Port Carlisle: canals and ships and trains

(September 2020: you can now also view two videos about Port Carlisle, made for the launch of my book The Fresh and the Salt. The Story of the Solway: links are on the website.)

When the tide is out, Port Carlisle’s former life is laid bare in stark, dark shapes.

A line of rotten wooden stumps, marching out across the mud, scarcely hints that here was once the steamer pier.

wharf steps & egret

Posts of the steamer pier, the dock, and the coaling wharf

Out beyond the whale-back of mud and stone in the centre of the dock is a long, stone wharf, a jumble of straight lines and ragged edges: red sandstone blocks, their intertidal surfaces dark with fucoids, greened at the high tideline, and speckled with yellow and grey lichen – the coaling wharf, disconnected from the shore, disconnected from the sandstone quay, disconnected from the village.


The coaling wharf (and ‘garden’)

To reach the wharf I squelch across mud and shelly sand, noting the footprints and beak-probes of waders; I climb over fallen blocks of dressed sandstone, coated green with Ulva, up onto what was the working surface of the wharf – and find a wild garden of blazing yellow gorse, grass and pink thrift.

There is a wall of part-dressed red blocks, some shifted by the tides, and granite bollards, pale speckled grey, geologically incongruous  – fallen sideways, unmoored. Sandstone steps, green and slimy, lead down to the muddy seabed of the dock. I find strange shapes of flattened metalwork in the stone, bolts that are twisted and rusty, decayed wooden fenders, and dislodged sandstone, the edges of the wharf no longer neat and protective. And a strong sense of the past, a place of bollards and hawsers, where boats came up from Liverpool, picking the right tides to negotiate the Firth’s notorious sandbanks; and tied up to collect or deliver coal and goods and people, that were then transported up the canal to Carlisle.

The eastern, seaward side slopes gently towards the water, a shore of mud, red clay and shells, from which pebbles have been scooped and thrown up onto the wharf.

Standing on top of the wharf I look North across the Solway to Scotland and the sheds of Eastriggs munitions depot, that are low and an unnatural pale-green, failing to be inconspicuous. To my right is the vast Rockcliffe marsh at the head of the Firth, barely visible beyond a low headland that anchors the shiny mud of the low-tide bay in place; intersecting lines of mud and sand and water, silver, pewter, ochre, where  oyster-catchers and two curlews pipe and forage. And here on my left, across the dock, are the houses of a port that was once an insignificant place known as Fisher’s Cross.

That dark mound in the centre of the dock, that rarely gets covered by the tide, is not a merely a heap of pebbly sediment, swirled and dumped by the tides: originally built as a stone breakwater, it forced a splitting of the ebbing and flowing tides, to reduce the silting of the harbour. Beyond it, the red sandstone of the quay where ships once unloaded passengers and goods, is still visible.

The tide is coming in fast now, the wave-fronts creamed with brown froth, and I pick my way back across the mud, where the mouths of tiny burrows spurt water with each footfall. The mudflats are home to a rich community of animals. Winkles crawl amongst the pebbles and spiralling fucoid fronds, and the empty valves of pink tellins and chalky grey clams crunch underfoot. A Little Egret, shocking in its whiteness, flaps slowly along the shore. I find a few ragged-topped wooden stakes, blackened and soft, which hold memories of the narrow rail track along which horse-drawn wagons teetered to the wharf; the tree-rings are still clearly visible in the timber, and winkles colonise the stumps.

The quay by the village is disrupted by a gap, through which a sluggish stream of water trickles across the mud at low tide. Here is the ghost of the sea-lock that marked the end of the Carlisle canal.

Little remains except the sandstone walls, and it’s not easy now to imagine the two lock-gates with their associated wheels and handles. Between 1823 and 1853 the canal was the route to the Solway, and thence to Annan, Liverpool and Ireland, for ships carrying goods from the warehouse at Carlisle, and for goods and coal in the other direction, brought up along the coast. Laden barges and ships travelled in both direction along the canal, being swung round in the now-overgrown turning circle by the lock. High walls of dressed stone are almost hidden by shrubs and dangling ivy.

People travelled, too, mostly away from Cumberland – to Scotland, the Isle of Man or Ireland or further, emigrating from Liverpool to America. The jagged line of stumps, like broken teeth, to the West of the port are all that remains of the steamer pier, which was built out into the Firth so that arrivals and departures would not be limited by the tides. Outgoing passengers and sight-seers crammed onto passage-boats that left the Carlisle basin and travelled along the canal, the schedule timed to rendezvous with the steamer.

bath house

The bath-house today

The former Solway Hotel and the Steam-Packet Inn offered shelter and refreshment; a bath-house with heated sea-water pumped from the Firth provided ‘spa’ facilities, and the Wesleyan Methodist chapel on the outskirts looked after people’s souls.

All ports require a Customs House, preferably large and imposing, and new local housing was equally smart: a terrace of elegant Georgian houses – now Listed – each with individually designed fan-lights above the door; a house with a sandstone Roman altar embedded in the stone-work; a Wesleyan Methodist chapel.

Port Carlisle had style, it had stunning views, it was busy, a tourist destination and a stepping stone to the New World. By 1854 it even had a railway station.  The canal’s working life had been relatively short, and eventually uneconomic. It was filled in – and railway tracks laid. At first steam trains carried passengers and freight. When that too proved a financial embarrassment, passengers were pulled in the horsedrawn ‘Dandy’ along the rails between Burgh and the Port. But finally, after a range of transport methods had been tried and failed, the line closed and was dismantled.

station platform

Station platform

Back in the village I wander round a weedy, grassy rectangle, kicking weeds from the low brick-edged platform which is all that remains of the station terminal. The station house itself has been converted into a private dwelling.

The Port’s former life is imprinted in large detail on the landscape and the shore. It’s not too difficult to imagine the comings and goings, the excitement of a new vessel’s arrival up the Firth; the driving rain and fast-ebbing tides that kept ships stalled across at Annan; the passage boat’s arrival at the final lock, laden with sight-seers, emigrants, and their baggage; the wet, impatient, hungry, passengers drinking in the pubs; the racket of the crane and laden shaky wagons; or the soft light of a tender Solway day encouraging walkers to stroll along the road.


But it is the small details that stay in my mind: letters ‘JW’ precisely engraved in a block by the canal; rusty bolts; flattened metal shapes found both on the wharf and on the quay; the zoned colours of sea-weeds, weathered and wave-washed sandstone and lichen; the glistening mud speckled with stones; the single dark pockmark on each dressed block where pincers lifted it into place.

As the tide flows into the vacated basin of the port, the place is again populated, with hundreds of gulls and ducks, sitting quietly on the silvery surface of the water, enjoying the ride.

port carlisle3 nov16.JPG

The incoming tide

And now …

This is not a sad place. There may no longer a busy-ness on the streets and quay, but the inner life of the village is full of pride and warm memories. The lady who lives in the former Bath-house once invited me inside to look at its original features; friends have been given impromptu conducted tours along the quay, and recently villagers and other local people took party in the ‘Remembering the Solway’ oral history project, meeting regularly in the Methodist Chapel: their reminiscences were recorded and transcribed, and in the accompanying film Daphne Hoggs remembers learning to swim in the harbour, and how she and her friends would swim from the central ‘island’ to the wharf steps.

In the related ‘Port Carlisle Heritage Project’ run by the North of England Civic Trust, the villagers explored the Port’s history, and illuminated it for visitors with helpful information boards.

It’s a place where people get on with their daily lives, yet are able to delight in their village’s very special place on the edge of the Solway Firth, a stepping-stone between land and sea and distant countries.

Where to find out more:

David Ramshaw’s history of The Carlisle Ship Canal, 2013, P3 Publications, ISBN 978-0-9572412, is packed with photos, newscuttings and maps. david ramshaw book cover

Remembering the Solway oral history project. In the film,  Daphne Hogg remembers her childhood, and swimming at Port Carlisle

The Port Carlisle Heritage Project: Ruth Lord gives an illustrated talk about the Port and the project

The ‘Dandy’ is now in the National Railway Museum

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