“Criffel has vanished, blotted out by the rain that is sweeping across the Firth into our faces. We are standing in a row facing the incoming tide; there’s not much talking, just an occasional comment or joke amongst the men. Mark Messenger and I are at the seaward end of the row, and the fast-moving brown water is rising quickly, and is now well above my waist. The surge of the tide sucks the sand from beneath my feet, and my face is salty and wet from rain and spray.”
That’s Ann Lingard writing about haaf-netting in the Solway Firth, in her Solway Shore Stories, capturing the feeling of the great estuary with its sweep of sand and fast-flowing tide. She interweaves the stories of the people with information about the land and sea, told in a variety of situations, in this case wading chest-deep in water with the coastal fishermen and their huge haaf-nets.
She walks on the saltmarshes with the RSPB warden, hearing about the grazing by cattle and sheep that has continued for a thousand years and the habits of the geese.
“Their arrival is an event of local importance, something to anticipate. ‘Are the geese back yet?’: everyone is listening for their honking and calling; looking upwards, away from the flickering masses of knot and dunlin skimming over the sands and the black-and-white binary flashes of the oystercatcher flocks, hoping to see geese circling to land instead of passing over in a V. In mid-September, the first of the pink-footed geese start flying in from Iceland; most carry on to The Wash and Martinmere from Iceland, but a couple of thousand remain on the Solway.”
Down at the shore’s very end, exposed by low tides, she sees the remnants of a submerged forest, amongst the dark shadows of peat below the sand.
“Wander around and you will find trunks and branches, single and entangled, embedded in the peat and sand; and erect stumps, 20-30 cms high, their tops flattened as though cut by a chainsaw. The wood is still fibrous, soft and dark; you can crumble it and tease it apart, as though it were any rotting log in a woodland. But the difference is that this woodland thrived about 8000 years ago.”
Ann Lingard’s career has brought together several different ways of life. She worked in research at Cambridge and Glasgow, studying the immunity of animals to parasites, and then moved into writing and broadcasting. Today she lives with her husband John Lackie on a smallholding in Cumbria, within sight of the Solway, combining science and writing with rearing Herdwick sheep.
She has an observant eye for all aspects of the life of the Solway.
“An eighth of a millimetre long, transparent, delicate, planktonic, the Sabellaria larva is being swirled to and fro by the currents in the sea. There may be tens of thousands of its peer group in the sea around it, all needing to touch down on solid ground. But larger animals in the plankton try to trap and eat them: mussels on the sea-bed are pumping water across their gills, ready to filter them out and wrap them in sticky mucus; there are worms with outspread crowns of tentacles, waiting to catch their prey: our larva unfurls its clusters of tiny spines to make itself prickly and unpalatable.”
Solway Shore Stories has the sound of the sea running though it, and the great open views across land and water, and the lives of the people who live and work there.
“The dark red cliffs of St Bees’ were splashed with white guano from the nesting guillemots and fulmars, and the Fells were dark, the top of Skiddaw hidden. ‘In all the 30-odd years I’ve been going up and down this coast, I’ve never seen the hills look the same. They’re always changing, there’s always different light,’ David said, and even in the four hours that we were at sea, their outlines and contours were as pliable as sandcastles washed by the sea.”
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