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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…