The Sneep: In pursuit of wild trout (Part 1)

By Ian Colborne

The Sneep (Snape)
There Derwent reluctantly leaves
A scene so delightfully rare,
And winds his fond arms, and receives
Each wave in the wonder to share.
John Carr (1732-1807), Ode To The River Derwent
The first mention in print of The Sneep, in the time of Bishop Pudsey, who granted it to the Convent of Durham in the 13th century

As membership secretary of the Derwent Angling Association and a club member for nearly 35 years, as anyone who knows me will confirm, I am very passionate about the River Derwent. I have fished it since I was a young boy, spending most of my spare time on the river, which means most nights throughout the summer (and yes, I do have a very understanding wife).

The Sneep snakes its way through an almost canyon-like gorge, creating horseshoe after horseshoe, carved out by the last ice age and five million gallons of water per day sweeping through Snape Wood past Fox Hills and West Crag before finally emerging at Narrow Comb Wood near Muggleswick. It is home to roe deer, hoverfly (a sure sign of an ancient woodland), sessile oak and a few broad-leafed orchids, but it’s the wild brown trout I’m most interested in. As the wildest, most rugged section of the river, this place is always my first thought when approached by new members who want me to take them wild trout fishing. It’s not for the faint-hearted though.

Muggleswick Gorge, through which The Sneep winds its way, has been home to many mines over the centuries. Lead and silver were first discovered by the Romans and mined in the Derwent valley long before iron ore was discovered. Later, lead, coal and silver were all extracted from the hand-dug mines which cut deep into the hillsides of the East and West Crags. The most famous of these was Silvertongue, situated about half a mile downstream of the last surviving – and still inhabited – lead mill cottage. In 1624, King Charles I granted the mine to the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, who mined its rich seams for silver and lead; it produced 30 ounces of silver for every tonne of lead mined. The Duke didn’t live to make the most of his good fortune however, as he was stabbed to death just three years later after an argument with a drunken sailor in a Portsmouth pub. The rights were sold to the London Lead Company, who mined it into the 19th century.

The lead ore was transported on the backs of the pack horses out of the gorge and along dirt tracks, and on to Ryton, where The Ryton Company had perfected a process for refining silver from the ore. But it was a long and arduous journey and moving the smelt mills closer to the mines was the obvious answer. Some of these mills are still standing, with remains evident along the Derwent valley.

My first memory of The Sneep is as a 12-year-old boy, while out fishing with John Hope, a neighbour and work colleague of my dad. John was a dark-haired, laid-back man in his late twenties, tanned from a life spent outdoors. He was an excellent angler and well respected on the River Derwent. He also seemed to know the name of every species of flora and fauna. He later went on to be the Derwent Angling Association’s secretary for more than 15 years. John was never in a hurry and could take 15 minutes to roll a cigarette and 20 minutes to smoke it, but he was a great teacher and it was him I credit for me catching my first brown trout. The first thing he taught me was to not start fishing straight away, but to slow down and watch the river for a while first, something I still do now. It didn’t take me long to realise I was never going to tire of a sport where no two days were ever the same. When people say to me these days, Don’t you find angling incredibly time consuming?, I say, Yes, but that’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it? This is an answer only an angler would understand though.

John and I would catch the early morning bus from the Kings Head pub in Shotley Bridge, going through Snods Edge and Carterway Heads, finally arriving at the Derwent Bridge next to the entrance of the Derwent Reservoir. We would already be dressed in our waders, carrying all the equipment needed for the day ahead. It was John, in fact, who gave me my first pair of waders. They were made from black rubber and two sizes too big for me, and had patches on them made from car inner-tubes held on with araldite. They were very heavy and hard to walk in – none of your breathable lightweights in those days – and don’t forget I had an eight-mile hike to get home.

My first fishing rod was a glass fibre two-piece 8’ 5#, with the bottom section finished in olive varnish and the top in brown. This was because earlier in the year on my birthday my dad had been demonstrating to a friend how flexible it was and snapped the top section. So a replacement had to be found. I wasn’t too bothered about the different colours and used this rod for another couple of years until I started a paper round and treated myself to a new one. All I cared about in those days was that I was going fishing with the best angler I knew. Little did I know I was about to embark on a hobby that would consume most of my thoughts in my spare time, and quite a few in work time as well.

“Calling fly fishing a hobby is like calling brain surgery a job”
Paul Schullery

We would fish down through Eddy’s Bridge past Bells Wood on to the corner pool. This pool has a 90 degree bend with bullrushes growing on the outside of the bend (John explained that they were actually reed mace, but I still call them bullrushes). Then further downstream to Crooked Oaks, where we would then climb out of the valley away from the river and walk down the lane and pick up the river again at Comb Bridges. When I asked him why we weren’t going to follow the river he said it was too dangerous and that we didn’t have time. (I always suspected he was keeping the place for himself to fish.) I asked him what it was called and he said “The Sneep” but never offered any explanation as to why it might be called that.

The name intrigued me and still does to this day. The original name – Snape – was probably Celtic and was in use when the Romans controlled this land, or pre-450 AD before the Angles invaded the North East. In the old text books, dated 1860 to 1900, the Snape was spelt Sneap, which is closer to the modern-day spelling, so as with most place names clearly people through the ages have simply been spelling the word how they’ve been saying it.

It wasn’t until years later that I explored the Sneep in pursuit of wild trout and fell in love with this gorge. To fish the Sneep thoroughly you need to allow yourself best part of a day as it is so steep sided that once in there you cannot climb out. When I fish it with a friend we tend to leapfrog each other, taking alternate pools as we work our way up the river to cover all of the water. It is always best to fish this area with a partner as there has been a story going around the club for the last 20 years about a man fishing up there on his own who fell and broke his leg. (This was long before people carried mobile phones, some of which are unable to get a signal down there anyway.) Rumour has it, it took him five hours to crawl to the nearest farmhouse.

My friend and regular fishing partner James and I like to fish the Sneep at least four or five times a year. James is the keenest angler I know and would fish the Derwent in any weather seven days a week, and usually in a T-shirt if he could. At 17 years my junior he reminds me of myself in my late twenties, as he leaps over fallen trees and crawls through the undergrowth with boundless energy.

We park at the roadside about 100 yards above the old stone cottages at Crooked Oaks in Wallish Walls. We then pass through the gate of the old 17 century farmhouse with its milk churns outside and 1684 carved in the lintel above the front door. It also has the regulation farm dog on a length of chain who never seems to pleased to see you. Then past the dilapidated out-buildings, bearing left down the lane through Muggleswick Wood, and start to fish in the pool below the single span high level steel bridge, which replaced the old wooden one used by the miners next to Lead Mill Cottage. There are new owners in the cottage these days. I haven’t met them yet but I have met their dogs, one of which is a boxer called Rocky. The other is a rather excitable Dalmatian type dog, who either doesn’t like fishermen or can smell fear. I haven’t decided which yet.

All the land in this area once belonged to the Brigantes, a large Celtic tribe who controlled Northern Britain in pre-Roman times, and it is their language – Celtic – which is the root of many of our local place names. Muggleswick, for example, means Mocla’s wick – the farm belonging to Mocla, a descendent of a Celtic chieftain. At this time the river Derwent also had a Celtic name – dere went – meaning a “river where oaks grew”.

The North was later invaded by Germanic speaking Anglo-Saxons who referred to the native Britons as Welsh, meaning foreigner. Many ancient Britons fled west to escape the Anglo-Saxons and their place of refuge became the country we know today as Wales. Some Welsh however were brave enough to stay behind and their presence is remembered in place names containing the elements Wel or Wal. This has led to the theory that Wallish Walls near Consett could mean the Welshman’s Wall or Wesh-Welsh but in the 17th century it was called Twoe Walliges, which means “of the Welshman”. Nearby Durham Field, like Wallish Walls, is just outside the County Durham boundary in Northumberland but the land here may once have belonged to the monastery or Durham Cathedral. Crooked Oak refers to an oak that stood in a crook or bend of the River Derwent. (Just for good measure, a house nearby is said to have been inhabited by a witch.)

So far as the fishing goes, a word of advice is that it’s not generally worth making the trip up there before the middle of May. This is when the trout seek out the faster, more oxygenated water as the weather warms up. Before then the place seems devoid of fish. (I say trout, because I have never caught a grayling there.)

As a rule of thumb, an 8’ 4# rod is perfect for fishing these pocket waters. Pocket water, for those who have never come across this term, is just as it sounds: steep, fast pools jumbled with rocks and fallen trees, plenty of deep holes scoured out by short, fast riffles and mini plunge pools, filled with large and small pockets of slack water for the wild trout to hide in. Some people avoid pocket water, going for the longer slower pools where they see the occasional trout rise, but the majority of the fish are in faster water at this time of year. The Sneep only has a few large pools to speak of, so it’s in these faster areas we need to concentrate our efforts.

In the pursuit of wild brown trout I arm myself with a Hardy Marvel 7’ 11” 4#, a mid- to tip-action rod perfect for the short casts and flicks needed to fish in a restricted area, with its overhanging oaks and large boulders. It also gives the little trout a chance to show off a bit.

The Hardy Marvel was never manufactured for the English market but for delicate presentation to a shy species of Japanese trout called yamame (a relative of the brook trout). Light line fishing for this species is considered an art form in its own right in Japan and this rod became very popular over there and is sought after by purists worldwide. My own rod is actually now only 7’ 10” as I snapped the top spigot while playing a larger trout further down the river at Shotley Bridge. I have experimented with longer rods in this gorge but found them more of a hindrance than a help. The reel is pretty much irrelevant as you never have more than a few yards of line out at any one time and the fish have nowhere to run so there is no need for disc drag.

We always fish barbless on the Derwent and promote catch and release. As Lee Wulff once said, “game fish are too valuable to only be caught once”. A 13” trout is a whopper up there but do beware as in some of the deeper pools you may from time to time come across an occasional escapee rainbow trout from the reservoir which will be much larger. If you do happen to hook a big rainbow, try and position yourself downstream of it, as this way it has the current of the river to contend with as well as the pressure from the rod. (Which reminds me of the time I was fishing for salmon and sea trout on the River Wear at Eastgate in a flood and one of us hooked a Maclaren folding pushchair and was convinced it was a big salmon. He finally landed it 50 yards downstream after a ten-minute fight in the fast water!)

Read part 2