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.

The River Skerne 2016 from Intimation on Vimeo.

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”.

image001

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.

bishops-fen-soggy-fields

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.