Going with the Wedholme Flow

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Maybe March wasn’t the best time of year for the first visit to Wedholme Flow. Local legend and Solway Shore Stories author, Ann Lingard recommends summer when you walk into a primitive landscape of heather, sticky red sundew, golden-brown stalks of bog asphodel and the smell of sun-warmed peat.

This March Sunday and the aptly named Flow was coming to terms with 90 mm of rainwater deposited by Storms Freyja and Gareth. A network of deep culverts and trenches, connected by black plastic tubing, funneled the deluge downhill towards Kirkbride. Across its 800 hectares, Wedholme was literally flowing back to the sea.

Concrete sections on the path to Wedholme Flow, a modern day Stonehenge
Photo © Dave Brooks

South Solway Mosses National Nature Reserve is a vast, complex, series of lowland raised bogs. Of the four; Wedholme Flow, Drumburgh Moss, Glasson Moss, and Bowness Common, Bowness is one of the largest ‘active’ raised bogs in the UK while Wedholme Flow contains the largest area of ‘almost-intact’ active raised bog in England.

Almost intact, in nature conservation terms, means partially degraded and at Wedholme this degradation comes from peat cutting. Over thousands of years, plant remains have accumulated in an anaerobic environment, forming domes of waterlogged peat that makes an ideal preservative. Roman Hemp pools from 400 AD have been preserved on Glasson Moss. The ‘Solway Cow’ is actually the remains of two adult cattle, whose hides, head and feet have been preserved in Solway Moss.

Peat is better known for its burning qualities. Its chemical composition being well down the road to becoming coal. During the 18 C, the Solway Mosses were divided up into stints, or Awards, from which peat was cut, dried and burned as fuel. The crucial benefits of peatland nowadays are as climate cleansers. Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store; the area covered by natural peatland worldwide (>3 million km2) absorbs 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide a year, i.e. more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. No wonder it has its own website and magazine, the exotically named Peatlands International.

The entrance to Wedholme Flow, from the B5307, has plenty of warnings about deep pools, enveloping bogs and the presence of Adders. Close to Kirkbride Airfield, home to the 12th Maintenance Unit during World War Two, intact pill-box guards the long-forgotten hangers (once filled with aircraft, new from the manufacturers, waiting to join their first squadron). It also serves as a warning for those entering the Flow in March.

Second World War brick Pill-Box still guarding Kirkbride Airfield and the entrance to Wedholme Flow | Photo © Dave Brooks

Once out of the trees, the view opens up southwards, unending. The far horizon seems miles away and interminable. The trenches of The Somme come to mind. Small mounds of peat become islands amidst standing water of indistinguishable depth. The only marks of humanity are the metal bridges that connect the infrequent footpaths and the signs reminding you not to fall in!

I chose the medium Trail, marked with friendly yellow arrows yet, at one point, I genuinely felt panic when, returning to a path I thought should be familiar, having passed over it an hour earlier, this was a different path, and the surroundings suddenly looked dissimilar and in the middles of 800 hectares of bog, I suddenly felt very alone.

In the Flow. A main north-south drain takes excess water across Wedholme. Infrequent metal bridges are the only crossing points | Photo © Dave Brooks

The Solway Coast has an abundance of airfields. Relics from the Great Wars where the land was flat, out of range of enemy bombers, and half-way home for the migrating planes between Scotland and south coast airfields.

Cardurnock Airfield was used as an emergency landing ground during the First World War. Surrounded by a lime-filled ditch, the airfield would be a welcome sight to pilots making an emergency landing while in transit. The Second World War brought Corsairs, Seafires & Fairy Firefly’s to Cardurnock for post-production working up. Large brick hangers, still visible today, reverberated to the racket of calibrating machine guns.

RAF Silloth opened as a Maintenance Control Station in 1939. Assigned to the Coastal Command Group, Anson, Beaufort, and Hudsons flew here. The Wellingtons of 215 Bomber Squadron would roar over the Victorian cobbled streets of Silloth. Moricambe Bay lies to the south of Silloth. Its other name is Hudson Bay, a testament to the burial ground of a large number of Lockheed Hudsons and, tragically, their crews who crashed during take-off or approach to wartime Silloth.

Aerial reconnaissance photograph of Silloth aerodrome, taken by the Luftwaffe in 1941. They appeared to know everything, where the guns were, the hangars and other buildings.
Photo © Luftwaffe, via Russell W. Barnes

In times of disorientation, sound can be a saviour. Kirkbride Airfield now hosts performance car experiences and the sound of throaty engines indicated which peaty path I needed to take. Since 2007, Natural England has been restoring Wedholme Flow as a European Special Area of Conservation (SAC). SAC’s come under the European Union’s Natura 2000 scheme, designed to protect core areas of species or habitat. Natura 2000 schemes stretch over 18 % of the EU’s land area and 6 % of its marine territory, the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. It costs an estimated 5.8 billion Euros per year to manage and restore all the sites in the network. Not a fact you would see printed on the side of a bus.

The next time I come to Wedholme Flow, it will be on a bicycle. Solway Coast AONB has created a 19 km (31 miles) cycle route (PDF) around the Flow and the gradients look as flat as an airfields runway.

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