River of Eternal Youth
The History of the Derwent Angling Association, part three: 1946-2010
As the Derwent Angling Association entered the austere period of post-World War II Britain, it began preparing in earnest for the sweeping changes that would soon be at hand in the world of both water regulation and angling itself. It started by re-embarking upon the path it had intended to take before the war and in 1947 the fly tying competition first introduced in the late 1930s was revived. This time the judges called for a total of six designs per competitor – three wet fly patterns and three dry – with the first winner being association head bailiff Mr W Swinney.
For the time being, however, traditional methods continued to hold sway, in particular regard to one outstanding trout of 3lb 1oz taken from association waters in April 1947. While this trout, caught by vice president Mr HG Golightly on a worm, was erroneously referred to at a committee meeting shortly after its capture as “the best specimen recorded in the minutes of the association”, it was undoubtedly the best in recent years – indeed the best reported catch of the 20th century up to that point!
In 1946, there was also official mention, for the first time, of the Axwell Park & Derwent Valley Angling Association, the so-called ‘lower club’ on the River Derwent that had, since the 1920s, been establishing a foothold on those waters below the village of Rowlands Gill. The Axwell Park club had requested that its members, most of whom lived just outside the DAA’s catchment, be allowed to apply for permits to fish the upper club’s waters at the residents’ rate of 5/-.
The unanimous rejection of this appeal at the 1947 AGM may on the face of it have seemed harsh; however, the question of membership of the DAA – specifically the maximum number that could be accommodated – had been a key issue at that particular meeting. In 1946 there had been 151 full members, 23 holding honorary membership and 23 half-members (juniors). 34 new members had joined the association that year and so, from 1947 onwards, while no limit was set on junior membership, it was decided that full membership should be limited to 151. The era of ‘dead men’s shoes’ had begun.
In 1947, the association held its first round of angling-related lectures – presented by Mr B Storrow of the Dove Marine Laboratory and Mr GA Short of Hexham on “the life of a trout” – and its first angling competition contested on the River Derwent itself. The ‘match’ was fished on Saturday 7 June, attracting 13 members, nine of whom weighed in at the King’s Head at Shotley Bridge. The winner was Mr J Broadley, who took 14 fish for 2lb 5oz, winning £1,2/6, with the remainder of the prize money divided among the eight other anglers who caught fish – each earning at least the price of his season ticket!
Unfortunately, some things hadn’t changed, and the next serious pollution incident wasn’t long in being reported. Long-suffering Tyne River Board bailiff Mr Craig was again on hand in May 1947 to investigate a pollution event in which the river was noticeably discoloured for about a mile downstream of Howden Burn. A thick grey sediment was noted on the river bed and, although no dead fish were seen, this was “probably due to the filthy state of the water”. A repetition of the incident occurred in the same area in September, causing the death of 147 trout.
The culprit on this occasion was the Consett Iron Company, which accepted full responsibility after a dam retaining sludge from a gas cleaning plant at the blast furnaces was damaged, allowing effluent to flow down into the river. Samples of river water and the bodies of dead fish submitted to the Dove Marine Laboratory for analysis revealed the problem to have been caused by either or both the aforementioned effluent and/or runoff from the Fell Coke Works, also at Consett. The iron company agreed to pay the association £100 towards restocking (a liability that over the coming years it would seem happy to accept) and although no further fish fatalities were recorded in this area during 1948, they did undertake to install vacuum filter apparatus at the soonest possible time to prevent such incidents reoccurring.
In order to try and put a stop to such events once and for all, the DAA entered the 1950s as members of the newly formed Anglers’ Cooperative Association, an organisation set up to represent the interests of anglers and angling associations nationwide in the face of the many serious pollution issues. In light of the recent regionalisation of the fisheries authorities, it had also joined forces with 15 other associations from the Northumberland and Tyneside area covered by the new river board. In common with the other member associations, the DAA paid one penny per member and saw Mr VH Jackson (vice chairman) and Mr W Swinney (secretary) elected to executive office within the new organisation. Ultimately, Mr Swinney would be voted onto the new River Board as the North East angling fraternity adapted to the new system in operation.
The problems caused by effluent from the Consett Iron Company continued unabated in the early part of the new decade, the association at first preferring to show due patience while the eagerly awaited ‘improvements’ could be implemented. However, in 1951, following continued incidents resulting in fish fatalities in the locality of Howden Burn, it was decided to enlist the help of the ACA. At that year’s AGM, the secretary had complained, “we have spent three years listening to their promises and still nothing has happened”. The ACA sent Mr Seymour Johnson to inspect the river on three separate occasions and advised the DAA to restock the affected area with yearlings in the spring of 1952, a task the association undertook. But within weeks there had been another incident in the same place, bringing matters once again to a head.
In the event of another occurrence, the ACA undertook to guarantee all expenses in obtaining an injunction against the iron company to prevent any further pollution. The ACA further instructed a Dr Steven of Edinburgh University to conduct a biological survey, and although this did find the river to be suffering serious contamination, it concluded this was mainly spasmodic pollution, a type more readily associated with agricultural practices. Further instances of fish mortalities were observed in the same area during 1953 and a writ issued against Consett Iron Company on 12 January 1954.
Of course, both the apparently futile restocking and its continued membership of the ACA cost the association money (it pledged £10 to the ACA in 1952) and with the matter having been raised at almost every AGM since the war, the cost of full permits was eventually raised from 5/- to 10/- in 1952. New club secretary Lt Col Harper-Shrove had apparently dedicated much time and effort to the work of the ACA and appealed for members of the association to themselves join up in order to help boost its vital fighting fund.
On the fishing front, the form of the River Derwent, given the ongoing pollution issues, seemed to depend to an ever-greater extent on the weather experienced over the course of each season. In 1950, fishing was reportedly poor, owing to drought conditions, while in 1951 a number of “very big spates” made angling conditions much more conducive “especially for the spinners”, with the best fish of that season a 2lb 9½oz trout caught in such a manner by Mr E Oliver of Shotley Bridge. In 1953, the summer was dry and the fishing poor again, with no claimant for the largest fish prize for the first year since its instigation. Restocking, other than that agreed to with the ACA, had by the early 1950s become mainly the responsibility of the Northumberland Rivers Board, with 1,400 yearlings being placed into the river in the spring of 1952.
By 1956, the situation regarding pollution coming from the Consett Iron Company seemed to have settled down. The summons issued to the CIC had been heard at the Chancery Court in London in October 1954, with Mr Justice Dankwerts finding against the iron company. A further case in 1955 [CIC versus Martell & the DAA] had been settled in favour of Mrs Martell, a riparian owner acting with the association, who subsequently passed the damages on to the DAA for restocking. The River Board, in a separate complaint, had accepted £100 from the CIC, which it used to place yearlings in the Shotley Bridge stretch, with an injunction issued against the steel works now restraining them from causing further pollution.
The late 50s thankfully saw a marked reduction in the reports of serious pollution incidents. As such, that age-old problem of poaching was again raised as a legitimate concern at the 1958 AGM (“the chairman pointed out that there was still illegal fishing going on certain parts of the river”), although this seemed more an issue of effective bailiffing than any indication of a growing problem. Nonetheless, new rules introduced at the back end of the decade took this problem into account and included the introduction of a season-long fly only rule on the section between Blackhall Mill bridge and the main road bridge at Lintzford, as well as the prohibition of “all forms spinning with or without a fixed spool reel”.
The soon-to-be swinging sixties dawned amid great hopes and concerns for anglers on the River Derwent. In 1960, construction was begun by the Sunderland & South Shields Water Board on a vast 1,000-acre reservoir to be situated in the upper Derwent valley. The new lake, which would be the largest in the North East for the first 17 years of its existence, was to flood the valley for 3½ miles between Ruffside Hall and the site of a new 119-feet high dam, just upstream of Derwent Bridge near Edmundbuyers.
The association was understandably concerned regarding the fishing rights on the reservoir, which by the time of its proposed completion in 1966 would cover sections of the former river that had been leased to the DAA for 100 years! A not unreasonable request for information was sent to the water board but the company was non-committal. At best, it seemed the DAA stood to have its waters both reduced and cut in two by the new scheme and by 1963 complaints were already being raised that “contamination” from the construction work was “seriously interfering with angling on the river”.
Other concerns included the size of the association’s membership, which the committee had been diligently trying to reduce since the middle of the last decade. In that regard, from 1961 there was to be just one ticket seller (Mr Dennis Surtees of Forster’s Ironmongers, Shotley Bridge) in order to try and keep a better check on the register. In the years up to the middle of the decade, only 16 adults were allowed to join the DAA as new members (15 in 1964 and one in 1965), although juniors were still allowed at half the cost of a full ticket in hypothetically unlimited number. Members over the age of 65 were, from 1964 onwards, guaranteed a free permit.
The association marked its centenary in the spring of 1965 by presenting each member with a wallet/cast carrier embossed with the words Derwent Angling Association. In its first hundred years, the DAA had seen out two world wars, fought its own unwavering campaign against pollution and poaching, and had successfully promoted angling as a sport in the Derwent valley to a point where the AGMs held at Shotley Bridge Village Hall each February in the mid-to-late-sixties were regularly attended by over 100 members. This could be considered the zenith, not only of the DAA, but of angling clubs and associations everywhere – but it would be short-lived. The official opening of Derwent Reservoir a year after the association turned 100 introduced a form of game fishing previously unavailable to anglers from the more densely populated areas of the North East, such as the Derwent valley itself.
As with the Tyne Fisheries Board in the early years of its existence, relations between the association and the new reservoir’s owners were a little strained at the start. Construction work for the vast new lake had included the demolition of three farmhouses, two cottages and the picturesque Millshield Mill, and the Sunderland & Shields Water Company seemed to have few concerns for the damage its amenity might also do to the local angling club. Unsurprisingly, the stonewall response to the association’s requests for information at the scheme’s outset was a transparent disguise to the fact that the company itself intended to control all fishing on the reservoir. The lake was stocked with rainbow trout, a fleet of rowing boats was launched, and day tickets duly sold to an eager angling public in the manner of famous reservoirs down south, such as Blagdon.
Overtures were made towards association members (through the committee) regarding discounts offered for part-time bailiffing at the reservoir; however, these were interpreted as patronising, and reports that the water company intended to install an electric fence between its own land and bank-side still controlled by the association were met with understandable displeasure. The electric fences were seemingly never erected, but might in any case have been about as effective as the fish barrier installed on the reservoir outlet – the prize for the biggest fish taken from association waters in 1968 being a 2lb 3oz rainbow trout caught by Malcolm Maughan at Ebchester!
The rules for fishing on Derwent Reservoir were straightforward in the early days: it was fly-only and the association too was moving steadily in that direction. The rule prohibiting spinning had been revoked and then reintroduced during the sixties, and a motion against the use of the fixed spool reel for worm fishing was even raised in 1968, although this was heavily defeated. At the end of the decade, the Northumbrian River Authority (which had succeeded the Tyneside & Northumberland River Board in 1963) introduced its own byelaw enforcing a strict fly-only code on the whole Tyne catchment before 1 June, making it now only possible to fish with worm in the second half of the season.
Other new restrictions had also been introduced by the start of the 1970s: a bag limit of six brace in any day was imposed (reduced to three brace in 1975) and the size limit for takeable trout increased to eight inches. Not everything was becoming more stringent, however – in 1970, Sunday fishing on association waters was allowed for the first time in 105 seasons!
In line with the cost of most things during that decade of mass inflation, the price of tickets was going up too (£2.50 for adults and £1.25 for juniors in 1972 – now available only from Shotley Bridge Post Office), but nonetheless demand remained high and there was still a waiting list just shy of 100 by 1975. The introduction of a revamped river authority rod licence in the early seventies only seemed to cause greater confusion in this regard, with a spate of anglers caught fishing in association waters with “authority licences only”. Or were they just prospective members that couldn’t be bothered to wait?
Pollution and restocking issues remained key discussion points at most AGMs throughout the seventies, only the extent and the numbers, respectively, were very much reduced by comparison with the bad old days. The number of pits in the Derwent valley had already been greatly reduced in the three decades since the Second World War and although the problem areas still tended to be around the sewage outfall at Ebchester and near the mouth of the Howden Burn, the incidences and damage to fish stocks were apparently far less compared to days of old.
There were, however, two serious pollution incidents of note during the early to mid-1970s. Both occurred in the vicinity of the Howden Burn mouth, with the first an overflow from a storm drain made worse by the effects of a blocked sewer. In the last incident of its kind before another reorganisation of the water industry in 1974, Consett UDC accepted liability and paid £1,000 compensation. The second incident was believed to be the fault of what was now the British Steel Corporation, the injunction against whose predecessor, the Consett Iron Co., was still believed to be valid. Unfortunately, the untimely passing of the riparian owner in whose name the 1954 injunction had been awarded meant the legitimacy of the order was seen as too uncertain to pursue any claim.
Restocking in the aftermath of these incidents was by now becoming a highly expensive exercise, with a large proportion of trout coming from the river authority’s Reivers Well hatchery in Northumberland. The stock fish introduced by both the association and the new Northumbrian Water Authority were usually still brown trout, although in the early seventies, the DAA did reprise its experiment last tried on the eve of World War One: that of stocking rainbows – to supplement those that had been escaping from the reservoir for the last ten years! The fish were marked by the removal of their adipose fin, presumably to distinguish them from their jail breaking brethren, but there was no evidence to suggest that these introductions were of anything more than a short-term benefit.
Indeed, while the size of the ‘best fish’ caught in association waters had been steadily rising due to the presence of rainbows in the river, in 1975, the largest fish reported for many years was a brown trout of 3lb 10oz caught by Mr G Liddle. This was topped in 1978, when Mr JG Simpson caught a brown trout of 4lb 12oz on a worm near the boundary of Chopwell Woods and Lintzford meadows.
Towards the end of the decade, the stock trout the association was introducing were probably easily capable of attaining such weights, provided they could remain in the river long enough! The fish put in by the club – when it could procure stock and in those seasons when it was deemed necessary – were typically in the range of those stocked at the end of the 1979 season: 500 x 8-10 inch brown trout; 500 x 9-11 inches and 700 x 10-12 inches. Interestingly, the association had for several seasons up to this time been obtaining fish and taking advise from a Mr Leney of the Trent Trout Hatchery in Mercaston, Derbyshire. (However it isn’t clear whether this Mr Leney was any relation of the celebrated Redmire Pool carp stockist, Donald Leney, erstwhile proprietor of Haslemere Trout Farm in Surrey.)
The eighties would be a decade of great change for the Derwent Angling Association, and its lower counterpart the Axwell Park & Derwent Valley AA, whose re-emergence on the now far less polluted lower river had been noted in communication between the two club secretaries in April 1977. The election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government two years later would indirectly yield even greater water quality improvements – but not without the mass unemployment experienced in Consett upon the closure of the steel works there in 1980. The disappearance of the collieries that had for over a century lined the valley sides was already complete by the time of the unsuccessful miners’ strike of 1984-85, and with the end of local coal supplies the coke works at Fell and Derwenthaugh were also decommissioned. Even the ink works that had made use of the former paper mill at pastoral Lintzford ceased production in 1987, although its buildings were put to gainful use for several years before their conversion into luxury dwellings – by officials of the lower club who used them to propagate hatchling trout for later introduction into their own waters.
Improvements in water quality during the eighties were tempered, however, by concerns over the effect that large quantities of reservoir compensation-water might have, a commodity now being introduced periodically from the vast new Kielder Water in North Tynedale, as well as from the Derwent’s own large headwater storage lake. A pipeline linking the Tyne, Derwent, Wear and Tees had been laid as part of the Kielder scheme’s ‘inter-catchment water transfer’ function, but lacking any coarse fish, the Derwent seemed to fare better with the resultant drops in water temperature.
This was borne out by vastly improved catch returns throughout the decade, showing greater numbers of bigger fish now being caught from DAA waters. In 1983, 15 trout over 1¼lb were reported, while in the following year 17 fish over 1lb and six over 2lb were taken. In 1982, the best trout recorded had been a 2½lb brownie caught on a dry fly up at Eddy’s Bridge, the same year the DAA bought 11 acres of land outright on the north bank of the river upstream of Shotley weir. By the end of the eighties, it had become the association’s stated aim “to purchase fishing rights instead of leasing them.”
By the mid-nineties, this course of action seemed as prudent as it was insightful, as a fall off in the association’s membership throughout the early years of that decade coincided with a 100% rise in riparian rents over a 12-month period up to the AGM in 1995. The heyday enjoyed by angling clubs and associations three decades earlier was now very much at an end, a situation only compounded for the DAA by a merger, in 1996, between the now privately-owned Northumbrian Water and North East Water, owner of Derwent Reservoir.
While Derwent had continued to be operated along the lines of the small-scale commercial trout fishery it started out as in the sixties, upon its privatisation in 1989 Northumbrian Water had ramped up the similarly low-level commercial aspect of a few of its reservoirs and rolled out a portfolio of ‘new’ densely stocked trout fisheries, attracting tens of thousands of eager fly and bait anglers every season. In the early nineties, the saving grace for the DAA had been that day-ticket meccas such as Fontburn and Grassholme were a good way to travel for a day’s fishing from Derwentside, but from 1997 there’d be another densely stocked multi-bait trout fishery right on their doorstep.
The association saw little option but to increase the cost of permits to meet its overheads. The tariff of £15 for a senior ticket charged in 1990 had risen by 1994 to £34 as it was reported that the club was losing money. The membership catchment area was widened to include “the whole of Derwentside, including Whickham and Winlaton”, but with the Axwell Park club having only recently gained long-term security through a highly competitive long-term lease, the shoe was now on the other foot in financial terms, with the DAA struggling to keep its head above water.
Survive it did, however, thanks to a raft of measures aimed at reducing costs and increasing revenue. The awarding of free permits was terminated in an attempt to offset the DAA’s purchase of the fishing rights at Lintzford and Blackhall Mill – a step that in itself would safeguard the long-term future of the association by eliminating rents paid annually on these waters. All leases held above the reservoir, at East Law, Chopwell Woods and on the south bank above Shotley Weir were relinquished and by the end of the nineties, the association had turned its finances around.
In common with most in the angling community, the FMD crisis had a catastrophic effect on the association’s fishing season in 2001, but with the DAA now back on the up, this latest setback was ably brushed aside. The ‘noughties’ would, in fact, become a memorable decade for anglers on the Derwent, with 2002 being the pick of several very successful years.
On only the second day of that particular trout season, Ian Colborne landed a new club record brown trout of 7lb 12oz on a copper headed hare’s ear above Shotley weir – beating the previous record of 6½lb, which had stood since 1885. Little over a month later, a 4lb 3oz specimen was caught in the same place on a black and peacock spider by Andrew Cook, who despite missing out on the ‘biggest fish prize’ that season, at least took the same honour in the junior section! In a year when the upper Derwent Valley was abuzz with the news of big fish, Stuart Younger weighed in with a 4lb 1oz brown taken on a daddy longlegs, again at Shotley weir, while Sam Cook caught a 3¾lb rainbow on worm.
Other notable events affecting the DAA during the first decade of the 21st century included the award, in 2002, of £4,478 to the association through Grants For All, an invitation to tender that marked The Queen’s golden jubilee. The money was used to help develop facilities for the coaching of juniors, an activity in which the club was already involved, with Messrs G Green and W Thompson being instrumental in the successful application, supported by the Derwentside District Council.
It wasn’t all good news during the noughties, however, and as the decade neared its end, the spectre of an old enemy, in a completely new guise, reared its ugly head to wreak havoc on association waters once more. The disappearance of traditional industry several decades earlier had meant that pollution incidents of any magnitude were now few and far between, yet on 24 February 2009, a spill of caustic soda into the river from Northumbrian Water’s Allensford water treatment plant killed thousands of brown trout and other fish, including grayling, in an eight-mile swathe downstream to Blackhall Mill. The severity of the incident was at least alleviated, with the water company’s timely realisation of what it had done, by the release of compensation water from Derwent Reservoir to help dilute the pollutant as it moved downstream.
Nonetheless, the devastation caused to a considerable proportion of the DAA’s water was enormous and although the Environment Agency restocked almost immediately with trout, this could never compensate for the simultaneous loss of invertebrate life, smaller fish species and grayling. Further restocking took place in the early autumn, with trout and smaller fish moved from the non-angled section above the reservoir, but it will still probably take several years for the affected part of the river to recover.
Thankfully, such occurrences are now rare, though, and given time, the middle reaches of the Derwent should recover fully from the 2009 pollution incident.
Other challenges also face the DAA as it approaches its 150th year, including the Environment Agency’s requirement that all brown trout restocking be undertaken using infertile ‘triploids’ by the year 2015. How things have changed since the days of Westgate House Fisheries. Indeed, all the issues the association was set up to deal with 145 years ago have been major concerns in recent years: pollution, restocking – and poaching. Not that this is a problem that’s getting out of hand, but certain individuals will and do take advantage of the occasional subtle alteration in the law. One such example is the fact that it’s now a breach of a poacher’s human rights to be challenged by a member of the public for a licence or permit! Fortunately, unlike the multitude of problems faced by those 12 men who made up the first committee of the Derwent Valley Angling Association back in 1865, you’d hope common sense might prevail more quickly in this day and age!
Written by Pete McParlin
©2010 Pete McParlin and Derwent Angling Association
With thanks to the Committee of Derwent Angling Association for the loan of their archived records. The author would like to thank Alan Farbridge for his invaluable information and for bringing these archived records to his attention in the first place. Thanks also to the DAA’s website manager John Adair for his continued encouragement and support in the writing of this history, and to Messrs. A. Pollard, A. Dodds & K. Dick of Axwell Park & Derwent Valley AA for the incidental information used in this piece.