In November 2016 James flew his drone above the line of the railway track, southwards from Bowness overbridge and station towards the centre of the Moss. Afterwards, we pored over the video and screengrabs and thought we could see a way to reach that northern end of the track on foot. Bowness Station is now a private house, the arch of the overbridge has been filled in, and there is planted woodland and private land along and around the track just to the South of the house – but there was a narrow lonning that led towards the Moss.
So, on a bright and breezy day, and after a couple of false starts, we found the lonning, which was ankle-deep in mud and – unsettlingly, for there was no escape – poached by cattle. At its far end we climbed rickety metal gates to reach a muddy field. It was obvious where the railway track should be, but double rows of barbed wire, pools of standing water, and dense brambles discouraged us.
We plodged around in the mud, then returned to the coast road, and sat on the bench that was dedicated to a departed haaf-netter, to watch the incoming tide.
Dave Blackledge, the RSPB’s Warden for the Cumbrian Coast and nearby Campfield Reserve, later showed me on a map how to avoid the barbed-wired field, and at the end of December my husband John and I set out to reach the ‘mineral island’ and railway cutting in the middle of the Moss.
Two roe deer, white rumps flashing, bounded across the Moss and into the fringing woodland, as we squelched and jumped across tussock and mire to the birches and willow that marked the line of the track. At this northern end, close to the former station, were embankments, probably remains of the sidings where cattle were loaded into waggons.
Ditches, running with water, were fringed with skidmarks of leaping deer. Somewhere West of the track is a small sandstone bridge over a culvert, but it must have been well-hidden by dense vegetation because we failed to find it. The line of the track was hard to see, amongst the trees.
It was impossible to see exactly where the North dams had been inserted during the re-wetting process (see Section 11) for here dense carr had grown around small lakes in which the silver trunks of drowned birches were reflected.
Out on the Moss again we followed deer paths through the tussocks and heather and through patches of sodden dark-brown peat. We saw deer several times, betrayed by their white rumps or their heads raised above the scrub, their large ears cupped towards us. At this northern end of the Moss were traces of former peat-cuts, shallow straight-edged banks, now all hidden in the heather.
Sun shone from a pale-blue sky and the air was crisp, the moorland around us a palette of wintry browns and the blonde and red moor-grasses. There was no sound apart from the occasional peep-ing and trilling of oystercatchers on the distant shore.
The railway track to our right was raised on an embankment, almost hidden by stunted birches, with pale trunks and spindly branches. The dome of the Moss rose slightly to the South, and we headed towards a more obvious patch of raised ground, bordered by bracken.
Now there was a stretch of embankment that wasn’t overgrown, but was pale grassy-green. We each leapt across a broad ditch that ran parallel with the embankment, and a few metres further a short section of a cross-ditch, at right-angles to the track and the longitudinal ditch was just visible, almost hidden by long grass.
Once onto the embankment I prodded the surface with my walking-pole – and it struck something hard at once. Scraping away the grass with our bare hands, we found clinker and broken pieces of dressed sandstone. Ballast! I never imagined that one day I would be so excited to find clinker and ash.
John paced out the distance from the line of ballast to the ditch: it was about 22 paces – one chain. Pacing in the other direction, he found the other ditch. One was almost dry, the other contained slowly-flowing water.
Alasdair Brock and Frank Mawby, the current and former Managers of Natural England (which is working to restore the Moss) told me that they had dug two exploratory holes on the track early in the re-wetting project, and had found ‘slag’ (ash/clinker?) but no signs of faggots or wood.
White Young Green, who took cores at the Rogersceugh end preparatory to the dam-building, found ‘ash’ and in one place, ‘large fragments of wood’.
We followed the track into the trees, and into a shallow cutting. This was the mineral island, where the navvies had escaped from the peat-bog and had cut through firmer, drier glacial till, raising an embankment on each side. Deep ditches had been dug here close to the track and on the South side, an elongated pit, now partly filled with water, suggested a ‘borrow-pit’ for obtaining stone that could have been used to help ballast the track across the bog.
The trees – willows, birch, the occasional holly – self-seeded from as long as 70 years ago, and hung with thick ropes of Old-man’s-beard, made an obstacle-course. Everywhere was still and quiet as we ate our lunch, and I tried to imagine what it would be like in Spring.
The cutting opened out again onto the Moss, onto heather-covered ground stretching South towards the bog-woodland. And here there was the sound of running water, burbling and gloop-ing from a black plastic pipe – the outflow of a dam where deep, still, water reflected the blue of the sky. Water from the damaged, but slowly regenerating, ombrotrophic mire.
Imagine yourself as a passenger, 120 years ago, sitting by the window of the single passenger-coach linked to waggons loaded with iron-ore, and pulled slowly by a puffing engine across an empty landscape, across ground that has barely been ‘tamed’. Raw brown peat glistens each side of the track, water is running in the ditches. If you lower the window you might hear the lonely, bubbling call of a curlew above the rhythmic rattle of wheels on rails. The smoke from the engine is suddenly constrained by the sides of the cutting, and smuts billow against your face.
But sit here now, on a mossy fallen branch, and you will hear nothing but the ghosts of a vanished railway, and its navvies.