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.

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).

12. Flying over the track of the SJR

Between November 2016 and March 2017, James flew his drones along the length of the track of the Solway Junction Railway from the River Wampool to the stub of the viaduct at Bowness – and beyond, right across to the Annan side. Some of the ‘still’ images in the various chapters are taken from his ‘Phantom’ drone, but the video – to which you can link, below – is from the DJI Inspire drone (see Acknowledgments & Technical Details).

James tells the story of the sometimes nerve-wracking flights:

“The video of Bowness Moss and the old trackbed of the Solway Junction Railway had to be made with the DJI Inspire Mk 2 camera drone in sight at all times to comply with CAA regulations. This involved flying the drone from several different flights and locations on various days in March 2017. The help of a observer was required on a couple of occasions to keep the drone in sight whilst I concentrated on using the camera.

It was very important to carefully monitor battery levels throughout each flight, especially the battery capacity required to return the drone to its take-off (home) point. Careful consideration had to be made as to whether a return flight of the drone to its home point required it to fly against the wind therefore requiring more power. A misjudgement of available remaining flight time requiring a forced landing in the bog or the Solway would have been disastrous!

Light levels change continuously and are very noticeable in aerial photography, and therefore camera settings were set at “manual” throughout the filming. A neutral density ND8 lens filter was also used to control light levels.”

The video ‘flight’ takes you over Bowness Common along the track of the Solway Junction Railway, starting at the saltmarshes along the River Wampool by Whitrigg Station, and heading North to Bowness Moss – and finally, across the Solway Firth to Annan.

Some points of interest which have been mentioned in the previous Chapters, are noted below, with their time-markers.

So – click HERE to watch James Smith’s video that provides such a striking overview of what the Solway Junction Railway has meant, and will continue to mean, to the raised mire of Bowness Common.

video home page

0’57”: a flight around Rogersceugh (pr. Roger-scuff) farm and drumlin – note the bunds retaining run-off around the edges of the fields.

1’40”: Rogersceugh Crossing, where the line of the railway crosses the (Landrover) track; rectangles of Fisons’ drained peat-cut area on the right; approaching the southern dams.

1’50”: bricks and blocks of former building beside the railway; molehills and bunds on the North side of the drumlin’s fields

2’40”: view swings back South to see the South dams, Fisons’ peat-cut area, and the distant Lakeland fells

3’40”: heading North again, towards the central ‘bog woodland’; lines of the longitudinal ditches just visible each side of the railway track

4’00”: Central dams just South of the ‘mineral island’/railway cutting

4’10”: heading over the North dams towards Bowness station and the Firth

5’30”: is the twisting channel on the right (East) of the embankment a relic of one of the former outflows from the longitudinal drainage ditches?

6’25”: the embankment at Annan, and  a ‘fixed engine’ for catching salmon