The River Skerne
by David Preston
A brief winding road through time
The River Skerne rises in the limestone hills between Trimdon & Trimdon grange travelling almost 25 miles before joining the River Tees at Hurworth Place.
Along those 25 miles 11 communities have grown up:
Fishburn, Bishop Middleham, Bradbury, Newton Aycliffe, Aycliffe Village, Brafferton, Barmpton, Great Burdon, Haughton le Skerne, Darlington, Haughton Place.
Of these the largest is Darlington and the River played a large part in its growth and accumulation of wealth throughout the Industrial revolution.
While the wealth came from the six different types of mills built on its banks some dating from 1296, corn, paper, wood, fulling, bleaching & thread, it mostly flows through farmland past the fields where the Durham Ox Comet was bred and the Fowlers Steam Plough was developed.
The Skerne is fed by a number of smaller tributaries starting 3 miles from its source with the Hurworth Burn and ending with the Cocker Beck in Darlington. Many of these tributaries pass through the old mining areas of South Durham bringing with it environmental problems that when added to the chemicals from other industries almost killed off life in the river & in 1954 sadly brought about the demise of Darlington’s 2nd boating lake which had silted up due to the coal dust washed down river before being slowed up by the weir at Blackwell Mill allowing the dust to settle (more on this later).
The health of the river continued to deteriorate with disastrous effects on wildlife and warnings from the river authorities about the dangers of bathing in the water; in 1993 environmentalists called it the dirtiest river in the North and called for it to be cleaned up.
In 1995 a £250,000.00 scheme was started to restore the river improving a large section through Darlington and the river is recovering strongly as the effects of industry has diminished and Sea Trout are once again spawning in the upper reaches and otters have been seen at points in Darlington itself.
The Skerne has only changed a little over the years with the exception of its journey through Darlington where big changes have occurred since the 1800’s. The Skerne meandered its way through the town quite often flooding the lower areas and was extremely wide in the centre from Valley Street down to the fields beyond St. Cuthbert’s Church. A bridge with at least 9 arches spanned the river where the current Tubwell Row Bridge stands and just to the north of it was a shallow ford which started where the mill race fed water into one of the mills; there are now 17 bridges spanning the Skerne through Darlington.
In 1840 the town’s main families, the Pease’s, Backhouse’s and Allan’s got together with the town’s MP Henry Vane, the Bishop of Durham & the Duke of Cleveland and paid £119.10sh.0d to improve the river putting in several weirs and narrowing the river, straightening it to improve the flow while reducing the risk of flooding.
In 1874 the river became an election issue & work was undertaken to straighten the river further at Feetham’s taking out a large meandering stretch creating Victoria Embankment; the Park Committee then decided to raise the level of the Skerne through the park by 3’ by building a weir at the end of the Embankment and a dam at that is now called Parkside. This enabled the creation of the first boating lagoon in the park and swimming along the quarter of a mile stretch; they even held a water pole exhibition match watched by some 1300 spectators. It was such a success that the Council decided in 1908 to expand the boating lake; due to the 1st World War the plans were delayed but they bought 22 acres of the Skerne Park estate from the Havelock Allan’s and in 1921 around 250 men who were unemployed created a 10 acre lake holding 12 million gallons of water.
Now in 2013 plans are being made which will once again affect the river and the people of Darlington need to make sure that it’s done well.