The Story of the Solway

chapter four

Marshes and merses

Back in 2010, Norman Holton – who was then the RSPB Reserves Manager – took  me out onto the saltmarsh at RSPB Campfield near Bowness, and showed me its structure and its plants. Thanks to Norman I grew to love merses and marshes and I will always be grateful to him for his insights and great humour. He died in 2018 and is greatly missed.

Norman Holton in 2010: “If I was a cow, I’d be happy on the marsh!”

Norman showed me the three tiers of growth, the types of salt-tolerant vegetation, the creeks – and over the years I built on this knowledge and have even tried to pass on my love of the saltmarshes by running day-courses for writers. Scientists of all sorts love saltmarshes too, and research their carbon-storage, their stability and growth, and the protective effect of their fractal ‘ragged edges’. Mudflats and saltmarshes interact along the Upper Solway shores (see Chapter 7).

My friend and collaborator on the Crossing the Moss project, photographer James Smith, made an excellent video of Bowness Common which is worth watching for its aerial views of the mudflats and saltmarsh on the Upper Solway


Rockcliffe Marsh at the head of the Solway is vast, constantly accreting and riddled with deep creeks, and like most saltmarshes is also growing upwards – Bart Donato of Natural England made me playdough models to show me why (you can find out more about our modelling session here). I have found out more about the marsh by flying over it, walking over it, and bumping over it on a quadbike.

The Upper Solway’s marshes and merses support tens of thousands of migrant geese over winter and are specially protected. On some of the marshes wildfowling is permitted (see chapter 9).

And many of the marshes on the Cumbrian side are used for grazing – divided into stints, the letting of which is an amusing story.


Kirkconnell Merse to the West of the R Nith has grown and stabilised enormously during the past 150 or more years, ever since the ‘training wall’ was constructed to limit (‘train’) the wandering Nith. Visiting the wall required a long, scrambly and sweaty walk across the merse on what was the hottest day of 2019.