Memories of the Skerne by Ian Bond

Credit: blurryphoto@shakytripod
Credit: blurryphoto@shakytripod

A few years ago I watched an interview with Sting where he talked about growing up on Tyneside, with the River Tyne and the ship yards right at the end of his street. This was the inspiration for his debut musical, The Last Ship. We had a river at the end of our street to. It didn’t have boats, (except for the ones we made from packing cases that thankfully we never had the nerve to launch) but it did have bridges. There was the “Five Arches” that carried the main rail line and marked the boundary of our territory between us and the kids from Haughton; there was the bright-blue, “Metal Bridge” that Kev Shields jumped off, years before free-running was thought of; there was “Albert Road Bridge” with the chapel where we went to Sunday School on the one side and the Youth Club once we’d crossed the tracks to the other side; and then there was the other bridge, just downstream from Albert Road. You couldn’t get to that one so we never really took any notice of it or gave it a name.

Credit: Jamie Hall
Credit: Jamie Hall

The river was the Skerne and my Dad’s allotment ran down from Henry Street to meet it. Most of my childhood was spent within a stone’s through of it; in fact throwing things into the Skerne was a fair part of what we did. It wasn’t a “nice” river back in those days, more a muddy canal but it could flood half way up the allotments and commanded respect. As a young child I remember my Dad telling me that it was six feet deep and to prove it he pulled out a large, submerged branch covered in snails and leeches. Looking back I realise that it can’t ever have been more than two feet deep when not in flood but it did the trick.

In those days, snails and leeches were the only wildlife you could see if you peered into it on the occasions that it ran clearer. But times change and the river changed with them, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. I’d be about twelve when the allotments were cleared to make a landscaped amenity area. Before then I’d never seen a Water Vole, which might have been down to the rats that flourished on the allotments, but I saw them quite regularly for the next couple of decades. Now the trees of the landscaping have grown up and shaded all vegetation from the banksides and the Water Voles have gone again.

Credit: Jack Perks
Credit: Jack Perks

Nationally there was a bit of a rash of tree planting in the 70s and 80s, not all of it in the most appropriate places. The ox-bow lake at Rockwell, just round the corner from the Five Arch Bridge had been reduced to a yard of bare mud surrounding a car tyre when it received a make-over that excavated a large pond and several small ones. The benefits were almost instantaneous and I remember my astonishment at seeing my first blue damselflies and not quite believing that anything on my doorstep could be that ridiculously dazzling. Of course the makeover came with the obligatory trees, which I helped plant, and over time the open, damp grassland changed to what looked like your standard, woodland planting block. I had long thought that planting those trees had been a big mistake and one that was in desperate need of rectifying. However a couple of years ago I explored its interior with Darlington Naturalists Field Club. Once inside it was like what I suppose the Okefenokee Swamps to be, an almost primeval feeling, and I realised that this was actually well on its way to being wet woodland, a very rare habitat in these parts.

Credit: Amy Lewis
Credit: Amy Lewis

The 90s saw an even more dramatic change as a European project to naturalise rivers saw the Skerne at Rockwell change course when it was given some kinks and even a couple of backwaters. One of the functions of the backwaters was to provide a nursery area for fish. Whether they do I can’t say but the changes in fish populations on the river must rank among the best of conservation successes. Sticklebacks I knew about, they had re-colonised fairly early and hung about in the shallows. Other course fish were widely rumoured and not unexpected but the photograph of the angler posing with the large Brown Trout that he had pulled from under the Five Arch Bridge drew a gasp of surprise from me. And following the fish has been that ultimate seal of conservation success, the otter. When I was a child there might not have been one closer than Northumberland, now they mark their territories in drains in the town centre.

Credit: Tom Marshall
Credit: Tom Marshall

And as for our un-named bridge; hidden and neglected for years, it turns out that it was one of the most important features of North East history. This was the bridge that carried the first passenger railway, the crossing by the Locomotion later immortalised on the five-pound note. Darlington Council has this year finally got the go-ahead to create a cycle path running along the Skerne, under the “Five Pound Bridge” and into the town centre. Almost two centuries on, we’ll be able to stand where the crowds stood in John Dobbin’s famous picture. Just think what Sting could be writing musicals about if he’d lived down our street.

Ian Bond is a well known  and widely published North East naturalist.

Who were the Aycliffe Angels?

During the period from 1941 -1945 the Royal Ordnance Factory 59 (ROF59) in Newton Aycliffe employed 17,000 people to make munitions to support the war effort, these were mostly women and they became known as the Aycliffe Angels.


The name was coined by Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) during one of his propaganda broadcasts on pirate radio; he claimed that ‘the little angels of Aycliffe will never get away with it’ and made a promise that the Luftwaffe would bomb them into submission. Mentioning the Angels on his broadcast just highlighted how important their work was and how concerned the Nazis were about their contribution to the war. Thankfully the threats were never carried out and none of the infiltration attempts from Nazi spies succeeded.

Despite knowing the history of the factory and what the workers did we do not know a great deal about these ‘Angels’. The factory was kept highly secure and secretive because of the importance of the work being carried out there, jeopardising the secrecy of the factory could have had huge implications on the war. What information we do have is sourced from anecdotal accounts of workers who told stories of their days of working at ROF59 to their families; these stories have then been retold and passed down through the generations.

We know that the work was highly dangerous and the factory had a number of accidents, one of which killed 8 women. There was a high level of camaraderie between the workers due to the intense environment in which they were working, friendships made here lasted a lifetime and some of the workers even met their future husbands through friendships forged at ROF59! The workers never knew what time they would get back to their families at the end of their shift; this was because the time of the train home was changed each day to ensure that the workers were safe from their train being bombed by the Luftwaffe.

Do you have any stories about the Aycliffe Angels? We would love to hear them!

To share your story contact Aimée Nicholson on one of the following methods, she would love to hear from you.

Telephone: 07484 093409 or 0191 584 3112

The Durham Ox

To many people the ‘Durham Ox’ is simply the name of pubs up and down the country. But where did the Ox come from and why was it so important?

The Durham Ox was a Shorthorn bred here, in the Bright Water area, in 1796 by Charles Colling of Ketton Hall who was a one time pupil of the great Robert Bakewell, the famous breeder of Longhorn cattle.  Charles, together with his brother Robert, who farmed nearby at Barmpton, played a key part in the Agricultural Revolution due to their innovations in stockbreeding.


The Durham Ox was famous for its massive size with contemporary estimates ranging between 171-270 stone (or over 1700kg)! Such was the interest in this beast that a special cart, drawn by 4 horses was built so that he could be shown all over the country. In just one day in London, admission charges to see him amounted to the staggering sum of £97 – a vast sum at a time when the average weekly wage of a farm labourer was 9/- (45p).
Thousands of prints were sold of this handsome beast and his portrait was even used to sell a range of pottery! Sadly, five years into this show business career, the ox injured a hip getting out of his vehicle and had to be slaughtered. Not, however, before dozens of the Inns at which he had stopped on his journey had changed their original names to that of the “Durham Ox” in honour of his visit.

The Durham Ox was then followed by another famous bull named “Comet” which,in 1810, was sold by Charles Colling for the then record breaking sum of 1,000 guineas. Animals bred by these brothers and by other local farmers went on to be exported all over the world.

In the second edition [18xx] of Stephen’s landmark “Book of the Farm” the editor had this to say:

“It is acknowledged by all that the Shorthorn has abundantly earned the right to the premier position amongst British breeds of cattle. It is by far the most numerous, as it is the most widely diffused. More wealth is bound up in it than in any other variety of bovine race. In the development of the livestock industry of the United Kingdom it has played a great part, far exceeding that of any other distinct class of animals. And the breed has done more than develop wealth at home. It has gone in vast numbers to foreign countries, bringing in exchange foreign gold to British farmers, and creating wealth, and promoting agricultural prosperity wherever it has been given a habitation…”

“…This breed was probably in more or less complete possession of Durham and North Yorkshire for two or three hundred years before it began to attract the attention of outsiders..”

And it wasn’t just the Collings brothers from our area who did so much –

“Among Shorthorn improvers of the earlier part of the eighteenth century, high positions must be given to …Waistell of Great Burdon; John Hunter of Hurworth – breeder of the remarkable bull “Hubback”; Stephenson of Ketton…These men…prepared admirable materials for the great breeders, the brothers Charles Colling of Ketton (1750-1836) and Robert Colling of Barmpton (1749-1820)…”

He went on to summarise:

“Looking back, it is practically impossible for any student of Shorthorn affairs to over-estimate the importance of the work done by the brothers Colling.”

Story of a Changing Landscape

No part of the North East has seen more dramatic changes in its landscape than that of the Bright Water area. As you can see from our map, this is the land that surrounds the River Skerne and its tributary burns.

Rising near Hurworth in the North, the Skerne flows east for a short distance towards the sea before turning back on itself to head inland, eventually joining the Tees beyond Darlington at Croft. Reputed to be the only English river that flows inland, the Skerne was originally much wider and shallower than the narrow watercourse we see today. How was it formed and how did it change?

Many thousands of years ago, powerful glaciers moved over the land carving a wide bowl into its surface. As the climate grew warmer and the ice melted, a large glacial lake was left behind on the flat central plain. Over succeeding millennia, this lake became what we know today as ‘the Carrs’ – a rich, vast, wetland through the centre of which meandered the Skerne.

Early settlers built on the higher ground that fringed the pools, reeds and marshy meadows and on a number of islands that pierced the watery landscape close to the river. A quick look at a modern map will reveal the names of Great Isle (later the home of the Lord of Bradbury and the Isles), Little Isle, Island Farm and, next to it, the raised ground at Bishop Middleham that was the site of one of the Prince Bishop’s ‘castles’. Some of the foundations of this building – in reality more of a fortified manor than castle – can still be seen today along with the almost complete medieval wall that snaked around his surrounding Deer Park.

Elsewhere in the Britain, the draining of wetlands, which had started with the Romans, was continued by Anglo-Saxon farmers and then accelerated in the Tudor period by the enclosures of land by expanding landowners. However, the vast post-glacial area of Bright Water’s fens and marshes remained little changed up until the 19th century when the ingenuity and innovation of local farmers and industrialists not only led to a radically changed landscape but helped to create the modern world.

image-john-olleyBright Water farmers had long been renowned for the quality of their Teeswater sheep and the development of shorthorn cattle since Tudor times. Both of these thrived on the rich pasture lands of the wetland fringe. (Click here for the story of the famous ‘Durham Ox’.) In the 19th century, these innovative people responded to an era of recurrent food shortages, and the needs of a rapidly growing population, by draining the Carrs to turn them into a fertile arable landscape whose striking flat profile we can see today as we drive up and down the A1. The original wide, lazy meanders of the river and its burns were straightened and deepened until, in parts, the Skerne began to look like any other narrow drainage ditch.

About this same time, to the north and west of our area, local industrialists were among the first to adopt new, advanced, pumping systems that enabled the sinking of coal pits to levels far deeper than before. The action of these pumps added to the drying out of the wider area’s farmland over the next century and a half.

These mines, together with a variety of factories and mills that harnessed the power of the Skerne along its length, led to yet further changes in the landscape. Towards the north of our area, what were once small pithead settlements expanded to become large villages with some even morphing into small towns. The pit wheels and slag heaps of all of these formed a bleak black necklace around the northern fringe of our Bright Water area.

In the 20th century, coke works and chemical works discharged poisonous waste into the waters of the Skerne. The farmers of the post-war period were encouraged to use increasingly effective modern pesticides and herbicides on their crops to improve yields and bring down prices. Run off from these, together with the output from waste treatment plants, contributed further nitrates and phosphates to the toxic mix flowing into the Skerne. The river’s former, rich, wildlife and flora struggled to survive and by the late 1970s and early 1980s the River Skerne itself was condemned by some as “amongst the dirtiest rivers in Europe”.


But things are changing and gradually our once glorious landscape is being restored – both by the efforts of man and by those of nature itself. In the decades since the 1980s, the pits have closed down and magnificent restoration projects have wiped away the worst of their former impact on the landscape. A number of now disused mining or quarrying sites have even become important nature reserves supporting rare or endangered species. (Click here for details of Bishop Middleham Quarry.)

castle-lake-bird-islandsAnd something else is happening in what was once a magnificent wetland – the landscape, particularly in the lowest lying areas close to the River Skerne, is trying to return to its original wetland character. Whilst it will never become the extensive area of fen and marsh it once was, the combination of rising ground water (due to the turning off of the pumps in the deep shaft mines 30 years ago) and increased surface water from the higher rainfall caused by recent climate change, means that parts of our area are once again becoming wetter.


Many of you will have noticed how heavy rainfall results more and more in quite extensive flooding, particularly of the fields close to the river and its burns. In a number of places, what were once temporary pools are now becoming semi-permanent ponds, drying up only in the warmest summers. Where the ground water has already reached surface level, ponds have increased to become small lakes and now appear on the latest editions of OS maps. Birds and wildlife that haven’t been seen for many decades (or even for centuries in the case of egrets, bitterns, avocets and grebes) are gradually returning to find refuge, in this Bright Water area.

From 2018-2021 Bright Water will be working with its partners and local landowners to build on the opportunities these changes present. About a third of our Programme’s activities will be focussed on activities to restore this natural heritage to the benefit of the people and wildlife of our area. Click here to find out how you can join us to explore and celebrate this changing landscape.

Global Transport Revolution


Almost 200 years ago, on 27 September 1825, George Stephenson pulled 6 passenger wagons of invited guests, 14 wagons of workmen and 6 coal and flour wagons behind his famous steam engine Locomotion No 1. Its journey across the River Skerne in Darlington, on the iconic bridge built by Ignatius Bonomi , was later commemorated in a famous painting by John Dobbin and, in the late 20th century, on the back of the 1990 version of the £5 note.

This was a crucial event in railway history – for many, it was the beginning of the world’s modern railways, an innovation that revolutionised not only the transport industry but, literally, opened up vast new worlds.

The Bright Water area has two fascinating museums for those who are interested in railway history. The Head of Steam on North Road in Darlington houses Stephenson’s original Locomotion No 1 engine and many other interesting exhibits. This is located in the old North Road Station and is 5 mins way away from the famous £5 note bridge.

(This Grade II* listed bridge is in something of a sorry state due to graffiti and the close proximity of unsightly gas pipes but a number of local groups hope to make improvements in the near future.)

Locomotion at Shildon is split between two sites including the former home of Timothy Hackworth, thought by some to be an even more important figure than Stephenson in the evolution of the railways. Here you can see an outstanding collection of original engines spanning almost 200 years.

2025 will see the bicentenary of the Stockton-Darlington railway and will be commemorated by many events in our area. The Bright Water Landscape project will include activities to celebrate this momentous local achievement.

Some of the railway tracks in the Bright Water area date from the 1850s and parts of the area’s railway embankments still float across its marshy ground by means of an ingenious ‘raft’ that incorporates bags of ‘shoddy’ (low grade wool or cotton) – the original ‘shoddy work’! For a more detailed assessment of Bright Water’s railway heritage, see pp69-74 of our Heritage Audit.