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.


1. Bowness Moss on the Upper Solway Firth, 1868


Heat shimmers above the domed mass of moorland; the white puffs of cotton-grass hang limply amongst spiked yellow asphodel and the sticky crimson spoons of sundews; grasshoppers chirrup intermittently, and a dragonfly buzzes a lizard drowsing on the warm peat.

Half-a-mile to the North, the two ends of the new viaduct are striding on thin black legs towards each other, across the sea that glimmers between the English and Scottish shores. The whistle of a steam locomotive, and continuous clanging and hammering from the bridge, shake the still air.

Here, out on the Moss, the sweating navvies work silently, almost in unison, cutting into the peat, lifting the heavy, dripping spadefuls onto the banks. They wade in murky brown water, often skidding on the smooth cut surfaces, the wooden boards on their boots squelching at each step.

Lads chivvy horses that pull waggons, laden with sleepers and faggots, on temporary and uneven rails, and as the ditches lengthen each side of the future permanent way, water drains into them from the peat and flows towards the Firth like rivers.

2. Bowness Common today

A silence that is comfortable with itself


red sphag

“The Mosses vary season to season,” Frank Mawby told me in 2010. He had recently retired from being Sites Manager for Natural England’s Northern Reserves, and his love of the Mosses is unabated even today. “In winter, they’re brown, not surprisingly, but they’re still the most colourful habitat you can walk on. When the sphagnum mosses are all wet, the different species have different colours, greens, and oranges that are almost fluorescent, they glow. Big hummocky ones that are dark red … All these under your feet, under the layer of dead cotton grass. A skin of mosses. It’s very quiet at times, but at other times it’s pretty hectic – snipe, jacksnipe which jump up under your feet, pipits and skylarks.”

In writing about the place that is Bowness Common, one could either ‘show and tell’, or write a check-list, an inventory, of the plants and animals seen there.

So here is a list, summoned from my memory and not from a note-book, of some of the plants, mosses and animals I have seen amongst the hummocks, hollows, ‘lawns’ and bog-pools of the central mire (I have seen more, but I need tuition in identification).


10 species of Sphagnum moss

Bog rosemary

Bog myrtle

Bog cranberry

Ling (Calluna vulgaris)

Cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix)

Bog asphodel

2 species of cotton grass

2 species of sundew


Assorted sedges and grasses


Frogs and spawn



Roe deer

Fox scat & otter spraint

9 species of dragonfly and damselfly

Caterpillars of oak eggar moths





Reed buntings





According to Richard Fortey,

A list of animals and fungi could become tiresome, but it is necessary to grasp the true richness of nature. Think of it as not so much an inventory as a catalogue leading to compelling and interacting stories…”  (Richard Fortey, 2016. The Wood For The Trees. The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood. Collins)

‘Compelling and interacting stories.’

Imagine those stories in three dimensions: burrow into the ancient peat, bask in the sun on a boardwalk, hide amongst Sphagnum floating in a pool, flit above the heather, rise up into the air.

And then throw in the fourth dimension, of time: imagine what is happening around you on your ‘virtual Moss’, minute by minute (as a damselfly flits), day by day, week by week, through the seasons … the years of growth past and future.

Imagine the scents, of wetness and hot, dry heather.

And then try to imagine the sounds – what might you hear?

But imagine too, and above all, the silence; a silence that is comfortable with itself.

The impact of humans on Bowness Common has been a grimace on the face of its geological history and now we’re working to smooth out the wrinkles. Let’s hope that we can continue to feel, in Paul Kingsnorth’s words, “that the natural world, the non-human realm, is not an obstacle in the way of our progress but a part of our community that we should nurture.”

3. Planning the Solway Junction Railway

‘A great day for Annan, and Annan did its best to make it memorable’


‘No such pusillanimous spirit…’

pusillanimous snip

To understand why a railway was being constructed across the difficult terrain of Bowness Moss, it’s necessary to go back to the 1850s.

On September 2nd 1857, John Brogden and his son Alexander celebrated the opening of the Ulverston & Lancaster Railway with a déjeuner, ‘served up in elegant style’ for numerous high-ranking guests at Furness Abbey. On the Thursday of the same week, the workmen who had been employed on the railway ‘were treated to an excellent and substantial dinner’ in Leighburn Park, also provided by Brogden, ‘their respected employer’. Having been ‘liberally regaled with ale’, the 550 or so men spent the afternoon ‘in foot racing, sack racing, and steeplechase.’ The scene is far too easily imagined.

U&LR navvies dinner snip

Brogden senior was then 59 years old, and Alex was thirty-two [1825-1892], and Brogdens had been involved in the building of railway lines since 1838. In the late 1840s, the company had also diversified into iron ore mining in the Furness area: Furness was not connected with the mainline railways so the haematite had to be shipped out by sea, an inconvenient and expensive means of transport. It was from this basis – their expertise in setting up railway and mining companies – that Brogdens had decided to link Furness to the main line via a new railway, the U&LR.

Their engineer on the U&LR had been James Brunlees ([1816-1892] who, as the son of a gardener and land-steward’s assistant has an interesting back-story), and that railway had famously crossed, by means of two elegant viaducts, the wide estuaries of the Kent and the Leven that flowed into the unstable reaches of Morecambe Bay.

Meanwhile, the mining of haematite in West Cumberland was increasing year on year, the ore being sent to the smelting works in the south of Scotland either by ship, or by railway up to Carlisle and then via the westward dog-leg through Gretna to Lanarkshire.

It’s little wonder therefore that, just a few years later, the Brogdens and Brunlees discussed shortening that journey by building a new railway and a long viaduct that would cross the Solway Firth itself. They had the expertise – and they perhaps liked the idea of another big, showy project, that would not only showcase the grandeur of their vision, but would also bring in considerable revenue by capturing the market for the transport of ‘Cumberland ore’.


The Solway Junction Railway Act 1864

Following a period of considerable politicking and bluffing amongst the various railway companies that would be affected, the first Solway Junction Railway Act was passed by Parliament in 1864, enabling the SJR company to raise capital to build a railway linking the Caledonian Railway (CR) near Kirtlebridge in Scotland, to the Maryport and Carlisle Railway (M&CR) near Brayton in Cumberland, by crossing the Solway Firth.

By then, Alex Brogden had been appointed Director of the company, and he contracted James Brunlees, a tall, spare man almost ten years his senior, to be the engineer and to design the viaducts across the River Wampool and the Firth.

Their intention was that the SJR would be open for business within two years.

 The Sod-cutting Ceremony, Tuesday 26th March, 1865

The ceremony took place in Annan, where a public holiday had been declared, ‘a  great day for Annan, and Annan did its best to make it memorable.’  The procession, the crowds, the déjeuner and the multiple speeches, are recorded minutely – including the interjected ‘hear, hears’ and ‘laughter’ – in the Carlisle Journal for Friday March 31st 1865.

There were banners and decorated arches, and more than 500 people processed – carters, lorries with a blacked-up ‘King Cotton’ and a steam-operated loom; the police, the Rifle Volunteers, school-children, the clergy, ‘representatives of various trades’, the Freemasons lodges; there was a cart bearing a printing press from which programmes ‘were scattered in the streets’. An important component was the ‘silver spade and silver-mounted mahogany barrow for the work of the day, borne shoulder-height by four navvies in the smock frocks, red neck-cloths, and white nightcaps of the order.’  And then of course there were the MPs, the town clerks, and the Directors and shareholders of the SJR and other railways – clearly no-one was to be left out.

Eventually, Mr Ewart, the MP, was presented with the silver spade by Alex Brogden, and ‘he cut the first sod and raised it in the air on the spade amid the loud cheers of the assembled multitude.’

Mr Cunningham no doubt profited handsomely from his foresight:

snip re medal

Images courtesy of Cumbria Image Bank

A cannon was fired, prayers were offered, the procession re-formed – and in due course the dignitaries entered a decorated pavilion for their déjeuner à la forchette. Very many speeches accompanied the meal, but the company’s Director, Alex Brogden – who professed himself ‘too young to have achieved [this] position’ – reiterated the raison d’être for building the SJR:

‘We have started a railway which will bring into economical development the great mineral resources of Cumberland, and convey them by a shorter and more economical route to the destination where they have to be consumed. … There are 200,000 tons of ore to be carried from Cumberland to Scotland annually, which will be carried one shilling per ton cheaper than they are now carried …’

The project was started, the team was ready to go: designer and engineer-in-chief, James Brunlees; resident engineer Mr Alexander McKerrow; the main contractors Waring Bros. & William Eckersley, and Mr George Potter who ‘had charge of the works on their behalf’ (The Railway News, Feb 13th, 1869).

4. Constructing the Solway Viaduct

“a piece of enchanted workmanship resting on the bosom of the racing waters”


ct02291 viaduct 1900 CIB
Image thanks to Cumbria Image Bank

The story of the railway track that was constructed across Bowness Moss is also the story of the Railway Viaduct that was constructed across the Solway Firth – for without the sea-crossing (see maps below), the railway lacked a purpose.

The most picturesque description of the viaduct is in The Whitehaven News, for February 11th 1869.

‘The principle upon which the viaduct is constructed shows great simplicity of design. The structure is built of wrought and cast iron. The wrought iron is used for the girders that span the bays, and likewise for the cross bracing which stiffens the whole structure. These bays or spans are 30 feet in length. The pillars that support the girders … are composed of cast-iron …’


But despite the ‘great simplicity of design’, photos of the viaduct show an apparently complicated arrangement, a forest of pillars and braces.

Robert Kinghorn, in his Solway Junction Railway article in the Caledonian Railway Association’s 1985 Journal (photocopy sent to me by Allan Ferguson) explains the arrangement of the piers and pillars:

“The viaduct was 1940 yards long on 193 cast iron piers … The single piers were each constructed of five cast iron columns, the three in the centre being vertical whilst the outer ones sloped inwards. Between each pair of columns were 3 sets of cross bracings, one above the other …These columns were on cast iron piles [driven into the sea-bed]. An extra line of piles was provided on the upstream side for the possible widening.’’

daigram from kinghorn article
Diagram from Robert Kinghorn’s article


As for the track-bed,

“Four longitudinal wrought iron girders (2 ft 6in deep) were placed on top of the columns … the central girders were directly under the rails which were carried on longitudinal [wooden] waybeams. The decking was buckled plates secured to the girders, and railings were fixed to the outside girders.”


From the plan of the permanent way in the engineer Brunlees’ drawings, it seems that the trip across the Firth might have been even more exciting than you had anticipated – if you hung out of a window, you could have looked straight down through the railings to the Firth below.

There are various other detailed descriptions of the materials and the engineering specifications of the viaduct, and which one you prefer will depend on your own inclination.

For example, the description in Engineering Timelines (in which measurements have been converted to metric) notes that the “Solway viaduct had 181 braced trestle single piers comprising five 300mm diameter cast iron columns, the inner three columns of which were vertical and the outer two raking. It also had 12 braced trestle double piers comprising duplicate singles braced together. … The rails were supported on wrought iron lattice girders that were supplied by the Falkirk Iron Company.”

Images ‘Reproduced with permission of the Department of Transport (National Records of Scotland, BR/SJR/4/2, p. 2)’.  For the significance of the date of the photos (1881), see Chapter 10.

An article in The Engineer, for April 9th 1869 (p252; reproduced in Grace’s Guide) has a detailed consideration of the specifications of the track bed, including: ‘wrought iron girders, each 29ft 11 5/8in. long, and 2ft.6in.deep, and having a camber of ½  in. in their length… the platform is formed of Mallet’s buckled plates riven to the girders …’

But the beauty of this particular article is that a page of Brunlees’ very fine drawings of the various components is appended.

brunlees' engineering drawing

Sinking the piles

The 1869 Whitehaven News’ article also gives a strong impression of the difficulties and the skill required for embedding the viaduct into the land- and sea-scape of the Inner Solway.

The reports written, largely retrospectively, in 1869 (the ‘final two girders’ were placed by Alex Brogden in late June 1868: see Building News  June 27th 1868, p459) are graphic in their detail.

The hollow cast-iron piles securing the piers to the sea-bed were about 20 feet long, 12” diameter with walls 7/8th inch thick, and (Whitehaven News, February 11th 1869) had been

“cast with a chilled point for driving, and were all driven at low water from barges fitted with patent pile-driving engines, the monkeys used for this operation weighing about 20 cwt. The levels of the foundation piles vary with the bed of the Solway. The lowest level is in the English channel, where the top of the foundation piles is within 18 inches of low water of spring tides …”

These barges were towed to and fro, depending on the height and state of the tides, by a steamer, the Arabian (Edgar & Sinton’s book, The Solway Junction Railway, p16). This steamer was presumably under contract to Waring Bros. & Eckersley: Stephen Wright, writing about the history of Silloth docks, notes that the port’s “first tug was the wooden paddle-steamer Arabian, bought in 1863. She served as a tug, feeder vessel and pleasure steamer, taking visitors on summer cruises around the Solway.”

“The original intention in erecting the viaduct was to have screw piles for the foundation, but after fruitless trials and experiments, extending over nearly six months, it was decided to adopt driving. … The whole of the piles had to be driven at low water, and the work was carried on as tidal work, night and day.” (Whitehaven News, February 11th 1869)

“The piles were driven by Sisson and White’s steam piledriver; a timber dolly was used with a copper ring, between the shoe of the dolly and the pile head… Two tides were generally required per pile.”  (The Engineer, April 9th 1869)

The Solway Firth is notorious for the greatly-varying heights and speeds of its tides between springs and neaps, and its unstable sea-bed; ‘capricious floods and shifting sands’ have always defined its character. This difficulty was acknowledged:

“In the trials and borings that were made it was found that the bed of the Solway is composed of very strong coarse gravel, interspersed with boulders, and on the top of this gravel there is generally from five to six feet of sand, which is constantly being shifted by the currents of the Firth [my italics].” (Whitehaven News, February 11th 1869)

Robert Kinghorn’s 1985 article states that “the range of spring tides at this point is about 21 feet with a speed of 10mph at half-ebb and quarter-flood” (although it’s important to note that the tidal range, and thus speed, of the spring tides also varies from month to month). This would certainly have a strong scouring effect around the piles, and he says – unfortunately without quoting his source – that the “foundations [of the piles were] protected with heavy stones piled around each pier.” Such anti-scouring measures still occur in the Solway today, for example around the piles of the wind-turbines of Robin Rigg.

As the piles marched across the Firth, up above them

“the whole of the superstructure was [being] erected without scaffolding. … the girders were carried over the top of the viaduct, and swung into position by travelling cranes.” (Whitehaven News, February 11th 1869).

Much earlier, October 18th 1866, the Whitehaven News had carried a somewhat-optimistic report from The Scotsman in delightfully flowery language that

“the completion of the structure is rapidly proceeding from both ends. Its appearance is light and elegant, and in the full tide it will have the semblance of a piece of enchanted workmanship resting on the bosom of the racing waters”!

The embankments

The ends of a viaduct do not just grow out of the ground, they must be supported by solid structures, and this is all the more important when they project from the soft and muddy banks of an estuary.

A single pier of 6 columns built on the embankment

Image ‘Reproduced with permission of the Department of Transport (National Records of Scotland, BR/SJR/4/2, p. 2’). Note the date of the photo – see Chapter 10 for its significance.

The original plan, according to The Scotsman, was that stone embankments should reach out far enough from each side of the Firth for the viaduct to be only 800 yards long, but this plan was revised, and ‘fears being entertained that the current would thereby become too confined, and its force increased to a dangerous extent, the bridge was lengthened to 1700 yards.’

Subsequently, it was decided to extend the viaduct by yet another 200 yards on the Bowness side, with the addition of extra bays – and to close the proposed gap in the centre that would have allowed ships to pass through.

Thus, as the Directors reported to shareholders in February 1868 (Whitehaven News, February 13th 1868),

“Under the powers of the Act obtained last session, [the viaduct] is now constructed without the opening span. It has been determined to lengthen the viaduct by 600 feet, and thus effect a great saving of time in the completion of the line, without any extra cost.”

At the same meeting in early 1868, the engineer James Brunlees’ reported:

“Section 2, Solway crossing: …The whole of the ground piles for the South section of twenty spans, or 600 feet, are driven, and the material for the superstructure will shortly arrive. The sea embankment on the Scotch side is practically finished, and that on the English side will be commenced on completion of the viaduct extension.”

The embankment on the Scottish side was 7 chains long and 28 feet deep; on the Cumberland shore 21 chains long and 29 feet deep at the extreme end.

rviaduct annan from holme web


These embankments were

“a source of considerable anxiety in making, as the spring tides rise upon them 21 and 23 feet. The core of the banks is made with clay. The outside is then carefully puddled a depth of one foot; a layer of broken stones and quarry red averaging two feet in thickness is laid over the puddle; and upon the quarry red the pitching is set, the stones being from 15 to 18 inches deep”’ (Whitehaven News, February 11th 1869)

The remains of the Bowness embankment today (C) James Smith


It is likely that the New Red sandstone used for both North and South embankments came from Corsehill Quarry near Annan (even though McKay and Blackstock had a quarry in Cumberland near Aspatria, and had constructed the stonework of the Aspatria to Wigton section of the M&CR; for more on the McKays’ quarrying see Judy McKay/Beeby’s story, ‘Written in stone’).


quarrymen & navvies snip


Philip Ashforth (in The Industrial Locomotive, 2007, no. 124, pp138-145; given to me by Peter Holmes, Cumbria Railways Group) refers to a locomotive that “went from the Solway [SJR] contract to John Murray & Sons, Corsehill Quarries, Annan circa 1868 so would not have had far to travel to its new home as the SJR ran through Corsehill.”

And in The Engineer (April 9th 1869, p 252, Grace’s Guide) “The viaduct has been well tested by the continual passage of loaded wagons, with materials for the south bank ... [my italics]” – with the implication that the stone came from Scotland.

The handsome stone-work, and evidence of the underlying layer of broken stone, is still visible on the embankments today, and is astonishing to think of the number of hours, and labourers and masons – puddling clay, barrowing, cutting, dressing and laying stone – that were involved. On both sides of the Firth.

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5. Building the viaduct: imagine the scene

‘the thudding of pile-drivers and the hiss of the tidal-bore…’



On the day of ‘cutting the first sod’, Tuesday 26th March 1865, Brogden had said, “I trust that when most of you now present … are here at the opening, we shall meet under favourable auspices to celebrate that occasion.” (Carlisle Journal, Friday March 31st 1865)

The young Elizabeth Ann Cottam, whose father was a grocer in Bowness, was apparently the first person to cross the viaduct on the Sunday before the official opening  – for the construction of the viaduct itself had taken about three years, between early 1866 and June 27th 1868 when Alex Brogden laid the final two girders.

There’s no record of any major celebration of the opening, probably because there were no ‘favourable auspices’ at that time. Bowness Moss was proving such a hindrance that the SJR was by no means fully open; locomotives could have gone no further than Bowness, where even the station had not yet been completed.

The newspapers continued to report a great deal about the progress of the work, but rather little about the people involved. Out on the Firth, work had been going on ‘night and day’ from the barges. The steamer Arabian and its crew was criss-crossing the Firth with its clutch of barges; here were the barge-captains and their crews, and those skilled in working the derricks and the steam-driven pile-drivers.

The barges

‘were generally moored with four anchors, head and stern. In such an exposed estuary, accidents, of course, occurred – such as the barges being swamped – but on the whole, the work was carried on with very few disasters, and only one life has been lost over the whole undertaking. The weather in some seasons rendered the work very difficult and dangerous; and the storms were occasionally so strong that the men could not hold on to the bridge to continue their work. On one occasion, in a heavy storm, two of the barges were lost; but they were afterwards recovered along with their machinery.’ (Whitehaven News Feb 11th 1869).

Out on the Firth, then, there would have been the thudding of the pile-drivers and the squeal of released steam; the slapping of waves and the hiss of the occasional tidal-bore; the noise of wind through the superstructure of the vessels and the piers; the rumble and splash of boulders being off-loaded around the piles.

Above the men on the barges, others were constructing the upper tiers of the viaduct.  Wrought-iron pillars were being trundled along temporary tracks on waggons, and men were operating derricks with wildly-swinging cables; there was a hammering, shouting and clanging as metal-workers fitted and bolted girders and plates into place.

There was always danger, in the wind, with heavy machinery and equipment and wallowing barges.

And then there was the enormous disturbance to the sea-bed, the shifting of tons of sediment by the Solway’s tides.

There were other, social, knock-on effects: ‘the once busy little bathing village of Bowness’, and ‘Port Carlisle [was] now as lifeless and silent as any place well could be.’ Port Carlisle had been in decline for a while after the closure of the canal, and steamer trade had decreased, but now ‘The viaduct of the Solway Firth has shut up the little place entirely within itself. Sea communication west of the viaduct is quite cut off except for small boats …’ (Whitehaven News Feb 11th 1869).

Moreover, as Chris Puxley, former harbour-master at the Port of Silloth, wrote in the Solway Buzz in August 2014, ‘the building of this viaduct had a profound and detrimental effect on the regular cross-Solway paddle-steamer services and day trips between Silloth and the Scottish ports of Annan, Dumfries, Carsethorn and Glencaple, with those services declining and finally ending around 1878.’

The disruption, including the noise and the lanes busy with carts and waggons, caused to the lives of the people who lived in the nearby villages and farmed the land can be imagined, but contemporary accounts of the societal effects barely exist. All those navvies and metalworkers and masons must have had to live and feed close by – but where, and how? Of course, this influx could also have allowed people like traders and publicans (as we’ll see later) to benefit.

This was perfect terrain for poaching. Was there a major impact on the numbers of roe-deer and fish and wildfowl?

Some people wondered how any salmon could now make their way up the estuary to the rivers; there were disputes, which were even brought to court, about the enormous numbers of ‘fixed engines’ for fishing – the stake-nets and poke-nets – along the shore to the East of the viaduct. Shifting channels and sediment must have interfered with haaf-netting.


Solway nets
Fixed nets on the Scottish side, March 2017 (C) James Smith


The mudflats and saltmarshes and raised mires of the Upper Solway have always been important feeding sites for resident and migrating birds (and are now fairly comprehensively protected by international and European and UK conservation designations). But imagine the extent of the disturbance – to marine invertebrates, to birds and to wildlife in general – during those years of construction of the SJR, across and on both sides of the Firth.

Imagine, too, the long-lasting disturbance in constructing a railway track across the almost untouched and pristine centre of a peat-bog.

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.

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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’.