In January and February this year, people living at Bowness and along the Upper Solway started posting photos of tidelines – not of drifts of hornwrack, kelp and driftwood, but of ice and snow. As the freezing weather continued, so the ice built up over the shores, and was then lifted off during the high spring tides and stormy seas and re-deposited in piles.

To walk across the frozen shore was thrilling and hazardous – the shapes and the colours a source of wonder; the channels in the mud outlined by glistening white curves; folded and crumpled sheets, stippled with white and grey; uneven piles of opaque white sponge-y floes.

Artist Alison Critchlow [1] was inspired not only by the visual aspects, but also by the ‘crumpy’ (her word) sound of walking over it, and the crackling of shards as the tide pushed them across the shingle. She told me, “I want to draw the sensation and sound of those walks and so I’m trying out new ways of making marks. I thought it would be interesting to replicate the way I was experiencing it … So in the drawings I am thinking about the transparency, the thin plates, their movement floating in on the tide and the sound of walking out across and through it. Also that marvellous bubbling effect that happens sometimes and the wonderful sound of the incoming tide dissolving the frozen tideline.”

For me, the mutability and impermanence of the ice is another expression of the mutability of the Solway’s shores.

Alison, too, finds inspiration in “witnessing a movement held still, a fluid made solid. The colours, fluid/solid shapes and the transparent nature of it are visually fascinating. I also want to draw its fragility. The ice forming and building up is mesmerising, not least because its formation can be seen in every crystal… It is breathtakingly beautiful and it seems to me makes visible a fundamental process in the shaping and reshaping of our planet.” She says, “Drawing this process feels important. Replicating the icy layers, [their] build-up and removal, [using] floating ink, tearing, printing, marbling, dying, spraying, sanding, adding, drawing over and under, I have even painted onto bits of ice and let them thaw onto the paper.”

There have, of course, been periods of intense cold before. On Boxing Day 2010 surprisingly thick floes lay tumbled along the tideline. I wish now that I’d paid more attention to the size, structure and longevity of those floes; and that I’d been more curious as to their origin in relation to the Solway’s margins. So often, it requires hindsight to raise the important questions: the answers might have told me more about the origin of the disaster in 1881.

In January 1881 water froze along the shores and rivers, and when the next high spring tides arrived, the sheets of ice lifted off and pushed westwards by the ebb; cracking and breaking into floes, some reportedly six feet thick, many of which were swirled against the cast-iron pillars of the railway viaduct that crossed the Solway between Bowness and Annan. The damage was immense, and the events of those several days – the sights and sounds – are described elsewhere [3]. A presumed victim was the ‘Hare in a fix’– a hare which was trapped on a floe that was being swept out on the tide (raising interesting questions about the population of hares on the Solway’s margins in the late 19th century, and their intelligence – but perhaps the hare was brighter than we think? See [4]).

As for this year’s floes – where did they form? With travel restrictions and extremely icy roads, it wasn’t possible to tour around to look. Roger Golding’s photos from Bowness show a covering of ice and remnants of snow on the upper intertidal flats: here the thin layer of freshwater run-off from the saltmarsh perhaps combined with spray from the saline waters of the Firth would have formed an ever-thickening layer.

Seawater freezes when its temperature drops to -1.8 degrees Celsius. In an estuary the salt concentration varies with the weather and the state of the tide; the concentration of salts in the sea is normally 35 parts per thousand, but as it mixes with fresh water from rain and the rivers and becks this alters; fresh water, being less dense, can ‘float’ on top of the salt water, depending on the turbulence, and freezes at a higher temperature. But tasting the ice to try to determine its origin wouldn’t help: salts are excluded from the crystalline structure formed by the linking of the water molecules – so the ice would be (almost) suitable for a G&T. At the Poles, excluded salts may form syrupy ‘brine channels’ between the plates of ice, but melted sea-ice does not make a good ‘British’ cup of tea, and Franklin, Scott and other polar explorers relied on freshwater ice from glaciers (or snow).

The Solway’s ice does not have the clear brilliance of a Fox’s glacier mint – it is opaque, and sometimes discoloured with incorporated sediment. There are rough crystals like those in the Slush Puppies that churn sickeningly inside glass cylinders in seaside cafés; there are solid white layers, and weak bubbled strata. The more I look at it and consider it, so I realise the greater is my ignorance: the formation of these ice-floes and thin sheets is a research project in itself: for materials scientists, chemists, rheologists – and poets, artists and writers too.

The growing ice-sheet quite dramatically reduces the area where wading birds can feed, so that they have to fly and forage further afield, burning extra calories in the process: but they are at least homeothermic (endothermic or ‘warm-blooded’) like mammals. The recent pictures from Texas, where turtles stunned by the unusual freezing weather were being brought indoors to warm up, are a reminder that ‘cold-blooded’ animals like amphibia and reptiles are very reliant on the ambient temperature and their own behaviour (such as basking) to survive. This is even more true of the trillions of invertebrate animals that live on and within the shores and saltmarshes, the ‘invertebrates on the edges’ that are part of the complex and inter-connected web of life, of prey and predator [5 and 6]. Some are known to have anti-freeze molecules in their blood, but others are not so fortunate and if unprotected within burrows, or under stones or algae, may well die.

In 1860, naturalist Philip Henry Gosse wrote: “After the intense and protracted frost of February 1855 the shores of South Devon were strewn with dead and dying Anemones … which rolled helplessly on the beach” [7]. There are more recent reports of dying, stranded starfish on the Scottish east coast, paralysed and killed by the freezing weather at the very low Spring tides, and last month piles of burrowing bivalve Molluscs, razorfish mixed with some large clams, were washed up at Mossyard Bay near Gatehouse of Fleet on the Galloway coast, the razorfish shells still glossy, their pale muscular feet and siphons extended in death: cause of death very likely the low sea temperatures, and especially the freezing of the sands and mud during low Spring tides.

(I am very grateful to the Solway Firth Partnership for forwarding these photos, which were taken by Peter Garson, to whom all credit is due.)

In early February I drove towards Bowness, hoping to see the floes on the shore (I missed them, they’d already been shifted by the tide) but the River Wampool – where four months earlier I had watched and heard a tidal bore [8]  – was choked with ice that was moving sluggishly downstream with the river and the outgoing tide; a friend who lives near the mouth of the river at Moricambe Bay reported that the ice had come in from the bay ‘on every tide’.

Out on the Wampool, thin plates of ice were piled against the bridge supports, and raised high along the banks; the scene was eerie, empty of life and sound, as if the moving waters had been silenced by their floating blanket.

Solway ice: painting by Alison Critchlow

My thanks to Alison Critchlow and Roger Golding for their willingness to let me use their photos and for talking about the winter’s ice. I’m especially grateful to Alison for sharing her sketches and paintings – do look at her website.

[1] Alison Critchlow’s website

[2] Roger Golding’s website

[3] The Solway Junction Railway and the Solway viaduct website

[4] What happened to the ‘Hare in a Fix’ ?

[5] Invertebrates on the Edges, Chapter 1 in The Fresh and the Salt (Birlinn Books, 2020); see also the related website

[6] Life in the sand: an essay in The Clearing

[7] PH Gosse (1860) Actinologia Britannica: a history of the British sea-anemones and corals. London, Van Voorst, the Dahlia Wartlet anemone p214;

[8] The Solway tidal bore

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