The charisma of Corophium, the mudshrimp

Snowdrifts! Small semicircles and rippling lines of white on the grass of the saltmarsh: the cast exoskeletons of thousands of mudshrimps. My friend and former colleague Professor Geoff Moore (himself an expert on amphipod crustaceans including Corophium) once told me how, on the Isle of Cumbrae, he had seen drifts of cast skeletons “lying along the tideline like snowflakes”. I had been envious – but now, here on the marsh at Grune Point, I had at last seen the same phenomenon.


As the tide ebbs the level of the salty sediment-laden water at Moricambe Bay is dropping, turning increasingly brackish as water from the saltmarsh creeks and the rivers Wampool and Waver dominates. The edges of Calvo Marsh stand proud above mudflats that are glistening sweeps of ochre, sienna-brown and grey; the smooth glossiness of their upper slopes shades down into roughness, speckled with stones and weed at low-tide level.

That smoothness, as seen from the comparative safety of the saltmarsh, is an illusion, for if I step – squelch, glissade – out onto the glutinous surface and look down, the surface is pockmarked with tiny holes and the wriggling trails of wandering creatures. Other larger animals have been here before me, too: there are bird footprints – the precise three-toed prints of waders, the webbed prints of gulls and aggressively sharp footsteps of oystercatchers; rough-edged holes where beaks have probed; and a line of paw-prints of an otter who has looped to and fro between the water and the short, silty grass of the saltmarsh.

These are signs that animals have been busy on the surface while the tide is out, but the minute holes hint at other animals that are here for much longer periods, burrowed down below. For to live on this apparently featureless and changeable shore means there is nowhere to hide – except within the mud.

The density of burrows (photo of the mudflats of the R Nith)

To find the mud-dwellers I search for where the density of holes is greatest, and  then use the spade. The divot is heavy and sticky; at the top are sections through U-shaped burrows opening to the surface. Each is the home of a tiny pale brown mud-shrimp: mud-shrimp – a uninspiring name for a small animal that is so beautifully adapted to where it lives – the crustacean, Corophium volutator.

Mud on the spade: rectangles mark burrows with mudshrimps

The elegance of limbs

I carefully extract some of the mudshrimps from the divot on the spade, and place them in water in a white enamel pie-dish. Unlike shrimps in rock-pools or the Silloth brown shrimps cooked and ‘potted’ in butter, Corophium belongs to a group of related animals, the amphipods, that are dorso-ventrally flattened – from top to bottom – rather than laterally, from side-to-side. Also unlike shrimps and lobsters, Corophium doesn’t have a carapace – its head and the middle segments of its body aren’t covered by a single curved piece of armour but all the segments are visible from above. With a hand-lens it’s easy to see how different parts of a mudshrimp’s body are perfectly adapted for different functions. There are flexible joints between the segments so that – lacking a carapace – the animal can straighten or flex its body. Each segment has a pair of jointed limbs, and groups of adjacent limbs are modified in size and shape to carry out different functions.

A pie-dish of Corophium

At the head its appendages are adapted to ‘read’ the surroundings, and to find and deal with food. The pair of long, flexible antennae that are so characteristic of Corophium  have a sensory function, but a second pair are also used as rakes to pull food towards the mouth. Behind the antennae and on the underside of the body, are small ‘feeding limbs’ with different sizes and shapes – the maxillae, maxillipeds and gnathopods (‘jaw feet’) – all specialised for separate roles in the capture, handling and ingestion of food.  Inside the mouth (unseen by my lens), a pair of hard mandibles act as macerating-machines. Some of those feeding limbs have a second function, too – they have small thin-walled flaps of gills at their base to take up dissolved oxygen from the water.

Under the middle section of the body are the legs, the pereiopods (‘transporting feet’), by which Corophium crawls on the surface of the mud, and further back, tucked beneath the abdomen, are small, feather-like limbs, the pleopods (‘swim feet’). The pleopods beat like paddles when the Corophium swims, or they can beat more slowly to send a current of oxygenated water over the gills. I am happy to be re-visiting old friends – it was watching how these pleopods beat perfectly in unison that so captured my imagination so long ago. 

At the back end of the body, a broad flat telson and a couple of leaf-like uropods form the tail fan, a small version of a lobster tail: if the abdomen is suddenly flexed forward, the fan acts as a paddle that drives a current of water forward – and the animal backwards: a useful method of escape from a predator.

This then, is what a live Corophium looks like under a magnifying glass.

Just as taxonomists look for relationships between animals and, god-like, name the formerly unknown, so anatomists look for relationships and name the parts. Every part of the body has a name. Every segment of the jointed legs has a name. Even though I’m not an anatomist I love the music of the names, to be chanted like skipping-songs. Watching the crawling Corophium, I struggle to recall the knowledge I had as a student, so long ago. With the edge of an empty mussel shell I try to draw the outline of a jointed leg on the mud’s surface – the physical act of drawing helps retrieve the words: coxa, basis, ischium, merus, carpus, propodus and the pointy-fingered dactyl. I love the words for themselves, and their Greek or Latin derivations. (Later, singer and composer Jen Bell composes a song about these names, for Pentabus’s stage production, ‘On One Side Lies the Sea’ [1].)

We don’t need to know the names of the parts, but by knowing them and their provenance we can trace the beautiful economy of evolution – reuse this bit slightly differently, take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, try out the effect of this gene in controlling that later sequence and if it brings advantage, keep it.


In retrospect I realise that Corophium set me on the road to becoming a research scientist. When I was an undergraduate in London, the field-trip for our marine biology course took us to Swansea and the Gower for ten days, where we were offered a range of short projects to help us learn about research: the constructing of hypotheses, the practicalities of ‘materials and methods’, the gathering and interpreting of data. This brought, too, the realisation that the lives and activities of intertidal animals worked to a different schedule than our own, their lives governed by the shifting clock of the diurnal tides: depending on your project, evenings might be spent in the lab, not in the pub. I chose to investigate how Corophium responded to the falling oxygen levels in its burrow – did it become quiescent and sit out the low-tide period, or did it pump the water in its burrow more rapidly over its gills?

So how do you watch an animal that lives in a burrow? You fill a narrow glass chamber with muddy sand from a Corophium colony, and hope the animal will construct its burrow next to the glass … You fill the chamber with seawater of different oxygen concentrations, you hope you can see the delicate pleopods and count their rate of beating … A short project, naïvely simple through ignorance, yet a mixture of logic, planning – and hope. As the lecturer in charge drove me back to the lab one evening, he asked, ‘Do you really enjoy doing this?’ Yes, I really did! (What were the results and conclusions of this research? I can’t remember. All I remember is the delicate, synchronised beating of the pleopods, and the animal’s elegant, questing antennae.)

I didn’t go on to research the physiology of marine animals but, years later, when I moved to Glasgow University, one of the other lecturers in the department was Peter Meadows, whose early research, in the 1960s, had been on the burrowing and feeding behaviour of Corophium [2]. Mudflats might look fairly uniform to us, but Corophium swim about and use their antennae to test the nuances in the size of sediment. Peter Meadows had written that the animal is ‘apparently quite deliberate’ in choosing where it burrows: some patches of mud are perfect, others are rejected like Baby Bear’s porridge. The sediment must be not too fine or the burrow might collapse, and not too coarse. Most important, the particles must be coated with organic matter – a slimy biofilm of bacteria, microalgae,  and other organic material: a larder as well as a building block. Having found the right conditions, the shrimp burrows into the mud using its antennae and pereiopods, and stabilises the compacted particles of the walls with a sticky secretion

Dimensions and planes

Our own lives are carried out on the surface of our world; few humans penetrate above or below that single plane. But an animal that burrows in the intertidal zone, has an extra freedom – to pass through that plane in either direction, from solid to liquid, liquid to air, depending on the tide; to live, crawl, swim, mate, feed, in three dimensions.

There is, too, the extra dimension of time. For an intertidal animal, time is synonymous with tide. There must be periods of waiting, when the animal keeps a low profile, hiding from predators, ‘house-keeping’, digesting, defaecating – and anticipating the return of the water that brings fresh oxygen and food (and sometimes, sex and procreation).

This coming and going of the sea, and the behaviour and activity of these marine creatures – and of all the animals that depend upon them – are influenced by the moon and sun, on a daily and seasonal schedule. A couple of months before I found the ‘snowflakes’, the phase of the moon would have sent the signal that it is the time for mating. When an adult female mudshrimp is receptive to a male, she releases ‘come hither!’ pheromones into the water, and a male comes swimming or crawling to her burrow. If they approve of each other, the male releases sperm which are swept into the female’s special brood-pouch – her marsupium – where the now fertilised eggs develop into embryos (Corophium, unlike other crustaceans such as barnacles and crabs, say, doesn’t have a planktonic larval stage). About two weeks later they hatch as miniature adults, ready to make their own way out, onto and into the local neighbourhood. As mudshrimps grow, they must moult their old exoskeletons and expand the underlying new one; the ‘empty’ cuticles line the tideline, pale ghosts of their former occupants.

The ‘juddering trail’ of a mudshrimp

Food-chains and engineers

I step off the saltmarsh and slide out onto the mud. The surface of the mud is squiggled with trails, and I squat down to watch mudshrimps as they part-crawl, part-swim in the shallow film of water that remains on the surface. The upper reaches of the Solway Firth have multiple conservation designations [4], reflecting the enormous importance of the mudflats in providing food for local and visiting waders such as dunlin, knot and redshank. Corophium and the snail Hydrobia are special favourites, and the birds scurry hither and thither, following the falling tide, rapidly probing the mud.

But to think of the Corophium colonies merely as unwitting suppliers of thousands of tasty snacks for visiting birds is too simple: we have to turn the idea on its head – the invertebrate animals and single-celled organisms, the algae and bacteria are the core of the life of the mudflat, and without them the ‘mudflats’ would be a sterile shifting slurry of mud and sand, washed this way and that at the whim of storms and tides.

The shrimps themselves feed in several ways: by using their mandibles to scrape and gnaw the biofilm that coats the sediment particles; by raking around the burrow-mouth with their large second antennae; and by using bristles on their gnathopods to filter and sort organic particles like diatoms from the water that the pleopods circulate through their burrows. Look again at the contrasting colours of the mud on the spade. The deeper mud is black and anaerobic, containing little oxygen, but around the mudshrimps’ burrows it is pale and yellowish-brown, oxygenated by the animals’ activity. We can think of Corophium as the engineers of the mudflats, through their feeding on biofilms, their burrowing and ‘bioturbation’ of the sediments – they are so much more than food for wading birds.

Bioturbation: oxygenated mud around the burrows, black anoxic mud below

A foreign shore?

Corophium are almost unknown, rarely seen – for why would anybody bother to venture out onto a sticky muddy shore? Indeed, mudflats and saltmarshes are probably as foreign as another country in most people’s imaginations, and as David Attenborough has said, “No-one will protect what they don’t care about; and no-one will care about what they have never experienced”.

A repetitive and well-worn argument about ‘nature-writing’ is that we ‘need new words’, simpler concepts to talk and write about the places that we share with other living things. Richard Mabey, writing about barn owls, found he was constructingextravagant phrases” and “was rather pleased with my poetic metaphors….” Then, delightfully, he saw that he should think of the owls as his neighbours. “For much of my working life I have been trying to find way of talking about other organisms that neither reduces them to mechanical objects nor turns them into sentimentalised versions of ourselves. Neighbours are fellow creatures, but independent souls. You share their territory (their parish) and often their fortunes, but you can care about them in full knowledge they may not even recognise you.”[3] We may not share the mudshrimps’ territory but we can visit them, physically or in our minds, and perhaps this will help us to care about them – and their neighbourhood.


I notice that the mud in front of me is prickled with coruscating light. The mudshrimps are reaching out and waving! All across the mud, they are waving their antennae – they are not scraping up food, but seem to be signalling or sensing the air. Each is rapidly extending and then withdrawing one of its long antennae, and the incident sunlight is catching and high-lighting the movement. It is a ‘Lopez moment’: suddenly, “You know that the land knows you are there” [5].


  1. The Mudshrimp Song by Jenny Bell: watch and listen from 17minutes into the online launch of The Fresh and the Salt (Birlinn 2020)
  2. P.S. Meadows and Alison Reid (1966)‘The behaviour of Corophium volutator (Crustacea: Amphipoda)’, Journal of Zoology 150 , pp. 387–99
  3. Richard Mabey (2017) ‘An Owl for Winter’, in The Clearing, 2017
  4. Conservation designations on the Upper Solway; see for example The acronyms’ story
  5. Barry Lopez (1999) Arctic Dreams: Imagination and desire in a northern landscape. Harvill Press, London
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Rocks and patterns: Fleswick Bay

Whatever the weather or state of the tide, Fleswick Bay never disappoints. Sheltered within the two arms of the St Bees headlands, it is an anomaly on the Cumbrian Solway coast – tall cliffs, caves, rocky platforms pitted with deep Corallina-encrusted pools, and a shore of multi-coloured pebbles as smooth as ball-bearings.

The cliffs and platforms are a breath-taking mixture of art and of the visualisation of scientific processes, as well as the desires of humans to leave their mark. Even as you lean into a wind that whips clumps of foam from the incoming waves, it’s a bay that requires close study and contemplation.

I’ve written about the New Red Sandstone of Fleswick elsewhere [1]: about the 200 million year-old deposits of sand and sediment, lifted and dumped and swirled by ancient rivers and flash-floods, compressed, lithified and eroded; about the coal-miners who worked the nearby undersea pits and who swam with basking-sharks; about the names carved into the cliffs, and especially the story of ‘Judy McKay’; about the sculptors who love to work with the stone; about the small reefs of the tubes of the honeycomb worm Sabellaria

But here, instead, the pictures and the patterns speak for themselves.

Cliff and wave-sculpted pavement (photo by Peter Stanier)
Sculpted rock (photo by Peter Stanier)
Lithified ripples
Lines of reduction (where ferric iron is reduced to ferrous)

And the pebbles, so varied, so round and smooth: jasper, agates, quartz, granites and cornelian. A geographer friend, pointing out the scarcity of jetsam and sea-borne rubbish on the Bay’s tidelines, suggested that longshore drift had passed it by, and that the pebbles had stayed in situ, being rolled to and fro, to and fro, with every tide – perhaps for decades, perhaps for centuries, who knows?

There are, too, patterns made by human hands: pickmarks and names, of all which will tell their own stories; most of the stories now long-forgotten.

And nesting guillemots, cormorants and fulmars make their own patterns on the pitted shelves, their guano fertilising the ‘hanging gardens’.

[1] See, for example, Chapter 6, ‘Red’ in The Fresh and the Salt, the Story of the Solway (Birlinn 2020), and the post in this blog.

All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated.

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Saltpans or fish-tanks? Stone basins on a Solway shore

Along the top of the shore between Maryport and its golf club is a high and wide promenade, constructed in the 1930s from an astonishing volume of concrete. At weekends it’s a perfect walkway for families with pushchairs, small hairy dogs, and toddlers on bikes. There are occasional slipways and steps, coated with slithery green seaweed, that allow you to reach the shore 3-4 metres below, but few people attempt the treacherous descent because so much of the shore is rocky and offers little opportunity for play. In fact a large area of the northern stretch is a fine example of a wave-cut platform [1] of New Red Sandstone; there are naturally straight-edged blocks, and channels, and the indentations of lithified ripples dating from when the rock was still in the form of sandbanks and river channels. Loose blocks are strewn on top of the platform, shunted here and there by the storms.

The sandstone platforms of Maryport foreshore, looking North

Earlier this year a geologist friend, Ian Francis (one of the authors of a recent excellent book on Lake District geology [2]), wondering if I knew what the structure was, emailed a photo of a rectangular basin that had been cut into the rock at the top of the shore, close to the base of the promenade. Of course, ‘an expedition’ was required!

‘Basin 1’, with thanks to Ian Francis for the photo that stimulated this blogpost

The tide was high but on the ebb, and complex local currents were swirling the incoming waves and sending spray shooting into the air and over the edge of the prom. We walked, and sat, and waited until the top of the rock platform was uncovered – and there below us was Ian’s rock basin (let’s call it No.1 for convenience), the sea still sloshing in and out through a narrow channel. Nearby was what could be another basin, less exactly hewn with one side partly missing; and the remnants, further off, of possibly a third. Basin No.1 was about 1.5 metres at its longest side and perhaps a half-metre deep, and partly filled with shingle and a loose slab of sandstone. As Ian had written, the basin leads “via a square-cut gutter to another wider half-basin cut parallel to the sea wall. Only the seaward edge of this larger area is extant. There are cuttings in the basin edge just behind the gutter which look like the supporting beds for some sort of cross-beam.”

The basins looked to me like storage containers for shellfish – for sacks of crabs or winkles, perhaps. I put my own photos on Twitter and someone local tweeted a comment that they were to do with salt manufacture, probably the Netherhall or ‘Bank End’ saltpans owned by the Senhouses and functioning from 1650-1735. (When I was on the prom, trying to photograph the basins on a later visit, an elderly man stopped to ask if I was “looking at the saltpans”.) But the basins seem too small, even for storing seawater and are certainly not ‘pans’ where brine was concentrated – see the post about the Crosscanonby saltpans elsewhere on this blog).

Another regular Twitter contributor, Paul Montgomery, [@stonefishweirs] kindly emailed me a couple of pdfs about saltworks. One of these articles, on salt production in post-medieval Ireland, is an archaeological investigation of the basins cut into the rocky shore, and related remains, in the Ballycastle region, on the north coast of Northern Ireland [3]. But these Irish basins are considerably larger than the Maryport ones – for example, one is about 6 x 4 metres and about 2 metres deep – so were able to contain a large volume of seawater, which could be transferred to the metal pans onshore and evaporated by burning coal from the local mines.

I also sent photos to my archaeologist friend, Mark Graham of Grampus Heritage, who has done a considerable amount of work researching saltworks on the Cumbrian Solway coast. He suggested I got in touch with Andrew Fielding, one of the Directors of EcoSal-UK,  an organisation engaged in ‘Preserving the history and heritage of traditional salt making’ [4]. I had watched Andrew’s webinar, Salt on the Solway (organised as part of the Coastal Conversations series by the Solway Firth Partnership and Solway Coast AONB [5]) back in autumn 2020. In that webinar Andrew too mentioned the Senhouses’ Netherhall Saltworks at Bank End, Maryport – the stone ‘basins’ had been identified as being part of the Netherhall works and had been the subject of a training day in survey methods run by CITiZAN (the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network) in July 2016 [6].

Andy Sherman, CITiZAN’s Discovery Programme Officer based in Liverpool, replied to my email, explaining that they had indeed had a session recording and measuring the rock basins, which were ‘noted by the local Historic Environment Record as being part of a saltworks’. The report included the measurements of the ‘No. 1’ basin, and some photographic observations. Andy suggested that ‘the majority of structures associated with this site were damaged or destroyed by the construction of the promenade’.

After I got in touch with Andrew Fielding, he wrote me several very interesting and helpful emails. I learnt, for example, of a Dr William Brownrigg (1712-1800) of Whitehaven, who had written a book on The Art of Making Common Salt, and who had been born at High Close Hall, Plumbland (possible the existing High Close Farm), near to where I live! Andrew says “Bank End is an intriguing site that no one yet has properly interpreted. … I think that it is likely that the remains in the rock at Bank End are only the bottom portion of features associated with the salt works and that there may also be remains still existing inland of the promenade. Some have suggested that Bank End Farm may also have been part of the salt works.”

The promenade is a mighty structure, nearly a mile long, about 5 metres wide and in places 3-4 metres high above the shore, and was apparently built during the war; even imagining the process of its construction takes some effort! Jane Laskey, Manager of the Senhouse Roman Museum, had been looking at documentation about the supposed Bank End saltworks, and she too thinks that important structures were buried when the prom was built.

With regard to the rock basins themselves, comparison of photos taken by Ian Francis, CITiZAN, and my own photos taken on two different occasions, shows the difficulty of finding and interpreting the basins and the channels on the shore. Pebbles and sand shift and fill in the hollows, revealing structures to different extents at different times.

‘No. 1’ is the nearest and clearest basin to examine. Its sides are pocked, hatched and cross-hatched with pick-marks; there are the two short troughs on the side that has the square-cut entrance gully, into which a gate or sluice might have been slotted, trapping seawater within the basin. The entrance gully opens into a channel cut parallel with the prom wall; on my second visit this had become much more obvious as it was now clear of pebbles, and its face, too, was pitted with the marks of the axes that had chipped away the sandstone.

A few metres away is ‘No.2’ basin, slightly larger and with one wall apparently missing. Its opening empties into what looks like a channel that heads directly down towards the seaward end of the rocky platform – but it’s hard to be sure whether this is man-made or a natural gully in the stone. A little further away are traces of perhaps a third basin. As Andrew Fielding said, the site needs “another look”.

But are the basins really associated with salt-making? As a zoologist and ‘shore-guddler’ I still hope that the basins were used as temporary storage tanks for shellfish. Such things do exist. One evening, an email arrived from Mark Graham, who was camping over on the Northumberland coast: he sent a photo of an information panel from the top of the shore at Creswell where, he said, “I have just been reading about ‘Bratt Holes’, sometimes written ‘brat holes’. I believe that these are the best parallel I’ve seen for the rock cut basins near Maryport and were used to store crabs, lobsters, shellfish….” ‘Bratt’ is apparently a local word for turbot.

‘Bratt holes’. My thanks to Mark Graham of Grampus for this interesting photo


Postscript: there is a shallow basin (a few centimetres deep) cut into the rock at the top of the shore at Parton. Now, what could that one be for?

Shallow ‘basin’ on the Parton shore
  1. Cumbria GeoConservation website, . For more about the sandstone platforms at Maryport
  2. Ian Francis, Stuart Holmes & Bruce Yardley (2022). Lake District: Landscape and Geology. Crowood Press
  3. Wes Forsyth, Rosemary McConkey & Colin Breen (2018) Persistence and risk: salt production in post-medieval Ireland, World Archaeology, 50:4, pp 603-619. To link to this article use
  4. EcoSal UK website
  5. Andrew Fielding, Salt on the Solway. Coastal Conversations webinar – relevant section at about 23 minutes;
  6. CITiZAN training day at Maryport
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The African Steam Ship Company, and the story of a piece of china

The shore at Parton, just North of Whitehaven, is a good place to find tiny sherds of pottery and china. Many of the fragments are of ‘blue and white’, of which some are willow-pattern – lucky finds are glimpses of the story where the princess and her lover are escaping over the bridge, or branches of the tree that look like three catkins are blowing like flags in the wind.

Pieces of china

There are pieces of fine china, and of lumpish earthenware storage jars such as ‘Dundee Keillor’ marmalade; patterns coloured green, or red or brown. The best ones are where the patterns are hand-painted, or of printed transfers that have been pressed onto the surface manually. My finds are stored in a yew bowl that was turned by my husband, and occasionally – usually when our granchildren are visiting – the sherds are tipped out, examined and sorted.


Every time, this piece of white china with its brown markings stands out as something special. It’s not fine china; it’s about 5mm thick, with sea-smoothed and rounded edges, and it measures about 5cms by 3cms. ‘SHIP COMPANY’ – the chances of finding a fragment with the words so intact and clear seem astonishingly small! For a long time the design seemed indistinct, until one day, as I turned the piece this way and that, the content leapt out at me: a helmeted head, a bent arm; and some faint letters, perhaps ‘LIORA’. The helmet with the crest was surely that of Britannia? What was she doing amongst the trees?

For fun, I put a photo of the fragment on Facebook back in February, asking if anyone could thrown any light on it and, amazingly, I had a reply within a few hours from someone called Gemma, who posted a link to the British Museum’s website [1]. A friend of hers had shared my post, and Gemma said ‘I find it impossible not to chase up such things’, because she worked ‘with artefacts’. The BM link contained a photo of a shipping company’s medallion – the African Steam Ship Company’s medallion – and detailed notes and weblinks.

From the British Museum Collection’s website, see ref. 1 below

My pottery fragment fitted perfectly with the design. Britannia, with flowing cloak, and her spear and shield partly hidden behind her, is holding back a curtain to reveal a kneeling African, who appears to be proffering a pile of goods – elephant tusks, a pineapple, and fruits; behind him (or her – the person is bare-chested, but it is impossible from the BM’s image to guess the apparent gender!) is a view of a coast with palm-trees. Or, as explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton wrote in 1863 (using the language and attitudes of the time – there is a lot to unpick here, not least how ‘taking the knee’ now has a very different significance) ‘[The Company’s] device, I may observe, is a negress agenouillé, who presents to Britannia of the bare leg a little heap of (typical) “small potatoes” and “some pumkins”.’ [2]

‘LIORA’ is from ‘Spero meliora’, the company’s motto ‘I hope for better things’.

Why did part of this medallion, if that is what it was (see later discussion with Alex Whithorn) turn up on the shore at Parton? And what was the African Steam Ship Company (ASS)? My first thought was that it was connected with the trade from which merchants and ship-owners in the port of Whitehaven, just to the West of Parton, grew rich – the triangular trade between West Africa, the West Indies and Britain, in enslaved African people, sugar, and rum.

However the ASS was founded in 1852 by an Edinburgh man, Macgregor Laird – nearly 50 years after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which outlawed international trade in people as slaves, and nearly 20 years after the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act which made the keeping of slaves illegal within the British Empire. Macgregor Laird (1808-1861) was, according to the BM Curator’s notes, ‘An ardent evangelical protestant and opponent of the slave trade, [who] shared the view that Africa could be ‘civilized’ through the beneficient alliance of Christian missionary activity and ‘legitimate commerce’ replacing trade in human beings.’

His aim was to help the economy of West African traders by buying and then selling their produce, particularly palm oil, in Britain. To quote Burton again [2]: ‘The [shipping] line has already … been beneficial to the West Coast of Africa, and will be more so by encouraging the “tin-pot trader”, which in Oil-River-Slang means the merchant who has no ship of his own.’

Palm oil

PN Davies, in his 1969 essay about the African Steam Ship Company [3] wrote that the 1807 Slave Trade Act was ‘ a severe blow, particularly for Liverpool men who had come to predominate in the trade. However, the trade was prohibited just when an alternative to the export of men was presenting itself. This was the growth of the palm oil industry, and the quantity imported into Liverpool rose from 55 tons in 1785 to 1,000 tons in 1810 and to 30,000 tons in 1851.’

These Liverpool and Bristol slave traders were familiar with the multiple uses of palm oil in Africa, and had ‘already been buying it regularly as food for slaves being shipped to the Americas’ according to Pauline von Hellermann in her fascinating article [4] about the history of ‘red gold’, palm oil, in West Africa. So now they switched their trade to a different kind of ‘commodity’, palm oil. In Europe, the oil was used as an industrial lubricant, in street-lighting, in candle-making and soap production (which was why William Lever – later Lord Leverhulme – became involved in shipping and in new methods of palm oil production in Africa and at home); the British government’s abolition of import tax on palm oil in 1845 helped fuel a massive increase in imports (see Josie Phillips’ article [5]).

Lander and Laird

But this increased demand for palm oil required finding new routes into the ‘interior’ of West Africa in order to reach new supplies and new traders, and in 1830 the brothers Richard and John Lander – by travelling overland to the upper Niger and following it downriver in canoes – showed that the ‘Oil Rivers’ were actually branches of the Niger.

Richard Lemon Lander was born in Truro, Cornwall, in 1804, in the Fighting Cocks Inn. He has been part of my memories of schooldays since I was a teenager, when I walked up Lemon Street, past the granite Doric column of the Lander monument, every day during term-time. He was just a name and a stone statue to me then, and it’s strange to think that it is only now that I appreciate his significance, and can grieve that he died at such a young age, just a few days before his 30th birthday. The Fighting Cocks Inn later became the much more genteel Dolphin, where my parents and I sometimes had afternoon tea.

Richard Lander Monument, Lemon Street,Truro [Wikipedia, via – see notes at end]

In 1832, Macgregor Laird became excited by the Landers’ discovery and the prospect of opening up the Niger to increased trade, and set up the African Inland Company [6]. Richard Lander wrote to him, keen to join him in the venture, and Laird commissioned two armed paddle-steamers to be constructed at Liverpool, the wooden Quorra and the iron-hulled Alburkah, which were not only ocean-going but of shallow enough draught that they would be able to negotiate the rivers. A sailing-ship, the brig Columbine, was also part of the expedition. Lander was appointed leader. A detailed and sometimes entertaining account of their adventures – despite the many horrors and difficulties incurred – was written subsequently by Macgregor Laird and the surviving surgeon, RK Oldfield (and has been digitised by the Wellcome Collection [7, 8].

The Quorra aground below the junction of the Shary and the Niger (from ref.8)

But illness frequently struck them, and the Quorra became stuck on a sandbank for several months. Lander especially was often weak and ill but despite this was able to carry out various journeys for trading purposes. But a letter from Lander, dated Jan 22nd 1834, was delivered to Oldfield ([8], p284): ‘I was coming up to you with a cargo of cowries and dry goods worth four hundred and fifty pounds when I was attacked from all quarters by the natives of Hyammah …. I am wounded, but I hope not dangerously, the ball having entered near the anus and struck the thigh bone: it is not extracted yet.” On June 29th, Oldfield wrote, ‘the pilot Footman came on board, bringing a letter from Col Nicolls, addressed to me,which had been left two months before, in which I was informed of the melancholy death of Mr Lander, who had expired in consequence of the wounds he had received at Hyammah.’ Until then, nearly five months later, neither Laird nor Oldfield had known that their companion was dead: poor Richard Lander had died on February 6th 1834, and had been buried in a cemetery in Fernando Po [9] .

The expedition was  not in any way a success. According to something of an understatement by PN Davies [3], ‘Most significantly, of the 48 Europeans who took part in the venture, 39 died of disease.’

The disastrous end of the expedition ‘dissuaded [Macgregor Laird] from going back to Africa. He became an activist for the rights of African peoples’ instead [10]. And this eventually led him to found the African Steam Ship Company.

The African Steam Ship Company

The ASS [10] was in existence, separately, and later subsumed within other umbrella companies, between 1852 – when it was set up by Macgregor Laird – and July 1936.

Macgregor Laird ensured its viability from the start by obtaining a 10-year contract, which was later extended, with the Royal Mail to carry mail to Africa and ports en route; on return, the ships would carry goods from West African ports. He persuaded various ‘influential men’ to join the company, including James Hartlet, a director of the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company. The ASS started with five steamships – Forerunner, Faith, Hope, Charity, and Northern Lights, built at his brother John’s shipyard on the Mersey, and the company office was moved from London to Liverpool.

On her first voyage, Forerunner’s ‘Homeward cargo was loaded at Fernando Po, Cape Coast Castle, Sierra Leone, Bathhurst, Tenerife and Madeira. The main items of cargo were palm oil, gum, ginger, camwood, pepper, ivory, arrowroot, beeswax, cochineal and gold dust.’ [3]

As was all too common in those days, wrecks and strandings occurred, with the loss of goods, and often of lives. The explorer Sir Richard Burton, voyaging to Fernando Po on the ASS’s ‘Blackland’, notes that ‘the African Steam Ship line is cursed’, and adds a footnote to his account of the outward journey:

‘.. the ‘Faith’, the ‘Hope’, and the ‘Charity’. The latter three being large, slow and fitted with auxiliary screws, failed, and were sold…. The ‘Candace’, on board of which all the watch was asleep, was run into by a Dutchman, near Gibraltar. The ‘Niger’ was wrecked by hugging the iron-bound shore of Tenerife, and the ‘Forerunner’, which carried Dr Livingstone’s African journals, was lost on 25th Oct., 1854, close to Madiera …. Her gold is still on board… the ‘Cleopatra’, Capt. Delamotte, was lost on the 19th August, 1862, on the Shebar, at the mouth of the Shebro River, 40 miles out of her course. … Mr Hanson, Her Majesty’s consular agent, Sherbro River, was drowned, with his boat’s crew, as he came to their assistance – thirteen lives sacrificed by prodigious carelessness. A bad rumour went abroad that the old ship had been purposely lost.’ [2]

My long-time friend, Dr Peter Stanier, an industrial archaeologist who has also always been interested in shipping, discovered an article in the Western Morning News of March 16th 1881, describing the end of the ASS ship Benin, ‘run down and sunk’ by a steamship of the Ducal Line, the Duke of Buccleuch, off Start Point. Salvaged objects included barrels of palm oil, bales of cotton and two monkeys ‘found seated on pieces of the wreck’ [11]. (There’s another, indirect, Solway link here: the Duke of Buccleuch was built in Barrow in Furness. A few years after colliding with and sinking the Benin, she had yet another collision, with a sailing ship off Brighton, and sank [19].)

Peter, incidentally, also went to school in Truro and although his daily walk did not take him past Lander’s monument, he knew it well – and like me – he appreciates the connection between Macgregor Laird and Richard Lander.

The wrecking of the ASS ship, the Benin (see ref.11)

As well as outgoing mail (the Blackland carried ‘thirty-five huge mailbags, containing mental pabulum for some score of West African ports’), and incoming goods, ASS ships also carried passengers. Burton is amusing about the beverages and the size of the cabins; see below and ref [2]. He is amusing about much else, too.

Macgregor Laird died in 1861, while the company was active and profitable. His brothers William and John had been the first Liverpool agents for the company, but later, two of the agency’s employees, Alexander Dempster and John Elder, set up Elder Dempster Ltd, which subsequently managed the ASS and, in 1832 bought up the British and African Shipping Company, under the new name of Elder Dempster Lines Ltd. [12]

Davies has followed the tortuous story [3]. In the early 1900s, Elder Dempster Lines, on the death of its then owner, Alfred Jones, came under the control of Lord Pirrie (chairman of Harland and Wolff) and Sir Owen Philipps, Lord Kylsant. Kylsant had grandiose ideas, buying up shipping lines and expanding his influence world-wide, and in 1926 he bought the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company – which included the White Star Line – for £7 million. This was a disastrous move, and eventually his financial mismanagement and fraudulent activities in trying to cover up the resulting huge deficits ensured that he received a 12-month prison sentence.

Incidentally, the White Star Line, famous for its iron ships like the Titanic, was founded by Thomas Ismay, who was born in 1837 at Maryport, a small port on the Solway just to the East of Parton and Whitehaven: the Maryport Maritime Museum [ref.13; the Museum is currently closed until it moves to new premises] has a fascinating little exhibition of photos and artefacts, including some fine china plates with the White Star device in the centre.

The decrease in trade with West Africa, the economic damage and the loss of ships wrought by the War, and Kylsant’s fraudulent behaviour and mismanagement of the Royal Mail contracts, were some of the reasons why the African Steam Ship Company (still part of Elder Dempster Lines) was wound up on 13th July 1936, with ‘a total deficiency’ of £3,215,997 [3]. It had had a very complicated history, with a series of different owners and agents and, despite the tone of his writing, it is worth reading Davies’ chapter to follow the twists and turns and machinations of the main players.

A Shipping Company Medallion or plate.

I was very fortunate in that Alex Whitlock, the Cumbria Finds Liaison Officer (who is based at the Museum of Lancashire in Preston) was visiting Maryport’s Senhouse Roman Museum one day in March 2022, to help identify ‘found objects’. The ‘Finds’ officer works with the British Museum’s excellent Portable Antiquities Scheme [14], where I had previously been able to find out more about another beach ‘find’, a red clay loom-stone, a few years back [15]. Alex himself has an interest in ceramics and pottery, and opened my eyes to topics like ‘brown transfer ware’ and the types of clay. Feeling the undersurface of the medallion fragment, he thought there might be a slight raised area, perhaps indicating it was part of a saucer or a plate. While looking at photos of other pieces of china I had collected, he talked about free painting by hand (we could see brush marks and irregularities on some of the pieces) and showed me where a transfer, cut out of a larger set, must have been torn because part of the design was missing. Britannia and the lettering on the ASS medallion are, however, in surprisingly good condition for a transfer-print.

According to the Curator’s information on the BM website [1], the ASS medallion in their collection dates from 1852, and was made of pale earthenware by the Davenport Porcelain company in Staffordshire, with the name Davenport impressed on the base – but my attempts to find out more failed, as the company no longer exists. A similar brown transfer design is in the centre of a Davenport bowl (it can just be seen in the Wooley & Wallace auction catalogue [16]). Other pieces with the ASS device were, for example, in dinner sets made by Minton; some were blue, but a 2019 catalogue for Charles Miller auctioneers shows a ‘Rare African Steamship Company [Elder Dempster Line] ‘Alton’ pattern dinner plate, by Minton, circa 1880’, with the brown transfer design in the centre of a slightly stained white plate that is about 26 cms diameter [17].

What were medallions for? Perhaps they were souvenirs for passengers, or perhaps they served as advertisments (the ‘device’ equivalent to a logo) or as gifts to traders. Judy Rudhoe, Curator in the Department of Britain, Europe and Pre-History at the BM, very kindly answered my emailed query: “… we could not find any contemporary mention of the medallions either. We thought it possibly a presentation medallion to members of the company, perhaps on their retirement. But given the range of ceramic wares decorated with the same medallion, it seems it was also commissioned as a dinner service, perhaps to promote the activity of the company, but that is only speculation.”

The medallion shown on the BM website is clearly complete in itself and not part of a larger whole, and has a diameter of 6.5cms. The design on mine would be about 7cms in diameter, but it has a plain border – how wide this was originally is impossible to guess, but it seems more likely that the fragment is part of a plate rather than a medallion.

The slightly uneven place on the base, however, is not a ridge. I rubbed the area with a 4B pencil, and looked at it under the dissecting microscope – and could just make out the shadows of the letters NTO. This does indeed suggest the maker’s name of Minton rather than Davenport.  My little piece of china is probably part of plate or bowl.

African Steam Ships on the Solway?

And finally, how did a fragment of an ASS plate end up on the shore at Parton on the Solway coast? The ASS was based in Liverpool, and I wondered if there were any records of their ships visiting Solway ports like Whitehaven. Apparently, many of the ASS papers are held in the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, but unfortunately, the museum staff were unable to respond to queries at present due to “commitment to ongoing projects”.

It’s easy to forget that the sea, the Firth, was an obvious transport route, until the railways spread their net. In the 19th century the activities of ships of all sizes on the Solway and out to the Irish Sea were like a spider’s web. Paddle-steamers, paquet boats, fishing boats of all types – for salmon, herring, shrimps – and ships carrying passengers and cargo were plying from the small ports like Silloth, Port Carlisle, Parton, and Kingholm Quay at Dumfries, and between the larger ports of Annan and Whitehaven (see, for example chapter 3 in The Fresh and the Salt [18]. In the latter case, the bigger ships went into the Irish Sea,  to the Isle of Man, the Irish ports and Glasgow, and of course down to Liverpool, where passengers embarked on even larger ships to emigrate or conduct business in America, Canada – and West Africa.

View South-West from Parton beach, to the lighthouse at the mouth of Whitehaven

Sailing ships, in particular, were often forced to take shelter in the Solway or were blown up the Firth. The treacherous shifting sandbanks caused many wrecks. But steam ships were (in theory) more in control of their destiny. Still, it would be interesting to discover if records show whether any ASS ships had ventured up the Firth, for whatever reason.

Alternatively, it’s reasonable to suppose, given Whitehaven’s connections with West Africa, that someone who had sailed on an ASS vessel to or from Africa, might have had reasons to visit that port.

Then there is the puzzle of why the plate ended up in the water, and here we can enjoy ourselves with whatever fiction we want to imagine: a bag or chest fallen overboard; a fit of temper; plate-throwing; dislike of the design – choose whatever scenario appeals. And given that longshore drift gradually shifts objects up the Cumbrian shore towards the North-East, the piece of china could have entered the sea almost anywhere along the coast to the SouthWest, from Liverpool to Whitehaven.

I had never imagined that a small fragment of printed china would open up so many stories.

Meanwhile, I have another intriguing little piece of brown transferware to enjoy: a fragment of a picture of a … headless chicken? [20]

A headless chicken …?

  1. British Museum Collections

2. Sir Richard Francis Burton, Wanderings in West Africa from Liverpool to Fernando Po. 1863. Tinsely Brothers, London;

3. P. N. Davies, ‘The African Steamship Company’; in Liverpool and Merseyside: essays in the economic and social history of the port and its hinterland, ed. J. R. Harris (1969) Please note my grateful thanks to Dr Anna Pilz, twitter @anna_pilz, of the Universities of Edinburgh and Galway, who kindly obtained the pdf of this paper for me, and with whom I have had several helpful conversations.

4. Paulin von Hellerman (2021) Red gold, a history of palm oil in West Africa.

5. Josie Phillips (2021) An illustrated history of industrial palm oil.

6. Grace’s Guide  

7. Macgregor Laird and RAK Oldfield (1837). Narrative of an expedition into the interior of Africa by the River Niger. Vol I. Richard Bentley, London.

8. Macgregor Laird and RAK Oldfield (1837). Narrative of an expedition into the interior of Africa by the River Niger. Vol II. Richard Bentley, London.

9. Richard Lander, Wikipedia Credit for Creative Commons photo of the Lander monument is due to www / Richard Lander Monument, Truro Creative Commons

11. Western Morning News. Wednesday 16th March, 1881 (my thanks to Dr Peter Stanier for this newspaper article)

10. African Steam Ship Company; and Macgregor Laird



14. Portable Antiquities Scheme, and loomstones


16. Woolley & Wallis auction catalogue

17. Charles Miller auction catalogue

18. Ann Lingard (2020) ‘Ships and seaweeds’, in The Fresh and the Salt, the Story of the Solway. Birlinn Books

19. ‘Duke of Buccleuch’

20. Within two days of my publishing this blogpost, Gemma (see paragraph 3) used her excellent investigative powers to discover that this is in fact a duck – which can be found standing at one side of Edge Malkin Potteries ‘Tunis’ design, see for example; the curved ridge at the back of the fragment fits neatly with the position of the raised circle on the base of the plate.

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Clints Crags. An intermittent diary of a limestone pavement

This blogpost is part of my ‘limestone lockdown’ project. For an Introduction to the project, and a guide to the growing list of related posts, see Limestone in the Lake District: an Introduction – and the ‘categories’ list in the right-hand bar.

Clints Crags are part of a limestone complex not far from where I live (see elsewhere on this blog). The complex has three disused quarries, limestone outcrops, sinkholes, drystone walls in various levels of disrepair, and limestone pavement.

The pavement itself is divided into the three very different areas:

Area 1. To the North and in view of the Solway Firth, are narrow rough clints, only sparsely vegetated, with deep narrow grikes, amongst which sheep and sometimes cattle graze. The trees, predominantly hawthorns, are gnarled and bent, but nevertheless exist. There are interesting lichens on the rocks, with large patches of nearly-white Aspicilia in the light, unshaded areas.

Area 2. The second section is heavily shaded in summer by ashes (many of which are dying) and hawthorns; the clints are almost obscured – walking over them becomes an exercise in concentration – by vegetation, especially mosses; rotten dead wood is a magnet for insects and woodpeckers, and luscious growths of fungi.

Area 3. A more open area to the South, looking towards Skiddaw and Bassenthwaite Lake, where the clints are smooth and clean, intersected by deep shady grikes.

I have visited intermittently throughout the year, for several years. I was surprised to find I have no autumnal photos, and that must be remedied this year. Nor, strangely, did I visit in the snow: unfortunately, that’s not so simple to remedy.

The photos below are categorized by month, and show the changing seasons, and the plants and lichens on and around the rocks. Each time I visit, something different will catch my attention and provide enjoyment, whether it be the empty snail shells of a ‘thrush’s anvil’ or the holes hammered in dead wood by a woodpecker.


(Click on the images above, from Area 2, to see the captions)


A clear day in February 2021, in Area 2.

The photo at the bottom is of the view towards the Caldbeck fells, with their sprinkling of snow, to the South-East.


The greening begins.

Area 3 pavement 2021

Hunters. Area 1. 2020


The hawthorns are in leaf but the ashes, as always, are slow. The wild garlic fills the grikes with clusters of stars.


The lushness of early summer. Hawthorns in flower, ashes coming into leaf, and grasses and mosses vibrant with colour. Seeing that thick carpet of green, who would guess that Area 2 is a limestone pavement?


In August 2021 I failed to reach the crags: the field was busy with excitable stirkies, rushing around with tails held high.

The alternative route …

No caption needed …


The ash trees have already lost their leaves (and some are showing signs of die-back). Haws are red and ripe. But there is a sense of ‘fading’ here, and a lack of the colours of autumn.

And in Area 1, the trunks of the trees seem to meld with the stone…

The indistinct separation of the animate and the inanimate


Bare twigs, grey days, dead grasses … But fungi are proliferating and a few small flowers species still show their colours.

Area 1: hawthorn hanging on


Late afternoon light, at the edge of Area 2, 2016

And finally, a quick comparison of how the seasons affected that extraordinary middle section of the limestone pavement, Area 2:

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Strange animals of the Solway shore

This is a resumé of a short talk I gave at Bowness-on-Solway on Saturday 22nd January, as part of the event that launched the ‘Hadrian’s Wall 1900’ celebrations. I’m posting it here because some of the audience wanted to know more – and I appreciate that it’s not always easy to remember animals’ names!

I shall be starting my low-tide guided walks again in the Spring, when it will be possible to see honeycomb worms and perhaps, if we’re lucky, piddocks. Dates, times, booking arrangements will soon be on the ‘events’ section of my website The Fresh and the Salt,

The honeycomb worm reefs, Allonby Bay

Allonby Bay was designated as one of the Solway’s all-important Marine Conservation Zones (MCZ) because of the honeycomb worm reefs and the variety of animals they support.

The worms – Sabellaria alveolata – each build a protective tube around themselves, using their tentacles and sticky mucus (they have no eyes!) to select sand grains of the right size and stick them edge-to-edge. Aggregations of the tubes form dramatic and sculptural blocks of reef that trap sea-water in lagoons and small pools as the tide goes out.

Starfish, breadcrumb sponge and butterfish on Sabellaria reef

You can see them at their best below Dubmill Point on a low Spring tide. It’s worth heading down there as the tide is still ebbing, so you can spend time looking for the greenish-yellow mats of breadcrumb sponge, the variety of algae (seaweeds) in the lagoons, including large broad fronds of oar-weed and crinkly sugar-kelp, and burrowing anemones (which may have ‘hidden’ themselves by tucking in their tentacles and covering their exposed surface with bits of shell and sand). Shrimps, hermit crabs, small fish like blennies or baby flatfish, young starfish, beadlet sea-anemones and other more unusual creatures may be there too.

But keep an eye out for when the tide turns (look for scum on the edge of the water).

There’s more about the honeycomb worms and other invertebrate animals in Chapter 1, Invertebrates on the Edge, in The Fresh and the Salt.

Piddocks in the peat

Piddocks are bivalve molluscs (like mussels), but the outside of the valves (shells) is heavily-ridged and has tooth-like projections. The animals ‘shuggle’ their shells to bore into hard substrates like rock and clay – they arrive as tiny larvae, attach to the surface, and set to work. Once the tunnel is made the animal feeds and grows by filtering food from the water; it doesn’t leave the tunnel again.

Occasionally the banks of peat formed after the last glaciers retreated are uncovered by the sea, and some lucky piddock larvae found them and bored into this rather softer substratum. This might have been as long as about 5-6000 years ago.  The peat has been covered by sand and sea and then uncovered again, perhaps several times. The piddocks we can find in the exposed peat (if we are very lucky) are long-dead. .

Why is the peat there on the shore? Why can we sometimes find the preserved remains of a ‘submerged forest’ on the shore? Have a look at this blog-post, The long-lost piddocks and the peat, and also the chapter on ‘Changeable Depths’ in The Fresh and the Salt.


If you live along the edges of the Upper Solway, you have to love mud! From the eastern side of Grune Point, past Calvo and Newton Arlosh saltmarshes, Moricambe Bay, Campfield and Bowness and Rockcliffe – ‘mud, mud, glorious mud’ dominates . And of course on the Scottish side too – I’ve spent many hours in the mud and merse along the River Nith.

Mud might look lifeless, but step out onto it and press with your boot – small spurts of water might shoot out from the surface, from the openings of the tiny U-shaped burrows of mudshrimps, Corophium.

There may be as many as 10,000 burrows of these tiny animals per square metre. The shrimp is about 1cm long with two very long antennae, and it is a beautifully-adapted and very important animal of the mudflats. By beating its legs it oxygenates the water in its burrow (and the surrounding mud), and it eats microscopic algae on the surface of sandgrains – so it acts as a ‘bioengineer’, affecting the stability of the mudflats’ surface, and keeps the upper layers oxygenated for other small invertebrates and the millions of bacteria and algae that live there.

A spadeful of U-shaped burrows showing oxygenated (ochre-coloured) mud, above smelly layer of anoxic black mud

Mudshrimps also provide food for wading birds! The Upper Solway’s mudflats and marshes are highly-protected for birds and other wildlife, with local, national and international protections (for more about those conservation acronyms, and why you should love them, read this blogpost too!).

There is much more about my favourite animals in this blogpost, The charisma of Corophium, and in Chapter 7, Mud-life, in The Fresh and the Salt. (There is also a section in that chapter about how artists – including Alison Critchlow from Bowness – ‘see’ and interpret the Upper Solway and mud.)

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A Solway small-holding: an update

I last wrote about our small-holding in NW Cumbria in May 2018, shortly after we had planted our ‘Three-score-years-and ten’ wood, including a hedge and a couple of thickets, on one of our fields – for reasons explained in that blog-post.

The trees have now had four growing seasons and the woodland, the hawthorn hedge and the thickets are really taking shape. Some of the alders in the damp area are sturdy-trunked trees 3-4 metres high, and some of the birches are approaching 3 metres; a couple of the guelder roses and rowans had berries this year. They’re ‘proper trees’!

After reading Benedict Macdonald’s and Nick Gates’ delightful ‘Orchard’, John was inspired to buy a dozen or so old-fashioned types of cider and eating apple and intersperse them amongst the other trees: we now have ‘Pineapple’ and Keswick Codling varieties amongst others, all doing well. It will be a few years before we get enough fruits to pick (‘if we’re spared’, in that lovely Scottish saying – the ‘official’ name of the wood holds a clue!)

This ‘new wood’ (as we call it, in contrast to the trees we planted 20 years ago, and the long-established Victorian wood) has become a place that we visit daily, and where we potter and even make time to sit and watch and listen – a place to temporarily escape the myriad jobs that need doing on the rest of the small-holding and in the veg and flower gardens. This autumn John acquired the inner metal hub of a car wheel which he recycled to make a ‘fire-pit’, and we have sat by the burning logs in the evening, listening to the rooks’ bed-time chatter, and watching the dusk fall and the bats come out. The new wood grants the temporary opportunity to forget the many things that make us fearful, or angry, or despairing; it is a place of optimism, and of hope.

Guelder Rose Autumn 2021

But the trees and ground require ‘managing’ at this stage. We’ve removed the tree guards and checked the supporting stakes this year; trimmed a few lower branches where necessary; cut back some dense thatch of tough grasses where it was suffocating aconites and later, yellow rattle. The worst task, which needs to be spread over several days, not just for physical but also psychological reasons (‘losing the will to live’ is the phrase that churns around my mind after several hours of blister-raising raking), is the autumn strimming of the grass and then raking it into piles and removing it, as we attempt to impoverish the soil so that the diversity of wild flowers will increase. Last year we strimmed and scarified patches, and stamped in hundreds of yellow rattle seeds gathered in a friend’s wildflower meadow. This year 14 yellow rattle plants appeared … But despite that unimpressive result, an increasing number of other flowering species are establishing themselves throughout the former field: cuckoo flowers are proliferating (and have been visited by orange-tip butterflies); there are patches of yellow vetch, chickweed, red campion; there is crows-foot along the fence near the beck, cow-parsley and yarrow.

With the help of our grandchildren we have planted ‘domestic’ bulbs too, having split clumps growing in the ‘old’ wood – daffodils, bluebells, snowdrops, and aconites. A recent addition was a large number of snakeshead fritillary corms in a damp-ish area, and several raspberry runners from a self-seeded patch in the old wood.

Insects are increasing – soldier beetles; several species of fly; at least 3 species of bumble bee; orange-tip, tortoiseshell, cabbage white and wall butterflies. (Elsewhere, in the ‘butterfly corner’ of the veg garden, where several buddleias and different types of mint crowd together as attractors, many peacocks, red admirals, tortoiseshells, cabbage whites, and walls congregate – but no Painted Ladies this year.) There are galls on two of the oaks; sawfly larvae decorated the edges of a black poplar, swiftly lifting their bodies erect as a defence when I touched the leaves (it’s a very effective response, making me yell and jump in surprise the first time).

The first outing for our home-made moth trap caught a wide variety of species. I’m a complete novice at moth ID but there was one huge and very easy-to-identify specimen sitting quietly amongst the egg-boxes – a poplar hawk moth. We have caught several subsequently. But now we have the entire life-cycle on the small-holding! In August a fat green caterpillar hung on a leaf of one of the black poplars; within a couple of weeks, there were twelve on the one young sapling, chomping at the leaves, getting fatter day by day. They gradually vanished, presumably dropping off to pupate – and leaving the sapling stripped of all its leaves.

Because the new wood is providing cover, perching sites, and seed-heads, as well as attracting insects, birds normally seen in other parts of the small-holding are starting to enjoy it too: tree-sparrows, chaffinches, blackbirds, tits and robins forage; chiffchaffs chiff and flitter; the nuthatches check out the edges; a buzzard sits up in the old ashes or wild cherries at the edge and watches for the very prolific vole population, who burrow and tunnel beneath the thatch. The long grasses are sanctuary for frogs; moles are heaving up the soil in lines of earthy hummocks.

Shortly after my last blog-post when I mentioned that I hadn’t seen spotted flycatchers for may years – a pair arrived! And, of all places, they chose a nest site inside the open-sided porch next to the kitchen; a place where the sitting female was disturbed almost every day by the postie and other deliveries. For the two years they nested there we had the absolute joy of watching them perching on the fence opposite the kitchen window, scanning intently for insects, and swooping, twirling, dancing, after their prey. This year, they made their nest elsewhere – we would see them hunting from the fence at the edge of the field, or from one of the evergreen trees in the garden – but after a while we worried that the nest and perhaps the female had been savaged, because soon only one bird was seen, hunting in many different places in the small-holding (and appearing disconsolate to human eyes).

The female Spotted Flycatcher nesting in the porch 2020

The swallows: increasing cause for anxiety. They returned almost a month late this year, and so very few in number, to the village.  Eventually one pair nested in the barn and raised a single brood. There were very few house-martins around the nearby estate where they have always bred in large numbers. (Such a privilege to have them as summer guests: yet many of the home-owners hang inflated plastic bags underneath their gutters, to keep the birds away. The martins are “too messy, too noisy”. Oh well, with any luck they won’t come back at all next year.)

The tawny owls returned to the area; in August our elder daughter and her husband were closely observed by two young owls at the edge of the new wood. This prompted John to make a couple of nest-boxes, and a very merry time was had when friends came to assist – with many helpful suggestions, and over-engineered solutions – to raise them into the trees. There have been no signs of use, but last week a pair of tawnies were calling and chatting near the boxes, perhaps checking out the new properties. We continue to hope.

The pond: another difficult year. This has recently become the pattern: weeks of drought in May and June, when many of the local becks dry up completely and even the large rivers, like the Derwent, are shallow, their beds lumpy with banks of shingle. Here, the aquifers up in the limestone being depleted, water slows to a slimy trickle, mud accumulates and the vegetation spreads and roots, trapping even more sediment on the bed of the pond. No visits by dragonflies or demoiselles, there was insuffieient water to attract them – though whirligig beetles and pondskaters remained, concentrated in the wet areas. Hopefully the tadpoles were surviving under the sagging mats of watercress and forget-me-nots.

In October we took the drastic step of asking our friend with a mini-digger to dredge it. He scooped the mud and weed onto the banks so that creatures could crawl out, although we knew that hundreds of snails, flatworms, gammarids, and millions of micro-organisms, would lose their lives. (Even writing that is shocking.) Astonishingly, an eel squirmed out of the mud. How did the eels get here? Several years ago, a neighbour watched a buzzard in our field, struggling to eat an active eel. (And when we first arrived, 20-odd years ago, there were small trout in our beck – again, how they got there, since there is a 1-metre-high barrier in the beck at the boundary, is a mystery. The trout disappeared after a period of drought, and perhaps also due to the occasional activity of a heron.)

Soon after the dredging, dark-green blanket weed grew because there were insufficient numbers of snails to keep it in check; but it has now decreased, snails are visible crawling across the mud; the banks have re-vegetated. Water-mint, yellow flags, marsh marigolds, water forget-me-not, water-cress and sedges are still there, supporting life. Heavy rainfall in November over-filled the pond and the field fulfilled its other purpose as a temporary water-meadow. The pond now looks much healthier. Will dragonflies visit next year? If the pattern of the past few years continues, the water level will once again oscillate between too low and the flash-flooding which brings down thick sediment.

In the old wood, rainwater dripping from the pines and chestnuts has made a hard pan under some of the trees; in the autumn we pile fallen leaves on these areas. Last year we cut down two ashes that succumbed to die-back, letting in more light and planting hazel and alder buckthorn as an understorey. The enlarging thicket of wild raspberries fed us and the blackbirds, even into November. A rook’s nest fell from the rookery early in the year, landing intact, with an unbroken egg inside. It was vast and intricately constructed, not at all the tangle of twigs that is seen from below. A former colleague of mine at Glasgow University Zoology Department, and the author of ‘Animal Architecture’,  Prof Mike Hansell, used to take sacks of twigs into the lab and encourage the ethology students to try to build a nest.

This was the year we decided to give up keeping our own sheep. For twenty years we have bred and/or reared a variety of breeds, for their meat, wool, and our interest and entertainment: initially, after foot-and-mouth in 2001, in-lamb ewes that were Beltex-Herdwick crosses; then pure Herdwicks; Portlands; ‘Fat Ethel’, a barrel-shaped Wensleydale that we bought for her beautiful fleece; and Hebrideans. Now a friend brings her chunky Dutch Spotted sheep, using the fields for weaned lambs, or ewes and a tup, as required. They are placid, boring sheep, when compared with our feisty Herdies and Hebs – but it’s good that the remaining pasture is being used.

Dutch Spotted ewe, May 2021

As I write this on a dreich December day, all colour has faded from the landscape, the fields are pale and sere, the trees bare, even the haws and rose-hips look dark and wizened. But a flock of fieldfares has been chack-ing along the old hedges at the top of the field, undeterred by the bad-tempered churr-ing of a mistle-thrush trying to protect its favourite berry-laden tree.

Yesterday, when the sun shone briefly and the wind had dropped, I sat in the new wood and watched a single herring-gull, cruising gently back and forth above the field, head tilted as it scanned the ground. Then it relaxed and spread its wings and, without a beat, found the thermal, and was lifted, spiralling slowly upwards, angling its wings to keep in the current. And as it rose, another gull appeared, then two more, and soon thirty gulls were circling, rising, higher and higher, the wintry sun turning their wings to shards of silver.

Every time that happens – gulls appearing from nowhere to join one who has found that effortless upward journey – I wonder how they know, how the message reaches them: ‘Here! Come here!’

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Haematite in Eskdale

On the first weekend in October the annual ‘Keswick’ Show and Sale of Herdwick sheep is held in Mitchell’s Livestock Mart in Cockermouth. Our tup ‘Bonzo’ had been accepted for official registration in the breed’s Stock Book: his appearance – his grey fleece, and hairy white face, testicles and legs – and therefore presumably his genes, were judged acceptable for sale, and he was being primped for the show. A friend who is a well-known Herdwick breeder came round with a tub of raddle and set to, rubbing the greasy red mixture into the fleece on Bonzo’s back. But up at the mart, surrounded by pens of feisty red-dressed tups who were clashing heads at every opportunity, our tup seemed unimpressed and lay down in his allotted pen, looking bored. When his turn came to show off his masculinity in the ring, his laid-back attitude even prompted some laughter. He did not sell.

Amongst Herdwick breeders, this tradition of dressing the fleece with red raddle is thought to mimic the natural red colour that the sheep would have acquired if they had been grazing on fellsides where the red iron-bearing ore, haematite, was found. These days the pots of raddle are usually bought from Relph’s farm supplies near Penrith. 

This red haematite is the same pigment that has been used from as long ago as Stone Age cave paintings [7]; it is used to colour lime plaster and mortar, as ‘Venetian Red’ (see blogpost ‘Hot mix’); and has been used at the Florence Arts Centre (which is on the site of the former Florence haematite mine) as a pigment for modern projects on painting and dyeing. It defines the molehills on the soil above the Triassic Sandstone of St Bees, and the mud on the tracks around the limestone areas of Egremont and Millom, and it smears down the Nab Gill fellside over the pink granite of Eskdale.

In this form, the particles of haematite are small and powdery, mixed in with the soil; it is the least pure form of the ore and scarcely worth working. But the soluble iron salts also once dribbled and trickled through the joints and faults of the limestones of West and South Cumbria, becoming oxidised and insoluble as they crystallised to form veins and lumpy masses of haematite, in sufficient quantities of good quality ore that it was worth mining and smelting it to form iron. This haematite, plus local limestone, and plentiful coal from the West Cumbrian coalfields combined to form perfect conditions for smelting and steel-making, and thereby making Victorian and early 20th century Cumberland rich, with the extra benefits of stimulating improved infrastructure in the form of new railways (for example, the Solway Junction Railway and its viaduct across the Solway Firth [1] ) and improved ports.

Along a gated track close to a quarry a few miles North of the former haematite mines of Hodbarrow and the ironworks of Millom, is the Millom Rock Park. Quarry companies have very large machines for obtaining and lifting chunks of rock, and here the owners have laid out a demonstration of the kinds of rock that are found in Cumbria, such as granite, Skiddaw slate, and andesite from the Borrowdale Volcanics group. The park – a flattened area otherwise cleared of stone – looks a little tired, the ‘type specimens’ no longer identified except by rotting wooden posts from which the labels have vanished, but at one end there is a perspex box inside which is cemented a hefty, bulbous lump of kidney haematite, brought here from Hodbarrow. The information board, headed ‘Millom, Mining and Money’, is still intact and shows a black-and-white photo of helmeted men smiling for the photographer and pushing a wheeled metal truck that is laden with ore; in colour, red would have predominated.

Mervyn Dodd, in his book, The Story of Iron Ore Mining in West Cumbria [2], describes how the different forms of the ore arise: veins are steep and narrow bodies of ore close to faults; flats, as their name suggests, follow the layers of rock; and there are vugs, which are spaces within the rock where irregular shapes like the kidney ore can grow. Some of the kidney shapes can grow to a massive size, like the one from Hodbarrow, and smaller versions were often seen being used as doorstops in the mining areas.

Veins, vugs & flats: haematite formations. From Mervyn Dodd’s book The Story of haematite mining in West Cumbria [2]

Dodd’s book also has a diagrammatic map that shows the principal areas of the West Cumbrian limestone where haematite was mined, and he includes details of short walks to explore these sites. “Castles in the red ore made/ Are buttressed, tunnelled, turreted” [3] : these mines, in the Cleator Moor and Egremont area and down to the South around Furness, “became the richest mining areas in the world”, according to Albyn Austin [4], but after they ceased being worked, the mines were filled in or cleared, and very little remains to be seen. So my first ‘geological’ outing to a haematite mine was not to a disused mine in the limestone area, but to Nab Gill, one of the mines of Eskdale [4] , in the granite at the edge of the Western Fells.

The haematite areas of West Cumbria: from Mervyn Dodd’s book [2]

The twisting road along the dale runs next to the Ravenglass-Eskdale railway line, a narrow-gauge line built originally to transport the haematite down to the coast, but now used by the very popular La’al Ratty engine and its coaches to carry visitors to Boot and back. I drive there on a summer day in June 2021 but it is raining at Boot, the clouds down almost to valley level, so that David and I, each of us hooded and bent against the rain, initially have trouble recognising each other. David Kelly is a retired teacher and former President of the Cumberland Geological Society, and he and I had first met more than a decade previously when he showed me the Triassic Sandstone, dolomite and breccia of St Bees’ Head [5]. When I look back at those notes, I see that he strode ahead effortlessly up the cliff path and, as we waded through sodden vegetation the bottoms of his jeans, like mine, were soon dark and soaked with water. Nothing had changed (except that today I wore waterproof trousers) as I scrambled to keep up with him up the steep path and rubble at the side of Nab Gill!

But first we stop to look at the remains of the platform and loading bay, now almost hidden by bracken, gorse and nettles, where formerly the railway trucks were loaded with the ore. The walls of the building that had contained the office still remain, although the roof is long gone; lichens and thick moss have colonised the mortar and blocky stones of pinkish granite typical of the area.

A straight and narrow track stretches up the fellside behind the building, raised on a base of stones – this was the tramway, an inclined plane, down which the ore-laden wagons would have travelled to the station and been pulled up, empty, to the top.

It is long and almost shockingly steep, and the enormous effort required to move and man-handle the stones and soil into place is almost unimaginable. We stand on its grassy surface and as we look down we speculate about the kind of winch and brakes that would have been needed to control the wagons’ descent. 

Climbing up hill beside the tramway

The haematite workings at Nab Gill were in five levels, connected by shafts, and followed a vein of ore that trended North-North-West, presumably along the same fault-line eroded by the gill and along which the iron-rich fluids must once have trickled. The gill, a deep and heavily-vegetated cleft in the hillside, no longer flows with water, probably because it has been considerably altered by the mining operations which started in about 1870 and finally ended in 1917. The slippery path up the cleft has been cleared in places, perhaps by other geologists, and David pauses to show me a small round rock that has been brecciated – it formed by the granite splitting and iron salts infiltrating, so that the fragments of pinkish granite became cemented together with a dark purple glue of haematite. Wherever the soil is exposed, it is red and crumbly.

Although the entries to the levels are still visible, they have collapsed or been filled in, blocked with stony debris, brambles and ferns. Level No. 5 is the lowest, there is little to see at the mouths of No. 4 and No. 3, but by the entrance to Level No.2 David suggests I climb up to look at a boulder.

And here is a vein of haematite, in shining blue-ish-purple bands of kidney ore! It is so unexpected, and so beautiful: the crystals’ upper, smooth convex surfaces seem to bubble out of the rock. They are perhaps a centimetre in diameter and, seen from the side, are conical, sharp-pointed at the other end, the facets of their sides glinting in the grey light. Later, on our descent below Level No.1, we hunt on the scree for samples; the pocket of my jacket still holds a small piece of kidney ore, a smooth talisman to rub between finger and thumb as I walk.

My ‘pocket rock’: a crystal of haematite

We reach the top of the gill in the drizzle; the climbing has been warm and steamy work, and the grasses are sodden, beaded with droplets of water. Here, adjacent to Level No. 1, is a deep, narrow cavity, an open stope, now protected by a new post and wire fence. We peer down into its ferny darkness, and David shows where a miner would have stood, legs braced each side of the fault as he hacked out the ore. There are also open-cast mines to the North on the top of the hill but they are overgrown, so we don’t bother to explore further.

The rain eases; the clouds come and go, hanging in the dales and on the tops, dropping and lifting, parting in snatches – the views always changing, the distant fells of Langdale being revealed then hidden again. There was formerly a branch line to mines at the opposite side of the Esk; David points out the route. With the end of the rain comes the end of silence, and suddenly there is birdsong below us – the songs of thrushes and blackbirds, echoing in the valley, and the conversations of rooks amongst the trees.

We slither back down the path, picking our way past the Levels, hunting for treasure among the scree. Red earth spills down from the bottom of the talus, and it’s easy to imagine the raddle colouring a Herdwick’s fleece. Four walkers, hot in their waterproofs, huff up the path towards us, pushing on their walking-poles, surprised at the steepness; they have mistaken their route, but are interested to learn about the mine.

I wonder about the person who first discovered traces of ore here – was he (it was extremely unlikely to have been a woman) looking purposefully, or was it serendipity? Did he mention his discovery to someone else, or was he sufficiently well-informed that he knew what he had found? Why, indeed, search amongst the granite, when most haematite discoveries were in the limestone or even sandstone? I think about working in these conditions, the ‘commute to work’ as we would call it these days: climbing the steep path, carrying heavy tools; the changeable Cumbrian weather; the dark, enclosed spaces inside the mines; the dangers of rock falls, and of the speeding, laden wagons on the tramway …

With occasional views towards the Langdale Pikes

The history of the Eskdale mines makes interesting reading. As with all mining ventures, the fortunes of the owners, and of course the workforce and their families, depend on geology – the size and quality of the veins of ore or coal – and  the market value. Two great variables, one of which was set millions of years previously, and the other of which is man-made and subject to even daily variation. The Eskdale mines, as Austin [4] writes, ‘were hopelessly uneconomic’ and were finally closed in the early 20th century. Nothing remains of the original railways, except the re-built track, from Ravenglass to Boot, for La’al Ratty. As we walk back to our cars, the valley reverberates with the repeated hooting of the little train, and soon dozens of people, single and in families, with buggies, rucksacs and trekking-poles, are walking out of the station and along the road to Boot.

Where does the haematite come from?

Iron itself is very reactive with oxygen and water, being oxidised to form ferrous (Fe2+ or Fe (II)) oxide, or ferric (Fe3+ or Fe(III)) oxides (like ‘rust’); interacting with water to form ferrous hydroxide; or with sulphur to form iron pyrites, otherwise known as ‘fool’s gold’; and so on. The enormous deposits of haematite that lay in the limestone and granite of West Cumbria are made of insoluble ferric oxide.

So what was the source of these enormous quantities of oxidised iron? Iron is one of the most abundant elements on earth, and it’s thought that most of the iron in the oceans has entered as dust from deserts, or via rivers and estuaries, or – in the early oceans – from eruptions of volcanic ridges on the sea-bed.  (While I was writing this, the Fagradalsfjall volcano system in Iceland has been erupting for six months, pouring out vast quantities of lava which, in the case of this volcano, originate from the iron-rich mantle rather than the overlying crust; at that time there was a possibility that the lava from this shield volcano might eventually reach the sea.) In those early seas there was little oxygen, so the iron that leached from the basaltic lava was primarily in the soluble, reactive ferrous state. But with the evolution of bacteria that could use the sun’s energy to photosynthesise, the oxygen levels rose dramatically, and the iron in the ferrous state was oxidised to form insoluble ferric oxyhydroxides, which precipitated – and were available to be further oxidised to form compounds such as haematite.

Treasures from the spoil-heap

The next question is, why is there such a concentration of haematite in West Cumbria? There are various theories (of course – and it’s impossible to set up the experiment to check them out), but one of the ideas relies on the fact that the magnetic North pole has wandered around over the tens of millennia of years, and on the other convenient fact that haematite is weakly magnetic and retains the ‘memory’ of where the magnetic North was when the ore was deposited. Measurements have shown that the deposits of haematite laid down in the eastern margins of the existing Irish Sea – in other words, in West Cumbria – all hold roughly the same memory of these ‘palaeopoles’. Or, as Crowley and collaborators write [6], “Correlation of poles with the European apparent polar wander path indicates that these ore deposits formed during the Middle Triassic”, in other words between 247 and 237 million years ago – after the end of the great Permian extinction, and before flowering plants evolved. In their paper they speculate on the development of ore-forming fluids within the evolving East Irish Sea Basin, “and subsequent migration of fluids to basin margins where iron was precipitated as hematite.” Where the ‘fluids’ came from and how they were oxidised to ferric oxide can only be guessed at, but was probably not due entirely to the metabolic activity of biological organisms.

So, those fluids crept and trickled their way into the permeable sandstone, and through to the limestones that originated from the skeletons of marine organisms in earlier warm seas, and into the joints and faults in the hard pink granite – eventually becoming a valuable commodity as humans discovered the usefulness of iron.

[1] Crossing the Moss. The Solway Junction Railway and Solway Viaduct

[2] Mervyn Dodd (2010) The Story of Iron Ore Mining in West Cumbria (Cumberland Geological Society; ISBN978-0-9558453-1-4

[3] Norman Nicholson (1944), lines from the poem Egremont, in the collection Five Rivers 1944

[4] Albyn Austin (1990) The Mines of Eskdale, on the Industrial History of Cumbria website

[5] See Chapter 6, ‘Red’, in The Fresh and the Salt, the Story of the Solway (2020) Birlinn Books

[6] Stephen F. Crowley, John D. A. Piper, Turki Bamarouf and Andrew P. Roberts (2013) Palaeomagnetic evidence for the age of the Cumbrian and Manx hematite ore deposits: implications for the origin of hematite mineralization at the margins of the East Irish Sea Basin, UK. Journal of the Geological Society, 171, 49-64

[7] There’s an interesting podcast about ‘Ochre’ – its origins and uses – in the Chemistry World series

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Quicklime: Hot Mix

This blogpost is part of my ‘limestone lockdown’ project. For an Introduction to the project, and a guide to the growing list of related posts, see Limestone in the Lake District: an Introduction – and the ‘categories’ list in the right-hand bar.

It’s May 2021, the latest lockdown for Covid has been eased and crossing the Border between Scotland and England is once more permissible, so I drive North to Canonbie where Alex Gibbons has his yard. I’ve known Alex since 2016, when he was designing and overseeing the construction of the demonstration clay dabbin house at RSPB Campfield near Bowness-on-Solway, as part of the Solway Wetlands Landscape project. On one occasion we spent a memorable morning doing ‘experimental archaeology’, as Alex laughingly referred to it; he had read that the use of fresh ox blood was a traditional way of making a glossy, hard-wearing floor, but abbatoir rules meant that obtaining a bucket of blood was not an option. Instead, we mixed dried ox blood with earth and water attempted various ways of spreading and painting it. (A warning: the method was not effective – subsequently the floor became smelly and furry with mould as it absorbed the damp.)

Alex and volunteer helper John Lackie at the Campfield dabbin house 2017

My instructions are to turn up a lane between a farmhouse and a ‘tin shed’. The lane turns out to be a rough farm track with a slalom course of deep potholes; a man and a border collie, busy attending to a quad bike in the yard, both appear surprised when I drive by. Alex, a Fellow of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and an expert in constructing and repairing earth and lime buildings, runs his own business, ‘Stick in the Mud Conservation’, and he’s invited me to his yard to watch a ‘hot mix’, the process of making a large batch of lime plaster from quicklime. The yard is based next to a longhouse that he has almost finished renovating. Ambling out in response to my shout, smiling, with unruly curly hair and plaster-spattered work clothes, he explains, with a grin, that this is the best example, with its cruck frame and cobbled floor, of a dabbin house in Scotland – because it’s the only one remaining! (For much more about the dabbin houses of Cumbria and Scotland, see ‘What’s a Clay Dabbin?‘)

On one side of the yard are large white dumpy bags full of quicklime, which looks like dirty-white grit. Alex buys this ‘kibbled’, that is crushed, lime from Tim Wells of Eden Hot Lime Mortar, who obtains it from TataSteel’s vast kilns at Shapfell Quarry next to the M6. Some people buy the quicklime already-mixed with a small amount of water, but Alex prefers to mix it himself: “I have the raw materials – the quicklime, the sand. I just like doing it, really, and I can adapt the mix myself depending on what I’m using it for – even though it costs me in terms of labour.” The grit sand, piled up by the hedge, comes from the Cardew Mires Quarry at Dalston near Carlisle. It’s grey-brown, and has a coarse texture with tiny sharp bits of grit; it needs to be “chunky, to hold its own shape.”. The quarry sometimes also supplies Alex with material for his clay dabbin work.. “I have to check it to make sure it’s right, which I know sounds ridiculous, but it can go wrong! I can get 20 tonnes at a go, which is ace!”

We walk across into one of the open-fronted buildings, squeezing past a blue pickup and low-sided trailer into a large corrugated iron shed. Piles of straw, white plastic containers of water and of sand, bulging plastic sacks, folded tarpaulins and plastic sheets – the plethora of basic materials for earth and lime building – fill the space. There’s a hose-pipe snaking across the floor, and a wire leading to an old red van outside. At the back, in its own territory, is the plaster-encrusted mixer.

Now it’s time to make the hot mix. I’m wearing old clothes, waterproof trousers and now, too, safety goggles. “When the water’s added it fizzes and pops and steams – it’s sensible to keep back,” Alex warns.

The mixer is a roller pan mixer – there are two large rollers or wheels that crush the quicklime, and a paddle which turns and folds the mix. Alex fires up the generator in the back of the red van and the machine starts rumbling as the axis turns horizontally, the wheels turning on vertical axes (‘the wheels help no end’). For the lime plaster he’s making today, the mix requires two buckets of water, one bucket of quicklime and four buckets of sand; the proportions will vary depending on the use. When he adds the water to the dry ingredients, clouds of steam gush and swirl around us. Lumps of the mixture are adhering to the edges of the rollers, and Alex scrapes them off with a spatula which was hooked onto the wall next to the machine. Next he picks up a bundle of goat hair, and pulls out the fibres, sprinkling them into the mix. “Traditionally it was usually horsehair, but that’s not easy to get. The goat-hair is soft, it has barbs” (which help the adhesion between the fibres and the lime). It is imported from China, having previously been treated to kill anthrax, a treatment which has also removed some of the natural grease.

We stand watching the mixer. It’s mesmerising, I say, I can’t look away.  “I always warn everyone,” Alex laughs. “Don’t look into the mixer, you’ll get sucked in!” It is a surreal scene: in a dimly-lit shed and half-hidden by steam, the machine grinds and groans, so that we must shout to be heard, and outside, from a darkening sky where heavy black clouds are louring, rain begins to fall. There is a strange, sharp smell coming from the slaking lime.

Alex opens a shutter at the bottom of the drum and the pale-brown mixture slides out into the waiting, plaster-caked wheelbarrow. He scrapes down the shute, closes the shutter, leaving the machine mixing – then runs the barrow of plaster up into the waiting low-sided trailer and tips it out. The rain is pock-marking the sloppy mess of plaster, so he unhitches the trailer and pushes it further into the shed. The plaster in the trailer is steaming; the slaked lime is hot and very caustic – he shows me scabbed burn marks on his arms, where small gobbets of mixture had landed previously, and grimaces, “It can be very painful.”

For the second of the four batches he adds less water and the reaction is more dramatic releasing greater clouds of steam. “A lot of it is about feel – you add water until it looks and feels right. If things go wrong you can always sort it out!” Does he learn by experience? He laughs: “You learn by cocking it up, like that first lot!” (It was too sloppy – the subsequent batches are much firmer).

And he surprises me when he says, “There’s no part of this job which isn’t really hard work. It’s very physical. It’s like thatching – that always sounds romantic until you end up doing it!”

While mixing the fourth batch, the machine abruptly stops, jammed. Alex yanks at the paddle, then stirs and pokes the mix with a long-handled shovel (which had beens propped nearby, exactly for this purpose). He switches the mixer on and off several times; the generator whines and grumbles. The mixer groans and stutters, recalcitrant, but finally starts moving, gaining speed.

We chat about his work and lockdown. He tells me he is now doing much more teaching, particularly for the Prince’s Foundation on a new dabbin at Dumfries House. He also got married about ten days before our visit; the last time I met him he was living South of the Border near Wigton, but now he lives in Scotland, just North of Canonbie. This trailer-load of lime plaster is to be used to repair the wall of a nearby walled garden.

This is a characteristic of lime plaster, that it can be used indoors or out. And I’m surprised that he will not be working with it until the following day: would it not dry out? He explains, “You can age it, and the older the better. The bits that are not completely slaked get slaked overnight. It’s more workable the next day too.” Even more surprising is that if you cover the plaster in a bucket with a layer of water, it will remain usable for a long time – it doesn’t dry and harden, taking up atmospheric carbon dioxide (see diagram of the Lime Cycle below) until it is spread.

Testing render on the dabbin house back in 2017

The rain has eased, the trailer is half-full of porridge-y plaster, and Alex is ready to head home. Before I leave he tells me to check on the clay dabbin house at Campfield, where he has just finished replacing the lime-render on the gable end which had suffered over the winter.

“And you should go and see Tim,” he says, “A nice man. He likes talking about lime.”


The Lime Cycle

Tim Wells lives in the Westmorland Dales, in a handsomely-renovated farmhouse near Great Musgrave. I arrive in the village and, after a couple of phone calls as we each try to ascertain where the other is, I find his low-loader JCB waiting at the end of a concrete drive, and follow him to his yard. His family ran stock on the farm – 700 sheep and 300 cows – until the 2001 Foot-and-Mouth epidemic that saw their animals culled out; like so many farming families, they have had to diversify and seek new occupations. Tim decided to learn about the renovation of old buildings, and eventually set up Eden Hot Lime Mortar to supply materials and expertise. As a business it’s thriving and increasing each year; he tells me later that he receives 50-60 calls a day, fixing meetings and starting conversations – “getting builders on board, and architects, and importantly insurers. It will become massive with the next generation”, as people get a better understanding of how to renovate older buildings.

The yard is large, with several barns and sheds, storage areas, and concrete clamps for sand and grit. Tim comes over to greet me and I get an impression of strength; he has a shock of dark hair, a broad, tanned face, and strong, tanned arms. At first he speaks in short sentences, slightly terse explanations of what we’re seeing, but he becomes more expansive as we both relax. A small black dog, Connie, follows us, roots around in some black polythene, then lies down in the corner of a sandy clamp, and generally keeps an eye on us.

Hopper and mixer

The quicklime Tim obtains from the Shapfell kilns has already been through a crusher, and comes in various sizes; he prefers the 2mm pellets. He sells this as it is (these are the pellets Alex uses) or – he shows me a row of 1-tonne dumpy bags – he mixes it with grit and some water to make partially-slaked lime. The mixture is crumbly, but no longer caustic by this stage, and the buyer then adds a small amount of water to make lime plaster. “It will keep for ten or more years like this,” he tells me. “You can re-mix it and use it.”

Nearby is a very large mixer with rollers and paddle, which can be filled from a hopper; this is a large-scale operation, for not only does he supply materials for builders, but he also runs between 50 and 60 training courses a year. “We get trainees from all over, Orkney, Shetland, London, Hampshire … They come for a day. I hand out pdf sheets of instructions and they get to try different things.” In a shed by the mixer are rectangular wooden frames filled neatly with limestone blocks, ready for mortaring and pointing; slates laid on top of laths form a mock roof for pargeing; there’s a vertical array of laths for lath-and-plaster training. On a table are tubs and packets of pigments with names like Burnt Turkey Umber, Brown Umber and Venetian Red, for colouring the plaster, and cylindrical rolls of the goat hair – he pulls some out of the bundle, teases it apart and snips it with sheep shears to show me the size for sprinkling into a plaster mixture. The hair gives tensile strength and forms a composite material, which is useful for crack-stopping. “But people used to mix the lime with whatever was to hand locally, crushed oyster shells, wood ash, ash from the steel works – nothing was written down, the knowledge was just passed on.”

Modern mortar uses cement, based on a mix of calcium carbonate and other minerals such as silicates; modern plaster is based on gypsum, hydrated calcium sulphate; both materials have the advantages of standardised components, and are quick-setting. But anyone who renovates and repairs old buildings is quick to explain how these modern materials are completely inappropriate in that they do not allow the walls and floors to ‘breathe’ or flex. Water is trapped and walls become damp; cement and mortar are rigid and can transfer cracks to the surrounding walls; modern plaster may seal in the damp. As Tim says, “These modern houses won’t last fifty years!”

The well-designed and informative website for Eden Hot Lime Mortars gives several reasons why hot lime mixes should be used instead: “Walls breathe better and moisture can evaporate. Mortars and renders do not set too hard. Thermal movement can be accommodated without damage…”

There is much more of interest to learn about lime mortars, such as the difference between hydraulic lime, air lime and pozzolans, but I’m beginning to suffer from information overload. I’m saved from embarrassment by Tim’s phone ringing: he has another appointment lined up and his visitor is trying to find the yard. Connie, the little black dog, accompanies me to my car and jumps onto the driving seat when I open the door; I scoop her out, regretfully, and thank her for the dusty pawprints she has left as a reminder.

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Limestone: the Tata Shapfell kilns

The Tata Shapfell limekilns

This blogpost is part of my ‘limestone lockdown’ project. For an Introduction to the project, and a guide to the growing list of related posts, see Limestone in the Lake District: an Introduction – and the ‘categories’ list in the right-hand bar.

The motorway sweeps down past the smooth rounded ‘sleeping elephants’ of the Howgill fells, down into the valley by Tebay, and then up again onto the moorland heights of Shap. Suddenly, incongruously, you see a tall vertical array of cylinders and truncated cones, pale greyish-green, streaked with rust, with steam drifting from the chimneys. You pass so quickly that there is barely time to register how bizarrely out of place is this industrial machinery amongst the grazing sheep and the moorland of the distant hills.

The imposing structure is a bank of four kilns, for ‘burning’ limestone to produce quicklime, and they are the remaining active processes of the once-busy Shapfells or Hardendale quarry. These metal Maerz kilns couldn’t be more different from the stone-built kilns at Wardhall, not only in their construction but also in the very efficient way they ‘burn’ – calcine – the lime.

Calcining (a quick reminder) is the process of heating limestone, calcium carbonate CaCO3, to change its chemical composition by driving off carbon dioxide CO2, as gas, to leave ‘quicklime’, calcium oxide CaO. This requires temperatures in excess of 800oC which, in ‘old-fashioned’ limekilns, are produced by burning coal in the presence of air. In the Maerz kilns, heat comes from the burning of natural gas which is injected into the upper cylinder.

John Baird, the Operations Manager, is infectiously enthusiastic about the kilns. He has worked on the site for more than 30 years, “in most roles, in the aggregate plant … drove dumpers …” and has overseen great changes, including the closure and now restoration of the quarry area as a nature reserve. About three years ago, a new control and monitoring system was put in place for the kilns themselves –  the SCADA system (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) which is a system of networked computers and monitors, where a single operator can see – and control – what is happening in the kilns in real time. We go into an office to watch a short powerpoint presentation about how the kilns work, and John switches into the SCADA system – and I’m impressed how we can watch a live overview with coloured graphs and flows, and then focus in on minutiae such as the changing pressure of the gas from minute to minute, the temperature, the weight of stone in a hopper that’s feeding a particular kiln, and so on. The operator, watching this, can dictate the length of burn, the amount of air, the intensity of the flame, and more. Later we have a look at the control room, where there is indeed just a single operator, sitting at a bank of keyboards in front of an array of monitors.

Some basic details about the Maerz kilns at Shap: Each active kiln uses up to 520 tonnes of limestone per day, and each tonne of stone gives about a half-tonne of lime (quicklime). Stone, about 4.5 tonnes per hopper, is loaded every 11 mins into each of the parallel shafts continuously throughout the day, and lime is continuously taken out of the bottom. The kilns are Parallel Flow Regenerative, PFR, kilns – three of the kilns have two parallel shafts, and No.1 kiln (the first on the left as you head North on the motorway) has 3 shafts.

Maerz PFR kilns: see their website for more details

Burning is carried out at 850-1100oC, and what is so special about the Maerz kilns is that the parallel arrangement of shafts linked by a cross-channel means that the hot exhaust from one cylinder is passed up through the stone in the second, a contra-flow that pre-warms the stone waiting there to be burnt. This ‘counter-current’ is exactly the system by which penguins’ feet are kept warm, and how the kidney is so efficient at removing waste products in the urine – biology got there first! This makes me happy. And John – who laughs a lot and is unendingly friendly and helpful – says, “I think Shapfell is the most efficient lime-maker in the world.”

He has kitted me out with helmet, hi-vis jacket, gloves and eye-protectors, and I assume we are going to wander around at ground level. But now comes a very welcome surprise: “Are you okay with heights?” John asks. We are going to climb up between the kilns, almost to the top.

We pass the hoppers at the base, from which the lime is decanted and taken by conveyor belt to be stored then transferred to waiting railway wagons. The railway is a siding from the nearby West Coast mainline – one of the sleek passenger trains speeds by during our tour – and wagons bring limestone to the kilns and take lime away. From here at ground-level we watch a large yellow lorry tipping out its load of limestone, which is rapidly bull-dozed to the edge of a waiting pile, from which it will be conveyed to a crusher, and eventually loaded into a hopper that will take it to the top of a kiln. There is limestone of a pinkish shade, which comes from Hanson’s quarry just 5 miles to the North; and there is whiter stone which is brought by rail from a Tarmac quarry at Buxton, Derbyshire. At one time the stone would have been dug out here, at Shapfell/Hardendale, but local ‘good’ stone, the best for quicklime and steel-making, has been exhausted, and the land is being restored.

Limestone from different sources

Around us all the hard surfaces are white: the handrails, the outside of the hoppers, the gantries, cranes and platforms – but it is not powdery, the whiteness is hard with a pimpled surface, smooth to touch. It must have built up over the years, but surprisingly, there is no dust.

We cross a metal bridge, beneath a conveyor belt, and onto a platform from which the first flight of steps leads upwards, perforated metal stairs through which the ground below is visible; but there are sturdy handrails each side. The cylindrical wall of this bottom section of the kiln is cool but up on the second platform I can feel warmth radiating from the wall. The weather today is perfect, with little wind, but I can imagine how pleasant that warmth would be when the wind is howling across from the Howgill Fells, funnelling up the valley by Tebay.

There is a complex scenery surrounding us, of pipes, supports, metal stairs, pressure valves, and the smooth bulk of the kilns, with intriguing glimpses of sheds and moving hoppers. Number 2 kiln has been decommissioned, and John says it will not be removed – I can see that the resulting gap would be as ugly to the symmetry as a missing tooth – and Number 3 has just been shut down for the day.

But there is a busy-ness on the ground and lower levels around Number 4, and up on the third platform, now about 100 feet above the ground, there is a smell of hot new paint. This kiln has been completely refurbished over the past two years. “It was a £3.8 million project,” John explains, “and we started heating it again about 5 days ago.” Apparently it takes this time to re-light – the refractory lining eventually becomes hot enough, between 600-700oC, that the gas will ignite itself when the gas-lances are turned on. Here by Number 4 there are pressure gauges and flexible gas pipes, and everything looks clean and new and glossy. Below us, in an enclosure on the ground there is a vast storage tank for natural gas; the works are supplied by their own mainline pipe. The recent hike in gas prices has quadrupled the cost of calcination …

Gas pipes for Number 4 kiln

Climbing another airy flight of steps, we return along the platform to kiln Number 1 to watch a hopper laden with stone being pulled up the rails. Arriving at the top, it tilts; John Baird warns “Cover your ears!”, and the hopper tips its load into the kiln with a rattle and crash of tumbling stone, then creeps back down to be refilled. In 11 minutes another laden hopper will tip its load into a parallel shaft to be pre-warmed by the exhaust gases before being fired.

So what is coming out of the chimneys? I’d been reading about old types of commercial kiln in David Johnson’s book [1] and photos showed the land surrounding white with lime-dust. Johnson notes, “A former public house close to Swinden Quarry, Grassington, and all nearby fields were noted for their covering of white lime dust” from the Spencer steel kilns, built in the early 1900s. Here at the Shapfell works a small amount of dust comes out in the steam, but John assures me that the filtration processes are very efficient. Tata own the land surface around the site and use it for local tenancy grazing, and we look down on the fields at the northern boundary and it is true, there is no trace of whiteness; but whiteness has accreted, slowly, on the metal structures and walkways.

Depending on the weather, the drifts of steam coming from the chimneys may appear white, grey, or even be invisible. A system of Venturi ‘scrubbers’ cleans up some of the emissions, such as sulphur dioxide and particulates. There is water-vapour – steam – from the heating of the washed limestone; there is carbon dioxide from the burning of the methane-rich natural gas, and there is of course also a very large amount of CO2, approximately 40% of the initial weight of stone from the breakdown of CaCO3 to form CaO.

When mixed and heated with metallurgical coal (such as that which would be produced by the projected and controversial West Cumbria coal-mine) and iron ore (haematite), the quicklime collects the impurities, floating on top of the molten iron as slag (see ‘Volcanoes of Workington’). Steel-making itself, by burning coal, also produces CO2. But until new methods for steel-production are devised, at scale, there will continue to be the need for lime and coal as accessories. Carbon-capture would seem to be the only way forward if CO2 emissions are to be reduced.

The Shapfell kilns produce 4,000 tonnes of quicklime per week and nearly all of this goes for making steel – formerly to plants at Teeside and Scunthorpe, but now more than 90% of the output going to Port Talbot: Britain still does have a (much-reduced) steel-making industry. The quicklime produced here at Shapfell is of the high specification required for steel. We look around the lab later, where the quicklime is tested. The lab is small, bench-tops clear, and with surprisingly little equipment, although most of what is there is apparently expensive. A pyrex desiccator, a piece of lab equipment that I probably haven’t seen since research student days, contains a pile of small white ceramic crucibles for heating lime. The quicklime is sampled every four hours throughout the production sequence to check the amount of unburnt material, known as the Loss of Ignition, LoI, percentage: for the steel industry this must be less than 4%, in other words the lime should be at least 96% pure. Reactivity with water is also tested by mixing 600ml water at 20oC with 140 gm lime – the temperature of the reaction should reach between 60-70oC in two minutes. To demonstrate the exothermic reaction between CaO and water, John mixes some powdered quicklime with water straight from the tap, and the beaker is immediately swathed in steam. (For more on the effects of mixing quicklime with water – the ‘hot lime’ process – see article about Tim Wells: coming soon). Positive results in these lab tests mean the lime produced at Shapfell can be labelled as conforming to the British Standard, a new certification required since we left the EU, the CE (Conformité Européen) certification being no longer deemed relevant by the government.

For steel-making, the calcined lime needs to be crushed to the optimal size of about 60mm. But for use in the renovation and repair of old buildings, as lime mortar and lime plaster, the lumps of quicklime need to be crushed much smaller. It was through Tim Wells, of Eden Hot Lime, that I got an introduction to Angela Wilson, the Commercials Office Manager, who very cheerfully and willingly set up my visit to the kilns – Tim buys in dumpy-bags of 2mm pellets and he then adds water to the quicklime, converting it to slaked lime, calcium hydroxide Ca(OH)2, the basis of lime plaster.

The agri-lime shed

After leaving the kilns, the labs and the control room, we walk back to the offices, past a large open-fronted shed piled with white powder. This is ‘agri-lime’, finely-crushed limestone – not quicklime – for spreading on the fields. Although no longer a lucrative part of the business, production is kept going mainly for the benefit of local farmers (agrilime article coming soon).

Limestone: to be used in making steel, in renovating old buildings, and to fertilise the fields – there are several stories here about the uses of the stone that comes from the quarries. Other stories are of the extraction of the stone, and of the restoration of the land.

Both Tata Shapfell (Hardendale) and Hanson’s (Shap Beck) quarries are on land owned by Lowther Estates. (Lowther Estates own land and foreshore, and have mineral rights, to vast swathes of the county – and have already been mentioned in the context of the small quarry near Great Asby.) Hardendale, opened in 1960, was leased from Lowther Estates by the Messrs Colville, who owned the Ravenscraig steelworks on the Clyde. Colvilles became part of the nationalised British Steel, and through a series of buy-outs and reorganisations, became Corus, which eventually was partially taken over by the Indian company Tata. Shap Beck was leased from Lowther by Harrisons Limeworks, and originally sent lime to Colvilles’ Ravenscraig. Harrisons had their own kilns, but these were decommissioned in about 1980, and the quarry – now owned by Hanson’s Aggregates, who have consent from the Lowther Estates until 2042 – now supplies the characteristic pinkish limestone for the Tata kilns.

Wherever there is limestone in Cumbria there are quarries, either small indentations in a hillside outcrop to supply stone for drystone walls or for a small local kiln, or the larger industrial excavations that supply stone for cement or roads, such as the Bredon quarry at Moota, and the currently (and hopefully, forever) disused quarries at Clints Crags, both to the North of Cockermouth. In recent times, when the extraction of stone has become uneconomic or the quality of extractable material has declined, it has been recognised that remediation of the landscape and environment is necessary. Thus, at Moota, the disused sections of the quarry are being re-modelled and improved for plant and animal recolonisation, and an explanatory ‘geology trail’ is being developed.

So too at Hardendale, where landscaping began as early as the 1970s. John Baird explains that they now have a new restoration plan (you can download details and maps here) . From up on the northern platform we had looked down on large rectangular piles of pale material and an improbably milky-turquoise pool of water: this was where the slurry of clay and small limestone particles from washing was allowed to settle and drain. As we watched, a yellow JCB was scooping up buckets of the soft residue and loading it onto an enormous truck; it would then be tipped into the quarry – where it would recombine with atmospheric CO2 and harden, to form new stone (see diagram of ‘The Lime Cycle‘ in ‘Quicklime: Hot Mix‘)

Settling ponds and quarry re-fill

The quarry’s land is also on and bordered by SSSIs and Special Areas of Conservation, so Natural England are involved in design and maintenance of the new reserve, and RSPB volunteers help record the birds. ‘There’s a big newt area too,” John says, “with hibernacula” and, laughing, he goes on to explain the intricacies of newt-protective fencing. “We’re aiming to reduce the footprint of the works on site, we’ll be removing redundant buildings, like the crushing plant. There’ll be strategic planting of trees to screen the works. The former settling pools are full of wildlife.” He’s clearly as enthusiastic about the long-term restoration work as he is about the management of the kilns.

Looping back onto the M6 again to drive North, I saw that there was white exhaust coming from the chimney of the newly-lit Number 4. Now, each time I drive across that moorland limestone country and see that tall, incongruous bank of grey cylinders, I’ll say to myself, with some amazement, “I was up there!”.

[1] David Johnson (2018) Lime kilns, history and heritage: Amberley Press

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