Now surf runs o’er the Solway sands,
Tweed runs to the ocean
To mark where England’s province starts … ,
(Robert Burns, A Parcel of Rogues)
The Solway Firth is the estuary which separates north-west England from south-west Scotland, almost as a continuation of the terrestrial border. It’s no coincidence that Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to keep the barbaric Scottish Picts at bay, comes to an end at Bowness on the south side of the water. The Firth is characterized by mudflats, sandflats and a treacherous tide. Enormous amounts of sand and mud may be shifted over large distances during each tidal cycle. It’s technically possible to walk or ride across the estuary when the tide is out, but the water is then capable of rushing back in again at speeds approaching fifteen kilometers an hour. Listen to Sir Walter Scott’s vivid description of the phenomenon in the novel Redgauntlet:
He that dreams on the bed of the Solway, may wake in the next world … the tide advances with such rapidity upon these fatal sands, that well-mounted horsemen lay aside hopes of safety, if they see its white surge advancing while they are yet at a distance from the bank.
As a result, over-adventurous fishermen, birdwatchers and walkers occasionally drown in the Firth. Holidaying in the area as a kid, I also remember seeing whales and porpoises stranded on the beach, caught totally unawares by the sheer speed of the ebb tide.
A great variety of flora and fauna (including some endangered species) inhabit the area. In autumn, people from nearby Carlisle, my home city, used to ride out to the Solway at dawn to gather the huge, brown, juicy mushrooms that grew in the mossy hollows of the salt marshes, then dash home again to fry them with their eggs and bacon for breakfast. The Firth and the numerous rivers that drain into it (the Esk, the Annan, the Nith, the Cairn, the Scaur, the Urr, the Luce) are also home to spawning and nursery areas for numerous species of fish. 130 have been recorded to date: they include trout, salmon, mullet, bass, mackerel and pollock. Worthy of mention is the typical Solway or gray salmon. Down the centuries, as Celts, Britons, Romans, Angles, Vikings and Normans passed through the district, so methods of catching this fish gradually changed and developed. Again in Redgauntlet, set in the eighteenth century, Sir Walter Scott describes how it was the custom of Scots horsemen to spear salmon at low tide.
When I reached the banks of the great estuary, which are here very bare and exposed, the waters had receded from the large and level space of sand, through which a stream, now feeble and fordable, found its way to
the ocean …The scene was animated by the exertions of a number of horsemen, who were actually employed in hunting salmon … they chased the fish at full gallop, and struck them with their barbed spears, as you see hunters spearing boars in the old tapestry …
Another more complex technique, used since Viking times and now almost unique to the villagers of the Solway coast, is that of haaf netting (from the Norse ‘haf’, the open sea). The nets used are large and cumbersome, consisting of 15-16 feet of meshed twine wrapped round an 18-foot wooden or aluminium beamed pole raised on three legs. The haafers wade out into the sea to form a line with their nets, sometimes with the water chest-high. They then hold them up against the incoming tide. Each man holds the pole of his net with his left hand and the beam with his right. Using his left thumb, he pulls the meshes to form a sort of open bag. When a salmon enters, the legs of the frame are allowed to float to the surface to trap it. The haafer then turns his back to the tide and stuns the fish with a wooden mallet, known variously as a ‘mell’, a ‘nep’ or a ‘priest’. Finally, using a wooden needle, he threads a string through the salmon’s gills and ties the fish to his waist-belt. All of this requires manual dexterity and endurance in no small measure, plus – given the danger of being swept away by the inrushing tide – enormous strength and balance.
The salmon fishing season lasts from February-March to September, when haaf nets can be seen staked out in the sand on both sides of the Solway coast. Today, the British government’s Environment Agency licenses haaf net fishermen to help regulate Solway fish stocks (the technique may also be used to catch sea trout and bass), and special license discs are attached to the haaf net frames.
Simply poached or grilled, salmon is obviously one of the highlights of Solway coast cuisine. Returning once more to Scott’s Redgauntlet, readers familiar with the novel will recall the ‘grillade’ of grilses (‘as the smaller sort are termed’) enjoyed by the narrator after witnessing the spearing of salmon in the Firth. The fish, a bowl of potatoes, barley-bread, and a small jug of ale, plus ‘a sprinkling from the lemon [that] gave a much higher zest than the usual condiment of vinegar’ combine to form ‘a most excellent supper’.
John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food www.slowfood.com website