencer, Solway Wetlands’ Project Manager – with one set of stoops in place

There are new stoops at one of the entrances to Natural England’s Glasson Moss, and on field-gates near Bowness and next to the line of the old canal and railway at Glasson. All twenty pairs can be seen from the roads or public footpaths – so look out for these handsome and functional traditional structures, each engraved with a distinctive ‘W’.

“I spy with my little eye, something beginning with S” …


(1) Bowscar Quarry stone

(2) Dinsdale Moorland Services also helped restore part of Natural England’s Glasson Moss

Posted in coastal heritage, quarries, sandstone, Snippets, wetlands | Tagged , , , ,

The Solway viaduct


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.

(For much more about the construction and dismantling of the Solway Junction railway across Bowness Common and the Solway viaduct, please go to the Crossing the Moss website, the results of a project carried out by myself and James Smith in 2016/17.)


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.


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.


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).

brunton engineering drawing

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.


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. The character of the Solway Firth and its fringes is also best understood from the air: the sea, the 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” .


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.



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.


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.

beeby father2

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).


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”.


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).

Posted in coastal heritage, industrial heritage, peat, bogs and moors, Solway Viaduct & Railway | Tagged , ,

Crossing the Sulewath: A guest post by David Livermore

crawfod's map2

Detail of Crawford’s 1804 map: Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Two big rivers feed the head of the Solway.  The Eden drains all Cumbria from Helvellyn to the Pennines, the Esk harvests a rainy quarter of the Southern Uplands. Rockcliffe Marsh separates their outlets and the OS map shows few features except for swamp.  This geography doesn’t matter if you’re speeding up the M6 and M74, but was critical in the past.  The old road crossed the Eden via Carlisle’s medieval bridge, 10 miles from the river mouth, then followed its east bank.  The Esk wasn’t bridged until 1759.   Before then you waded the ‘Sulewath’ near the Esk mouth or were rowed over at Willie of the Boats (see A labyrinth on Rockcliffe Marsh, 1884, p71).

Celia Fiennes rode southbound in 1697:

[The Esk] which is very broad and hazardous to crosse even when the tyde is out, by which it leaves a broad sand on each side which in some places is unsafe and made me take a Good Guide which carry’d me aboute and a crosse some part of it here and some part in another place, it being deep in the channel where I did crosse which was in sight of the mouth of the river that runs into the sea….

Prince Charlie retreated northbound in December 1745, with the Esk in spate. He was lucky to get over, with the cavalry in two ranks to break the flow and the infantry marching between. ‘A Hundred Pipers’ commemorates the crossing, but reverses its direction and implies future glory, not the butcher’s bill of Culloden Field.

Wi’ a hundred pipers, an’ a’, an’ a’. / The Esk was swollen sae red an’ sae deep, / But shouther to shouther the brave lads keep; / Twa thousand swam owre to fell English ground / An’ danced themselves dry to the pibroch’s sound.

Other fords crossed the lower Eden, saving the upstream diversion to Carlisle.  Cattle drovers came this way, pushing their herds into West Cumberland.  The southbound Prince Charlie came too, outflanking Carlisle, which surrendered with embarrassing alacrity.  Old maps give the Peatwath below Castleton House and another ford at Rockcliffe.  Long beforehand, Edward I – Hammer of the Scots – died of a bloody flux at Burgh by Sands, preparing to cross and punish Robert the Bruce for insurrection. Perhaps Rockcliffe Marsh wasn’t so extensive then and the ‘real’ Sulewath, from which the Solway takes its name (see The Fords of the Solway, 1939, p58), was a long oversands route from Burgh to Gretna, punctuated by the two river channels.  That would also explain how Alexander II, returning from looting Cumberland, lost an army to the tide in 1216.  You need a long crossing for a big catastrophe.

And me? I came at the end of a 20-year project – which gradually grew and grew – to walk the edge of England. Chester to Gretna was my last coastal stretch and Cumbria became a ribbon of oversands crossings.  The light and loneliness are addictive, spiced by fear that it might just go horribly wrong.

The Queen’s Guides brought me over Morecambe Bay and I danced round Duddon quicksand with Gilly the Fiddler , failing to catch flukes with our feet. Peel to Walney Island I crossed alone, also the Cumberland Esk, its shallow water bitter cold. Autumn had come.  In November I failed to find anyone who’d take me over Moricambe Bay, Grune to Longdyke, and blistered my heels walking the road, mocked by a footpath sign at Anthorn, which points straight into the river.  I reached Glasson on Solway that afternoon but, next weekend, the rains came.  All Cumbria was awash.  Riverside paths were impassable, let alone oversands routes.  I retreated to Kent.

At last, a warm May weekend this year pulled me to Mark Messenger’s Highland Laddie pub at Glasson and to a fluid arrangement to cross the Solway, made over home-caught trout.  Saturday night’s plan was oversands from Glasson to Torduff. But it’s a neap tide, meaning that low water isn’t low enough. Spring tides are better: low means low. So, Sunday breakfast, we swap to a scheme that Mark would meet me, 2pm, at Burgh by Sands and see me over the Eden.  That would save the walk to Carlisle and I can pick up the Cumbria Coastal Way to Metal Bridge.

At Old Sandsfield, a little before noon, I see the Eden up close.  It’s big, deep, dark and muddy.

google esk & eden map

Satellite view, from Google Earth, showing the Eden, the Esk and Rockcliffe Marsh, at low tide

But, encouraged by the thought that the tide has two more hours to drop, I head inland to Burgh. At the Greyhound I drink cider and rearrange my rucksack, clearing the bottom compartment to take my boots. They’ll wedge spare clothes higher up. Then I shorten the camera sling so it rides on my chest and shift banknotes to my hat, which I tie down hard.   Some things are better dry.

Mark’s van interrupts my drink and we lurch down a rutted lane, scraping the chassis, then walk over pathless fields.  Reaching open marsh, we cut a quarter mile south of King Edward’s monument, then turn north, over channels bridged by concrete drains.

A short half-mile brings us to a sandbank next to the Eden, where I make a fool of myself struggling into borrowed waders – with a shoulder strap caught under my crotch.  Other estuaries I’ve done in shorts and trekking sandals.  That’s my excuse.  Second try I get it right.

Mark suddenly suggests, ‘It’s low.  We could get over Rockcliffe Marsh and the Esk too, if you like?’

‘Have we time?’  It’s two hours to low water, and the Esk must be an hour away.  Mark must re-cross, and the upper Solway tides ebb for 10 hours and rise in two.  It’s not good to be late.

‘I’ll get back fine.  And if we can’t get over the Esk, you walk out to Metal Bridge.’

‘Let’s do it. ‘Thanks!’

eden at sandsfield rsz2

The Eden at Sandsfield (C) David Livermore

 So we step into the Eden, Mark ahead and me tailing.  He carries a pole for balance and to test the bottom, which is firm. Brown lapping water deepens quickly: knees, thighs; little waves up to my waist.  Deeper than the Kent or Leven, let alone the Duddon, but not much force. I’m interested, rather than discomforted, that my right leg is filling with river.

‘We’re over,’ says Mark with satisfaction, still midstream.  We are too: the Eden turns shallower with every subsequent step until we reach the sand, where my foot acts as a pump, expelling a fountain from an obvious boot-hole.

From here we steer over Rockcliffe Marsh, which is higher and firmer than the map suggests, talking of salmon and tides, making a line towards Gretna’s houses.  Bullocks follow, friskily curious. Mark sees them as a good omen. The farmer only puts them on the marsh when it’s dry, he says. The channels, saltmarsh traps, are easily jumpable, even in waders, leastways until we hit a big evil-looking one with sloping brown sides and a bottom like watery diarrhoea.  The sides are too wide and sloped for a clear leap.

Mark goes first, hits the far slope and sinks in the ooze. I’m not sure how deeply because I shut my eyes for a moment. Which is a stupid thing to do, preventing me from learning anything useful.  As I open them he’s extricating a filthy knee and telling me to go further up.  Which I do, turning a small corner and finding a place where a cow has crossed.  Gingerly I edge down the sloping earth, then leap, landing on all fours, relieved to find that only one leg is sinking.  A quick scrabble and I’m clear, muddy handed, one wader hanging loose.

‘Have to watch for that one coming back,’ observes Mark.

To my relief, we hit no more traps.  Instead we follow the route of the farmer’s quad bike, roughly north by northeast.  Metal Bridge and its lorries are visible in a foreign world to the east. It might as well be China.  More relevant are white skeletons of trees stripped of bark and stranded on the marsh.  They mean we’re near the Esk, Mark tells me, and we talk of the winter floods that swept them down from Scotland.

Ten more minutes we’re by the channel, on another little sandbank, from which we try to cross.  The river deepens.  And deepens.  Water from the leaking leg cascades over the fork and fills the other, from which it can’t escape.  Rats.  Even so, I’m quite relaxed: we’re half way over the Sulewath.  Then Mark halts and tells me we’ve hit a ‘pool’. So we turn and stand in the river, watching it flow around us, before retreating to where we started.  It is all slow motion.

Fifty yards upstream a little rib of stones runs out, with the water rippling over them.   Here we try again.

‘It’ll be shallower where you can see the flow,’ is Mark’s judgement. ‘It’s still waters that run deep.’

Which proves spot on.  It’s no deeper than the Eden, with a firm sandy bottom, which turns to soft mud as we reach the far shore.

‘Go over this quick,’ I’m told, ‘It’s a bit sinky’.

Despite the weight of water I’m now carrying, I lunge 20 yards forwards, feeling the suction of the mud, but refusing it time to pull me, then drop onto flotsam besides a stone embankment.

Here, after I’ve thanked Mark and we’ve parted, I sit for a long while, catching breath, playing with the camera and changing into dry shorts. Then I make my way along the strand, crunching driftwood, till the embankment is blocked by a barbed-wired gate and the beach by a barricade of old iron. I could force this, but decide I’ve won the day, dodge round two fields and climb a gate to the old A74, shortly before it curves away from the motorway. In less than a mile I’m by the Gretna Chase Hotel.  Immediately beyond is Sark Bridge, with the ‘Welcome to Scotland’ sign.  The whole English coast is behind me, which I cannot quite believe.

I sit for a long time, thinking of 3000 miles of coast and Offa’s Dyke behind me. Or is it 4000? Everyone asks, and I’ve no idea.  The Solway was a good finish and I recall ‘kindness received at stranger hands’ – men like Mark, who have taken me on these old oversands ‘roads’, not quite lost in a world with little use for them. Then, very slowly, over an apple, my mind turns to the line ahead: 105 miles to Berwick, to close my circle.   It’ll be strange without the sea.

A bus ride later, grubby and with my hat pulled down over a broad grin, I weave my way into Carlisle’s Crown and Mitre Hotel, through wedding guests who’ve emerged for a cigarette: dark suits, loosened ties, white gloves, smooth satin dresses. The desk manager look askance at this approaching tramp, delegating me to a junior, who enquires if I’ve had a good day.

‘You bet, ‘ I say, ‘I’ve waded the Sulewath….’

My grateful thanks to David for taking the time to write this account of this northern finale to his epic walk.

I walked a short part of the Solway coastpath with Professor David Livermore last year. Knowing of my own Solway crossing from Bowness, and my blog-post about the ancient ‘waths’, he’d been in touch with me to ask if I knew anything about the possible crossing of Moricambe Bay and the River Wampool at Anthorn. I went on a (slightly unnerving and unsuccessful) recce for him, and also was glad to put him in touch with my friend, the guide and haaf-netter, Mark Messenger, who subsequently very ably guided him across the river waths.


Posted in crossings & waths, Guest Posts | Tagged , ,

The ‘Sir John Fisher’: a trip in a lifeboat from Workington to Whitehaven



The Sir John Fisher, waiting to enter the water at Workington

“Ann? Come and stand here.”

You don’t argue with John Stobbart, Coxwain of the Sir John Fisher. He’s a tall, imposing man with a gruff voice, and he’s standing at the wheel of Workington’s lifeboat – which is currently suspended over the sea. It’s the Solway’s only All-Weather Lifeboat (ALB) and is the only one of the UK’s ALBs to be launched in this way, slung from a davit. Minutes earlier I’d watched as it was hoisted from its tracks and lifted sideways, out over the water. The boat was lowered, bringing the deck level with the quay, and I and the crew stepped aboard.

I stand by the aft hatch, out of the way, watching the business of getting the boat ready for sea.

Then John orders me to stand next to him.

“You’re going to steer,” he says.


I’d been gathering information about the Solway’s lifeboats and coastguards, to write a longer article for Solway Shore Stories about how the Firth’s waters are protected, and just a few days previously I’d contacted John Stobbart to ask if I could come and talk to him about the RNLI’s Workington boats. He phoned back to ask if I was free to join them for a trip down to Whitehaven: an offer I certainly wasn’t going to refuse!

My plan had been to glean as much information as possible about the activities of  the two boats, in the wider context of the Firth’s protection – but what I learnt instead is part of the Sir John Fisher’s swan-song.

She (or should a boat named after a male donor be gender-neutral?) has been in service for 24 years and, as one of the few remaining Tyne-class ALBs, will be retired from the RNLI’s fleet next year. This, then, was a trip to launch the appeal for funding for her replacement, a new Shannon-class ALB.


One of the crew found me the appropriate gear – the smallest wader-and-boots combination in the store. There were straps to deal with, then a yellow waterproof jacket and a lifejacket.

I was given a helmet with a visor so I could “get the feel of it”. Michael Cowling (Second Mechanic) showed me the red tube down which I could blow to inflate the inside of the helmet against my head to hold it in position.



(Mechanics, incidentally, don’t wear lifejackets below deck – presumably so they can crawl into tiny spaces by the engines.)

I stepped aboard, tried to keep out of the way.

The boat was being lowered the final few metres into the water.


And,“You’re going to steer,” John Stobbart says.

“As soon as you see we’re in the water – we’re in it now – you’re going to go astern …. These two handles—” he takes my right hand, “pull them back towards you, see here where it says ‘Astern’. Keep the wheel where it is, see, here at zero.” Next to the wheel is a metal plate marked in degrees, zero at the bottom, increasing in steps of 10o in both directions.

The boat inches backwards out of the slings.

I can’t see clearly because my helmet keeps slipping down over my eyes.

“Now, you’re going to turn, and follow the other boat out.” I have to push both throttle levers forward, gently, turn the wheel hard round to the right – and the bow swings to starboard and we circle to point out towards the sea. The ‘other boat’ is Workington’s inflatable Class D Inshore Lifeboat (ILB), the John F Mortimer, with a crew of three. It’s light and manoeuvrable, and ALB crew member Stephen Mcallister tells me, “We use it for recovering persons stranded on rocks, because it can go in shallow water. We can even beach it if we have to.”


ILB John F Mortimer

“Follow the other boat.” Out through the mouth of the Derwent estuary, between the piled boulders of the sea-defences on the left, and North Bank on the right. The boat veers towards the sandbank.

“You’re too busy talking, Ann, you need to turn 10 degrees to the left.”

I stop my nervous chatter. I need to get used to the slight delay in the boat’s response. The Solway is flat and grey, the wind-turbines are motionless – what must it be like to steer this boat, to make intricate manoeuvres near a broken boat, a person in the water, in huge seas?

We’re out into the channel. “Now, push the levers as far ahead as you can, both together.” Our speed increases dramatically, the bow lifts, and I can’t see what’s ahead.  John clicks down the two switches to the left of the wheel, which activate two hydraulically-operated plates at the keel to change the trim (there’s a photo elsewhere on this blog) and the bow drops: visibility restored.

“See that yacht there? Head inside it. Keep to the left.”

And so I steer this sturdy lifeboat, in its smart blue, red and yellow livery, on a slightly nervous and wavering course along the coast, South towards Whitehaven.

There isn’t time to enjoy the new perspective of the coast. I snatch a quick glance astern at our widening wake. The ILB is dashing around us, bumping through the wake and out into the Firth. Members of the crew are standing around on deck or busy in the cabin; Gary McKeating is taking photographs (I see later that my smile looks more like a rictus of fear).

After about ten astonishing minutes (I really am ‘driving’ a lifeboat!) John reclaims the wheel so that I can go below to see what is happening in the cabin. I’m allowed to take off the helmet.



The main cabin

Steven Wood, today’s navigator, is immediately welcoming and starts to explain what he is doing. He shows me the on-screen chart, and our position. Using that nearby yacht as an example, he explains how he can mark the position of whatever needs rescuing; the computer then draws a line between the lifeboat and the object, and the measurements of the bearing and distance come up on screen.


There’s a smaller back-up screen, “And if all else fails, there’s always the chart,” he smiles, lifting manuals to show the laminated one on the desk.

“We can calculate the time from this manual if we know the wind speed and the direction of the tide.” Diagrams show the vector based on tide and wind.
“And we’re transmitting all this information to the coastguard at Belfast to keep them in the picture.”

“But that’s mainly for when we’re further out at sea. Close in, we use our own knowledge, we’re all locals.” Steven points to the outlines of a sandbank on the digital display.  “The tide can be running in on the outer side, but the current on this side might be in the opposite direction.” Long-standing local knowledge is vital in the tricky Firth.

Ryan Lawson is sitting further forward, in front of the radar screen. He’s the youngest of the volunteer crew, at 20 years, and joined two years ago. When I ask him what made him join up, he smiles and shrugs. “It’s in the family. My Dad’s here, he’s on the crew.” Is it difficult to get away from work? “I work in a garage, so it usually works out ok.”

Later, the Operations Manager Tim Chittenden tells me that there are currently 25 volunteers (the Mechanic is employed by the RNLI). “We had a patch a couple of years ago when we were a little bit low on numbers, but we’re just training up three very good new recruits. The crew are from all backgrounds – there’s John, of course, who has his own construction business, there’s an engine driver, a cage-fighter who’s an expert in martial arts, a plasterer, and of course quite a few from Sellafield.”

When there’s a ‘shout’, they’re contacted by their pagers, and Steven tells me that a minimum of six crew are needed to man the boat. Four of the crew are trained as mechanics, and most of the crew are trained to do the other jobs – this morning Ryan has been having further training on the radar. There are seven seats in the main cabin, a few for specific occupations. “When there’s a call-out, the crew come in and sit down. The seats at the front are the best, everyone likes that one [by the radar]. No-one likes this seat!”

We climb through into the small forward cabin, one of the ‘recovery rooms’ (there’s another one at the stern). There’s a folding bench along one wall; a small sink and kettle; boxes with flares, a spare anchor chain; boxes with spare parts for the boat and one labelled ‘hot cans’; a panel with fuses and relays for the engines. The toilet, a chemical loo, is an unscreened box with a lid: I don’t bother to investigate.

An open hatch leads forward to an even smaller compartment where the anchors are stored; there’s another hatch in the roof leading to the deck. If these hatches, and the one to the main cabin, are closed the compartment is completely watertight. “The boat can still float with several compartments flooded,” Steven says. “And as long as one engine still works we’re ok.”

I try to imagine what it would be like in here, in stormy seas. Steven pokes the ceiling: “The ceiling’s got polystyrene padding so your head gets some protection!”  Here at the bow, the cabin would be crashing up and down, it would be noisy from the waves and from the engines. You could get very sea-sick, I suggest. Steven laughs. “But you’d think it was better than where you’d come from!”And as Tim says later, “It’s better than being dead!”

We’re now approaching Whitehaven and John is pulling a strange outfit from a bag. There’s a deal of banter as he climbs into the giant ‘Stormy Stan’ costume that has already been used in previous fund-raising events; he can only see through the netting at Stan’s mouth by tipping Stan’s head backwards to apparently admire the sky.

The port authority comes on the radio noting our arrival. Men and boys are fishing from the quays; people gather to laugh and take photos; Stan waves his huge gloved hands as he steers, and booms out “hallo!”

The eight swans paddling in the marina show no interest at all.

The ILB putters in and moors behind us on the pontoon.


The start of the Shannon Appeal: Anne Thomas, Judith Hodgson, Robert McLaughlin & Wayne Fox

There is a gazebo on the quay, a photographer and reporter, and a group of smiling on-shore volunteers – and the  ‘Shannon Lifeboat Appeal’ is launched in conjunction with the help of The Times and Star.

‘Stormy Stan’ waves and shouts.



Tim Chittenden, wearing a pale blue shirt with the RNLI logo, comes down to the boat and introduces himself. Tall, fluent and with a quietly humorous manner, he was a marine engineer, and eventually a rear-admiral, in the Royal Navy. He tells me he then worked at Barrow for five years before retiring and moving to West Cumbria. Then, four years ago,“John [Stobbart] approached me to see if I’d like to get involved and pretty soon I was hooked!” He mimes holding a fishing rod and reeling in the line.

He is now the Workington RNLI’s Operations Manager, responsible for the day-to-day running of the station, and the launching of the lifeboats.

“The boats from Silloth and St Bees’,” he explains, “can go out in up to a Force 7 or 8. But this boat can take up to a Force 10. We can cover an area all the way up from Ravenglass to Port Carlisle, across to the Isle of Whithorn and half-way to the Isle of Man.”

We talk about the design of the new Shannon class ALB, due to arrive at Workington next year. It’s faster – it can travel at over 25 knots as compared with the Sir John Fisher’s 15kn.

Designed in-house by the RNLI, its fibre-reinforced plastic hull has a specially developed new shape to reduce the impact of crashing into waves and, propelled by twin water-jets (like the highly-manoeuvrable boats that service the windfarm) it can move in any direction, even laterally, fast.

All six crew will be seated, and each seat will have screen showing the Systems Integration and Management System (SIMS) which, according to the RNLI, “provides access to all communications (VHF, DF, intercom), navigation (radar, chart, DGPS, depth and speed) and machinery monitoring including engines, transmission, fuel and bilge.” This means that information about any of the systems can be transferred to any of the crew.

Later, on the quay, Bob McLaughlin tells me about the seats with great glee. I’m very pleased to meet Bob again; we last met, by chance, about a year ago when one of the Tyne-class boats was being lifted from the sea at Whitehaven, when he took great delight in showing me all kinds of different design features of the boat’s hull.

He’s been with Workington RNLI in a variety of roles since 1962, is currently the Chairman of the Management Committee, and has just been awarded the RNLI’s highest honour, Honorary Life Governor of the Institution.

The hydraulic seats have also been carefully designed, Bob tells me, laughing. There are collars and adjustments, so that anybody can adjust the amount of rise and fall to fit their weight. Images of yo-yos come to mind.

But the speed and comfort are important. Tim emphasises the benefits: “It will have the great advantage that the crew will arrive in good shape, they won’t have been knocked around, they’ll be in the best possible condition for the rescue. And they’ll be safer, so it’s better for the RNLI.” And of course, the boat will reach the people needing to be rescued and get them back to shore more quickly.

As for the future of the Sir John Fisher: next year the crew will go down to RNLI HQ at Poole to train on the new Shannon and to do sea-trials. Then the new boat and a ‘spare’ plus some professional staff will come to Workington for a week and help with the training here. The crew each have to take an exam at the end. “When the RNLI decide we know what we’re doing,” Tim says, “they’ll take away the old boat and the ‘spare’.”

While we stand talking, people stop by the gazebo to find out about the Shannon Appeal. They’re invited to come aboard the Sir John Fisher, and to look at the ILB. There are Shannon mugs for sale.

The appeal has been launched here in Whitehaven because it will be more visible in this popular location, for one problem with the lifeboat station at Workington is that it’s almost invisible: the port is on the outskirts, and not open to the public (in comparison with St Bees’ and Silloth where dozens of people walk past the boathouses all the time). As Second Coxwain Stephen McAllister says to me, “Don’t get me wrong, we like Whitehaven – but we’re from Workington.” And of course that’s where they’d most like to be seen and supported. But by taking a display stand (with Stormy Stan) at local carnivals and other events, “We try to raise the profile for the station.”

The crew pose for a photo and then strip off their yellow suits and head off into town. Alayne Cowling, the mechanic’s mother and one of the onshore fund-raising volunteers, later tells me that the pub donated £20 to the fund.

mark regan photography FB

Whitehaven Marina, June 18th 2016 (Thanks to Mark Regan, for this photo)

(Mark Regan : https://www.facebook.com/TheRegsyphotography/)

Crew, from L to R: Joe Birkett, Ryan Lawson, Michael Cowling (2nd mechanic), Stephen Mcallister (2nd Coxswain), John Stobbart (Coxwain), Pat Carr, Steven Howard (ILB helmsman), Lee Moore, Steven Wood

Front row (in RNLI blue shirts and ties): Robert McLaughlin (Station Chariman), Tim Chittenden (Lifeboat Operations Manager), Wayne Fox (treasurer)


The Shannon Lifeboat Appeal (supported by Sellafield Ltd and the Times and Star)

Details from the RNLI website:

‘The total cost of Workington RNLI’s Shannon class lifeboat is £2Million. It will be part-funded as follows:

  • By a generous legacy in excess of £1Million from the late Mrs Dorothy May White. Dorothy, a long-time supporter of the RNLI, came from Birmingham and died in February 2012. Workington RNLI’s Shannon will be named Dorothy May White in her memory.
  • A donation of £500,000 from The Sir John Fisher Foundation. The Sir John Fisher Foundation is a charitable trust established in 1980 by Sir John and Lady Maria Fisher. The Foundation’s objective is to distribute its income to charitable causes throughout the UK, but with special regard to those based in and working for the benefit of people living in and around Barrow-in-Furness and surrounding area.
  • From accrued donations from numerous RNLI supporters (the Workington Shannon was also the recipient of the RNLI’s Summer Appeal mailing).

The RNLI looks forward to the appeal raising the remaining £150,000.’


How to donate:

Directly online via Just Giving

Or text RNLI WORKINGTON to 70300 and donate £5

Posted in ports, RNLI, ships | Tagged , , ,

Allonby Bay MCZ: a ‘slimy dangerous place?’

2011_09_01 074 Allonby criffel sab

Low tide at Dubmill, looking across to Criffel (Thanks to Alan Sawyer for this photo)

Allonby Bay, on Cumbria’s Solway coast, recently became a Marine Conservation Zone; there are now 50 MCZs in English and ‘non-devolved’ waters and proposals for more are under consideration.

Most people, probably, neither know nor would they care.

Here are some figures, taken from a 2008 survey carried out for Natural England (1):

  •  99% of the 4000 people surveyed couldn’t name a feature or creature associated with the (general) undersea landscape;
  •  44% thought it was ‘barren’.
  •  For 60% of the sample the instinctive response to the undersea landscape “is characterised by a mixture of fear, disgust and shame: fear because it is a dangerous place, disgust because it is thought to be cold, dark and slimy … and shame because it is thought to have been allowed to get into this state …”

There’s also a North-South divide: “Northerners describe ‘their’ sea as dirtier and colder than the rest of the country and cite industrial pollution as a big factor in this.”

Sir Martin Holdgate, Trustee for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, noted at the North-West Wildlife Trusts’ Irish Sea conference a couple of years ago that “it is difficult for us as land-mammals to understand what is going on in the oceans.”

A sea of acronyms

Another part of the problem is the complicated sets of acronyms and conservation designations, and legislative bodies (if any) who over see them. The Allonby Bay Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) is a type of Marine Protected Area (MPA); much of the Firth is also a European Marine Site, which encompasses various other types of designation (SAC, SPA etc).

It is a relief to know that so much of the Firth’s special habitats and wildlife is under statutary protection (although unfortunately this doesn’t necessarily mean active protection and management), but most people – understandably – are unaware of, or don’t understand the meaning of, the acronym-ed areas. Conservationists banging on about, well, conservation, yet again. Hard to get excited …

To help with that, I strongly recommend the Solway Firth Partnership’s very readable, clear and informative explanation of the Solway’s various protected areas and their designations.

And the Joint Nature Conservation Council (JNCC) has a helpful interactive map of the UK’s MPAs – home in on the Solway, increase the magnification, and click on the areas outlined in colour to see what type of MPA they are and what are the features responsible for that listing.

Of course, more interest might be stirred if some major threat to the sea or shore is observed or proposed: dumping of rubbish on a large scale, say, or huge jetties for a quarry, or large spills of oil or toxic chemicals. Even then, the emphasis might initially reference the economic and health consequences for the local human population.

This sounds like a harsh judgement, but realistically, how many people really care about fish? ‘Iconic’ species like whales and basking sharks (we don’t have any polar bears in the Firth) are always news-worthy, but who bothers about honeycomb worm reefs, starfish, soft corals, sea-slugs and the planktonic larvae of barnacles? Or the different colours and species of algae?

These organisms might sound trivial (invertebrates, weeds!) yet they are a vital part of the great web of interactions that populates our seas.

Belts and corridors

DEFRA, in their email announcing the new tranche of MCZs, explained how the MCZs ‘will extend the country’s ‘Blue Belt’ to cover over 20% of English waters providing vital protection for the diverse array of wildlife in our seas.’

The language helps. ‘Blue Belt’ has a good visual image.

‘Wildlife Corridor’ (which would be one important result of the Blue Belt) also gives us an image with which we are already familiar (animals scurrying through interlinking hedgerows, and along tree-clad motorway and railway embankments).

So, to imagine corridors in the sea, we need to populate those corridors with marine animals and plants.

To do that, we have to ‘see’ the features, and the creatures that move or are fixed in place, the prey and the predators, the larvae and other offspring – in what is essentially their own ‘urban’ environment: creatures living in a place that is not barren or slimy or disgusting (because if it is any of those things, we have made it so).

What is Allonby Bay MCZ?

Allonby Bay MCZ is an inshore site stretching approximately 9km along the coast from Dubmill Point to just north of Maryport, and about 4km out into the Firth; this map, taken from the designation document, shows the position and the co-ordinates.

mcz boundaries

It has an area of 39km – that’s an area approximately 1/540th the size of Wales, or equivalent to about 7000 football pitches (but volume, in terms of Olympic swimming-pools, varies according to the tide).

It was “recommended as an MCZ because of the diverse range of marine habitats and species it supports. In particular, this includes large areas of nationally important living reefs, formed by the honeycomb worm (Sabellaria alveolata) and blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) beds…. [which] can extend for tens of metres across and up to a metre tall. In an otherwise ever-changing environment, these reefs are able to support a wide range of other shore dwelling species including anemones, snails, shore crabs and seaweeds. … Allonby Bay supports some of the best examples of these reefs in the UK. The peat exposures provide a habitat which piddocks, a type of burrowing clam, and other species can tunnel into.” (Natural England document, p50

The whereabouts of the special features that make Allonby Bay an MCZ – including the mussel beds, honeycomb worm reefs and peat exposures (part of the submerged forest) – are shown in these maps.

And you can read much more about them in separate, illustrated articles, on Solway Shore Stories.

What can you do, and not do, in Allonby Bay MCZ?

You can still enjoy swimming, recreational sea-angling, sailing and wind-surfing, kayaking, walking the dog and eating ice-creams – there will be no change.

As for commercial fisheries, the fishing industry and the North-West Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authority (NW IFCA) were amongst those involved in the initial discussions. Dredging and trawling within the MCZ would clearly damage the sea-bed but, as Dr Emily Baxter, Marine Conservation Officer for the North-West Wildlife Trusts, told me, “They are not automatically prohibited”; however neither trawlers nor the shrimp-boats from Silloth work in this area. As David Dobson, formerly of NWIFCA, said, “The ground’s too rough – the shrimp-boats avoid it like the plague, it does too much damage to their nets.” Again, no change.

Who will oversee the protection?

There are various organisations responsible for overseeing the MCZ status, listed on the government fact-sheet about MCZs in general (an extract is shown here). mcz regulators

The Marine Management Organisation (MMO), based at Whitehaven, oversees fishing within the 6-12 nautical mile zone – but their management won’t be necessary since that’s outwith the Allonby Bay MCZ’s limits.

NW IFCA will oversee the shell-fisheries: the cockle- and mussel-fisheries, neither of which have actually operated for several years, are protected by Bye-Laws and have in any case always required licences and oversight from NWIFCA.

Some – although not all – of the intertidal honeycomb worm reefs, too, are already protected from bottom-towed fishing gear by NWIFCA’s Byelaw 6.

In reply to my question about management, Mandy Knott, Senior Scientist at NWIFCA, told me: “You are right in that we do not anticipate at this stage that there will be any additional management required for the Allonby Bay MCZ as far as fisheries are concerned. … The Conservation Objective [CO] for the site is ‘maintain’ and there are therefore no immediate causes for concern as long as activity within the site remains constant or decreases. The NWIFCA monitors all fishing activity in its District, both commercial and recreational, and should levels increase then a relevant assessment of risk and impact on features will be carried out, in consultation with Natural England. Should evidence show that management is required then the NWIFCA will act accordingly.”

However, Dr Emily Baxter of the NW Wildlife Trusts thinks it might well be necessary to keep an eye on the fisheries: “Even though the CO is ‘maintain’, this does not mean do nothing, and active management may be required to manage existing activity and future-proof the area from potential damage.”

This at least gives hope that the MCZ will not merely be a ‘paper park’, as Professor Callum Roberts maintains for MCZs in general; you can read his Guardian article here, or watch him talking to Tom Heap on BBC’s Countryfile (at about 8 minutes in)

As for harbours and ports, the Port of Silloth is outwith the MCZ, although the Solway Buoy is stationed just within the area.

But one important aspect of management is down to DECC – and that concerns coal and oil extraction. We shouldn’t forget that Cluff Resources are maintaining their Solway licences for underground coal gasification in the Allonby Bay area; at the moment all is quiet on that front, but …

Basically, then, it’s all rather unexciting,  and we can probably all carry on much as before, in Allonby Bay. Or can we?

The ‘barren’ undersea?

When I’ve taken people down the beach on good low tides, we reach the first signs of the honeycomb worm (Sabellaria) reef and I often ask if anyone notices something different about the rocks. Some do, but at first many don’t, notice that the ‘rocks’ are actually intricate masses of sandy-tubes built by the Sabellaria. And so often, someone then remarks, “I just thought they were rocks!”

And within the next hour or so, we watch crawling, grazing winkles; find dog-whelks preying on barnacles; ‘baked bean’ tunicates and different types of sponges living amongst the reefs; dahlia and beadlet anemones, feeding tentacles extended or tucked inside their stomachs; eggs of dog-whelks and ragworms; the shelly tubes of mason-worms; the coils and holes of lugworms; gammarid shrimps, small fish, brittle stars …  Many of the sessile animals are quiescent, just waiting for the tide to come in. Many of the predatory animals – ragworms, crabs – have hidden, leaving behind only their footprints. We see how every hard surface in the intertidal area is coated with animals and algae.

All this, so many species, so much busy-ness, even when the tide is out! (Enjoy these photos of organisms in the new MCZs on the Guardian website.) At low tide we get a snapshot of the Allonby Bay Marine Conservation Zone.

But now imagine it when the tide comes in, bringing food, planktonic larvae, predatory fish. Colourful algae, flattened on the rocks when the tide is out, are buoyed up and swaying in the current; tube-worms and anemones and barnacles extend their arms and legs, mussels filter the water to catch their food, ragworms and crabs hunt for live prey, limpets and chitons crawl, grazing. Fish browse, chase, mate.

All these organisms interacting in different and subtle ways, a complex meshwork – a ‘Living Sea’.

Let’s celebrate!

That’s what our MCZ is about. We need to shout it out, celebrate how lucky we are to have something special and precious here on our Solway shore. And spread the news that it’s part of something special and precious about our seas – and the health and beauty of the world’s seas.

Allonby Bay is not just about ice-creams and acronyms.


Join me on a low-tide shorewalk to discover more about Allonby Bay. Full details are on the Solway Shore Stories website.

Visit the excellent Lake District Coast aquarium at Maryport to see local marine species.

Find out more about the WildlifeTrust’s Living Seas Project, and how you can be involved, on their website , and specifically on Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s website. You can also find Living Seas North West on Facebook,Twitter @LivingSeasNW or www.irishsea.org

(1) ROSE, C., DADE, P. & SCOTT, J. 2008. Qualitative and Quantitative Research into Public Engagement with the Undersea Landscape in England. Natural England Research Reports, NERR019.


Posted in Allonby, Marine Conservation Zone, sea-bed & undersea | Tagged , , , ,

Peat-coring on Kirkconnell Flow

Kirkconnell Flow, South of Dumfries and West of the River Nith, is one of those valuable and unusual peat-bogs known as raised mires or, more poetically, Mosses. There are several around the edges of the Solway Firth, all protected in various ways and by various organisations.

Kirkconnell Flow is a Scottish National Nature Reserve (NNR), a UK Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an EU Special Area of Conservation (SAC) – but don’t be put off by all the conservation acronyms. It’s a special place, with a complicated history and, as is already apparent, a place with optimism, and insights, about the future.


Dr Lauren Parry and some of the Borderlands#2 group


At the end of April this year a group of artists, poets and fiction-writers, scientists of various sorts, sound-artists and composers wandered out onto the Flow as part of the Borderlands#2 gathering – not only to experience what being on a Moss or Flow or Mire might mean, but for a more practical purpose, too: to get our hands dirty – to go peat-coring.


Like all the other raised mires around the Upper Solway, Kirkconnell Flow is a dome of peat. I’ve borrowed Scottish Natural Heritage’s beautifully visual description of its origin: “When the glaciers retreated from Scotland 10,000 years ago, the landscape was littered with many pits, often within a layer of watertight glacial debris or till. These basins formed lochs and were colonised by a fringe of fen plants, which slowly spread across the lochs until no open water was left. A combination of loch sediment and plant material eventually led to many lochs completely infilling. As the loch basin filled with fen peats and sediments, the plants could no longer root in the mineral soils below.

Plants in the outer fringes of the swamp soaked up all of the nutrients flowing in from the surrounding ground, leaving the centre of the swamp waterlogged and nutrient-poor – just the right conditions to encourage a bog to form. Sphagnum bog mosses thrive in these conditions and started to dominate the vegetation. The steady upward growth of the living Sphagnum layer and the slow accumulation of the dead vegetation below combined to produce peat.

As peat accumulated, it began to rise above the level of the former loch surface. Once a layer half a metre or more in thickness had formed above the old surface, the peat became isolated from groundwater. The bog therefore became dependent on rainwater alone, deriving all its nourishment from the atmosphere, and as a result is poor in nutrients [my italics].

In other words, it’s ‘ombrotrophic’: a new word, one of many that I learnt that afternoon from Dr Lauren Parry, of Glasgow University, who had come to lead us through the heather to the central dome. An ombrotrophic , literally ‘cloud-fed’, bog is one that is wetted only by rain, not by springs or burns, and is isolated from the surrounding landscape. Rain is poor in nutrients, so only those plants that tolerate acid, low-nutrient conditions live there: the richly-coloured Sphagnum mosses; the berry-bearing plants such as blaeberry and crowberry; bog-myrtle and bog rosemary with their crushed-leaf scents; pale ‘reindeer moss’ lichen; and the white fluffy flags of the bog-cottons. It was early in the year when we visited, but the hints of past and future were there – even wizened last-season crowberries amongst the cotton-buds.

To reach the dome of peat we had walked a woodland path ringing with the descending chromatic scales of competing willow-warblers, and waded through knee-deep tangles of heather. The Flow had for decades been gnawed and battered by humans: first by peat-cuttings, then by heather-burning for grouse-moors. Birch carr and pine forest encroached as the water-table dropped and the peat dried out; the trees themselves transpired water and hastened the drying and destabilisation of the mire.

The SNH document describes well the history of the Flow and the damage inflicted upon it. But in 1998 they purchased the Reserve and – as is the case with conservers of the Solway’s other Mosses – are attempting to restore the raised bog’s hydrology. One of the first, and major, tasks, has been to cut down and remove the trees from the central area of the Flow

As Lauren Parry said, “Removing the trees has been an ‘encroachment issue’ which is different from a ‘plantation issue’” (which would have involved probably lengthy discussions about ownership of the plantation, and compensation).

Lauren’s PhD research related to the composition of peat; since then she has concentrated on carbon sequestration – the ways in which peatlands store carbon and how the carbon levels relate to changes in the climate.While very well-practised in the technique of peat-coring, she’s now also exploring less ‘dirty’ techniques such as ground-penetrating radar to get information about the ‘bulk density’, the relative amount of solid, organic material within the peat. I hadn’t realised that a peat-bed may be riddled with ‘pipes’ and cavities and cracks.

And now, out on the Flow proper, there are more words, too; hard-edged words and musical words with a cadence: acrotelm and catotelm, the lagg fen and the haplotelm; the ‘Russian’ corer, proxies, testate amoebae.

“We really love taking cores and looking at them under a microscope,” Lauren says. “The peat’s a wonderful archive.”

Why “an archive”?  Vegetation growing on the thin ‘living’ top layer of the bog (the acrotelm) responds in different ways to the environmental conditions – the amount of rain, warmth, nutrients, pollution. Different species – of plants and of microscopic animals – grow more slowly or out-compete others depending on their favourite conditions. Pollen, even radioactive particles (remember Chernobyl)  blown in from surrounding areas is deposited or incorporated amongst the stems.

acrotelm diag rspb doc

The acrotelm and catotelm: diagram from Richard Lindsay’s document for the RSPB (see below for link)

And as plants die and are replaced, they are grown over by new individuals. The combination of new plant growth and water-logging means that oxygen diffuses into the lower layers so slowly that the decomposition of dead plants uses it faster than it can be supplied, and so the lower layers (the catotelm) are anaerobic. Layers of only partly-decomposed plant matter build up in an ‘active mire’.

Dr Richard Lindsay, of the Sustainable Research Unit, University of East London, has written a long, but delightfully easy-to-read and very informative discussion document for the Scottish RSPB on Peat bogs and Carbon, a critical synthesis (2010) – what he calls his ‘Big Bogs Report’ (unfortunately it’s only available online).

‘Peatbogs are responsive systems with homoeostatic mechanisms that are not far removed from those found in living organisms … features having many similarities to tree-rings can be found in the equally-thin layers of peat which are successively deposited in a bog over millenia. These narrow bands of peat tell the same tale as tree-rings but over a much longer time-scale.’

And the peat (or ‘turf’ as it’s called in Ireland – but then, in County Mayo they call herons, ‘storks’) is ‘a direct product of the vegetation which created it. Consequently the characteristics of this peat soil reflect the nature of the vegetation which created it, while the vegetation itself reflects the prevailing hydrological and nutrient conditions.’

So, an archive: which can be examined by drilling down and taking a core, slices of which can undergo a battery of chemical, spectroscopic, radiological and microscopical examination in the lab for the range of minerals and isotopes, for types of pollen, for the hard cases of the unicellular testate amoebae, and more. Amoebae, pollen – these are ‘proxies’, different species flourishing or dying out according to prevailing conditions and therefore acting as indicators. All these measurements provide clues as to what climatic conditions prevailed at the time that ‘peat-ring’ was laid down.

Taking a core doesn’t need a drilling-rig, just patience, organisation, and some brute manual force. It required the help of ‘the Russian’ – ‘who’ turned out to be type of metal corer, a side-filling sampler with a sharpened edge; when rotated clockwise the blade cuts a core which is then held in the chamber by a plate. Back on the surface, the corer is rotated in the opposite direction and the undisturbed sample is slid out into a plastic ‘gutter’ which is marked with felt pen for ‘top’ and depth, and the whole is then wrapped in cling film and kept horizontal.

The first core, from the acrotelm, was fibrous with roots and decaying grass and other plants. Fifty-centimetre lengths were gradually added as the Russian penetrated deeper; each time it was then pulled back to disgorge its sample.

The core from 150-200 cms represented life about 2000 years ago.

Gloop-gloop. The corer made wet, sucking sounds as it was pulled free. Deeper cores became smoother and sloppier.

More rods were added: taller, able-bodied men were co-opted to help lift the rod vertically into place. An artist was taking photos of cranberries; someone was watching skylarks through his binoculars; others were sitting on the ground chatting; someone was making notes in a tiny ring-bound book; three of us bounced on the mire’s surface several metres away from the group, and startled faces turned towards us as the quake spread out in waves.


The final, clay, core – from 6.5metres

And then, at 6.5 metres’ depth, the bottom of Kirkconnell Flow was reached! The sample chamber of the corer revealed a glossy grey cylinder of clay, formed by the friction of glaciers against rocks, and deposited around 9000 years ago.

At that time, there would have been forest growing each side of the Firth, birch, hazel, oak and pine. But as the climate became wetter and freshwater drained down towards the Firth, sphagnum mosses formed blanket-bogs in these low-lying areas, the tree-roots became waterlogged, trees died; the remains of this mighty ‘submerged forest’ were preserved in the peat-beds that are occasionally revealed on the Cumbrian shore. Further inland, though, the peat domes of Kirkconnell, Drumburgh, Wedholme and the other raised mires grew and developed, becoming isolated ecosystems with their own special character.

As for ‘our’ peat core, the sections have been frozen and await investigation by Lauren Parry with the help of the creative practitioners of Borderlands#2


  1. There is a very good and useful BBC video of Natural England’s Alasdair Brock explaining about peat-coring and the restoration of Wedholme Flow, in the South Solway Mosses.

2. Since I wrote this blog-post, Kate Foster – artist, writer and organiser of the Borderlines#2 event – has written a lovely piece about how peat, and what it contains, including the proxies of testate amoebae, are inspiring her art.

Posted in peat, bogs and moors | Tagged , , , ,