‘Allonby people in the old days,’ Ronnie Porter tells me, referring to when he was younger, ‘they were farmers, smallholders and fishermen. Herring was the main thing, they’d spawn and shoal in Allonby Bay. Most people in the village had nets.’
Herring was caught on the shore, or out on the Solway and beyond from boats. Allonby herring was smoked or, more frequently salted. Ronnie is a store of fascinating information, whether about herring, shrimping, ship-breaking – or, importantly, the almost-forgotten names of the stones (the large glacial erratics) and the rocky scaurs. The names were important ‘markers’ for where nets and lines were set.
Irish-born Maryport artist William Mitchell, Allonby-born captain and surveyor Joseph Huddart; the stories of their links with the Solway and the Irish Sea are entertaining.
To preserve meat of any sort by salting, you need a large supply of salt. Saltpans or salterns are found in many places each side of the Solway, some owned by the Cistercian monks, others more recent as at Crosscanonby near Allonby. The technique, and the names for the various stages, are described in this chapter.
Brown shrimp (Crangon) are caught by hand on the shore using ‘shoo-nets’, or trawled out in the Firth by shrimp-boats from Silloth. Danny Baxter, owner of the New Venture told me of his trawling trips, and how the shrimp are immediately cooked on board.
The Solway has always been famous for haaf-netting, an ancient technique – probably derived from the Vikings – of netting salmon. It requires great expertise and a close understanding of the currents and the types of waves: I was lucky enough to be taken out haafnetting with Mark Messenger, ‘on the back of’ his licence, in 2011. At times we were standing chest-deep out in the Firth as the tide came in. Tom Dias, another haaf-netter, kindly gave me permission to use some of his evocative photos. (There are several very good present-day films about haaf-netting, including from the Annan Common Good – links are in the book – but here is one from the BBC Archives of 1965.)
Rivers like the Eden, Esk and Sark, were formerly regularly crossed near their mouths at known crossing-places or ‘waths’. There were also 2 waths right across the Firth itself, and Mark led me across from Bowness to the shore near Annan on one occasion. I have few photos of this or of when I went haafnetting – cameras and fast-moving salty water aren’t a good combination; but I learnt a lot about interpreting what was happening above and below the surface of the Firth.
I first experienced a tidal bore when I went out with the haaf-netters. In October 2020 some very big Spring tides provided ideal conditions for producing a bore on the firth near Burgh Marsh, and on some of the rivers like the Eden and the Wampool, where I heard then saw the power of a bore.