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!
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.
Bright 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. 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.
And 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.
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.
As a part of the Development Phase of the Bright Water project we have two guest speakers available to talk to your group, club or community gathering and provide you with more information about the project. You will also give you the opportunity to find out how you can directly participate in some of the exciting projects that will begin in 2018 to unveil the hidden gem that is the Bright Water area.
Aimée Nicholson is the Bright Water development officer who will be working with a variety of community groups and individuals from the autumn of 2016 through to the summer of 2017. She has a background of working in the natural environment, education and with local interest groups.
Aimée will be delighted to provide your group with an overview of the Bright Water’s natural, built and cultural heritage, outline how you can get involved and discuss any ideas you might like to follow up for yourselves. She can also arrange introductions to some of the specialist experts associated with our project if you have a particular area of interest that you would like to explore.
Aimée is happy to come and talk to you at your own venue or, if you prefer, can lead you on a guided ‘walk and talk’ at a number of locations in our area.
Paul Frodsham is an experienced archaeologist of over 25 years specialising in the archaeology of the North of England. He has published a number of books and academic papers and been involved in the development of several Village Atlas projects and local community digs. Paul’s talks, unsurprisingly will focus on Bright Water’s 10,000 year history of settlement and, in particular, its extraordinary role in the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
He will provide a round-up of those Bright Water projects that will be working to reveal and celebrate our history and of how you can become involved.
Paul will also be consulting local groups on our idea of creating a Bright Water Eco Museum. His talks will be of particular interest to local history societies and to those who are interested in participating in community archaeological digs.
To book your Bright Water speaker for the period September 2016 to June 2017, contact Aimée by one of the following methods.
Generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Bright Water Landscape project will run from January 2018 until the end of 2021, with many opportunities for you to become involved – whatever your interest – in revealing the heritage of this fascinating but little known, area.
Help us by researching your local history, by working in your community to put together Village Atlases, by taking part in oral history projects or even by picking up a trowel to help in archaeological digs. If you are interested in our natural heritage, you will be able to volunteer to help in river or wildlife surveys or in the hands on work to restore and manage wetland and grassland nature reserves. You can help us to develop or improve heritage walking trails or cycling routes. Work with us to organise or take part in cultural events and competitions – let’s celebrate the Bright Water area’s heritage in music, art, film or drama.
As you can see from our map, the River Skerne rises amongst the Trimdon, flows seawards towards Hurworth Burn Reservoir and then, uniquely, turns back on itself to flow inland for almost 20 miles until it meets the River Tees, just beyond Darlington, at Croft. Our heritage includes the remains of Neolithic, Iron Age, and Roman settlements. There are fascinating deserted medieval villages, the remains of a Bishop’s castle, his deer park walls and swannery. There are mills and factories, follies and formal parks, beautiful riverside walks and a natural heritage that includes wetland birds, flora and fauna. So much to celebrate, explore and research.
ABOUT THE BRIGHT WATER LANDSCAPE PROJECT AND PARTNERS
The Bright Water Landscape Project is a Heritage Lottery Fund supported project that aims to reveal, restore and celebrate the heritage of the Bright Water area. This includes its built, natural and cultural heritage. The project will run from the beginning of 2018 to the end of 2021, by which time almost £3m will have been invested in our heritage. The section below provides details of some of these exciting projects.
The Bright Water Landscape Partnership is led by Durham Wildlife Trust and Durham County Council. Our other partners include: the Environment Agency, Darlington Borough Council, the Tees River Trust, Highways England, Network Rail, AASDN and various community and local history societies.
As part of the Development Phase of this project, the partnership have commissioned a number of specialist studies of the Bright Water area. As these are completed, they will be published below.