The Solway Firth AONB: ‘The most delicious piece of sea-coast to be found within the limits of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales’

After the wild grandeur of the fells, the flat, arable plain north-west of the Lake District comes as a slight anti-climax, but persevere: England’s least known AONB offers unexpected delights.

A landscape of dunes, saltmarshes and peat bogs sculpted by wind and wave, the Solway Coast was shaped, too, by the Romans and by the improving merchants and landowners whose model farms, ports and industries brought 18th-century prosperity.

Bowness-on-Solway, at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, belonged to a string of Roman forts and towers extending south. Best preserved is Milefortlet 21, which stands close to Maryport, the Georgian town built of stones from the Alauna fort and now home to a remarkable collection of Roman altarpieces in its Senhouse Museum.

Conflict remained part of the landscape down the centuries. Rising from the marsh at Burgh by Sands, a 1685 monument marks where Edward I, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, died of dysentery in 1307. The Battle of Solway Moss took place on November 24, 1542, on a bog beside the River Esk. The larger, but ill-led, Scottish force was routed by the English.

In later years the Cumbrian ports prospered on trade with America and the West Indies, with local coal and iron mines and shipyards contributing to the boom — and a very different coastal scene from today, especially given what industry brought with it. From 1869, a railway viaduct — then Europe’s longest — ran across the Solway Firth from Bowness to near Annan, for transporting iron ore to the Lanarkshire smelters. Damaged by ice-flows in 1881, it closed in 1921 and was demolished in 1935.

A view over Rockliffe Bay.

North of the seaside resort of Silloth, with its cobbled streets and Solway Coast Discovery Centre, runs Grune Point, a spit of saltmarsh and mudflats with a rare colony of natterjack toads. Southwards stretches an outstanding habitat of dunes, heath and grasslands, with glorious views to the Galloway Hills.

Wide-gabled, stocky houses with colourful window surrounds define settlements such as Allonby, the fishing port where Dickens and Wilkie Collins stayed in 1857. In their book, The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, Mr Goodchild ‘ardently discovered that the most delicious piece of sea-coast to be found within the limits of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands, all summed up together, was Allonby on the coast of Cumberland’.