Discovering the Solway Firth

The Solway Firth is attracting increasing attention from scholars, these including one of our ‘Firths and Fjords’ conference speakers, Professor Ted Cowan, who referred to it in his excellent Dornoch paper from earlier this year as ‘Scotland’s forgotten frontier littoral’. Ann Lingard’s guest blog post is a different kind of contribution, which spans disciplinary boundaries in a convincing and refreshing manner. Ann’s area for study covers both sides of the estuary. It is an original approach, one which, in my opinion, allows her to identify, with verve, a history and a present that connects the adjacent coasts of England and Scotland in ways that are rarely studied. This is a piece of writing which conveys a great passion for the firth, its people, its currents, channels and margins – physical, social and cultural –  all of this highlighting Ann’s profound knowledge and sense of what can be both an appealing and troublesome place for those that spend their lives around or on it. (David)

The Solway Firth is special amongst firths and fjords in that it separates two nations, Scotland and England. The land borders were ‘debated’ for several centuries, but the marine border is a dotted line on a chart, invisible on the water.

The upper stretches of the sea and coasts are protected by a variety of conservation designations – European, English, Scottish. Although shell-fisheries and ‘heritage’ fisheries like stake-netting and haaf-netting have different rules and quotas each side of Solway, trawlers cross the ‘border’ as the weather and tides demand. Excellent cross-boundary organisations like the Solway Firth Partnership pull together the disparate threads of fisheries and conservation; lifeboat and coastguard teams from both countries work together.

The Solway – its sea and its margins – has such a strong character that it is nearly always referred to by its name, rarely as ‘the Firth’. It’s famous for its sunsets and the atmosphere of its wide shores, saltmarshes and ‘Mosses’; a presenter on BBC’s Autumnwatch from Caerlaverock Reserve called it ‘one of the last remaining unspoilt estuaries’ in the UK.

andrew's looking N to silloth

But this crooked finger of sea and estuary has been, and is, firmly in the sights of the energy-producers – West Cumbria calls itself Britain’s Energy CoastTM – with renewables such as E.On’s Robin Rigg offshore windfarm, and proposals for various schemes for barrages and ‘bridges’ and lagoons to harness tidal power; and plans for nuclear new-build at Moorside/Sellafield. Although the last of the undersea mines closed in 1986, West Cumbria Mining now has plans to mine undersea coking coal, and licences have been granted for Undersea Coal Gasification.

Some of these schemes, however worthy (depending on your personal viewpoint), have been advanced without regard for, or misplaced faith in, the Solway’s other special characteristic – its potential for huge Spring Tides, which can be as great as 10 metres between high and low water. For people who work on the Firth describe it, wryly, in unromantic language: ‘chaotic’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘it will kick you in the pants’; geologists and hydrographers use terms like ‘sediment-laden’, ‘changeable’, ‘shifting channels’ …

IMG_4348

During the years that I have been fascinated by the Solway, I’ve talked to people who themselves, or whose families, work along its margins and on the sea; I’ve met people who know about sandstone, peat, conservation, fisheries and bathymetry;  and wildfowlers, harbour-masters, stone-masons, artists and sculptors. I’ve been on foot and quad-bike to the far edge of intertidal mussel-beds to survey their size, and waded across the waters of the Firth on an old ‘wath’; I’ve stood up to my chest in the incoming tide, haaf-netting; flown over the coast at low tide in a gyroplane to understand the changing shapes of the shore and channels; travelled over the sea in a fisheries-protection vessel… And I’ve learnt the old names for boulders and rocky scars, and for peat-cutting tools and their uses.

Many of these journeys provide unexpected encounters and new lines of questioning, research and conversation and, throughout, everyone has been generous with their time and knowledge. Some whom I’ve met have lived here for generations, others are ‘off-comers’ – but amongst these coastal dwellers there is an intricate web of interactions and knowledge that crosses geographical and temporal boundaries. On both sides of the Solway, there is a shared respect for the changing and often unforgiving nature of the sea that links us.

As an illustration, here is a story, or interweaving of stories, which arose from serendipitous events and encounters.

The deep cove of Fleswick Bay on the Cumbrian coast is bounded by the high red sandstone cliffs of St Bees’ on which people have carved their names; some inscriptions date back to the 18th century and are blurred by algae and erosion, but the name ‘Judy McKay’ is engraved sharply and cleanly, in serif-bearing font. A few weeks after I’d mentioned this in an article a woman phoned me to tell me it was her name. On subsequent meetings she told me how her family had come from Scotland three generations previously; the men were quarriers and stone-masons. Her great-grandfather had sent red sandstone from their quarries near St Bees’ to America, in ships from Whitehaven, and his stone and his masons built the bridges of Cumbria’s Maryport-Carlisle railway. Her father used to carry his bike across the railway viaduct that once crossed the Solway from Bowness to Annan, to work at a quarry on the Scottish side – this Solway Junction Railway, branching off the Maryport-Carlisle, carried iron ore from West Cumbrian mines to Lanarkshire.

Underlying the red sandstone of the St Bees’ cliffs is the purplish Carboniferous sandstone, within which the coal seams, and the mines, stretch out miles beneath the Solway from Whitehaven. Some of the names carved on Fleswick’s cliffs are of miners from nearby Kells, who would bring their families to the beach during their annual holiday. The late Norman Hammond, who founded Solway Shark-watch, once told me that he would take miners out in his boat ‘to swim amongst the basking-sharks’ just off the shore – by way of thanks, one of those miners gave him a fossil freshwater mussel found in the mine. And now, as West Cumbria Mining drills exploratory cores under the sea, they use these ‘mussel-beds’ as markers for certain coal-seams; their lead geologist gave me, too, some fossil shells.

In such ways sciences and arts, histories and stories, and past and future industries, link together the coastal dwellers of the Solway Firth.

zapadnyy unloading molasses

Ann Lingard (Dr Ann Lackie) was formerly a scientist and academic at Cambridge and Glasgow Universities. She is a novelist, and writes non-fiction, www.annlingard.com . More detailed information about the topics covered above, and many others, are on the website www.solwayshorestories.co.uk, or the blog www.solwayshorewalker.wordpress.com. Ann tweets @solwaywalker.

 

Photos:

Flying over Moricambe (‘Hudson’) Bay, looking North to Silloth and Scotland (photo copyright Andrew Lysser)

The Bowness end of the Solway viaduct: looking across the Firth to Scotland

MV Zapadnyy unloading molasses for Carrs’ at Silloth

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