The Story of the Solway

chapter five


Around the Upper Solway are several very special landscapes – the Mosses, Flows or Commons –  which are all raised mires, peatbogs that were formed in glaciated hollows and grew upwards over the millenia, fed only by the rain. The sphagnum mosses which helped create them are of many gloriously-coloured species; the other plants, and animals, of the Mosses are special too.



Peat builds up at the rate of about 1 centimetre per decade. By inserting a hollow rod and taking a core, the stages in the build-up of the mire can be examined. Some of the mires are 6-10 metres deep – they hold a long record, an archive, of the environment during those millenia.


Peat has been cut and dried and used as fuel for centuries, and more recently as a horticultural supplement. Many of the Mosses have been cut around the edges or entirely excavated. There are some fascinating stories about the business of hand-cutting peat for commercial purposes; the ravages of the more industrial ‘harvesting’ can also still be seen.


Most of the Solway’s Mosses are protected and are being restored: peat locks up carbon, so peat-bogs are very important for our attempts to mitigate climate-change.

In the 1860s the Solway Junction Railway was constructed across Bowness Moss; the story of the planning, construction and eventual demolition of the SJR and the extraordinary railway viaduct across the Solway between Bowness and Annan, is told and illustrated in Crossing the Moss, a project carried out by myself and photographer James Smith. The wet peat was drained by ditches cut right across the Moss, at a distance of 1 Chain (33 yards = 66 feet) each side of the railway embankment. Peatbogs were not valued and were merely awkward ‘waste land’ at that time (‘natural capital’ was not in the vocabulary), and it is only fairly recently that their unique character, wildlife and plants have been appreciated. Work on restoring the damage to Bowness Moss/Common has been extensive (the dramatic, entertaining and very photogenic story of the restoration is on the Crossing the Moss website too).

James Smith’s video of aerial views of the Moss, the saltmarsh and the Solway is well worth watching to understand how the three strands of the margin interact.