A flat, green coast where Hadrian’s Wall reached the sea
The Cumbrian shore that faces westwards and northwards across the broad waters of the Sol way Firth offers more to the walker than to the bather. Muddy sands and treacherous tides make this a generally uninviting coast for swimming or any other water sports. The views, however, are superb, and the seclusion and lack of commercialisation give the area a timeless quality which busier, more popular places have lost.
Allonby Bay faces north-west towards the open sea rather than towards the Scottish shore, so conditions here are safer for bathing than they become further east. Allonby itself is an unassuming but attractive village of cottages which straggles along the Silloth to Maryport coast road. The town became popular as a holiday resort about 200 years ago, after a darker and more violent history as a centre for landing smuggled whisky from the opposite coast of the Solway.
Christ Church, at the southern end of the town, contains a memorial to Joseph Hud-dart, born in Allonby in 1741 and a surveyor who added to 18th-century knowledge of the coasts and harbours of the Far East. Hud-dart became wealthy through an invention which grew out of a disaster he witnessed when a cable snapped at sea; he devised a method of rope-making which ensured that the stresses were divided evenly between the fibres. He set up as a ropemaker in London, and was buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
The coast between Allonby and Silloth is one long bank of shingle, with muddy sand and a scattering of rocks below the high-water mark. The tide goes out more than a mile at low water, leaving vast areas of sand and rock pools, but care must be taken when the tide turns.
Near by are the fragments of a Roman fort, part of the coastal defences intended to prevent the Picts to the north from making a landing behind the line of the Hadrian’s Wall defences.
Established in the last century as a harbour for coastal shipping, Silloth soon became popular as a holiday resort with the arrival of the railway in 1856. Its name, though, is much older. The Cistercian monks of Holme Cultram Abbey, a few miles south-east, established a salt-making trade and grew grain on the fertile Cumbrian fields. The harvested grain was kept in granaries called ‘laths’ on the site where Silloth later grew up, and the town took its name from the ‘sea laths’ belonging to the abbey.
Silloth’s cobbled streets show a Victorian order and precision in their planning, and the small harbour from time to time still sees ships, bringing grain for the large flour mill and conducting a thriving trade in local cattle. The sand-and-shingle beach has a few patches of mud, but bathing is generally safe except when the tide is on the ebb, when the strong currents flowing from the Solway Firth make conditions dangerous.
The holiday attractions of Silloth are set around a large open space called The Green, with 40 acres of lawns, flower beds and rose gardens. The promenade and harbour offer splendid views of the Scottish mountains, especially towards evening and in clear weather.
It is difficult to imagine that this tiny village, dominated today by a large hotel, was the spot chosen by Edward I as a base from which to attack his turbulent enemies in Scotland. In 1303, however, a flood swept away most of the settlement and the villagers moved to Newton for ‘Newtown’) Arlosh, founded on a safer site further inland.
Today the sea to the east and south has retreated, leaving a wild tract of salt-marsh on which sheep and cattle graze. Nearby Grune Point gives a wide view of the estuary and of the waders and wildfowl which live along its borders.
A Cistercian abbey founded in 1150 gave this little farming village its name. The monks grew grain, raised large flocks of sheep and established a thriving trade in salt from the estuary marshes. The abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1538, but part of the nave survived to become St Mary’s Parish Church.
Parts of the original foundations still visible outside the church show how big the abbey must have been in its heyday. The magnificent Tudor doorway, built by Abbot Robert Chamber in 1507, still survives; the abbot’s crest, a bear on a chain (’chained bear’, or ‘Chamber’), survives, on his memorial in the porch. A tomb in the porch is that of the Lord of Annandale, father of Robert Bruce.
A FORTRESS CHURCH
The squat tower of St John’s Church in Newton Arlosh was built with stone walls 5 ft thick and narrow window slits to serve as a defensive stronghold against border raiders, as well as a place of worship. The tower has no external door and can be entered only through a door inside the church at first-floor level. The church dates from the 14th century.
This little village was founded by the monks of Holme Cultram after the disaster of the flooding of Skinburness in 1303. Newton is safe enough from the sea, but in the 17th century this exposed corner of England’s border country was subject to perils of another kind from raiders coming across the Solway Firth to plunder and rob.
A small headland projecting out into the Soiway Firth from the Cumbrian coast is all that remains of the embankment and approach to a railway viaduct which once ran for more than a mile across the firth to the Scottish shore. The viaduct was opened during the railway building boom of 1869 to provide a direct link between the iron-ore mines of Cumbria and the smelting furnaces of Lanarkshire, by-passing the main line through Carlisle and Gretna.
The viaduct never carried heavy traffic, and was vulnerable to wind and weather. In the winter of 1875, water penetrated into the hollow centres of the bridge pillars and froze, expanding and cracking the supports. Six years later drifting ice floes were blown against the bridge supports, tearing open gaps in two places.
Amazingly, the viaduct was repaired, and trains continued running across it until the 1920s; the viaduct was not demolished until 1935. Until then the mile-long route across the estuary was a popular walk in good weather, especially among thirsty Scots wanting to enjoy a drink at an English pub on a Sunday evening.
On the flat coastal meadows of the Solwav at
Bowness, the switchback course of Hadrian’s Wall reached its western limit. The Roman wall at this point was only a turf rampart, so that few signs of it remain.
One link with a later episode in Bowness’s violent past has, however, survived. Stealing church bells was a popular activity among the raiders who crossed the Firth in the 17th century, and one party of Scots who stole the bells of St Michael’s Church managed to get halfway back across the estuary before they were overtaken and had to abandon them. The bells now in the church porch at Bowness were seized from villages on the other side of the Solway in retaliation. The narrow, winding streets of Bowness today slumber in rural peace.
A lonely little village, comprising little more than two terraces of cottages flanking a late Georgian house, are a memorial to a commercial venture ruined by the unpredictability of nature. Port Carlisle, as its name implies, was established in 1819 to provide a harbour for coastal shipping, with a fast and efficient link by canal to markets in Carlisle and beyond. But in the 1860s the tidal currents changed and the harbour silted up. Today the visitor has to search carefully for signs of the old harbour and the remains of the canal, while the traces of the railway which replaced it as a link with Carlisle are also fast disappearing.
The small village marks the site of the next Roman fort to Bowness eastwards along Hadrian’s Wall. The fort itself has gone, but the road through the village still twists around the line of its outer walls, and to the east of the village the low sea-wall follows the line of the original turf rampart.
Nearby Drumburgh Castle farm was built on the ruins of an old fortified tower-house established by Thomas, Lord Dacre early in the 16th century. The end wall, built of Roman stones from the fort, has an outside staircase leading to an upper doorway with a heavily studded door at first-floor level.
BURGH BY SANDS
The village of stone, brick and whitewashed cottages is built over the site of a Roman fort. St Michael’s Church is built with stones from the Roman defences, and stands in the middle of the site. It, too, had a defensive role to play, as a refuge from Scottish raiders, and the 14th-century tower has no outside doorway. The only entrance is through a heavily bolted iron gate from the nave, while the tower windows are small slits. Edward I died on nearby Burgh Marshes in 1307 while campaigning against the Scots, and his body was brought to lie in state in St Michael’s Church. The road leading west from Burgh by Sands follows the line of the old Roman vallum, the southern ditch of Hadrian’s Wall. The high bank on its inland side carried the railway line to Port Carlisle. The wall itself ran on the seaward side, but now there is nothing to prevent high tides flooding across the road.
Founded by the Romans as a base for the Hadrian’s Wall defences, Carlisle became a vital strongpoint in the centuries of border wars in later years. The castle, with its huge keep dating back to 1092, was the focal point of the defences, but the town was also defended by a ring of ramparts, a stretch of which survives close to the castle on the northern side of the town.
Carlisle’s Museum and Art Gallery, which is housed in a 17th-century house just off Castle Street, has a large collection of objects from Roman Carlisle, and is also a national study centre for the whole Hadrian’s Wall defensive system. The Museum of the Border Regiment is housed in the castle’s Queen Mary Tower.
In the centre of the city is the timber-framed Guildhall, built in 1407 as a private house. Near by is the Old Town Hall, facing the steps of the Market Cross from which, in August every year, the opening of the 600-year-old Carlisle Great Fair is proclaimed.