The Story of the Solway

chapter six


The predominant colour of the hard rock of the Upper Solway is red – the New Red Sandstones of St Bees, the River Eden area and the Annan area. It’s a stone I love, with its varied colours and the records it carries of its origins, whether in flashfloods and sandbanks or on aeolian dunes.

This chapter in The Fresh and the Salt tells of the stone’s origins, its quarries, its uses, both along the Solway and abroad (sometimes inadvertently and as a by-product); there are also stories of the people, Victorians and those alive today, who use it and delight in it. ‘Red’ refers to red brick too, made from the red clay often associated with coal mines: Allonby’s Reading Room is a good example – a building about which Charles Dickens was very scathing (it was later rebuilt, and recently restored – read the story in Chapter 6).


Fleswick Bay, below St Bees Head in Cumbria, is a marvel of coloured pebbles, smooth like ball-bearings, and naturally-sculpted stone. Poet Norman Nicholson wrote about this sandstone, and many people have carved words and names in the cliffs. Judy McKay told me her family’s stories and why her name is so beautifully inscribed.


There are quarries everywhere on both sides of the Upper Solway, for the stone was much in demand for building – houses and municipal buildings, railroads, abbeys … Parton, just North of Whitehaven, is a village of walls; Port Carlisle’s houses and quays and lock basin are built of sandstone; so are the embankments of the former Solway viaduct …

Parton: there’s a very interesting pamphlet about Parton’s history written by David Bradbury: Parton, Part One – see his website PastPresented

Port Carlisle: you can read more about this fascinating place (and find relevent references and links) on my blog.

And for my two videos about Port Carlisle, see  the Media section of this website.


Corncockle quarry near Dumfries became famous for its slabs of sandstone imprinted with the fossil footprints of reptiles; studied and collected by Ruthwell’s Rev Henry Duncan (who also reconstructed the extraordinary 8th century Ruthwell Cross (see images below). Duncan was friends with Sir William Jardine, whose large illustrated book on Ichnology is in Dumfries Museum next to some of Duncan’s footprinted slabs.


Between Fleswick and Whitehaven, at Barrowmouth Bay, is a former gypsum mine; the remains of the mine buildings, bridges and tramway are interesting in themselves, but further along the shore is evidence of an unusual event in the geological past – an unconformity, a ‘mess of brockram’ or breccia, spilled like lumpy porridge over the purplish Coal Measures sandstone. This purplish sandstone is a clue to what lies beneath – the undersea coalfields that stretch miles under the Solway. The Haig Colliery Museum, before it was ‘upgraded’ then closed, held a delightful mixture of coal-mining equipment including  a hand-drawn and coloured map of all the pits.


The rocks that hold the coal seams are faulted, the levels often displaced relative to one another, so cores must be drilled for the geologists to orient themselves. From a conversation with someone years ago about basking sharks in Fleswick Bay I learnt about fossil freshwater mussels in the coalmines – and back in 2016 a chance question to one of West Cumbria Mining’s geologists led to me being shown the cores and, to my lasting delight, being given a section containing 2 species of fossil mussel.


The sandstone preaching cross at Ruthwell, the red brick Reading Room at Allonby, and a plaque commemorating the stay of the ‘Two Idle Apprentices’: read Chapter 6 to find out more.