The SJR from Whitrigg to Bowness

The Solway Junction Railway (SJR) was constructed in the late 1860s, from the Abbey junction in Cumberland to the Kirtlebridge junction in Dumfriesshire, crossing the Solway Firth by a viaduct from Bowness to Annan.

The section which interests us is the stretch of track from Whitrigg on the River Wampool to Bowness on the coast of the Firth: part of Section 3 of the SJR, this was built across the raised mire, or Moss, of Bowness Common. The SJR made no sense without the Viaduct, so the story of Bowness Common and the SJR is also the story of the Viaduct.

Raised mires, or lowland raised bogs, are special habitats with a unique geological history. Their deep peat deposits have been extracted for fuel and horticultural purposes by hand-cutting, and by ‘milling’ on industrial scales. Only about 5% of the UK’s raised mires are left untouched, as pristine bog.

When the SJR was being built, ditches were cut across Bowness Common to drain the peat in an attempt to provide a firm substratum for the ‘permanent way’. As will become obvious in the story, this caused considerable damage to the Moss, which continued for nearly 70 years, until the SJR was dismantled – and even after that.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the importance of the Solway’s raised mires as special and disappearing habitats was recognised , and they became protected by law. More recently still, and faced with anthropogenic climate change, we have begun to understand the importance of intact peatbogs in ‘locking up’ carbon.

Since then, work continues to re-wet the damaged mires, to help Sphagnum mosses to re-colonise, and eventually to form peat.

This story, then, of the changing fortunes of the mire, is what inspired James Smith and me to look at the past, the present, and the future, of the effects of the SJR on Bowness Common.

‘Moss’ or ‘Common’? During the building of the SJR, and on some maps and documents of that time, it is referred to as Bowness Moss. On other maps its name – by which it is known now – is Bowness Common. We have used ‘Moss’ in preference (unless writing about present-day work) because the word gives a clear image of the challenges to be met on such a wet and boggy place.