Until the River Ceases to Flow (part 3)

The Halmote Roll
Millstones taken from the river bed had to be paid for. Grinding mills were for the benefit of all and anyone who used them had to pay a fee. The miller in turn had to pay his landlord – the Bishop of Durham – a portion of his takings. The Halmote Roll of 1356 contains numerous entries of payments made for the licence to dig and hand chisel millstones from the bedrock on the banks of the River Derwent. Frequent fines were placed on people not taking the Lord’s licences. John Robinson was fined for not having one. John Milner of Iveston was to answer the Lord for five millstones taken at Shotley Bridge. Also John (no surname offered), the miller of Iveston, for the taking of two pairs, to the value of two shillings, having not paid the Lord’s rent. It is interesting to observe traces of these depredations upon the Lord’s strict rights still existing in the riverbed even 500 years later. Between the road bridge at Shotley Bridge and The Dry Rocks there are numerous round holes in the millstone grit from which millstones have been taken. Some even look as if somebody might have been halfway though removing one before being disturbed and having to beat a hasty retreat!

Shotley Spa, 1905

The spa
No scurvy in your skin can dwell
If you only drink the Hally Well

Wells and natural springs have, throughout the ages, been credited with magical and mystical healing powers. In a period of great superstition, people would make pilgrimages to visit these acclaimed springs, especially if tales of miraculous powers were to be claimed.

In the 18th century the children of Shotley Bridge found new amusement. At the village well they drank water with a curious taste and then laughed at the grimacing faces of the drinkers. Records indicate that a “Hally Well” (from the Saxon hal – whole in heath) at Shotley Bridge had been there since time immemorial. The well at Shotley Bridge was to make its name in Victorian times, as with an upsurge in cholera and typhoid, fresh air and the drinking of spring water was claimed to be the solution for many of these illnesses. With the spa towns of Harrogate, Bath and Chester enjoying the economic benefits of this wave of ill health, local entrepreneur Jonathan Richardson, from Snows Green, who was always on the lookout for a moneymaking scheme, had the idea of turning Shotley Bridge into the very same thing.

For centuries, the old spring at Shotley Bridge had bubbled away in a small natural basin, trickling 30 yards across moss and grass, before making its way into the river. Records show that in 1806 people had still been coming from miles around to collect the “spring water with the healing power” but shortly after this time for some reason it was filled in and the site drained. Richardson, on hearing the story some 30 years later and with the help of some of the older locals, set about tracing the old spring and also a second more potent water source, to be known as the “new well”, which was surrounded by trellis with a thatched roof. By the end of the year, work had started on the construction of a spa town that could rival Harrogate, Buxton or Bath on the site of the current cricket club grounds on the banks of the Derwent.

Shotley Bridge at the time was a small village with a population of about 500. The bridge itself dates back as far as the fourteenth century but with the building of the spa, the village was about to open its doors to people from all over the country. As its renown grew, so demand for accommodation grew and the people of Snows Green Road began to rent lodgings to accommodate the influx. Two cottages (bath houses) were erected a short distance from the water outflow, one containing a meeting room and the other two bathrooms, tiled in white with mahogany borders. Sweeping carriage drives were laid, landscaped with ornamental gardens, then tennis courts, and a cricket ground; paths were laid and trees planted until it began to look like a natural park and was named the ‘Spa Grounds’. (And is still called this today.) A large hotel was built by Jonathan Richardson in 1840, two years after the spa’s opening, also many other smaller properties, later including a mansion for himself, named Shotley Park (now sheltered accommodation for the elderly) in 1842, with a road leading directly to the spa.

Initially, visitors started to arrive from Wearside, Newcastle and Tyneside, then as facilities improved, from further afield. As the spa’s reputation grew, it began to draw some nationally famous figures, including in 1839 the 27-year-old Charles Dickens, a friend of writer Robert Smith Surtees, who resided in nearby Hamsterley Hall. The low road was built in 1843 by a consortium of local businessmen led by the Annadale family, linking the spa to the newly constructed Scotswood Bridge, which increased the flow of visitors further.

In 1867 a rail link was put in place between Blaydon and Consett. Elm Park station had a zoo next to it housing many exotic birds and animals, catering for the many visitors regularly travelling to the area. Although some way from the spa, visitors were transported in horse-drawn carriages down through Snows Green past Swiss cottages and down through the gatehouse of the spa. One story attached to the zoo is a tale about a wolf which went on a killing spree on escaping from its enclosure. A party of hunters was formed to capture the beast which was tracked all the way to Cumwhinton near Carlisle, where it was discovered dead on a railway line, having been hit by a train. The story has it that the wolf killed 43 sheep along the way.

Records show that in the 1890s, in one of the spa’s busiest years, 60,000 people visited the grounds. The village prospered for almost 60 years, many more grand properties were built in the village by industrialists from outside the area as it became a more desirable place to live. Richardson, a successful entrepreneur, who had made all this happen, was treated as a local hero, but unwittingly was about to contribute to its downfall. The demise of Shotley Spa came quickly, as within two years of the spa’s opening and after extensive water analysis, the very mineral that gave the water its distinct taste was in the ironstone discovered by geologists in the Blue Heaps higher up the valley. Richardson, who was still on the lookout for business opportunities, financed the building of the ironworks, but within a few years, the great industrial edifice created in Berry Edge, Consett, was drawing ever nearer to the Derwent valley, pushing up plumes of dark smoke and beginning to dominate the skyline. Also contributing to the murk was the Shotley Bridge Gas Works, which opened in 1856 on a site adjacent to the spa. Richardson’s vision of creating the largest ironworks in England had contributed along with the Gas Works to the spa’s demise. Neither of them were exactly in keeping with the genteel world of Shotley spa. As the ironworks prospered, the number of visitors at the spa dwindled and eventually dried up. Richardson died on Christmas day in 1871 in his home at Shotley Park surrounded by his family. Although his spa failed to live beyond the turn of the century, his legacy lived on in the ironworks.

Streamer fishing
I have fished many different styles and methods on the Derwent over the years, experimenting with rods as short a 5ft 6in to rods of over 10ft, depending on what I was trying to achieve. It’s strange to think that after more than 35 years of fishing I am still learning new techniques. (Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?) I thought I’d tried everything until a chance meeting with Jon Barnes. I was introduced to Jon while fishing on the Derwent in the early 90s, a few years before he won the British rivers championship, but it wasn’t until about four years ago that I actually started to fish with him. Jon and I have fished together on many rivers over the last few years, from Yorkshire up to Scotland. He was influential in helping me catch my biggest ever wild trout on the River Tweed, a brownie of some 57cm. (But I’ll save that story for another day!) Jon is a very technical angler; whenever I meet up with him, he seems to be fishing a different technique – whether it’s Polish nymphing, short line nymphing or even just dry fly fishing, he always seems to put his own twist on things.

It is very easy to get set in your ways, using tried and tested methods that catch you fish and feel comfortable with and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But what if some of these new methods work better, catch you more fish or even just give you pleasure while doing them, then why not broaden your horizons? Let’s face it, if we didn’t try a new technique once in a while it would be as dull as golf. Remember, it’s meant to be about the pleasure it gives you; we’re not feeding our families on trout anymore. Some fishermen like nothing better than to sit on the river bank and watch the world go by for an hour or two, before returning back to the rat race, and I often wonder what people who don’t fish daydream about. As John Gierach put it, “They say you forget your troubles on a trout stream, but that’s not quite it. What happens is that you begin to see where your troubles fit into the grand scheme of things, and suddenly they’re just not such a big deal anymore.”

Most people I speak to love to fish dry fly and I’m not disputing its popularity – it’s certainly my favourite way of fishing – but some people also claim to be purists, fishing nothing else, even when there’s no fly hatch or even trout rising. This is where I draw the line and think of another means of catching them. One such method Jon introduced me to was streamer fishing, which is hardly fly fishing in the pure sense of the word and something I’d dismissed years before as a crude form of lure fishing. Watching Jon though, I realised that on a hot summer day when very little is happening, you can still manage to winkle out a few fish from the deepest darkest places and save yourself from a blank day.

The way we fish it is to use a long rod, maybe 9ft or so, with a short leader of, say, 6ft, sometimes with braided sink tip added when fishing very deep pools. The mechanics of this method is not crucial; as in most fishing situations, it’s more about presentation of the fly. Speaking of the fly, and I use this term very loosely, I usually start with a 4mm tungsten bead head, a hare’s ear body and a long cream badger cock cape feather at least two inches long. (When the feather is wet it becomes streamlined, acting like a small fry or an elver as it darts back and forth through the water.) This is hardly a pattern to get excited about when you’re sitting at your tying vice on a winter’s night, as it literally takes seconds to tie. Obviously you can use any streamer or fry pattern or even sculpin if you wish. Now to find a stretch of river suitable to fish this technique: the section I described earlier, from the Dry Rocks to the King’s Head, is ideal, with its sudden drop-offs, deep pots, weirpools and back eddies all perfect places for a trout to lie in.

Cast your fly to a likely looking spot where you think the fish is lying. There’s no need for too much finesse with this method; basically you are prospecting for a trout with a short fuse! Let your fly sink to where you estimate the bottom few inches of the river bed is, without picking up weed. (This is why you need a heavy tungsten bead on the fly – to get it down in fast-flowing water). Then pull or even rip the fly quickly, making jerky movements, flicking the rod tip slightly as you go to give the fly life. You must wear polarised glasses, as you need to see the fly coming up through the depths. The secret here is to speed up your retrieve if you do get a follow – this helps to induce the trout into taking the fly. Trout are very territorial and dropping something that resembles food into their lie and then making it look as if it is trying to escape stirs the predatory instinct in him. If it looks like food, then why not chase, kill it, and see if it’s good to eat? The takes can be quick and quite explosive at times, so be ready for some fun. Jon has many excellent clips of him demonstrating these and many more methods all filmed on the River Derwent, (I’m even on one of them myself) just type” jonfish 1357” into YouTube and learn from an expert.

Forge Cottage

Forge Cottage

A walk though the Derwent valley
Standing on the road bridge over the River Derwent, facing downstream with the Kings Head pub (formerly known as the Bridge Hotel) on our right, we can see the old corn mill offices – now a luxury house – about 30 yards below. This is all that remains of the earlier site of a flour mill. A few years later it became part of the sword-making factories, and there is now a terraced row of new houses named after the mills whose sites they now stand on. Just below the corn mill down on the water’s edge, maybe ten yards further downstream, built into what is left of the wall is one of these original mill stones used by a former mill (although which mill, nobody can tell). There were believed to be three of these stones built into the wall, but two have since been removed. This last stone is only visible when you are standing in the river and has been obscured by ivy for many years, some of which I have cleared, not wishing to make it too obvious.

Walking upstream with Shotley on our left (we’ll call this the south bank) and Northumberland on the right (the north bank) I can’t help wondering how different the village would look and feel if it had a set of railings running the length of it instead of a high wall, thus exposing the beauty of the little gorge in this valley. Opposite the wall on the south bank there are two rows of council houses. This area used to be known as “the Slonks”, after the woods chopped down and cleared to build these houses. Standing with the wall on your left and the council houses on your right and looking back over the village, poking through the tree-tops you can see the 130ft spire of St Cuthbert’s Church, designed in the Victorian era by John Dobson, famous for many of Newcastle’s most prominent buildings. The church was built in 1850, with the clock tower being added in 1874 by public subscription.

Retracing our steps, walking upstream from the road bridge about 200 yards up through this wonderful little gorge, we come to a set of natural waterfalls carved out from the solid bedrock. Just above these falls on the north side of the river is an almost complete mill stone, half-buried in the footpath with a small beech sapling growing through its centre. Most people will step on it as they pass by without even realising it’s there. (My theory is that the unclaimed mill stone is possibly the result of somebody being disturbed while trying to steal it without paying the lord’s rent, many, many years ago.) Opposite, on the south side, at the top of these falls, there is a line of stones diverting a section of the river; this is the start of what was once the mill race, bearing left downstream in front of the Kings Head pub and under the road heading towards the old flour and sword mills, powering their water wheels and forge hammers over 300 years ago.

Judging by the location of the mill race, the River Derwent must have run much deeper before the Derwent Reservoir was built in the late1960s, and I have heard from some older members who fished the river in the 1950s that it ran 2ft higher and was reputed to be one of the fastest flowing rivers in England. If you have ever seen the Derwent in flood with an extra couple of feet of water running through it, you will know the immense power it can generate. As we move up the river, we reach the “Wooden Bridge” (this bridge was once made of wood, but was replaced by a steel and concrete one some years ago. However, in keeping with the local sense of humour it is still referred to by its old name, which can lead to all manner of misunderstandings when giving directions to new club members). Standing on the “Wooden Bridge”, facing downstream, on the Northumberland side of the river, there is a large circular depression in the rocks below, over 3ft in diameter and 12 inches deep, a few yards below the bridge, from which a mill stone has been hand-cut and removed.

Travelling upstream 100 yards or so we come across a low arch at a slight angle to the river on the south side. This is “the rush”, the outflow from the former paper mill owned by the Annadale family. The mill ran the full length of Shotley Grove Road, starting at the fork in the road which rises from Shotley village, up to Blackhill, travelling about half a mile along the right fork to the Iron Bridge. All that remains of the former paper mill now is a few properties, now private dwellings. The low arch (outflow) of the mill is built into a long stone wall about 10 feet high, built from 18 inch long square cut blocks running about 50 yards on the side of the old paper mill, from The Rush up through the rapids and plunge pools of The Dry Rocks.

This wall has stood the test of time, far outliving the paper mill which stood above it. The wall is quite a large structure and I’m sure that most people will have walked past, hardly even noticing it. That is one of the benefits of building in stone; its natural beauty sits in our landscape so comfortably in its surroundings, be it a stone arch bridge, an old country church, a farm building or even just a dry stone wall, it is so easy on the eye. When you compare the majestic beauty of stone windmills on the Norfolk and Suffolk Broadlands built at the turn of the 19th century to the steel monstrosities cropping up on our horizon of late, I doubt if anyone will be waxing lyrical about them in one hundred years’ time.

The old iron bridge, Shotley Bridge

The old iron bridge, Shotley Bridge

Heading upstream, laying just below the new footbridge you can see the large wooden pylons and staithes driven 6ft down into the riverbed. These structures were put in place by the paper mill owners to prevent the river bank eroding where it was an unfeasible proposition to add stonework. The spate of water coming down the river caused silt to be deposited among this woodwork thereby preventing further erosion. As we pass the old site of the Iron Bridge, about ten yards further up you may notice a rust coloured exit to an old culvert water course. This crosses the field running behind Forge Cottage on the right. Some 800 yards further upstream is the inlet of the old mill race (described as such on survey maps dating back around 1829). Following the footpath up around the back of the putty heap and along the edge of the field on your right, just as the path turns back to join the riverside path, look over your right shoulder and you will see a part-buried stone arched footbridge in the middle of the field. This is thought to be the only evidence left of the old mill race. In the distance, Forge Cottage can be seen, the race splitting into two just after the sunken bridge – one running left along the edge of Hole Haugh woodland, turning in towards Forge cottage, powering the grind stones, bellows and tilt hammers in the manufacture of fine steel for the sword mill.

The other, thought to have been added later, turns right along the back of the putty heap, filling a square reservoir measuring 230 yards by 70 yards and about 20 feet deep with built-in filter beds. This has long since become overgrown, and is now a birch woodland joined to a large mature pine wood just behind the weir; the only remaining evidence of its original purpose a boundary wall about 2 feet high running along the edge of the path. The reservoir was  even used as a swimming pool and for ice skating in the winter during the inter-war years. It was later used as a rearing pond for juvenile trout by the Derwent Angling Association in the early part of the 19th century, but floods of up to 14ft were not uncommon and trout were often lost due to being washed out. It later fell into disrepair and was filled in around 1960 using soil from the putty heap. (The paper waste which forms the putty heap is home to some rare woodland plants due to high potash content.) There is also a 9 inch cast iron pipe running from the river along the rear of the putty heap which was used to supply fresh potable water to the paper mill, fresh water being a requirement for the production of higher quality paper (the pipe has more recently been cracked deliberately to release water, creating a wetland area at the rear of the putty heap). This is one of several cast iron pipes said to have been laid about this time to supply fresh water to the mills.

Returning to the Iron Bridge, here the river bed is covered in cobble stones for some 100 yards up to the weir, also added by the paper mill owners to prevent erosion. About halfway between the old Iron Bridge and the weir on the north bank are the footings of an earlier wooden bridge. The staithes are about 8ft apart, which would suggest that was possible that this bridge was built to carry a horse and wagon across the river. The pool here lost some of its depth in the flood of 2008 but has long been my favourite pool on the whole of the Derwent – 3ft deep in the middle, and with fast flowing riffles at its head, it holds some nice trout in the tail, and is perfect for summer trout and grayling. It is sheltered from the wind and the main flow was two thirds across from the north cobbled bank, making it perfect for upstream dry fly and nymph fishing for a left-hander like myself. This section of the river is screened by trees, making dappled sunlight on hot summer days. It has a very slippery bank and with a heavy thicket of hawthorn and brambles making fishing right-handed very difficult, a lot of anglers walk straight past, making their way up to the weir, which suits me just fine. Although not as deep as it once was, it still holds a nice head of wild trout, but sadly, very few grayling.

As the trout start to run the river, making their way upstream to the burns of their origin, they encounter several obstacles, including the weir above this pool. The trout will sit in the two small pools beneath the weir waiting for a rise in the water, making them vulnerable to predators like the heron which seems to have taken up residence on the opposite side of the weir, and of course the dreaded cormorants. Sometimes if the rain doesn’t come for a few weeks and the river is low they will drop back, filling my favourite pool (lucky me!). The weir was built to divert water towards the paper mill, on the south side (as the river twists and turns it is difficult to keep determining its compass bearing so just to clarify, it’s the County Durham side of the river I’m talking about) the mill race ran across the field into the mill, the sluice returning back into the river through the arch below The Rush. About 30 yards downstream of the weir on the south side, there is a small square opening which was an overflow for the mill race. The race and overflow have long since been filled in but the square arch remains. From the paper mill across the top of the weir then along the riverside (where the footpath now runs on the north bank) about 200 yards to the putty heaps ran a narrow gauge rail track. The tubs were drawn by horses along this track and the spoils were dumped and then spread out over a substantial area. On top of the weir on the south side, two parallel grooves can still be seen, giving an indication of the gauge of the rail tracks. When the Derwent Iron Company (later known as the Consett Iron Company) was formed in 1864, it drew water some 600 yards above the weir in the CIC pumphouse at Howden Burn, the river below the pumphouse became polluted as the returning water entered the river. This is why so many cast iron pipes were laid underground to supply fresh water, drawing it from further upstream. So the next time you walk the banks of the river, spare a thought for all of those who’ve gone before you.

As industry has long since ceased on the River Derwent, the water quality, in theory, could be as good as it once was 1,000 years ago. The Derwent Angling Association was formed in 1865; on its formation, it was hoped that it would help stop the wholesale slaughter and poisoning of the fish in the river which had prevailed in previous years. Now with conservation at the forefront of our minds and a wild trout section of the river to help preserve our indigenous species, we are taking steps to protect and safeguard the future of both the river and the association.

We must all take responsibility for our actions, as well as reporting pollution incidents and keeping an eye on the general health of our river. The DAA has been around for almost 150 years, the River Derwent has been around for millions of years; we are merely the current custodians. Therefore we have a duty and responsibility to hand it over to the next generation in as good as if not better condition than we found it.

The gods do not deduct from man’s allotted span the hours spent fishing” Herbert Hoover

Ian Colborne
Membership Secretary, Derwent Angling Association