ON THE second morning of my mid-August trip, I awoke to the grey diffuse light and gentle pitter-patter of the rain that had been promised by the Met Office. Fortunately, I had prepared for this eventuality by packing waterproof walking gear. Well, mostly waterproof. I walked in it anyway
I quickly decided that were I to stay and have breakfast, I’d never go out in the rain. Instead I’d spend the day in the warm and then catch a bus to Carlisle. That was hardly the point of my trip, so I forced myself outside. It was cold. It was wet. But now that I was out in it, I was in fairly high spirits. The road beckoned, promising a damp and drizzly adventure.
Silloth is a Victorian resort town and its layout and architecture shout this in every detail, from the period hotel buildings to the broad avenues and the green open space along the waterfront. From the latter one can see — allegedly — an excellent view of Scotland. On which basis, Scotland is uniformly grey and completely indistinguishable from the sky. You may try to tell me otherwise but I’m unconvinced by your fanciful stories.
Of course, if you wanted to be more convincing, you could always try sitting in Silloth’s Storytelling Chair, situated in the town’s communal garden. Carved by Clive Firth and his Solway Woodcarving Group, it is made from green oak and, when I saw it, was luxuriously upholstered with pure rainwater.
The street along the waterfront had many identities, being not only Criffel Street but also the B5302 and NCN route 72. The B-road and cycle route turned off at the northern end of the town, striking out eastwards towards Abbeytown. I decided to shun them and go my own way, staying on the road that I was on and heading north to Skinburness.
For the next mile and a half the road was much of a muchness, with houses on the landward side and a swathe of lawn on the other, from which beautiful vistas of Scotland remained entirely invisible.
Skinburness is one of those quirky place names that cries out to be encountered when blistered with terrible sunburn. But even I would struggle to get sunburned under grey skies and drizzle. But perhaps I didn’t need to…
According to the website of Silloth Tourism Action Group, Skinburness actually means ‘the headland of the demon-haunted castle’ from OE scinnan (spectre) + burg (fort) + ness (nose). That isn’t making it sound any more welcoming. It’s also an odd name for a hamlet that dates from about 1100, which is when the monks from Holme Cultram Abbey in what is now Abbeytown decided to clear the scrubland and drain the marsh enough to farm it. Or, more realistically, to make someone else farm it.
The hamlet was next to an ancient fortification though, in the form of Roman Milefortlet 9, which stood directly north of the village at the southern end of Grune Point. This latter place is a shingle beach jutting out into the Solway Firth, upon which stands a chapel, St John’s, which has an association with Arthurian legend. Specifically, it is suggested to be the Green Chapel where Sir Gawain met the Green Knight. It was also used as a location by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Redgauntlet, which he wrote while staying in Skinburness.
Rise and Fall
From its origins as a tiny hamlet Skinburness grew in size and importance, becoming an important local port in days long before the harbours at Silloth and Port Carlisle. Goods would be unladen from ships and transported by cart or small boat to Carlisle. In 1300, when Edward I was campaigning in Scotland, it became a temporary naval base as his fleet assembled there. The following year, he granted a charter to the Abbot of Holme Cultram, permitting a market and fair to be held Skinburness. The settlement’s future prosperity seemed assured.
Unfortunately, just five years later the hopes and dreams of Skinburness lay in ruins, as did Skinburness itself. It also lay mostly underwater. A series of storms had flooded and eroded the headland, destroying most of the hamlet. The market was moved inland to Newton Arlosh, which village the Abbot founded as Skinburness’s replacement, and the settlement never recovered its status.
It remained a tiny fishing hamlet until the 1878 when Wigton mill-owner Edwin Hodge Banks constructed the Skinburness Hotel. Eleven years later, Mr Banks’s extravagant lifestyle sent him bankrupt, since when the hotel has changed hands numerous times. It has sat derelict since 2006, when its most recent owners followed Mr Banks into bankruptcy.
There have been interested parties — planning permission to demolish the hotel and replace it with a 64-bed nursing home was granted at one point but expired in 2013 — but the building has yet to find a buyer and whichever bank now owns it is content to let it moulder and decay.
The hotel lay at the northern end of Skinburness and, in passing it, I was also leaving the hamlet. I followed a road that runs along a sea dyke at the edge of Skinburness Marsh. The dyke was probably constructed for the Abbot of Holme Cultram not long after the sea had swallowed Skinburness. For the next two miles, until the marsh road met up with the B5302, my route would look something like this:
Actually there was one thing I could see on the skyline to the north, albeit it intermittently as the rolling rain bands permitted. And that appeared to be a bunch of masts or antennae. These were the transmitters of Anthorn Radio Station and I would be passing directly past them later.
Part of the marsh road is susceptible to tidal flooding but my walk was so timed that the tide, far off and out of sight, was on its way out. The most I would have to contend with were some large puddles from the rain. I splashed merrily through those as I made way along the length of the sea dyke and then, eventually, on to the B5302.
The B-road was not a bundle of fun. Traffic was simultaneously light and heavy at the same time. Light, because there weren’t actually that many vehicles. Heavy because those vehicles were mostly lorries.
Quite apart from the fact that the lorries were huge, forcing me onto the sodden verge, and bombing along in conditions where their stopping distance, should I not get out of the way, would be ‘some way beyond my mangled corpse’, the passing of each of them threw up a curtain of muddy spray. By the time I reached the hamlet of Calvo, a mere half mile later, I had vowed to leave that road at the earliest convenience.
Sitting on a bend in the road, Calvo is tiny as befits a hamlet whose name derives from OE cu-byre, meaning ‘cowshed’. I hurried through it, dodging lorries as I went.
A mile further on there was a crossroads, where a minor road crossed the B5302. The minor road was also NCN 72, which had likewise long since given up the B-road as a fatally flawed idea. I seized this opportunity with joyful abandon, turning left down a long, narrow and dead straight country lane. This road had almost no traffic, and that which it did have — a solitary tractor — took so long to reach me that I could have eaten lunch while I was waiting. The narrow lane ended at a junction with another and I followed NCN 72 as it headed south in approximate parallel to the River Waver and emerged near the centre of Abbeytown.
Holme Cultram Abbey
Abbeytown has the alternate name of Holme Abbey and the reasons for both are pretty obvious. This was the site of Holme Cultram Abbey, the Cistercian religious house whose abbot had developed Skinburness.
The abbey was founded in 1150 by monks from Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire, it being part of Scotland at the time. Seven years later, King Henry II reclaimed the region for England (it had once been part of Northumbria) but, not wanting to endanger his soul, he confirmed the land grant to the monks.
As is usually the case with the history of such institutions, over the centuries the abbey grew in wealth and power. As mentioned previously, it was granted a market at Skinburness but forced to move it to Newton Arlosh after Skinburness was inundated by the sea.
St Mary’s Church
Despite the abbey’s Scottish origins, it suffered badly from border raids and the Abbot had a castle built at nearby Wolsty to help protect it. One thing against which there was no protection, however, was the power and avarice of Henry VIII. 1538 brought Dissolution and much of the abbey complex disappeared. The nave remained however, the parish having petitioned to continue to use it as a church. As it still does today:
The nave is not unaltered, having suffered damage and enjoyed restorations at various points.
2006 Arson Attack
In 2006, it suffered an arson attack that completely destroyed the roof, parts of which were up to 900 years old. The abbey’s original (and irreplaceable) records were also destroyed in the fire and it took seven years to raise the $1.6 million necessary to repair the building, during which time services were held in a cramped corridor.
The fire was started by a seventeen year old youth from Silloth, Shane Walker, who also stole £5 from the collection box. Having (illegally) bought vodka with the £5 and drunk it, he later returned to the church looking for communion wine. Spotting some matches, he decided on a whim to set light to some vestments. The fire quickly got out of control and he made a futile attempt to extinguish it before fleeing, in the course of which he was spotted.
Found guilty at Carlisle Crown Court, he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment with the judge noting that although he hadn’t actually intended to destroy the abbey, he had intended to set the fire and had been ‘utterly reckless as to the consequences.’
Holme East Waver
My route out of Abbeytown took me past the church and northeast along the B5307, although I’d never have guessed the narrow road had a B-classification had my map not told me. It crossed the River Waver — at this point more a small stream — about a half mile north of Abbeytown and carried me on to the tiny, scattered hamlet of Raby, where the road took a sharp left turn.
A little way further on, I found myself with a choice of two ways forwards and NCN 72 was no help because it took both forks at once. I chose the left-hand route, which was even narrower and quieter than the B-road, although not quite as quiet as the Carlisle & Silloth Bay Railway line.
A Brief Respite
It was about this time that, for all of about ten minutes, the skies to the north lightened slightly and gaps in the clouds offered tantalising glimpses of Scotland in the form of the hill known as Criffel.
‘Great,’ I thought, ‘the wet weather is finally breaking.’
Not at all. It was just offering me some false hope before re-intensifying its efforts.
The lane I was following now skirted the marshes that flank the lower reaches of the Waver. I strongly suspect the road has tidal flooding, which is why the cycle route offered two choices. Once again, the only water in the ground turned out to be rain puddles and I passed by the marshes without incident. There was a lot more water on the ground in the hamlet of Salt Coates but that was okay, there was meant to be. It was a pond.
Salt Coates is only a hamlet insofar as two farms next to each other need some sort of noun to describe them; the settlement doesn’t really comprise much more than that, with just a couple more scattered houses lying at the end of branching lanes. I thus passed briskly through it, following the road until it rejoined the B5307. From there it was a just a short walk to Newton Arlosh.
Newton Arlosh is a great-sounding name and simply means ‘new town on the marsh’, while its alternative name of Longnewton describes its linearity, strung out along the road from Abbeytown to Kirkbride.
As previously mentioned, it owes its existence to Skinburness’s misfortunes, the villagers from the former having resettled there. Not that the site would have been considered ‘dry land’ by anyone other than those fleeing coastal inundation; the land to the south of the road is farmland occupying peat bog, while to the north is tidal salt marsh.
St John’s Church
You might think that, if the surrounding land was in many ways more like a moat than solid ground, then attacks by Border Reivers would be infrequent, but Newton Arlosh’s Church of St John the Evangelist (erected in 1303) belies otherwise. With its crenellated pele tower, it is one of the most complete fortified churches in the region.
Sadly, the impressive completeness of St John’s only dates from 1844, when the church was restored from ruins (as a holding of Holme Cultram Abbey, it fared badly in the Dissolution). Even so, it has tons of character and is rightly Grade I Listed.
As befits a defensive structure, the church’s door is narrow and a local custom has it that, at a wedding, whichever of the bride and groom makes it out of the doorway first will be the dominant party in the marriage.
Leaving Newton Arlosh
Newton Arlosh had a large pub and, had it been an hour or so later, I might have considered stopping for lunch. As it was, I pressed onwards, continuing along the B5307. The next two miles were pretty dull to be honest. It wasn’t a particularly interesting road and visibility of anything else was quite poor. I was delighted therefore to reach Angerton.
Angerton is a small village that merges with its slightly larger neighbour, Kirkbride, to the south. There, the B5307 and I parted company as I followed NCN 72 northwards, out of the village and over the River Wampool. Signs warned that this road, like so many around the Solway Firth, was subject to tidal flooding. High tide had been and gone, so that wasn’t a problem; as before there was just the rainwater. It was shin deep.
Navigating around the puddle wasn’t actually that difficult on account of the raised grass verges. It was timing that navigation so that a car wasn’t churning through the puddle at the time that was tricky. I’d had quite enough vehicular spraying from the lorries on the B5302.
Just beyond the puddle was the bridge over the Wampool. It was a narrow bridge with a weight limit restricting it to just one vehicle at a time, a limit seemingly ignored by all traffic. I nipped across it in one of the rare gaps between cars and found myself heading north through more marshland.
The road soon ended at a T-junction and the hamlet of Whitrigg, where ‘hamlet’ means ‘a single row of houses’.
Station Farm Cottage
Despite its tiny size, Whitrigg used to have a railway station on the Solway Junction Railway, which connected the Carlisle and Silloth line with the Caledonian Railway via a bridge across the Solway Firth. Opened in 1870, it was never much used and was closed in 1921 along with the Solway Viaduct. The station comprised a simple wooden building, which has since been demolished. The site is now occupied by Station Farm Cottage.
Strictly speaking, the nearest railway station to Station Farm Cottage is in Annan, on the far side of Solway Firth but as the viaduct was dismantled in the 1930s, you’d have to go a long way round to get there. The closest station in practical terms is Wigton, six miles south of Whitrigg, on the line between Carlisle and Barrow-in-Furness.
Beckbrow & Longcroft
From Whitrigg, I headed west along the coast road that heads out alongside the Wampool Estuary then curves around to follow the Solway Coast. Initially, the road was much like the others I’d been walking on, with hedges and fields and the occasional hamlet.
After a while those antennae that I saw earlier began to loom large ahead. The road curved around and suddenly on one side there were houses while on the other lay the Wampool. I had arrived at the village of Anthorn. The rain chose this moment to stop and, taking my cue from it, I stopped too.
I sat on a bench for a while, resting my feet, eating a sandwich and generally enjoying the absence of water falling out of the sky. There was plenty enough already in the estuary.
For centuries Anthorn was just a scattered hamlet of farms and cottages with water on one side and the peat bog of Bowness Moss on the other. An area of flat land east of the hamlet (in the vicinity of the now-demolished Solway House) was seized by the Royal Navy and used to build an airfield in 1918. This was abandoned in the inter-war years but reinstated at the start of WW2 as an emergency landing ground for nearby RAF Silloth.
In 1942, it changed hands as the RAF relinquished it back to the navy, who first renamed it RNAS Anthorn and then later HMS Nuthatch (naval air stations were named with an ornithological theme). It operated into the late 1950s as No. 1 ARDU (Aircraft Receipt and Dispatch Unit — receiving aircraft from the manufacturer and preparing them for operational use).
Anthorn Radio Station
Closed down in 1958, the arifield was repurposed in the 1960s as a NATO VLF transmitting site for communicating with submarines. It still serves that purpose today, with the addition of an LF transmitter for the National Physical Laboratory’s atomic clock time signal and an eLORAN radio navigational transmitter operated on joint behalf of Trinity House and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
The presence of the airfield and subsequently the radio station, contributed to the growth of Anthorn. The majority of the houses that comprise the village were originally Admiralty houses constructed in 1952.
I had plenty of time to examine the radio antennae as the road looped slowly around the airfield perimeter, revealing the double ring of thirteen masts.
The rain made a brief and abortive attempt to start up again but I ignored it with all the contempt it deserved. After it had finally given up trying, the skies began to brighten and I started to encounter the occasional dog-walker on the road.
At various points along the way, I passed a number of strange-looking structures that I initially assumed were pillboxes but were actually the exact conceptual opposite. Ugly-looking structures of brick and concrete, they were firing butts. That is, where a pillbox is intended to be shot out of, the objects in question were designed to be fired into. The Fleet Air Arm would taxi its planes into a hangar in front of them and then fire their machine guns into a bank of sand in the back of these structures. The aim (if you’ll pardon the pun) was to calibrate and harmonise their firing. There are five such butts around the edge of Anthorn airfield.
On the far side of the airfield was the hamlet of Cardurnock, comprising just a couple of houses. It lay on the alignment of the western extension from Hadrian’s Wall, between the sites of Milefortlets 4 and 5.
There wasn’t much in Cardurnock, not even something to sit on. So I flopped heavily onto the round and rested my aching feet. Road walking is easy-going terrain but the hard surface takes it out of your soles over distance.
When I felt ready, I continued. The road from Cardurnock headed north then east, at which point it was following the Solway Firth once more. By now, visibility had cleared considerably and Criffel loomed large on the horizon.
‘Main Road’ Man
There now followed about three miles of coast road. On my left was salt marsh, sloping gradually into the firth. On my right were fields and woodland and the occasional access track leading to isolated farmhouses. I was tired by now and my feet hurt and thus I plodded along in my own little world and it took a while before I realised that someone was insistently saying ‘excuse me’ to me.
I looked round to find that a vehicle had stopped right next to me (I had noticed it but I was on autopilot, and had merely stood aside to let it pass). An anxious-looking couple sat within it, keen to know if they were on the right road to Silloth. They were — or at least one of them — but answering their question proved harder than it should have been and I had to resort to pointing at the map. The sticking point was terminology. The driver kept asking if he was on ‘the main road’ and it should have been obvious to anyone with eyes that there was nothing ‘main’ about that particular road, which was narrow and unclassified. It also had a gate across it a little further along, and it was having to stop and open the gate that had spooked him.
Eventually, I realised that he was using ‘the main road’ to mean ‘a public road’ and was worried that he was heading down some farm’s private access track. Reassured that he wasn’t, he sped off. I went in the other direction at a somewhat slower pace and a few minutes later I passed through the gate that had so unnerved him.
On the far side of the gate, the road stretched out ahead of me, a narrow lane flanked by trees and marsh. Ordinarily this would have been lovely but I had had enough road walking for one day and mostly just wanted to sit down. Had I done so at that point, I might not have got up again so, determinedly, I pressed on…
As I headed east, the Solway Firth grew narrower and Scotland thus drew closer, its features more distinct. Eventually I reached the point where the Solway Junction Railway had once crossed the road and mounted its iron viaduct across the firth. A jutting embankment was all that remained of its southern abutment.
Opened in 1869, the Solway Viaduct was made from cast iron and over a mile long, connecting the Caledonian Railway to the railway network in Cumbria. Building the bridge was an engineering challenge but so too was getting track to it across the treacherous Bowness Moss.
The line was primarily built for goods traffic but also carried passengers from early on. Unfortunately, a combination of declining traffic and spiralling maintenance costs soon rendered the line uneconomic; cheap ore from Spain was undercutting the line’s main cargo while damage was incurred by heavy ice floes arising from a freak cold spell. Add in corrosion to the bridge’s cast iron and the whole thing became too expensive to replace.
The line was closed in 1921 and the viaduct dismantled in 1933, possibly to the dismay of Scots in Annan who were sneakily crossing the unsafe structure to take advantage of English licensing laws — Scottish pubs were closed on Sundays whereas English pubs were not.
The Age of Rail
Although I know that they’ve been around since the 1830s, I find it hard to appreciate the longevity of railways, possibly because commuting on them regularly makes them seem such a current, modern thing. But it’s when confronted by things like the Solway Viaduct that it strikes home. It’s not just that they built the line almost a hundred and fifty years ago; it’s the fact that it’s almost a hundred years since it closed. Its demolition is now also long past and there can’t be many left who can remember it.
Passing the railway line meant that I was almost at my destination. Soon enough I was passing the Pottery Cottages at the edge of Bowness-on-Solway and making my way into the village.
Bowness-on-Solway sits at a narrow part of the Firth of Solway, which was anciently a crossing at low tide (albeit a treacherous, dangerous one). The village sits at the end of Hadrian’s Wall, occupying the site of the fort that once stood there.
St Michael’s Church
St Michael’s Church, built in the twelfth century, uses one of the old fort buildings — thought to be a granary — as its foundations. The church was subject in the past to Scottish raids and Border Reivers.
In one raid in 1626 the Scots made off with the church bells but lost them on the return crossing. The outraged men of Bowness responded in kind, wading across to steal the bells from churches in Dornock and Middlebie.
In consequence, it has long been the tradition that every new vicar of Annan requests the return of the Scottish bells. This is always met by an English refusal but these days the refusal is polite.
The King’s Arms
In the heart of Bowness-on-Solway I found my bus stop and, within sight of it, a pub. I had time for a sit down and a drink and, as it turned out, a chat with some friendly locals who gently quizzed me about my walking. A short while later a bus arrived and whisked me off to Carlisle.
I would return to Bowness in the morning, ready to make my way back to Carlisle on foot…
This time: 23 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,214½ miles