Reviewed by Peter Reason
When I was a small boy—and this memory must reach back to around 1950—I played with a wooden puzzle made up of the historic counties of England, Wales and Scotland. Each county made up a separate piece, and together they fitted into the blue of the surrounding seas—the English Channel, the North Sea, the Irish sea, and so on. And way up in the far north (for this was the view of a Londoner) were these places where the sea came right into the land—the Firth of Clyde where I knew ships were built; the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh. And then there was the other Firth, the Solway Firth, about which no one seemed to speak very much, penetrating deep into the land between England and Scotland, with Cumberland to the south and Dumfries to the north. (I should note that the Moray Firth was really too far north for we parochial southerners notice!) It lurked in my mind as a place that wasn’t quite a place for most of my life.
So I was pleased to have the opportunity to review Ann Lingard’s book. I had followed her on Twitter and read her blog, knew that she organized walking and writing groups along the shoreline of the Firth, and that she had lived in and studied the area for many years. As Mark Cocker notes on the flyleaf, her book falls into the literature of place—and as a fine book in this genre the reader not only learns about the Solway Firth but is also able to feel the spirit and maybe even the sacredness of the place: having read the book, I feel I have made an acquaintance even though I have actually never visited. Except that is of course not quite true: I now realize I have speeded past, over the River Esk and past Gretna on my many travels between England and Scotland since the time when M74 and M6 were both plain old A roads, utterly oblivious to the rich landscape, ecology and history of the sea and land almost immediately to the west.
The Fresh and the Salt is a good-sized book, with thorough and detailed chapters describing the natural and human history and both sea and shoreline. It has clear maps and several pages of coloured illustrations. Ann Lingard is quite close up and personal in her descriptions, so we walk alongside her to follow the explorations and research that resulted in this book. I am by her side as she walks through the saltmarshes, ‘stepping over deep potholes with overhanging edges… jumping across slippery side creeks…’ I hold my breath as she wades across the Firth with Mark, the haalf-netter, ‘determined not to fail, to keep going and not show how weak my legs suddenly felt’. The reader will experience her as a curious, knowledgeable and reliable guide.
We start on the shoreline where ‘Nothing can ever be entirely as expected here at the edge of the sea’, introduced immediately to the dynamic and ever-changing nature of the Firth. In this first chapter we are introduced to the creatures that live in the mud, to the sand coral Sabellaria alveolate, the mudshrimp Corophium, the ragworm Hediste—for Ann Lingard is a zoologist by original training and knows her critters. In Chapters two and three we go out on the water to learn about the deep history of the area, the continual changing depths, about the harbour walls and jetties, offshore windfarms, the shipping, the embankments of the now ruined Solway viaduct, and the potential of electricity generation in tidal lagoons.
Chapter four takes us into the Marshes and merses that surround much of the Firth, these rich ecosystems that develop, quite literally, between fresh and salt. They are sustained by the sediment-rich tides of the Solway: ‘I have watched the tide creeping in silently, frothy toed, the brown water rising in the creeks and spilling over’. We learn about the landscape, the birds and other wildlife, the grazing of cattle; and the history, from the shell casings left behind after target practice in world war two back to the remains of a Bronze Age trackway.
There is a whole chapter devoted to peat and peat cutting, another to the new red sandstone so celebrated it was exported to New York; more on mudlife and seafood. Throughout, the geology and natural history is seen in the context of the human ecology of the area, so we meet the smugglers, shipowners and monks of old, as well as the fishing communities, harbour masters, and conservationists of the present. In many ways, I am reminded of David Gange’s book The Frayed Atlantic Edge: for even though the Solway Firth is one of the least industrialized large estuaries in Europe, everywhere land meets ocean there is a story to learn about human communities living in relationship to the intricacies of their place, a story that is often occluded by our cultural focus on landlife, on city and nation.
This is probably not a book to read cover to cover in one go: its scope is so broad, the writing so all-encompassing that, I found it necessary to put it to one side so as to return afresh, as one might a collection of short stories. However, its comprehensive quality and informed view from a local inhabitant mean that the book will serve, not just as a book about Solway, but also as an exemplar for readers’ experience of their own estuary ecosystem, serving to direct attention to diverse aspects of ecological relations of the whole. It is certainly a book that should be in the library of every bed and breakfast and self-catering let in Cumbria and Dumfries—Ann Lingard will show almost everyone aspects of her beloved Solway Firth that they might well otherwise miss. Certainly, when I next travel up the M6, I will want to find a way to stay somewhere on the Upper Solway, put on my waterproof boots, get out on some of the saltmarshes and watch the tide spill over the land. Or maybe sign up for one of Ann Lingard’s low tide shore walks.
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. He writes regularly for Resurgence & Ecologist, and has contributed to EarthLines, GreenSpirit, Zoomorphic, LossLit, The Island Review, and The Clearing. He has written two books of ecological pilgrimage, In Search of Grace (Earth Books, 2017) Spindrift (Jessica Kingsley, 2014). On Presence: Essays | Drawings (The Letter Press, 2019) with artist Sarah Gillespie will be followed by On Sentience: Essays | Drawings in 2021. Find Peter at peterreason.net, and on Twitter @peterreason.
Ann Lingard, The Fresh and the Salt (Birlinn, 2020). 978-1780276939, 336pp., hardback.
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