6. The problem of Bowness Moss

‘Water was running in river-like streams’




In the Archive collections at both Whitehaven and Carlisle are the 8-foot-long rolls of the plan and elevations of the proposed railway line across Bowness Moss, from the new viaduct over the River Wampool to Whitrigg to Rogersceugh to Herd Hill at Bowness. The Whitehaven copy is made almost useless by a large spill of ink that obliterates the Earl of Lonsdale’s portion at Rogersceugh (an accident or a fit of pique?), but on the Carlisle copy are pencilled notes and addition sums, indicating the areas of land that would need to be purchased from the various people – Lonsdale, Mary Lawson, Robert Pattinson and others – who owned land along the path of the railway.

panorama 695-690
The West section of the plan of the SJR from Bowness to Rogersceugh (Carlisle Archives)

The line of the track as drawn is deceptively simple.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sections of the Bowness Common plan (from Whitehaven & Carlisle Archives)

There are separate scraps of tissue paper with outlines of land traced and coloured in, with numbers next to the letters A.R.P (the area in Acres, Rods and Perches). A small broken-backed book lists the owners and amounts to which they are due, and I was especially thrilled to find the tiny slip relating to Mary Lawson’s land at the northern Bowness end of the track.

At its deepest, the peat on Bowness Moss was ‘fifty feet deep’, a figure that accords well with modern corings that have shown depths between 6 – 15 metres. Undisturbed, undrained peat doesn’t form a solid substratum, but is ‘95% water, 5% solid matter’, and the peat-bed usually contains channels and holes and hollows.

At the North end, ‘The first mile and a quarter of this moss was in a very unreclaimed state when the Company began their operations upon it. Horses could not go upon it and, except in the height of summer, cattle could not even traverse it.’ (Whitehaven News Feb 11th 1868)

But nearly 40 years previously Chat Moss had been conquered by George Stephenson during the building of the London & Manchester Railway; the track had been ‘floated’ across the Moss on wooden faggots and hurdles and ash. Solutions were therefore available.

The Earl of Lonsdale had already, in about the 1850s, drained some of his holdings at the southern side of Bowness Moss. It sounds as though some preparatory drainage for the SJR track was carried out by Waring Bros & Eckersley in 1867, but in early 1868 Brunlees was reporting to the Directors and shareholders that ‘On sections Nos 3 and 4, Bowness to Kirkbride, and Abbeytown to Brayton, nothing has been done in the half-year. The drainage of Bowness Moss, on section No.3, will, however be resumed [my italics] as soon as the necessary arrangement can be made by the contractors.’ (Whitehaven news Feb 11th 1868)

A year later, in February 1869, the Railway News was reporting that ‘Very heavy and extensive draining operations [were] being required, and infinite labour [was] being consumed in laying the way over’ the Moss.

A large team of navvies would have been needed to dig the drains right across the Moss from Bowness to Whitrigg. The two longitudinal ditches ran in parallel with the track, at a distance of 1 chain (66 feet) each side. At every half-chain was dug a cross-ditch, each draining into the longitudinal channels. This was a standard method of drainage that had been introduced by the Dutch on bogs used for peat-cutting. The photos below show an actual ‘Chain’: one end was held by the handle, and the far end thrown out; there are markers for the different distances and a French coin shows the half-way point. (My thanks to David Park of Carlisle for showing me this Chain measure.)

Because of the slightly domed shape of the Moss, typical of a raised mire, 65 chains at the North end drained into the Solway, and the remaining southern section drained into the Wampool.


This release of water from the damaged peat caused the level of the Moss to drop by 4-5 feet each side of the track.

The track-bed itself was thus raised above the surrounding moss, and in the central area of Bowness Moss it passed through a shallow cutting in a ‘mineral island’ or drumlin – where there is still a large pit that was probably used as a ‘borrow-pit’ to supply stone for ballast.

But the peat substrate itself was still very unstable. ‘Faggots [bundles of wood] are used for laying the road wherever the moss is in such a state as to require  them, two layers being put down before the road is laid’ (Whitehaven News Feb 11th 1868).

On top of these, was laid ballast (stones and/or clinker), then the sleepers, to which were attached the rails.

In some places even this proved insufficient and double-length 18-foot sleepers had to be laid over the worst parts to spread the load, covered with more layers of faggots upon which were laid the usual sleepers; 90,000 faggots were laid in total! (Building News, Sept 17th 1869.) One wonders where all those faggots came from – there are reports of large stands of coppicing  East of Carlisle, which could have provided suitable wood.

(There is also the question of the origin of the wooden sleepers. They certainly didn’t come from North-West Cumberland: as Walker notes in his 1966 seminal paper on the Late Quarternary History of the Cumberland Lowlands (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 251, pp. 1-210), “By the middle of the seventeenth century only small and carefully conserved patches of forest remained. The relative scarcity of timber at this time, at least in Holmcultram, can be judged by the measures to conserve Wedholme Wood in A.D. 1640 for the regular repair of the sea dyke.”)

On June 26th 1869 (reported in Whitehaven News, July 1st 1869) the SJR ‘which is just completed’, was tested by a ‘party consisting of the directors, engineer, and contractors of the line, with two of the largest and most powerful engines belonging to the Caledonian Company’; Mr Brunlees made a series of observations as the train passed over the viaduct, with satisfactory results.

‘Bowness Moss, the only doubtful part of the line, was then successfully crossed, with the slight incident that when the engines were passing a small portion of the moss at the southern end, which had been drained for many years and was considered quite dry [Lonsdale’s land?], and on which the rails were laid on ordinary sleepers in the same way as on hard ground, the moss yielded to a certain extent and threatened disaster, but the engine passed over all right. The rails on this part of the moss will require to be underlaid with faggots and sleepers in the same way as the worst parts of the moss have been so successfully treated.’ Whitehaven News, July 1st 1869

Despite this slight setback, the trip was deemed ‘altogether a gratifying success’.

The Cumberland Paquet of 6th July 1869 was a little more cavalier with the truth (not quite ‘fake news’, but it makes an entertaining tale).

‘The first railway engine on Bowness Moss.

The Solway Junction viaduct across the Frith did not prove the most difficult part of the undertaking in an engineering point of view. The crossing of Bowness Moss was a much more perplexing undertaking. After the deep drains had been in operation, and the water had been running in river-like streams on each side of the proposed line for many weeks [my italics] and the faggots in thousands had been laid, it was expected that something like a good foundation had been obtained. This hope was delusive. A line of rails was laid, and an engine was run along, but one fine morning the engine nearly disappeared. It sank down into the moss, and looked like bidding farewell to the scene of its labours; but fortunately for the contractors the steam was up, and the engine had strength enough to drag itself out of its perilous position. Now all difficulties appear to have been surmounted.’

sleepers wanted snip

From Carlisle Journal, 25th October 1867

Further strengthening work on the moss continued, the longer sleepers were laid, more faggots brought in.

By September 17th 1869 Engineering was reporting ‘The Solway Junction Railway was opened for goods and mineral traffic on Monday. There was no ceremony of any kind.’ Three goods trains were run each way daily, carrying pig iron, ore, and iron plates, and ‘Bowness Moss successfully resisted the pressure of the trains.’

In late 1869, Waring Bros. & Eckersley had clearly signed off on the SJR project. On Saturday September 25th 1869, the auctioneer Mr Wheatley Kirk placed a notice in the Railway News  announcing the ‘eminent contractors’ had instructed him to proceed with a massive sale – ‘Important to shipowners, railway contractors, builders, engineers, brokers, agriculturists and others’ – which would include the iron-screw steamer ‘Solway’, the locomotive ‘Handy’, barges, pile-drivers, wrought iron, sleepers, buildings, even horses … This list itself provides interesting insights into the magnitude of that extraordinary project.

The line across the Moss was in use by freight trains but had not yet been passed for passenger traffic. There was still a stretch of about 500 yards ‘over the deepest part of the moss’ which had caused the Board of Trade Inspector, Major Yolland, some concern, but on Thursday 14th June 1970 he and the resident engineeer, Mr McKerrow, ran an engine weighing 45 tons over the contentious length, and the moss ‘stood the test remarkably well.’ (Whitehaven News, June 16th, quoted from the Annan Observer).

(The OS map and photos of the station are courtesy of Cumbria Image Bank)


At last! On August 27th 1870, Railway News reported (p226) the SJR was open for pasenger through-traffic – four trains a day in each direction between Kirtlebridge and Brayton, stopping only at Bowness and Annan stations.


The Whitrigg station was a request stop until 1873 when a crossing-keeper was appointed. Goods trains also stopped specially at Whitrigg and Bowness in the early hours to take on livestock (p19, Edgar & Sinton, The Solway Junction Railway).

Bowness Moss, like Chat, had been ‘compelled to forget its waywardness’.