Ships and the port of Silloth

View across New Dock to Criffel; the harbour-master's office is on the left of the dock gate. (Photo: Ann Lingard)

“It's a lovely part of the world to live - and the job's pretty autonomous. There's the variety of work – liaising with ships, surveying, laying the buoys. I'm a Jack-of-all-Trades!” -  Captain Chris Puxley, Harbour Master and Port Superintendent.

“I don't think I'd get a more interesting job in Silloth. You're wheeling and dealing, trying to communicate and sort things out. Some of the captains might be Russian. The crews are all ages, all nationalities - all types, you never know who's coming.”– Liz Elliott, shipping agent at John Stronach.

The shipping agent

Grain being discharged from the Ben Ellan's hold into a waiting wagon (photo: Ann Lingard)

It's mid-August 2010, and Liz Elliott, the shipping agent at John Stronach at Silloth, phones me to say that a grain ship is in port. When I arrive the Ben Ellan is tied up at the far side of the dock and her cargo has already been half-discharged. The covers of the hold are concertina-ed fore and aft, and the bucket of the dockside crane repeatedly dips down, then lifts and swings to drop a cascade of grain into a waiting wagon; the vessel's forward holds have already been emptied and her red hull slants at an angle from stern to bow. The Stronach's office shakes as the wagons rumble past, to and fro between the grain silos and the crane. Our conversation competes with their noise, and with the cries of gulls and the clank and mutter of the crane.

Liz Elliott, shipping agent for John Stronach (photo: Ann Lingard)

From the outside, the Stronach's office looks like a green metal box, but the two small rooms feel comfortable and friendly. There are small ornaments on the window-sill, which Liz tells me were given to her by various crew-members, mostly from the Ukraine and eastern Europe. I sit on a wooden chair with curved, hand-polished arms, in front of an old wooden desk with two sets of drawers, which came "from the old office up the road" (the original Stronach office was on Station Road). There are pictures and photos and, of course, phones and a computer and printer. There's also a whiteboard with different colour pens for the different types of cargo -- woodpulp, fertiliser, molasses and grain and - today - a new one, purple, for "bottom ash".

Liz has a calm, deep voice with an English accent, and is clearly enthusiastic about her work: hearing her talk about her job makes me wish I were a shipping agent too. She moved to Silloth so that she could have a small-holding, with fields for her horses and hens; because of the animals, she tells me, she can't easily go away, so she is very happy to have flexible hours and to be able to walk to work, "I can just flit between home and here".
She has been Stronach's agent for four years, having previously worked in Carr's flour-mill along the quay. When Stronach's previous agent retired, "I rather jokingly said maybe I could do his job! I didn't need to earn megabucks, I just wanted to be able to pay the vet's bills."

"It's a seven days a week, 24 hours a day job. When ships arrive depends on the tide, the weather - they can only berth at high water when the dock gates are open."
And if high water is at night?
" I can do a lot by phone and email. I only come down to the dock if it's going to be iffy - if there's high pressure, the wind's in the wrong direction or the tide might not be right ... I get emails from the vessel, hear somehow or other where the ship is, get an ETA - then I need to book the pilot-boat, and the harbour-master here needs to know."

Stronach's shipping agency is a subsidiary of Carr's, but Liz also acts as agent for ships delivering cargo for other companies: she is an intermediary between the shipping companies and the receivers of the cargoes, and the ships and the port.
"I look after the interests of the ship - book the pilot, tell the stevedores which tide it's coming in on, pay the bills ... "

The dock gates are open! Celtica Hav entering New Dock (photo: Ann Lingard)

The business of getting a ship into Silloth dock at high water starts further down the Firth. The pilot-boat, the Derwent, is stationed at the Port of Workington, and the pilot needs to be taken out to the incoming ship two hours before high water so as to guide her through the shifting sandbanks and channels up to Silloth.
At Silloth, the dock crew and harbour-master need to be on hand to open the dock gates and bring the ship alongside. The stevedores including the crane-driver need to know what the cargo is and when to unload it - and how many wagons will be needed.

Liz tells me about the ships and their cargoes that come into Silloth. The Ben Ellan, being unloaded as we talk, is already the 69th vessel since January 2010, and the 94th since September 2009 (the start of Carr's financial year). Silloth is only a small port, way up the Firth, but Liz is optimistic that the total number of ships might reach 100 by the end of August. (I checked later and Liz said, "We got stuck at 99", but she was certain they would reach 100 for the calendar year.)
I want to know more numbers, more details.

MV Scot Pioneer entering New Dock on September 20th 2009, carrying 3370 tonnes of wheat from Port Cartier, Quebec (Photo: Andrew Lysser; commissioned by Carr's Flour, to whom I am grateful for allowing me to use this image.)

I think the Ben Ellan looks small, and Liz checks her computer for details: the ship is about 50 metres long with a draught of 3.5 metres when loaded - about 12 feet. She brings in about 750 tonnes of wheat at a time, loose in her hold. The grain that comes from Canada is brought across in much larger ships which normally discharge their cargoes at ports such as Liverpool, but in 2009 two of these large vessels came direct to Silloth, the bulk of the MV Scot Pioneer almost surreal as it manoeuvred up the Firth and squeezed through the entrance into New Dock .

The entrance is tight and the port has to be approached at a certain angle - sometimes ship's captains get it wrong, Liz says. "Getting into the dock is not straightforward. I've even had to organise welders on a number of occasions - for one of the molasses ships, for example, the Zapadnyy - she's difficult to handle coming in to the dock."

Last year the port handled about 19,000 tonnes of molasses (carried by tankers); about 86,000 tonnes of fertilisers (mostly shipped from Tunisia and Russia, and mostly in half-tonne bags), 42,500 tonnes wheat (loose in the hold); and about 45,000 tonnes wood-pulp (baled). The fertiliser is taken by wagons to be mixed and bagged at Carr's plant on Silloth airfield; the molasses and grain are mixed and milled respectively at the port; and the wood-pulp goes to Innovia at Wigton.

MT Zapadnyy discharging molasses, September 2012 (Photo: Ann Lingard)

Liz had mentioned that her job included "paying the bills" - what bills are those? She opens the agency's booklet and reads out a list of charges for which the shipping company is liable:

  • Ship's dues (based on tonnage), which include pilotage and pilot boat
  • Dock dues, £1.48 per gross tonne
  • Buoys and lights, 83p per gross tonne
  • Trinity House (light-houses ), a monthly fee
  • Mooring charge (handling, ropes etc) about £90
  • Agency fee to Stronach's
  • And then there is the wharfage, paid by the receiver, which varies depending on the cargo -- grain is £1.72 per tonne, molasses £2.76 per tonne.

It sounds complicated, with plenty of opportunity for mix-ups and unpaid bills, I suggest. "I know most of the shipping companies so I can keep tabs on the bills and get the money from the companies," she smiles.
Ships need crews and that's something else a shipping agent might have to deal with. "I also do things like organise crew changes, book them taxis from the airport, and book B&Bs if the ship's late." But although Silloth seems so far from anywhere, Liz says that "A lot of the crews love Silloth, they love the charity shops especially - they come back to the ship with bags full of goodness knows what!"

Despite this need to juggle so many different demands, Liz seems completely relaxed, and is clearly liked and held in high regard: while I'm there, several people come by to chat and joke and pass on information. She says she gets to know many of the crews quite well, and she has just given Ben Ellan's crew some eggs. The captain, Saul King, drops in now that his ship has been unloaded, and its obvious that he and Liz know each other well and have a friendly relationship. Darren Harrison comes in, too, and sits down to discuss the next job for the stevedores; the conversation - and jokes - turn to the new cargo, the "bottom ash" expected in on Thursday night.
"Check the weather," Darren says while Liz talks on the phone to the Armstrong's man, so she asks, "Does it matter if it's raining?" Apparently not. Darren will need to start discharging the cargo at 6am on Friday: he'll need seven wagons. He tells me has usually has five or six wagons, with one man on the dock, and one in the crane. "It's a very good team," he tells me. "They don't need a boss as such, just someone to blame!"

The crane unloading the Ben Ellan (photo: Ann Lingard)

"You'll wish it was raining," Saul says, going back to the topic of the "bottom ash" that comes from furnaces, "It's filthy stuff," and the men start teasing Liz about the black dust that will coat everything, "It'll be on the cars, your office - you won't be able to see out the windows."
Liz says she has accepted this cargo as an experiment -- and now she's beginning to wish she hadn't! (When I spoke to her a few days later, she said that the ash hadn't been a problem - the experiment was a success.)

The ship's captain

Saul King, captain of the Ben Ellan, has come into the shipping agent's office to sort out some paperwork and have a chat. He's short and dark-haired, with a friendly smile and an Irish accent, and happy to tell me about his job.
He grew up in Newcastle, County Down, and first went to sea when he was 17 years old. "When I was a lad, I was down at the harbour every day, I always knew I'd be at sea. I did try fishing for a while, but an old hand said 'get out of it now - the quotas will kill it.' "
Then he met someone from Ramsey's Steamship Company from the Isle of Man. "He said, 'You can have a job on deck, one month contract - see if you like it'. And that's where I've stayed."
Ramsey's is a genuine Manx company, he tells me, founded in 1913, and one of only three companies allowed to fly the Red Ensign with the Legs of Man. They will soon be celebrating their centenary and Saul will have been with the company for 25 years. (Note, February 2016: sadly, the company went bankrupt and was bought by Absolute Shipping in 2014; the Ben Ellan had already been sold.)

He might spend eight months away at sea in the year, mainly on the Irish Sea ports. Next month there's a trip to Orkney, and I comment on the hazards of the Pentland Firth. Saul grins: "I was there before. We were doing 21 knots, twice the speed the ship could go."

The Ben Ellan is tied up opposite Liz's office, and as we watch his crew hosing out the hold Saul explains it will need to be painted when they get back to their home port, because his previous cargo was scrap. His crew are mainly Filipinos, and I ask whether there are sometimes language problems.
"They have to have a certain standard or it's no good in an emergency. We've had one or two who weren't so good ... but generally they're a good lot." As for re-provisioning the ship in a small town like Silloth, "They go to the Asian store and bulk-buy - they can get bags of rice, and all the spices and condiments. They can knock together a mean curry. I've got a good crew." And, like Darren and his stevedore team, he genuinely means it.


Eddie Atherton walks past Liz Elliott's office while we are talking, and she calls him in. Blue eyes, short grey hair, blue shirt and dark trousers, smart yet relaxed, he instantly agrees to show me round despite the lack of notice.
Eddie - who comes from Liverpool and has a warm Lancashire accent - is the Production Manager for Caltech, a division of Carr's Milling, and as we walk along the dock he explains what happens to the cargoes. The fertiliser is taken away to be blended and put into 25kg bags for garden-centres or the 1-tonne tote bags for farmers. Grain - like that just discharged from the Ben Ellan - goes to the mill at the end of the quay to be ground into flour.
Carr's flours are famous! Eddie recounts with amusement that the 'lump-free-sauce' flour developed by David Lyons of Carr's, was tested by Delia Smith here at the mill; Carr's bread-making flour has even been endorsed in one of her books.

The molasses pipe and tank (photo: Ann Lingard)

Lying along the dock is a large pipe that is used to discharge molasses from a ship to a storage tank by the dock-gate. Transporting molasses by ship is a tricky business because maintaining the correct temperature is crucial. Heating coils in the hold must keep it at 24 degrees C, so that it remains fairly fluid. But, Eddie explains, the molasses can undergo a Maillard reaction (like caramelising), which gives off heat, with drastic effect: "It can turn the molasses to coke - I've seen people having to take a jack-hammer to it to release it."

At the dock, the liquid molasses is pumped out by the ship into that large pipe and thence into the storage tank, where it's kept warm before being pumped into the mixing plant through an underground pipe.

Carr's Crystalyx plant (photo: Ann Lingard)

Filling the tubs with Crystalyx (photo: Ann Lingard)

In the winter I give my sheep an extra treat, a big coloured plastic tub of concentrate called Crystalyx - and until this trip to the port I had had no idea that the Crystalyx was made here, in Silloth, using molasses brought in by sea.
The mixing plant is just behind Liz Elliott's office, and is an airy space where several men in overalls are working amongst pipes and platforms. One of them shows me the computerised controls that can be set for different mixtures of molasses, vitamins and minerals. This is sent to the boiler outside for cooking, and as it cools, the sugar crystallises out. The brown mixture oozes out of a funnel into pink plastic boxes on a conveyor, filling each one to near the brim, and Eddie scoops out a small handful and hands it to me, a malleable ball which has a warm sweetish smell that stays with me for several hours.

The slightly sickly smell of boiling molasses has previously caused problems in Silloth. " Some people hate the smell, we get a lot of complaints," Eddie says, and he and Carr's have recently invested a lot of time and money into finding ways to minimise it. Certainly the smell is faint out in the yard, and I find it a comforting, 'wintry' type of smell - but then, I don't live in Silloth.

Pallets of licks, Carr's warehouse (photo: Ann Lingard)

In the warehouse there are hundreds of pallets of plastic-wrapped boxes, different colours for different kinds of Crystalyx; for cows, sheep, ewes in lamb, even organic licks for horses. "I had to go to Paraguay to find the organic molasses," Eddie says, "but it's expensive, £300 a tonne more than the conventional." The pallets of boxes are taken away by wagon, and I wonder why they aren't shipped by sea: the answer is that the mixture, although set firm, exhibits what Eddie calls 'slow creep' - if it isn't kept level, it will slowly shift within its box. And even though New Dock today is like a mirror, dead calm seas are a rare event.

The harbour-master

Captain Chris Puxley is the harbour-master and Port Superintendent for Silloth.

Captain Chris Puxley on the phone, by the dock gate controls (photo: Ann Lingard)

As I walk round the dock, past the crane unloading the Ben Ellan, to reach the office of Associated British Ports' Silloth, Captain Puxley has seen me from an upstairs window and he comes down to let me through a metal gate; it turns out that I should have walked along the outer perimeter road to avoid the working area on the dock. We stand for a while on the quay as he points out various features, the dock gates, the various buildings, and Marshall Dock with its deep-water channel in the centre. The tide is out, and the local shrimp boats lie aslant the sandbanks. He shows me the metal sluices and the mechanism for the gates, and tells me that when too much silt accumulates in the channel, "I open the doors and let the water flood out and flush the entrance." The entrance to the inner dock is 18m deep and 16.5m wide, and can take a ship with maximum 14m beam. I think again of the triumph of MV Scot Pioneer squeezing through.

We go upstairs and stop to look at Chris's fine collection of engravings on the walls of the top corridor, pictures of early Silloth and the embryo port, and the proposed plans for the town. Silloth port came into being because Port Carlisle, further up the coast, was silting up, and the town was planned and built to service it. The original dock was what is now the outer, Marshall, Dock, built in 1859 and from which a timber-pile jetty extended that was 1000 feet long. But in 1879 the entrance to Marshall Dock collapsed; New Dock was excavated and finished in 1885, and the handsome red-brick mill (of "lump-free-sauce flour" fame) was built two years later.

The Port of Silloth (aerial photo by Simon Ledingham, to whom I'm grateful for allowing me to use this image. This and many other of Simon's related images can also be seen on )

The harbour-master's office is a large, light room on the first floor, with windows looking east to New Dock and its buildings, and north and west over Marshall Dock and to Criffel across the Solway Firth. On one of the office walls is a map that shows, with coloured pins, the origins and destinations of the port's cargoes; there is also an admiralty chart of the Firth, showing the "changeable area" of its channels and the sand-banks; and along another wall are coloured shields from each of the ships on which Chris has served.

"The Port of Silloth, a pictorial history", by Chris Puxley; ISBN 978-1-902953-42-7

Chris trained in the Merchant Navy, then went into the Fleet Auxiliary where he worked on what were "replenishment ships, essentially the Merchant service provisioning the Navy". In 1979 he left the sea to become Assistant Harbour-master at Plymouth - and here we discover a common interest, as I grew up near Plymouth and had pottered around in boats on Plymouth Sound. He became Harbour-master and Port Superintendent at Silloth in 1990. He also tells me of a strange coincidence, how - when his father died - he had discovered from his papers that his father had himself been in Silloth in 1944; he had been an aeroengineer and worked at the RAF camp, servicing the Wellington bombers.

There are shelves of neat blue files that hold Chris's comprehensive archive about the port's history, their plastic envelopes filled with a fascinating assemblage of photos, photocopies, adverts, articles, and engravings. The port's 150th anniversary was in 2009, and as well as helping organise the celebrations (including a fly-past by the surviving Vulcan bomber), Chris Puxley also published his book about the history of the port.

Annan scallop-boats seek shelter, November 2015 (my thanks to Danny Ferris, for this photo)

In addition to being harbour-master, Chris is one of the pilots who bring the ships up from Workington into the dock. David Dobson of the Cumbria Sea Fisheries Committee had told me, "There's no two ways about it, the Solway's extremely dynamic. The Silloth fishermen feel that the bathymetry of the Solway has changed drastically in the past year or so," (since the offshore windfarm at Robin Rigg was built). So, I ask Chris, how on earth do the pilots manage to keep track of the changing channels and currents?  "We take soundings, with the echo-sounder as we come up the channel, and David Dobson and the CSFC crew bring the Solway Protector up and chart the channels for us every six months." And he checks with the local shrimp-boat and trawler skippers "all the time" for their local knowledge. (I suddenly recall Jane Lancaster telling me about her experience of getting stuck on a sandbank when she was working with the Silloth shrimp-boats ...)
When the ship reaches Silloth, "Getting into the port," as Liz Elliott said, "is not straightforward." The story of the challenges that the Silloth ships' pilots face is recounted elsewhere: although the tide can still be flowing upstream there is a counter-current by the dock entrance, so the trick is to approach from slightly to the North. "You need to keep the ship moving through, keep steerage. You have to have a good ship's master on the engine - make sure he doesn't get nervous and suddenly cut the speed. You can get all kinds of language!"

MV Scot Pioneer approaching Silloth

MV Scot Pioneer entering the gate to New Dock. (Both photos by Andrew Lysser: for details see Andrew's other photo earlier in this article)

If high water is at night, navigation is helped not only by GPS and other electronic media, but also in the old-fashioned way, by the two light-houses, the famous Leas Scar or "Tommy-legs" (so-called because Tom Geddes was the longtime keeper) that has a flashing green light, and the Eastcote lighthouse in the town that shines a steady green light down the channel. So the ship must head slightly to the North of the entrance - and then line up the two leading lights at the far end of New Dock and keep steerage, keep  under way, so that the shipping agent doesn't have to sort out the welder's bills.

When Chris retires in 2011, does he know who will take over as pilot? He shakes his head, "People aren't going into the maritime industry these days. Those that are, they're not necessarily good ship-handlers - you need the aptitude to drive a ship."

Silloth may only be a small port, but Captain Chris Puxley clearly loves it. "It's a tough life as a sea-farer. You're stuck out on a limb a lot of the time and it's not easy to get ashore. I like to welcome the crews here, I'm not always bothering them. They can go ashore and relax - find time to draw breath, and have a nice experience."

Copyright Ann Lingard, September 2010 

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