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.
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.
‘A great day for Annan, and Annan did its best to make it memorable’
‘No such pusillanimous spirit…’
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.
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’.
Alexander Brogden (from Wikipedia)
James Brunlees (from Wikipedia)
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:
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).
“a piece of enchanted workmanship resting on the bosom of the racing waters”
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.
OS map 1901
Detail OS map 1901
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 …’
Courtesy of Cumbria Image Bank
A forest of pillars and braces
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.’’
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.”
The (damaged) track bed in 1881
Columns supported on piles driven into the bed of the Firth
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.
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 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.
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.
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)
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’).
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.
‘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.
‘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).
OS map showing canal & coaling wharf at port Carlisle
Present-day view of Port Carlisle
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.
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.
The winter of 1880/81 was extremely cold, with snow and freezing weather. During the neap tides of January 1881, water froze on the saltmarshes and shores of the Upper Solway, and along the estuaries of the Esk and Eden. When the higher Spring tides arrived at the end of the month, the sheets of ice were lifted and carried down the Firth.
‘On Saturday night and early on Sunday morning, when the principal part of the damage was done, four men were on the bridge keeping watch … They could not see the ice through the darkness, but they heard it rattling and bumping against the pillars, and, hearing several times amidst the general noise, while the ebb tide was running between two and six o’clock, a sound which one of them compared to the report of a gun, they at once came to the conclusion that some of the pillars had been broken…’ (Carlisle Journal, Tuesday February 1st 1881)
The ice floes were as much as 6 feet thick, of all sizes; some of them ‘suggested comparisons with fields that were one or two acres in extent’; some were as much as one hundred feet long. For the next few days, icefloes were carried to and fro by the tides, crashing against the viaduct’s supports.
On the Tuesday, a large section of the viaduct fell; ‘the sound was tremendous, and the steel coming in violent contact with other portions of the ironwork threw off so much fire that the thick darkness was illuminated with a transient gleam of light.’ (Carlisle Journal, February 4th 1881) To the onlookers who gathered on the shores throughout those days, the destruction must have been an exciting and awe-inspiring sight.
These extraordinary images are ‘Reproduced with permission of the Department of Transport (National Records of Scotland, BR/SJR/4/2, p. 2)’ – to whom thanks.
Mr McKerrow, Brunlees’ engineer, came up from London at once, and joined Mr John Brown, the local inspector, to assess the damage – which increased throughout the next few days. On the Thursday 3rd ‘Mr Hunter, who had been in charge of the Viaduct since it was opened, and who was the last to walk over it’ went out in a boat with Mr John Holmes of Bowness, and noted the full extent of the damage – the missing pillars, the gaps where rails swung free over a void. The Carlisle Journal for February 4th lists every missing pillar, the 50-yard ‘Scotch gap’, and the 300-yard ‘Cumberland gap.’
On a lighter side (though less amusing for the subject):
The Solway hadn’t finished showing its capricious nature, but luckily, local knowledge gave cause to dance:
‘A contractor [Mr McKerrow?] was summoned to survey the damage with a view to repairs, and he arrived, with his apparatus, at low tide. Setting his instruments etc., on what he thought to be a safe stretch of shore, he withdrew, only to find that on his return that his possessions were severely embedded in the wet sand. He hired some of the local men to get them out for him, and these … proceeded to join hands and dance around the buried instruments, to the very great surprise of the engineer. The reason to them was plain enough: before they could dig the sand they must first of all stamp out the greater part of moisture from it …’ (John Howes, 1950)
Major Marindin, the Board of Trade Inspector, wasted no time in setting up an Inquiry and concluded that because of the size of the icefloes, with no wind to break them up, it was not surprising that the cast-iron pillars, made brittle with the cold, were unable to withstand the shock. The viaduct should be rebuilt with timber ice-fenders to protect the cast-iron bearing columns, and wooden guards should be fitted outside the rails on the permanent way (Carlisle Express & Examiner, March 19th 1881). The report in The Engineer, April 15th 1881, p278 shows that Marindin was well aware of the scouring power of the Solway’s currents: ‘dolphins or fenders of some kind must be provided to prevent the ice from touching the piers … such things are apt to cause a scour in the bed of a stream, and their foundations in future must be carefully watched.’
The Caledonian Railway proposed to continue running trains over the Moss from the Abbey junction as far as Bowness, but it seems that the Maryport and Carlisle Railway had other plans, and blocked the proposition. Local people sent a petition to Parliament asking for the viaduct to be repaired and the through-line to be re-opened as soon as possible. Parliament finally agreed in 1882 that money should be raised for the repairs. But the reconstruction and re-design needed were considerable, and the viaduct was not completed and approved by inspection until May 1884.
That made nearly three years since The Disaster. During that period it must have been quiet out on Bowness Moss, apart from basic maintenance of the ditches and the permanent way.
Although the SJR re-opened it was clear that the route was no longer commercially viable. Cheaper haematite was being shipped into Scotland from elsewhere. And the rise of the Bessemer process and the availability of good-quality coking-coal in West Cumbria meant that a much larger proportion of West Cumbrian pig-iron remained in the county to be converted to steel. Alex Brogden’s optimism at the Sod-cutting Ceremony back in 1865, praising the profits to be accrued, had not been borne out.
The decline in traffic is described in Edgar & Sinton’s book (The Solway Junction Railway, p53). After 1884, a reduced number of trains ran along the SJR; in 1914 more repairs were found to be needed to the viaduct, but the outbreak of war stopped anything but limited maintenance; a speed limit was imposed and trains could not cross on windy days. The war did give a reprieve to the SJR – large quantities of Cumbrian pig-iron were needed in the Scottish foundries for making guns, so Caledonian Railways introduced special lightweight locomotives that could cross the fragile viaduct in safety.
But by May 1921 there was one mixed (passenger and freight) train across the Moss and the viaduct on Tuesdays and Saturdays only. In August, it became apparent that more repairs were needed – and on Wednesday 31st August 1921, the viaduct was closed.
Janet Smith (James’ wife) recalls visiting an old lady in Bowness several years ago who had travelled across to Annan by train every day to go to school. “She told me that one morning they were all called into the Headmaster’s study and told they were to get their things, right now, because they were to go home. They didn’t even have time to say goodbye to their friends! They were put on the train – and it turned out it was the last train, ever.”
In 1926, the LMS railway company took over Caledonian. They declined to repair the viaduct, and on August 3rd informed Wigton Rural District Council that ‘they had definitely decided not to restore the passenger service over the Solway junction section’ (Scotsman, August 4th 1926).
Dismantling the viaduct and SJR
In 1934 – eight years later – the decision was taken to dismantle the viaduct and the railway track as far as Abbey Junction on the Cumberland side. What happened to the track across Bowness Moss during that eight-year period? It is very sad that there are no written or oral accounts. Surely local people walked or rode along the track as a way of getting onto the Moss and to Whitrigg and Kirkbride. Certainly the viaduct was used (illegally) as a pedestrian route between the two sides of the Firth – for various purposes:
TRESPASSING ON SOLWAY VIADUCT. Prohibition in the town of Annan on Sundays had a sequel at Carlisle Police Court on Saturday, when 20 Scotsmen were fined for trespassing on the Solway viaduct. It was stated that every Sunday night Scotsmen made a practice of crossing the Solway Viaduct from Annan to Bowness-on-Solway to obtain drink. Much damage had been done to the permanent way, and there is grave danger of trespassers falling through gaps in the bridge into the sea below. (TheScotsman, June 1st 1925)
The Scotsman reported on May 7th 1934: ‘Solway Railway Viaduct. Work on demolishment to start this week’. ‘The contractors for the demolition of the bridge are Messrs WH Arnott, Young & Co., Fullarton Iron Works, Glasgow.’
Dismantling the iron work – the piles, the pillars, the superstructure, even the huts – was a massive task. Once the permanent way had been removed, steam barges with cranes were brought in to remove the pillars and piles. Despite the apparent fragility of the viaduct, the contractors often had to resort to blasting to remove the pillars, after issuing warnings to local fishermen.
Some of the intact columns were sent to East Wemyss pits and the Scottish oil works to be used as pipes; some of the other columns went to Darlington and Motherwell to be smelted, and the rest was shipped to Japan to be used for armamants in the Sino-Japanese War (quoted – unfortunately without noting their source – by Edgar & Sinton, The Solway Junction Railway, p55).
In November 1935 the dismantling of the viaduct was complete – after 18 months of disruption in and around the Solway.
Six cast-iron pillars remain on the Bowness side as a memorial to an extraordinary piece of engineering, an attempt to join Scotland with England, above the tides of the Solway Firth.
The remaining pillars at Bowness
Sandstone and pillars at Bowness
As for the section over Bowness Moss, it remained in place for another 18 months: dismantling didn’t start until May 1937 and apparently took two months (John Howes, 1950).
By then, since the viaduct no longer existed, all the materials – rails and other iron-work, sleepers large and small, would have had to be carried back across the Moss to the South, via Whitrigg.
Bowness Moss would, once again, have been a scene of noise and digging and transporting materials in waggons. Were the wooden faggots still intact after seventy years? Did Arnott Young remove them too or had they gradually been oxidised and decomposed in the drained and damaged peat?
The Moss went quiet. In the central damp, lush and untouched part of the raised mire, Sphagnum species continued to flourish; bog asphodel and insectivorous plants produced their flowers; lizards and adders and dragon-flies enjoyed the sunny days; reed-buntings and larks and curlews sang, in season.
Along the derelict railway track, birches and gorse self-seeded, but water continued to drain out of the peat and run in the ditches ‘in river-like streams’.
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.
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