Before Wiltshire, there was Cumbria, a county bordered by the sea. Where the Irish waters cracked a wedge from the border, the Solway Firth filled it with silt and sand.
I must go down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song
and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face
and a grey dawn breaking.
– Sea-Fever by John Masefield
To the west of my house, a river pours itself into the Irish Sea. From a calcareous birth under the limestone of Mallerstang Edge, the river cuts its ninety-mile dash to the sea, stopping, on occasion, to flood a city.
To the Romans, she was Itouva, a name borrowed from the earlier Britons who knew her sweeps and flexes and called her Ituna, to bend. Beyond the city, the contemporary Eden shapes lazy arcs through rich green pastures until Rockcliffe. Here, the estuarine elements of the Solway Firth begin to blend with the salt-free freshwater below orange sandstone bluffs. Below the churn of the fresh and the salt, three great banks of sand, that once bore armies, crossed the estuary.
The Peatwath crossed the shallow Eden below Rockcliffe, the Sulwath spanned the mouth of the Border Esk, and the Sandwath, furthest west, traversed a broad bank from Drumburgh to Dornock. Three fords of peat, mud and sand; sutures that tied the jagged edge of nations together.
Solway isn’t the way of the sun, though the sunsets here are indescribable. It is the way of Anglo-Saxon sul, the way of mud. Edward Longshanks fell foul of it in 1307. He died of dysentery while camped on the marshes waiting to cross the Sandwath. A single pillar marks the place, encircled by rusted iron railings and grazing salt-beef cattle. Edward I still waits outside the Greyhound Pub in nearby Burgh-by-Sands, a sword and helm in hand, inclined to hammer the Scots. It’s the finest statue in Cumbria. The King’s wasted body lay in State at St. Michael’s Church for ten days. His heir, Edward II, later proclaimed King in Carlisle.
The sleepy sound of a tea-time tide
Slaps at the rocks the sun has dried,
Too lazy, almost, to sink and lift
Round low peninsulas pink with thrift.
– A Bay in Anglesey by John Betjeman
It’s a fast road out of Carlisle, west, towards the sunset, which is at odds with the unhurriedness of life on the island. It is where happiness is in the anticipation, not the fulfilment. Locals still call it the island, a single brown contour ring of height reaching out of the Solway marsh, a land bridge between two estuaries. To the south, Morricambe Bay, once a natural harbour for the Roman galleys that brought olive oil and garum to Hadrian’s Wall.
The mosses, peats and waths of the Solway Firth have always been an end and a crossing point. When the tide is out, the water-edge can be a mile away. An imperceptible causeway connects the end of arable fields with the beginning of marsh. It is like stepping off the chartered into the unchartered. Deep channels cut through the marsh that still hold water during the hottest months. The marsh grass is out of this world, pricked with sea pinks, close-cropped by sheep, and alive to the sound of ascending Skylarks.
Thrift ~ Sea Thrift ~ Sea Pink ~ Cliff Rose ~ Cushion Pink ~ Lady’s Pin Cushion ~ Marsh Daisy ~ Sea Gillyflower ~ Sea Grass ~ Cliff Clover ~ Mary’s Pillow ~ Beach Wave
-Twelve names for Thrift
Nothing but a Sea Change
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
– The Tempest by William Shakespeare
The Solway lives in a liminal state, burnishing the edges of the salt marsh twice a day, each day, pushing England & Scotland further apart. The inner Solway Firth is home to one of the highest tidal reaches in the United Kingdom. A neap spring tide will rise and fall as much as 8 metres. The estuary is every day-cleansed with a saline solution. The sky is sand-papered by wind-blown grains. Every compass point stretches into thin lines, the horizon crenelated with hills. It is edgeland, a debatable space where you feel unimportant, that you begin not to matter. It is a distant, intimate and self-contained universe.
At the coastal edge, the sea nibbles away at the dunes. A northerly longshore drift stirs up the shallow silt. At the high Spring tides or when the wind is driving up the Firth, mucky waves deposit a layer of silt on the marsh. The grass becomes salty and unpalatable and is left to grow, a catchment area for the next deposit of silt. This is how the marsh grows upwards in laminations of sandy, salty, silt.
To the Worlds End
Here, on the level sand,
Between the sea and land,
What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?
– Smooth between sea and land by A. E. Housman
At the edge, step off the marsh grass, step through the erosion, onto the sand. It can be six foot down in places so you are hidden from view. In front and to the side, a mile of sand. No blue flag beach can match this. The river lies still in the distance, ebbing out towards the Solway Firth. It is the safest time to visit the sandbanks, just after high tide, when you have a clear six hours before the water barrels up the funnelling estuary, its mini bore moving faster than walking pace.
Here, at the worlds end, is silence. All you can hear is the turning of the tide, the far-off cries from thousands of overwintering birds, and the unfaltering breeze that pushes the surface tension of the rippled sand over and over and over.
‘To the worlds end I thought I’d go
And o’er the brink just peep adown
To see the mighty depths below’
Birds Nesting by John Clare