31. Bowness-on-Solway to Dornock

Estuaries can be annoying for a coastal walker. The coast on the other side may be less than a mile away, but knowing it might be 10, 20, 30 or more miles of walking to get there can be dispiriting. At the River Kent near Arnside, and the River Esk near Ravenglass I decided to wade across… there was no danger in those shallow rivers.

For the last few walks, the coastline of Dumfries and Galloway has been getting gradually closer, as the Solway Firth narrows towards its head. It’s now only just over a mile across. Could it be possible to wade across the Solway?

Of course it is! A hardy group of north-Cumbrian fishermen do it regularly. Well, they wade out into the waters regularly with their nets – there’s not much point walking out the Scottish side when the fish are in the middle.

The Solway Haaf Netters follow an ancient tradition stretching back over a thousand years to Viking settlers. They carry their 17 feet-wide hand-made nets into the waters around the turn of the tide, and stand side by side, holding the net vertically. When a fish swims into the net, it is lifted to trap the fish, which is then scooped up and put in a bag on their back. The best catch is salmon, trout, and seabass, but there’s also flatfish in these waters.

Information and videos about haaf netting can be found on their website. They’ll even let you join them for a day’s fishing if you like, which I’d strongly recommend.

Haaf netters (picture from their webpage)

Just twenty or so years ago 350 licences were issued for haaf netting on the English side of the Solway, but it is getting rarer and rarer these days, as restrictions imposed by the Environment Agency limit what the netters are allowed to do, even though they catch only a small number of fish. The months and even times of day are restricted, and today only 25 licences are taken up on the English side. Added pressures from the effects of escaped salmon from fish farms further up into Scotland, carrying diseases and polluting the gene-pool, mean it gets harder year on year.

So, crossing the Solway. How do you do it? There are quite a few fords – or waths in local parlance – across the rivers that flow into the Solway Firth: the Sark, the Eden and the Esk (that’s the north Cumbrian River Esk, not the south Cumbrian Esk, they’re economical with river names in Cumbria). A whole chapter of this article from 1939 describes them, but I’m taking a route further downstream, straight across from Bowness (that’s Bowness-on-Solway, not –on-Windermere – they’re economical with village names too).

Waths across the Solway… but we’re inventing our very own wath today
You can’t say you’re not warned.

You have to know what you’re doing though. The complex flows caused by the confluence of the rivers and the advancing tide mean that safe crossing places change from day to day. It’s easy to get washed away if you stumble into a deep “hole”, and strong tides and flows can catch you unawares. Unusually, the tide here isn’t ‘sinusoidal’, it takes up to 10 hours to ebb, but floods in only two, so it’s easy to get caught out.

Way back in 1216, a Scottish army got caught out, as the ‘Chronicles of Melrose and Lanercost‘ attest…

The Scots under Alexander II had invaded Cumberland in revenge for King John’s invasion of Berwick, and a party of the Scottish king’s followers, despite their leader’s promise to respect the property of religious houses, had plundered Holm Cultram Abbey, carrying off books, vestments and vessels of the altar, as well as the horses and cattle belonging to the abbey. So thorough was their work of spoilation that we are told they stripped the coverlet from the bed of a monk who was lying sick to death in the infirmary.

What the monks regarded as divine vengeance was not slow in overtaking the robbers; for while they were crossing the Eden near its junction with the Solway on the return journey to Scotland they were overtaken by a tidal wave and were drowned to the number of 1900.

I don’t know what I’m doing, and not wishing to trust in divine intervention for my return invasion of Scotland, I chose to call upon a couple of the haaf-netters to guide me across. Mark and Jason were going fishing later that afternoon, but very kindly offered to guide me across.

So how much distance does it save? This map shows the difference. It’s over 36 miles hugging the coastline as I do, but less than 2 to walk across.

The long route…

OK, it takes away the opportunity for a photo next to the “Welcome to Scotland” sign, but a selfie half-way across the Solway is much cooler.

So I meet up with Mark and Jason in a layby just outside of Bowness and don my waders. I bought some a while back for this sort of thing, but I’ve not worn them yet, so I hope they don’t leak. Mark hands me a staff for prodding the sea-bed ahead, and off we go down the bank.

…the short route.

The silt at the edge lies thicker than in the main stream, where the current washes it away, but as soon as we’re in the water the ground hardens up.

First comes the River Eden. It’s a very strong flow making it none too easy to wade through, a deep wake pluming out behind us as the water flows round our legs. Mark and Jason confidently negotiate it. I’m finding it quite hard but keep quiet, soon working out the easiest way to negotiate it.

The deep part doesn’t last long, and shortly we’re only ankle deep. I stop to take pictures up and downstream, eastwards towards the hills of the northern Pennines, and west towards Criffel and the Galloway mountains.

Looking east
Looking west

Mark tells me it’s not the best conditions for fishing, but not the worst either. The murky waters filled with silt from up-river means the fish don’t see the nets very easily, which is good, but the wind is quite strong which is bad. Hopefully, they’ll catch something today.

Shoals (sand-banks, not fish) stretch out westwards, the light shimmering off the film of water on the sand. We’re over halfway across now, between the Eden and the Esk. It’s quite hard to imagine the water will be well over heads here in just a few hours.

Every day is different in the Solway. The sands shift around with every tide, so nothing stays the same. Sometimes the Eden and Esk merge further upstream leaving a single channel (as on the Google Maps view), but today there are two channels with water circling upstream on the northern side, and downstream on the southern. The Esk is deeper than the Eden today unusually, but the flow-rate is much less and so it’s easier to cross. The recently turned flood tide pushes against the natural flow of the river, the forces cancelling each other out and making wading much easier.

Before long we’re out of the water, and traversing the sand and silt rising up to the Scottish bank. As we get nearer the silt gets deeper and we have to avoid the deep winding channels carved out of the mud by a small stream.

Finally we reach the bank, where small islands of mossy grass stand proud of the mud, dotted with the last fading flowers of sea-pinks. I get my “Arriving in Scotland” selfie, so much better than that oft-pictured “Scotland Welcomes You” sign on the B7076.

Welcome to Scotland

As with most there-and-back walks, the journey back feels quicker. The sun shimmers off the water as we head back to the Cumbrian coastline.

The masts of Anthorn peep over the Cardurnock peninsula… they’ll be in view for quite a few walks yet.

The masts of Anthorn

From this point you can see four mountain ranges – Criffel and the southern Galloway range to the west, White Coombe and the Moffat Hills to the north, the northern Pennines to the west, and Skiddaw and the Lake District National Park to the south. Mark tells me he’s been all over the world, but for him, this is the most beautiful place. It certainly is awe-inspiring.

We make it back to the English bank, and say our goodbyes. Mark and Jason head into Bowness to get their nets, and I head off home. I stop after a mile or so to take some final pictures of the Solway Firth – at least from the English side – my next walks will be in Scotland, looking south over the Solway.

Dornockbrow B&B
Port Carlisle

This walk was completed on 6th August 2022 and was about 3 miles there and back.

Here’s the real-time recorded map of my actual route, which you can pan and zoom around.

Here are some blogs of others who have done this crossing…

21 thoughts on “31. Bowness-on-Solway to Dornock

  1. Nice to see you posting again Paul 🙂 Rather you than me doing this crossing, I think I would cheat and drive round. I’m looking forward to reading about your adventures on the Scottish side now : )

    1. Thanks Eunice. It probably takes as long to drive around as it does to wade!
      I’m starting up again in Scotland in September.

  2. Well done In wading across the estuary. I look forward to more of your adventures in Scotland. Take care. Robert.

    1. Thanks Tony. Yeah, I had walks planned for going round, but apart from seeing Edward I’s monument there wasn’t much exciting to look forward to. This way was much more fun!

    1. Thanks Conrad. In practice it didn’t feel nearly so dangerous as I had anticipated, but I guess that was because I was with very experienced guys. Doing it on my own at the wrong time of tide could have been a lot more…. exciting!

  3. What a fantastic way to enter Scotland, but then you come back again. You should be on dry land for some time once you are walking in Galloway, but oh there is the River Annan, the River Nith, the Urr Water to keep us guessing.
    Turas math dhut!

    1. I’ve got no current plans to wade any of those, but I did have a look at getting across the Urr – the long way round is really quite long. You never know….!

    1. Thanks Anabel. It really wasn’t that brave considering who I had to guide me, and was never remotely dangerous! Those guys have been out there hundreds or perhaps thousands of times.

  4. Great to see you back on the coast. That looks really amazing and a great way to reach Scotland. I hadn’t even considered it would be possible to wade that and it looks like a real adventure (and I imagine took some organising). Glad you did it with people that know the safe way though I imagine it’s very dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. And yes I don’t think you really missed anything particularly interesting going the longer way round (with the possible exception of the Cadbury outlet shop I discovered in Gretna!).

    1. Thanks Jon. I must admit that after Preston & the River Ribble, when I get to every estuary these days I search the internet for possible quicker ways across. Estuaries are generally not the most scenic parts of our walks, are they!

      I’ve seen that Cadbury outlet shop actually, when we stopped off in Gretna once on one of our regular car trips to Derry via Cairnryan. Painfully I was on a diet and couldn’t partake!!!

  5. Wow! I am deeply impressed and not a little jealous. I remember thinking at both Bowness and Drumburgh that it would be cool to ford the firth but that it was way too dangerous to try. I never seriously considered that it would be possible to actually do so (with expert guidance).

    Bravo, sir! Bravo!

  6. Thanks for citing me, above. Those Cumbrian estuaries are fun aren’t they? Fording Morecambe Bay, the Leven, Duddon, Esk, Eden and Border Esk I always felt a link to the past, when the main road went oversands …. There were times when John Wesley’s Journal of the 1750s was the best guide to what might be possible.

    I’ll be interested to hear how you fare in Galloway. It’s incut with a string of big rivers, meaning more time going north and south, when you want to head west. But, unlike in Cumbria, I could find no one to guide me across – though I’m sure there must be old routes

    1. I wouldn’t say they’re fun David!!! I’d only waded across the Kent at Arnside and the Esk at Ravenglass. After walking around all the Lancashire ones I’d had enough of them, hence the wading!

      I’ve got no plans for wading across any of the estuaries in D&G, although I did have a look at the lower reaches of the Nith, but it looked a bit deep, and I was staying in Dumfries anyway.

      What journey are you on? Is it an estuary based one or round the coast?

  7. Hi, Paul,

    I forded the Kent and Leven (both with guides), the Duddon (with a local fisherman), the Cumberland Esk and the Solway…. also Budle Bay in Northumberland (a somewhat frightening experience), also lots of little rivers, like the one at Alnmouth.

    In D&G I believe it’s possible to cross Aucherncairn Bay from Almorness Point to Balcary but tides were against me that trip, so didn’t! It’d save quite a bit, including 2 miles of the A711, so maybe worth researching. See http://www.walkscotland.plus.com/otherwalks/stew_s_area/hestan/pages/01.htm

    I’ve been walking the coast in sections over 20-odd years. So far done all England & Wales, also Anglo-Welsh & Anglo-Scottish borders. In Scotland, walked E coast from Berwick on Tweed to John o’Groats, also D&G from Gretna to Creetown. Plan is to go up next May and try to do the N coast to Durness, maybe Cape Wrath. D&G I’ll nibble, as easier to reach. Ultimate plan is to go to Ardrossan, over to Arran, Kintyre and up to Oban. Next by boat to Barra and up to Stornoway along the Outer Hebrides/Hebridean Way (I’d rather walk white sand than be repeatedly forced on to the main road of the mainland). Steamer from Stornoway to Ullapool, then close the circle by heading to Cape Wrath. It’ll take a few years yet.

  8. Chapeau sir. I am really impressed with that. Having walked as far as Gretna I can attest that what you did was far more interesting, although the Waverley line path was a highlight. As an aside I do not get email updates of posts. What a I doing wrong. I did subscribe and have checked junk

    1. Thanks Allan! I did miss the memorial to Edward I of course, but I don’t suppose that is very exciting either.
      Not sure what is wrong with the post notice – perhaps I have an old email address for you? Maybe try unsubscribing and re-subscribing. The Jetpack control pages only seem to list 10 subscribers now rather than all of them, so I can’t see what email address you’ve used. I’ll play around and see if I can find something.

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