Essay of the Week: Winter Tales from the Solway

  23 Nov '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Ann Lingard, novelist and former research biologist, is the author of The Fresh and the Salt: The Story of the Solway, an astonishing look at all aspects of the firth that separates England and Scotland. From the highest aerial view, to the invertebrates in its sands, she examines the entire ecosystem, including the historical activities of human inhabitants. This essay gives an insight to how life changes in the winter months.

A quiet day on the River Nith, December

Winter Tales from the Solway by Ann Lingard

Nothing is ever entirely as expected here at the edge of the sea. The ebb and flow of the tides can be accurately predicted and printed in the Tide Tables, based on calculations of the relative positions of the Moon and Sun and Earth – High and Low Water, their heights and times shifting daily and cyclically throughout each month, oscillating between Springs and Neaps. But the wind, the weather and atmospheric pressure have their subtle effects too: a band of high pressure holds down the high-tide level, or a strong south-westerly wind drives the waves up the Solway Firth from the Irish Sea, or heavy rainfall on the Lake District Fells sends a bolus of sediment-laden fresh water rushing down-river to be partially dammed by the rising tide.

The place between the shifting tide-marks, that intertidal zone that changes twice a day from land to sea, can be a harsh place to live especially during the fierce winter storms. One high tide is never the same as the next, especially in an estuary: the mix of saline and fresh water, the amount of sediment, the predators, parasites and planktonic food, will vary every time. And as the tide ebbs, fresh water gains supremacy in the central channel – at low tide I have waded from England to Scotland and back, the force of the rivers Esk and Eden pressing against my legs – while on the estuary’s edges the plants, algae and animals are exposed throughout the seasons to desiccatingly hot sun or wind or, as so frequently now, to rain, hail or snow.

There have been periods when the cold was so intense that not only the water overlying the saltmarshes and mudflats froze, so too did the edge of the sea. On Boxing Day 2010, small ice-floes were thrown up on the cold white shore, and at the start of 2019 the sea in the Upper Solway was torpid with ice crystals and as sluggish as oil.

Ice floes on the Solway with Criffel in the distance

But this was nothing compared to the winter of January 1881 when, during the Neap tides, ice grew ever thicker along the Upper Solway’s margins. At the next Spring tide, the sea lifted the frozen plates and whirled them out on the ebb, so that they crashed against the cast-iron pillars of the railway viaduct that crossed the Firth between Bowness-on-Solway and Annan until 1934. The floes were reportedly as much as six feet thick, of all sizes; some were as much as one hundred feet long. On Tuesday February 1st a large section of the viaduct fell: “the sound was tremendous, and the steel coming in violent contact with other portions of the ironwork threw off so much fire that the thick darkness was illuminated with a transient gleam of light.” (Carlisle Journal, February 4th 1881) To the onlookers gathering on the shore, the destruction would have been an exciting and awe-inspiring sight.

Not so for the wildlife: the Carlisle Journal reported at the same time about A Hare in a Fix: “On Friday a hare was seen on a block of ice floating down the Solway with the ebb tide. It was seen by workmen on the Solway Viaduct, who were much interested in its efforts to get off, and out of danger. It was forced to stick to the ice, and soon it disappeared seawards.”

Winter can be a tough time, especially for the smaller inhabitants of the Solway’s saltmarshes and mudflats – the bacteria, the salt-tolerant plants, the worms and snails and mudshrimps. Out on a mudflat in December, I dug my trowel into the mud and tipped the contents into a kitchen sieve; breaking the ice on a pool so I could swirl away the sediment, I then decanted the washed contents into the white enamel pie-dish – and there were the mudshrimps, crawling, questing with their long antennae. Around my feet were thousands of tiny conical mounds, each one the entrance to a mudshrimp’s U-shaped burrow.

The ancestors of these tiny animals must have gradually crept North to the Solway’s edges after the last glaciers melted over 11,000 years ago. As the gritty meltwaters mixed with the sea, so the fine sediments were deposited and mudflats formed and were colonised. Mudshrimps are found on the coast of the North American continent too and research suggests they arrived there in the ‘wet ballast’ of ships. I like to imagine that some at least were unintentional migrants from the River Annan. On Annan’s quay there’s an information board with a picture of the brig Helen Douglas, which regularly sailed between Annan and Richibucto in New Brunswick: in Richibucto’s harbour are two large islands of discarded ballast, dating from the early 19th century.

As the glaciers melted and the relative levels of sea and land performed their dance, so the Solway changed its shape and depth; its muddy and marshy margins altered, and as they grew so too did the numbers of visiting birds, especially the waders probing for the growing populations of shrimps and snails: resident birds, and then migrants seeking to avoid the even colder winters of the Arctic. Now, in late autumn and winter, any trip to the merses and mudflats is noisy with the wink-wink-wink of Pinkfeet Geese from Iceland and Greenland, and the calls of Svalbard’s Barnacle Geese, while Curlews, Oyster-catchers, Lapwings and huge murmurrations of Knot converge on the shores to roost and feed.

So too do the wildfowlers – I once spent several pre-dawn hours squatting in a saltmarsh creek, my feet in freezing mud and the marsh grasses crackling with frost, with a wildfowler and his dog. Why did he bother to get up so early in the winter dark, I wondered. “I just like being out here and being part of it,” he explained. “The early morning, the solitude of it. It’s an environment that’s alien to us, and 95 percent of the time the wildfowl have the advantage. There was one morning when about 4000 Pinkfeet lifted off. ‘What a sight!’ I said to the dog, ‘Look at that, and if you only remember one thing in your life, remember that!’ ”

On a different occasion, a haaf-netter implied that wading out chest-deep in the water wasn’t only about catching fish: “The Solway’s one of the last wildernesses in the country. And I think haaf-netting is probably the best excuse to go and stand out in that wilderness”. Others, who work in the ports, the lifeboats and the offshore windfarm, talk about the Solway with awe: it’s “chaotic and unpredictable”; “one of the most aggressive estuaries in the UK”; “highly dynamic”, and “the environment is very, very unpredictable, it’s uncontrollable.” An artist friend, trying to describe how she saw and interpreted the ever-changing water and the margins, told me, “I feel there are loads of powerful, hidden things going on underneath the surface … There’s an edginess, a tension, that I love.”

And it’s especially now, in the pared-back scenery of the winter, that the Solway’s edgy character is clearly seen and experienced.

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