Until the River Ceases to Flow (part 2)

The importance of the River Derwent to this area can be summed up by the Latin inscription beneath the Derwentside District Council motto, ‘Donec Defluet Amnis’ – Until The River Ceases To Flow – which istaken from a poem written by a Roman soldier with the pen name Horace (Quintus Horatius Faccus, 75 years BC). The River Derwent, or more accurately the quality and softness of its water, has been reason why many mills – including two owned by the Annandale family – have been drawn to this area over the years.

 

The Paper Mill

The paper-making industry was well represented in the Derwent valley, with paper mills owned by John Annandale and sons, the larger at Shotley Bridge named The Shotley Grove Mill and the other five miles down the river at Lintzford.

Shotley Grove Mill, established in 1788, was built on the site of a previous paper mill, extending and improving it. In the early days, paper was made by hand, sheet by sheet. In the manufacturing process in the early days, coarse brown wrapping paper was made from old rags and plant fibres but over the course of a few years the onset of machinery changed the face of paper-making and in 1894, 4,000 tons per annum were produced at the mill, which employed 300 people, operating both day and night. Paper-making was a highly skilled trade and a seven-year apprenticeship was required. Craftsmen came from all over the country seeking work and were well paid for it. Later we will take a walk through the valley, identifying the remains of some of our industrial past.

The Iron Bridge at Shotley Grove was built in the late 1800s. It had spanned the river between Forge Cottage on the north bank and the Paper Mill (now a couple of cottages and a car park) on the south bank for over a hundred years, until in September 2008 one of the biggest floods the Derwent has ever seen washed it away, also changing the face of many pools, uprooting large trees and washing them away. The bridge was replaced by a new wider, stronger one sited about 50 yards downstream, officially opening three years later in September 2011.

The pool directly below the new bridge, was until the flood of 2008, about 70 yards long, only to be halved by massive bank erosion, depositing silt and boulders half way down the pool, and also losing some well established hazel trees in the process. This pool is over six feet deep, as I found out while coppicing some of those hazel trees on the south side a couple of years ago. I slipped and fell in, just managing to grab a tree root with one hand, a bow saw in the other, my legs kicking wildly, not being able to touch the bottom, only to be rescued and dragged to safety.

This pool lends itself well to worm fishing. Now, I don’t necessarily condone worm fishing, as you cannot always retrieve the hook, especially from the fish’s stomach, if you don’t strike early enough, so I don’t wish to describe it in any detail, but I do think it helps very young people catch their first fish and old people continue fishing as their reflexes slow and their eyesight starts to fade in later life. In my mind there are only two types of fishermen: those who fish for sport and those who fish for fish, and to quote Patrick F McManus, “there is no bigger fan of fly fishing than the worm”.

I have though, on a few occasions many years ago, used it to great effect. On one such occasion, I’d been attempting to catch a big old trout of over 3lbs, in a pool about 50 yards below the new road bridge at Ebchester. I would go down most nights after work, for more than three weeks and have a few casts for him. This trout had positioned itself in a back eddy (a back eddy is a section of river that flows back upstream, usually after hitting an obstacle – this is the only time a fish will face downstream to await food) and to make matters worse was lying beneath the branches of a sunken oak tree, so offering it a nymph was out of the question and a dry fly was almost impossible to present without drag setting in immediately.

The paper mill, Shotley Bridge

It didn’t show itself every night and sometimes didn’t show at all, so I decided there was only one method that might possibly work. Having rethought the situation, I crept along the north bank, crossing the river further upstream. This bank has a 3ft drop-off into the river, is thick with brambles and heavily tree lined, making it very difficult to cast from. I sat in the thicket, about three yards upstream and waited to make sure I hadn’t disturbed the trout. After a few minutes, with an underarm flick two worms were trundling along the sandy river bed in the direction of the fish. Within a minute or so, the fish had taken the bait. Now, I hadn’t really thought this through, because as the fish took off, it headed straight back to its lie beneath the sunken oak in a bid for freedom and with the line wrapped around several branches I thought the fight was over before it began. So, with a standoff imminent, I put as much pressure on the rod as I dared, somehow managing to ease the trout back out into the open water of the main river. Then, passing the rod from hand to hand around several ivy-covered alder trees, made my way upstream to a lower part of the bank where a small burn enters the river to land him. After netting the trout and weighing it (3lb 4oz) a feeling of guilt and unsportsman-like conduct came into my mind. Although I had achieved what I had set out to do, something didn’t sit comfortably with me. I decided that on landing the fish, it was going to be returned to the river regardless of its size. I suppose I’m only telling this story in the hope of absolution.

 

The swordmakers of Shotley Bridge

1687 heralded the arrival of the swordmakers from Solingen in West Germany. The names of these refugees’ families were recorded as Oley, Vooz, Mole and Bertram. There are a couple of theories behind their arrival, one being religious persecution, but there is no evidence to support them having being expelled from Germany for being Protestant. Nevertheless it still remains the most popular theory as to why they came to such a remote village under a veil of secrecy. The second and on the face of it more likely explanation was the introduction of new machinery which was threatening the livelihood of some of the Solingen swordmakers. So it is possible that it was simply time to move on.

In 1831, a Newcastle man visiting the works was told that their German forefathers were brought to Shotley Bridge by a company of gentlemen with the licence of Government as a commercial venture. This seems plausible and there is evidence connecting John Sandford and John Bell of Newcastle to the company at that time. Both men being of this area, they would have known the suitability of the River Derwent for siting a steel works on account of it having soft water as well as the excellent mill stone grit in the riverbed which was also very good for sharpening the blades. Indeed, on certain stones today it’s still possible to see grooves left by “slipping” and tempering of the precious blades. So there were obvious reasons for them to build their shops and houses near the river. Perhaps the most important reason though was that the Derwent was a fast running river, so ideal for operating and driving the mills. The nearby woods were also a perfect source of wood to make charcoal for the furnaces. And transportation was no problem, with a road down the valley to Derwenthaugh and Newcastle, then on to markets in London and Europe by sea.

Forge Cottage

The quality of their product far surpassed the inferior English swords. At the time, the troubled reign of James II was in progress and a civil war a distinct possibility, so maybe they thought they could supply both sides with swords. The Hollow Blade Sword Company was formed, the hollow blade sword having a hollow inner with three flat sides; this meant with their combined lightness and rigidity the sword point could be bent back to the hilt, then when released would spring back to its original shape. The company was later renamed The Sword Blade Bank. The new company stuttered through the 18th century, but gained a new lease of life with the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars, which proved very lucrative. But when the war ended in 1815, the final decline began, with the development of other steel-making towns in Sheffield and Birmingham. Nevertheless the swordmaking industry continued in Shotley Bridge until 1840, ran by Joseph Oley (a former committee member of the Derwent Angling Association) who later became an auctioneer in the village for 50 years. Living to almost a hundred years of age, he was buried in 1896 alongside other members of his family, Richard and Christopher, in Ebchester parish church yard. On his headstone is the inscription: ‘The last of the Shotley Bridge sword makers’. The swordmakers’ buildings in Wood Street remained until just a few years ago, only being demolished to make way for a new terrace row which bears their name.

 

The sword in the hat

Many stories have been passed down over the years about the swordmakers of Shotley Bridge. On one occasion, Robert Oley became involved in a wager with eight of the top swordmakers in the country as to who could manufacture the best, most flexible blade. A meeting was set for two weeks to the day. When Oley appeared at the meeting place with no sword in his hand, the other swordmakers declared him the loser of the bet. Whereupon he took off his hat and threw it on the table. There for all to see, inside the hat coiled around the rim, was a double edge sword, and he was instantly declared the winner. He then offered his winnings to anyone who could remove it from the hat, but of course it was so tightly wound that no one could.

Another story was that a member of the Oley family travelled to London in the early 19th century to take part in a competition to produce the finest sword in all of England. Oley won the crown for his sword and The Sword Inn in the heart of Shotley Bridge was renamed The Crown and Crossed Swords in his honour. This pub plays a large part in the local community and is now the headquarters of the Derwent Angling Association. Some of these excellent swords are preserved and line the walls in Hamsterley Hall, home of the former Lord Gort. Some of the descendants of those first swordmaking families can trace their roots back to razorblade giant Wilkinson Sword, while some members of the Mole family moved to Birmingham and continued their business a few years longer. In 1889, Robert Mole and Sons was bought out and absorbed into Wilkinsons of Pall Mall, although not actually taken over until 1920. Wilkinson Sword (International) Ltd, chiefly noted for the production of safety razors and razor blades, still has a production plant in Solingen. The crossed swords proudly adorn the company logo, maintaining the link with their swordmaking heritage.

 

Back to the river

The ‘Dry Rocks’ (also known as the ‘Flat Rocks’) and ‘The Rush’, as they’re both known locally, are situated between the two footbridges crossing the river, just below Shotley Grove Road (the site of the former paper mill). This area was a popular picnic site in my youth; many families would be sat on blankets, while children paddled in the rock pools. The Rush is below these rocks and is a narrow gap of less than four feet, through which the river squeezes its way after twisting and turning, dropping from one mini plunge pool to another with small pockets, riffles and runs, each one holding trout, travelling the 50 yards or so over solid bedrock, before opening out into a large, deep, fast flowing pool, perfect for holding summer trout and grayling. The fish lie just off the seam (the line of water either side of the main flow, slightly slower in speed, after the river has been funnelled between the rocks above, channelling food to the fish) where they take refuge, conserving energy, between darting in and out of the main flow to intercept oncoming food.

From these rocks, half a mile or so downstream to just below the road bridge, over the water falls, behind the King’s Head pub, the river flows over solid bedrock. This changes things from the fish’s perspective; the river bed on most of the River Derwent has a silt covering and an earth bottom, providing ideal habitat for nymphs and bottom dwellers (mayflies, baetis, caenis etc). As the season begins to warm up, between the months of May and September, trout seek out the faster more oxygenated water and will stay there until the fly hatches subside in the autumn. For an angler, it is just about the sport, but to a fish it’s a life or death situation, so conserving energy is of paramount importance. Bearing this in mind, these areas can be productive during the months that fly life is abundant, but as the bedrock supports much less food during the colder months, the fish will drop back into the slower pools in search of nymphs, chironomid and other bugs that dwell on the bottom of the river bed all year round.

Until I discovered ‘the duo’ method of fishing about 10 years ago (described in detail in my previous article, The Sneep: In Search of Wild Trout), I had never attempted to fish this series of mini waterfalls and plunge pools. Look out for seams and slack water, as the trout can hold, with no resistance, in a depression as small as half a football due to their perfect streamline design. So even in the fastest flowing sections of the river, a boulder or a small depression can provide enough cover for a summer resident to hold, in search of food. When searching for likely looking lies, always wear Polaroid glasses (I prefer either amber or brown lenses) then check out wherever there is a rocky ledge beneath the water, or a sudden drop off or even just a darker patch on the river bed. In fact, anywhere you cannot see the bottom (this includes faster running water) as a trout will hold in less than nine inches of water as long as they are hidden from view. There is a long shallow pool directly above the waterfalls behind The Kings Head about 30 yards long with a solid bedrock bottom and long cracks running the length of it, with little or no cover for the trout. When the light is right and with the aid of a pair of Polaroids, you think you can see every trout in this pool, until you wade across it. Then trout from all over will dart for cover, bolting for the safety of the cracks. Sometimes I have seen upwards of a dozen trout so well camouflaged I had not previously noticed them.

Read part 3