Until the River Ceases to Flow (part 1)

“Fishing is the chance to wash one’s soul with pure air. It brings meekness and inspiration, reduces our egoism, soothes our troubles and shames our wickedness. It is disciplines in the equality of men – for all men are equal before fish.”
Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States of America) 

The River Derwent lies in the heart of the Derwent valley, tracing the border of the counties of Northumberland and Durham. Like most river valleys, it has a few small villages along its length, built up by a diverse range of industry and our need of fresh water. However, it is the river itself, with its fast flowing water and millstone grit on its riverbed, that has played the single most important role in the growth in population in this area, firstly in Shotley Bridge, one of the largest villages in the valley, then later, with the discovery of iron ore, in Consett and the surrounding areas. It has also played host to countless lead mines, flour, corn, paper, poss stick mills, spa and coke works; not forgetting of course the internationally famous German swordmakers. All of these have left their mark on our local landscape. Some of their remains are still evident and little hints of our industrial past can be uncovered along the river bank. It’s just a case of knowing where to look.

The river rises 1,700 feet above sea level and its origins lay in two burns. The northern one is called Beldon Burn which has its source in the Hexhamshire Common. The southern one is called Knookton or Nookton Burn; it rises on the moorlands east of Allenheads. The two streams unite at the foot of ‘Gibraltar Rock’, locally known as Derwent Head. From there on the streams unite and become the River Derwent.

Donec Defluet Amnis

Donec Defluet Amnis

The population in Hunstanworth and Blanchland rocketed from about 200 in each village to more than 700 in the 1850s as the Cornish miners started to arrive, having upped sticks and trekked north due to the decline of copper and tin mining in the South West. The Cornish mine owners moved their most trusted workers into the area to run the local mines, and some of the miners’ houses still exist in ‘Cornie Row’, Baybridge. They continued to mine the valley until 1905, when they severed ties with the Blanchland area after successfully mining its rich veins of silver and lead for over 200 years. The lead mines of the upper Derwent valley had been leased as early as 1692 by the London Lead Company. These mines were all driven by water power, with a race taken from higher up the river filling a reservoir, then dividing it between the numbers of water wheels.

The Blanchland Bells
There is a curious story told about Blanchland Abbey: that on one occasion a party of marauding Scots, in one of their raiding expeditions across the borders, found themselves in the neighbourhood of the head of the Derwent, and hearing that there was an abbey at Blanchland on that river, resolved to pillage and plunder the monastery. On their way there, however, they lost the track over the fells, in a thick mist, and were unable to find the place on account of its secluded position. They wandered about for some time, during which they either overlooked it, or passed it by at some distance, for having crossed the Derwent, either on the east or west side of the Abbey, they reached a spot to the south of Blanchland, on the Durham side of the river, now called Dead Friar’s Hill, when their attention turned to the sound of distant bells.

Whether this peal was a paean of joy rung by the monks for their supposed deliverance, or a call to vespers we are not told, if, and it is possible, that the monks had become aware of the presence of the marauders, and had been apprehensive of their intentions, and had watched them pass their houses without noticing, and had had let them get as far south as they did, then thinking that they could not celebrate their deliverance in a more fitting manner than by ringing the bells of the abbey, they had made a mistake, for guided by the sound, the Scots made their way back to the abbey, where they broke through the gates, and after slaughtering the monks, set fire to the buildings, then retired with a vast amount of plunder. This raid is said to have taken place in the early part of the 14th century.

The stretch of river between the nature reserve at the head of the Derwent Reservoir (by Carricks picnic site) and Blanchland was once leased by the Derwent Angling Association. I would often go up there and fish this little stream towards the end of September, when the wild brown trout would move from the richer pickings of the reservoir, making their way upstream to spawn. Some parts of the lower river do get heavily fished, but places like this are so lightly visited, they are unspoilt and solitude is more or less guaranteed. The river here is very narrow and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say you can leap across it in many places, but there are still a few pools deep enough to support these wild trout in the pound and over class, travelling to their spawning grounds. The bank here has little or no vegetation and provides even less cover for an angler, so the only way to approach these spooky fish is with great stealth. Having the ability to slide into the water without disturbing it helps. You also need to avoid looming over the water like a heron, keeping your shadow and that of your rod out of sight. Stealth to me is a much underrated quality in a fisherman and it should be up there along with entomology and casting ability.

If I have learned anything in my years of staring into rivers it is that trout can see through the surface of the water and on to the river bank and if they see you coming they definitely don’t like it. But then why would they? Anything bigger than a fly seems to want to eat them, and having watched many of their kin disappear, why wait for their suspicions to be confirmed whenever a dark shadow looms over them? Most wild animals walk naturally with great stealth, treading carefully through the woods and rivers – it is only us humans who clumsily make our way, tearing along and spooking everything in our path.

I haven’t gone so far as to wear camouflage yet but I do wear drab colours and I’m convinced the speed we travel along the river bank that lets fish know our whereabouts. This was brought home to me many years ago. Alan, the club’s general secretary, was fishing on the river while on home leave from the RAF. I was standing on the Iron Bridge looking upstream, when there, about 50 yards above me, fishing in my favourite pool (more about that later) was Alan wearing what can only be described as the loudest Hawaiian shirt I have ever seen (of course he denies it now, but I know what I saw) and sticking out like a bulldog’s bollocks. This pool has lots of bank cover, but not if you are wearing a bright orange shirt. I walked up to talk with him and when I arrived he was into a nice trout and had had several prior to this. Alan said he’d not moved from the spot for more than half an hour, which had given the trout plenty of time to get used to the colour of his shirt. Having seen this happen quite a few times over the years, the more I’m convinced in the value of stealth and that it definitely helps you catch more trout.

Quite often I would crawl up to the water; kneeling well back from the river’s edge, flicking a small terrestrial pattern to a fish that had never seen an artificial fly before, in pools no bigger than the average family car. In a stream this small, it’s wise to make just a few well aimed casts, then move on. There’s no point kneeling there until your feet go numb because the trout will be long gone, hiding under a rock or an undercut bank. On hooking these fish you can guarantee a good fight, as the trout charge around the little pools in a bid for freedom. I can still remember standing on Carrick’s Bridge, staring downstream into the peaty, unfished depths of the nature reserve, wondering what monsters might lurk there. To a non-fisherman all waters look the same and they struggle to see what all the fuss is about (I suppose it’s a bit like when you see a horse with his head over the fence, staring into the next field, and you wonder what it could possibly be looking for). Well, to a fisherman, a previously unfished stretch of virgin water is like his Eldorado. With hindsight, this was all good grounding for a young river fisherman. Unfortunately, we no longer have access to this water, so please don’t venture up there now.

Nearby is the 12th century village of Edmundbyers, which was first recorded in the Boldon Book in 1183 AD. (The Boldon Book is a bit like the Domesday Book, but only lists labour, money and transactions of any importance to the Bishop of Durham.) In this area lie the remains of even earlier small earth platforms, possibly bronze or iron age. Although the village is not on or near the banks of the river, the Burnhope Burn, which skirts Edmundbyers, is one of the main spawning tributaries of the upper Derwent. I have seen trout spawning in this burn and on a few occasions spotted them lying in the main river at the mouth of the burn waiting for a small spate, so they’re able to continue their journey. On the surrounding fells are many remnants of our industrial past, including the 17th century Feldon Smelt Mill and Burnhope Lead Mine, all of which drew water from the tributaries and burns destined for the main river. This area takes its name from the Old English: Edmund’s byre (barn). A few miles further down the valley is The Sneep, which is home to Silver Tongue, an area well documented in a previous article.

The Healeyfield lead mine in the parish of Castleside (half a mile west) was in the possession of Alan de Chilton, who received it in a deal with Hugh Pudsey, the Bishop of Durham, in exchange for his share in the Bishops mill in Cornforth. The mine, dating back to 1170, is one of the oldest in the valley. The lead ore was transported by pack horse to Pontop Pike colliery, where the horses were stabled overnight (in an area still known as High Stables), then transferred to wooden wagon ways, which were built to transport coal from the surrounding mines to Derwenthaugh. The horses would return to the mines with coal to power the furnaces. This arrangement continued right through until the 1860s when it was then taken over by The Weardale Iron Company and with the invention of steam locomotion, a branch line was built from the mine to link up with the Stanhope and Tyne railway. The mine was eventually closed in 1897 after over 800 years of use. The reason it lasted so long was because it yielded excellent quantities of high quality lead from the mill stone grit strata. It also had a silver content of an average of 18½ ounces per ton, which was also very good.

The next stop downstream is Allensford, the name of which is said to be derived from the aforementioned Alan de Chilton. The first bridge was a two-arched humpbacked bridge just wide enough for one vehicle to cross at a time. It was built in 1816, but later replaced in 1925 by a wider one. This bridge was again replaced to suit the weight of modern day military vehicle crossings, for which the A68 had been designated. I love old bridges especially stone arched ones, but my wife says they’ll be the death of me. Apparently, every time I drive over one, I crane my neck attempting to view the river below, almost careering off the road in the process. I suspect I’m not alone on this one. The area between Allensford and Shotley Bridge was my playground as a youth and I knew the woods and the river like the back of my hand. (A cliché I know, but I spent most of my time there, building dams, climbing trees and fishing – basically, a large amount of my childhood memories stem from this area.)

I was born a child of the Sixties, in my grandma’s house in Bridgehill, not three hundred yards from the banks of the River Derwent. The Beatles were just a boy band, man hadn’t yet set foot on the moon and the Raleigh Chopper hadn’t even been invented. Glass fibre fishing rods were being introduced to the market, replacing the more expensive split cane ones. Woolworths was the only shop in the area that sold fishing tackle and some of the older fellows on the river were still fishing with World War II glass fibre tank aerials they had fashioned into fly rods by whipping handmade rings on to them and adding insulating tape for a handle. (Necessity was most definitely the mother of invention.)

The Seventies were great times for me and my friends, with the river on our doorstep, fields and woodland as far as the eye could see. My bedroom backed on to and overlooked the Derwent valley, and with my telescope I would survey the countryside from Allensford to Chopwell, watching the activities of the local farms planting and harvesting, also the occasional deer feeding at the edge of the woods behind my home. My friends and I would spend all our summer holidays camping, fishing and putting out the odd snare along the valley, generally doing what teenage lads did in those days. I can remember having to return home on more than one occasion when I had forgotten to pick up my pocket knife, an almost obligatory bit of kit to a young countryman in those days (not unlike a mobile phone is to the youth of today). I mean, how else was I going to make throwing arrows and spears and build rafts without one? At the end of the day my dad would come to the top of the hill overlooking the large mature beech wood where we spent a lot of our time and call me with one of those four-fingered whistles that dads used to do, instantly recognisable to me (the Bridgehill version of the bush telephone) and I would head for home. Time meant nothing to a young lad sitting around a camp fire with his mates. The only problems I gave my mother was how she was going to get the smell of wood smoke and the muddy stains from my clothes.

As my interest in fishing grew, so did my interest in the local landscape. It was about that time that I began to notice the remains of a lot of manmade stone structures along the banks of the River Derwent around the Shotley Bridge area. But with no internet at my disposal, I had only the local library and my dad to answer all my questions as to where the weirs, walls and stone arches had come from. As a young lad and over a period of time, my dad and I walked the length of the river from source to sea (Dad thought it would be educational – although not an angler he was instrumental in my love affair with this valley). Now, over 30 years later, still just as curious and with the help of some local knowledge and a bit of research, I have pieced together many of my observations.

As I recall, the fishing of my youth was very good, but the trout and grayling were definitely smaller. Although searching through the DAA minutes (which date back to 1865) I came across a monster brown trout caught just below Allensford in the late 1800s of 6¾ lbs,the name of its captor is not recorded.This trout must have been a cannibal as they averaged four fish to the pound in those days and trout of even 1lb were very rare. When I was young there was no such thing as catch and release – well, actually there was, but it was called throwing them back, usually because they were too small to take home. I have come a long way since those early days, passing all the stages anglers go through: first, as a young lad just being happy catching small wild trout; next, as I grew older wanting to catch lots of bigger trout; then travelling further afield in pursuit of very big wild trout, and then full circle back to fishing for wild trout in some of the most picturesque, intimate places (so back to my home water then).

More than just numbers
A few years ago my friend James and I set ourselves the challenge of catching 1,000 trout per season. With hindsight this was a big mistake, as it began to ruin the quality of our fishing. I started to adapt my approach – I would walk past rising fish to fish the faster runners, knowing full well they held more trout; measuring a good day only by how many trout I’d caught, treating the fish almost as a commodity. Fish counting can be very dangerous. I found myself almost breaking into a jog between the pools towards the end of the season. Considering most people go fishing to relieve stress, it was also becoming very demanding on my time (although the majority of the anglers I know are the most laid back people I’ve ever met). Five years it took us to crack the magic number, coming just 17 short the season before, and very near in the years prior to that, which caused me immense frustration. Looking back it was probably the least enjoyable period of my fishing life so far. We have since called a truce and never count fish anymore; at times I now spend up to ten minutes watching a good fish rising confidently before making my first cast, enjoying the quality of the day out more than ever, reminding myself I took up fishing in the first place because it was non-competitive.

There were very few trout or grayling downstream of Allensford due to the flour mill and paper mill, not to mention the Consett Iron Company and all the other industries all extracting water and returning pollutants to the river. This brown trout of 6¾lb remained the association record for well over 100 years and still would be to this day had it not been for another brown trout of 7¾ lbs caught by myself in 2002.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: here he goes, off on a self-indulgent story of great heroics, but no, this is a tale of jealousy and betrayal. It was 2002, the year after foot and mouth disease had devastated the British countryside. Most of the public byways and river paths had been closed to the general public throughout the whole of 2001. Apart from possibly the odd poacher, nobody had fished the River Derwent in over a year. What had happened to the trout? Had the cormorants eaten them all? Were there any left? Well, some of them had grown fat, as the record book would show.

Record breaker
It was a warm Saturday afternoon in late April. The beech trees were just beginning to bud, there was a light breeze blowing down the valley, and large dark olives were hatching regularly in broken water and hawthorn flies were in season. In fact, fishing conditions were pretty much perfect, shirt-sleeve weather, as some might say. I had fished my way from the Iron Bridge, picking up a few trout in the rapids on a CDC hares ear emerger, due to there being a nice olive hatch in mid flow, and was making my way towards the weir a hundred yards further upstream at Shotley Bridge, as it always holds big fish at the start of the season, and although manmade, it is by far the longest holding pool on the river, at approximately 200 yards, so you can see why trout would choose to live there.

On the south bank of the weir there is a ledge about three feet out and three feet deep, running for about fifty yards, and the trout like to lie there. Alan and I have known about this for many years. Alan has a story he likes to tell about a time when he caught 15 trout from one particular spot just off this ledge. He was fishing between the trees just up from the weir and only let me in after he had emptied it, which he still finds hilarious. Anyway, I was working my way upstream, making a few casts in the gaps between the beech trees, being careful not to catch the overhead cables, casting a size 14 3mm copper beaded hares ear with a lime green tag on it across to the ledge, letting it sink, then slowly retrieving it. As there was nothing rising in the slow calm water above the weir, this was pretty much just an educated guess, and I must admit, I was daydreaming at the time, when I hooked into what I thought was a log or something laying beneath the surface on the riverbed. Then all hell broke loose.

I was stranded between two alder trees about 12ft apart, overhanging the river, which made it impossible to pass the rod from hand to hand and possibly get into a better position. Anyone can hook a big fish – the skill is in landing it, keeping your cool, taking your time, knowing when to let it run and when to put more pressure on it. Unfortunately, this only comes with experience, so it’s a bit of a catch 22 situation. Anyone who says they have been spoilt by big fish has made life very difficult for themselves, and I suspect they were probably spoilt before they ever picked up a fly rod in the first place. In my hand was an 8ft 4# Hardy Favourite and only a 2½lb tippet, so the odds seemed to be very much stacked in the trout’s favour. All brown trout have a feeding area and also a bolt hole such as a large boulder or a sunken tree, under which they will retreat in the event of danger. On this occasion, the trout headed straight for an undercut bank about twenty yards downstream on my side of the river, full of snags and with tree roots sticking out, and just sulked for what seemed like ages before I could coax it back out into open water.

I knew I was into a good fish and also that no one would believe me if I lost it. And as all fishermen know, a big fish lost will put on more weight every time you tell the tale. I won’t bore you any further with a long-winded account of its capture (I prefer to tell that version in Alan’s company, just to annoy him!). So with a bit of a struggle I eventually tailed him – the trout being too big to fit in my little landing net – carrying him well clear of the bank side, just as a couple of junior members arrived, having run along to see what all the commotion was about. I estimated the trout to be well over 6lbs and a possible record for the river. The fish measured over 2ft long and having no camera I quickly administered the last rites, then sat down on the grass and waited for my heart rate to return to normal. The whole experience had lasted just over ten minutes but had felt a lot longer.

In these days of catch and release, the importance of photographic evidence is greater than ever. We fishermen get a hard enough time as it is about exaggerating, and I’ve never met a man who didn’t want his picture taken with his quarry. In fact, I know some men who would rather have their photo taken holding a big trout than with their wives.

After having the trout weighed and verified at club secretary Bill Thompson’s house, on closer inspection I began to think the fish was rather plump and a bit too well fed for the beginning of the season. (Big trout, after having over-wintered are usually long and lean.) As we had never stocked such a trout of this size, the mystery began: where had it come from? Over the next few weeks the story circulated, and a bailiff from the Derwent reservoir decided to come clean, admitting that he had been feeding a large shoal of brown trout a diet of high protein trout pellets over the previous year, from behind his office, which backed onto the river above the Derwent Bridge. Over the winter closed season, his office had been shut for a few months. On returning back to work in spring, he had noticed a few of the biggest trout missing and assumed they had either been eaten by cormorants, or dropped further downstream in search of food.

I had captured the trout the following season about seven miles downstream, fair and square. It was native to the river so it was to become the heaviest trout ever recorded in the association’s history. Mystery solved, end of story. Or rather it would have been, had it not been for Alan starting off a rumour which gathered momentum through a local tackle shop. According to Alan, it had been a little girl’s pet, hand-reared in her garden pond, which had escaped into the river, and I had killed it (thanks for that one, mate!). I don’t know if many people actually believed his story but that certainly didn’t stop them giving me a hard time about it…

Read part 2