Monday, 17 August 2009

Weardale and the River Wear

Weardale is a dale, or valley, of the east side of the Pennines in County Durham, in England. Large parts of Weardale fall within the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) - the second largest AONB in England and Wales. The upper valley is surrounded by high fells (up to 2454 feet O.D. at Burnhope Seat) and heather grouse moors. Before climate change its winters were typically harsh and prolonged with regular snow, taken advantage of by ski-ers using a ski-run at Swinhope Head.

Wildlife includes an important population of Black Grouse along with the more usual upland birds. Sea-trout and salmon run the River Wear. Adders are sometimes encountered on the moors. The flora is not as remarkable as that of neighbouring Teesdale, but in season is beautiful enough: some species-rich meadows remain, and the wood cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum) and meadow cranesbill (G. pratense) are easy to spot in summer while the mountain pansy (Viola lutea) is a characteristic plant of the shorter grass round the upper dale. The tiny but beautiful spring sandwort (Minuartia verna) may be seen around old lead workings, enabled by its high tolerance of lead to colonise ground where contamination inhibits other species.
Past occupation or activity by man is attested by evidence such as the Heatheryburn Bronze Age collection of gold and other objects, now in the British Museum; altars placed by Roman officers who took hunting trips out from forts in present-day County Durham; and the use from Norman times onwards of "Frosterley Marble", a black fossiliferous layer of limestone occurring near that village, as an ornamental material in Durham Cathedral and many other churches and public buildings.



The dale's principal settlements include St John's Chapel and the small towns of Stanhope and Wolsingham. These latter two appear to have existed as Anglo-Saxon settlements before 1066 and the Norman Conquest. The Normans extended farming in this part of the dale, and later in the Middle Ages the upper dale was cleared for "vaccaries" - farms for pasturing cattle. The Bishops of Durham owned the mineral rights: the Church retained these throughout the effective life of the lead industry, miners and companies being lessees.

The River Wear flows through Weardale before reaching Bishop Auckland and then Durham, meeting the sea at Sunderland.

River Wear at Wear Head Weardale

Running roughly parallel to Weardale to the south is Teesdale. The Wear Valley local government district covered the upper part of the valley, including Weardale, between 1974 and 2009, when it was abolished on County Durham's becoming a unitary authority. (From 1894 to 1974 there was a Weardale Rural District). Upper Weardale lies within the parliamentary constituency of North West Durham.
In the c18 John Wesley visited the dale on a number of occasions and the valley became a Methodist stronghold. High House Chapel near Ireshopeburn has been claimed to be the Methodist chapel with the longest history of continuous use in the world, and contains the Weardale Museum (not to be confused with the Lead Mining Museum at Killhope) which includes a room devoted to Methodist and Wesley memorabilia.
As a youth between the World Wars the poet W.H. Auden walked amid the wild countryside and the relics of the lead mining industry in and around Weardale and found these a lifelong source of inspiration. One place he visited, Rookhope, is also the setting of a ballad called "The Rookhope Ryde" which describes in some detail how in 1569 Weardale men drove out a party of cattle-raiders who had come down from the Roman Wall area .
Among contemporary works, Helen Cannam's "The Last Ballad" is a lively historical novel set in the dale in the early 1800s.


Killhope Wheel

Weardale was historically important for lead mining, and there is a lead mining museum incorporating the preserved Park Level Mine at Killhope (pronounced "Killup").
The first documented evidence of mining in the Northern Pennines dates from the 12th century, and records the presence of silver mines in the areas of what are now Alston Moor, just west of Weardale, and Northumberland. Weardale was at this time a forested area and belonged to the Bishops of Durham, who used part of it as a hunting preserve. The villages of Eastgate and Westgate mark the former Eastern and Western entrances to this forest preserve (King, 1982).
Lead mining in Weardale reached its greatest levels during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the London Lead and Beaumont Companies dominated mining throughout the region.

During the 1880’s the declining prices for lead forced both companies to give up their leases in the area, though the Weardale Lead Company continued lead mining and smelting until 1931. According to Dunham (1990), 28 separate lead smelting operations were active in the region during the height of mining in the 19th century, but by 1919 the last major commercial mine had closed.
A major by-product of lead-mining was various crystals including the decorative coloured fluorspar, for which no industrial use was known till the later 1800s. Thereafter it was used in part of the steel-making process and also in the manufacture of non-stick frying pans, CFCs for aerosols, and other products. It is not a precious stone but fine samples are prized by collectors.
At the North of England Lead Mining Museum at Killhope one can see a huge working water wheel, known as the Killhope Wheel. This was installed in the 1870s to power the crushing of grit in tanks in an adjacent building, so as to complete the separation of lead ore from worthless stone. The Museum also exhibits a fine collection of local minerals, as well as "spar boxes" - display cases made by miners to show crystal specimens they had themselves found.
Not only lead, silver and fluorspar were extracted from Weardale.


Large amounts of ironstone were taken especially from the Rookhope area during the Industrial Revolution to supply ironworks at Consett and other sites in County Durham. Local deposits of other minerals were also found on occasion.
The lead mining industry occasioned the coming and going of population. Cornish miners, used to tin-mining, are one group who came to find similar work in the Pennine ore-field; on the other hand, many left Weardale for better-paid jobs in nineteenth century coal mines in the North-East, or emigrated to the New World.

Economy other than mining
After the closing of the lead mines, there were few sources of income for the local population left in the upper dale.
In the lower dale round Stanhope and Frosterley, however, carboniferous limestone was quarried on a large scale from the 1840s, when rail links created with Teesside and Consett enabled it to be carried to these and other places for use in the iron and steel-making processes there. These places included Wolsingham in the lower dale, Tow Law on its fringes, and Witton Park further down the Wear valley. Of these, only a business at Tow Law now persists (2009) as a going concern.
Limestone quarrying continued into and beyond the 1960s, a relatively recent and large-scale development being the quarry serving the Blue Circle cement works near Eastgate, set up in the 1960s. This site has now been decommissioned and the major industry in Weardale is now cattle and sheep farming. Only one mine, The Rogerley Mine, is currently being prospected on a very small scale for mineral specimens.
Ganister (hard sandstone) and dolerite (whinstone, basalt) have also been quarried in the past in Weardale.

Stanhope Station

Weardale had a railway open as far as Wearhead for a brief period from the 1890s, but the section of the line above Eastgate soon closed due to the decline of the lead industry. The remaining line was kept open by cement traffic until the 1990s, after which it was taken over by the Weardale Railway. Passenger services recommenced briefly in 2004, but in 2005 the project went into administration. Trains began running again in 2006, under a new ownership structure. Currently there is a regular daily bus service from Bishop Auckland and Crook to Cowshill at the head of the dale; it is possible at certain times of day to take the bus further on to the Killhope Lead Mining Museum, and to return by bus from it, at those times of the year when the latter is open.
There is a modest tourist industry, and inn/hotel, B&B and self-catering are among the types of accommodation available; there are some caravan sites. There are opportunities for pony-trekking and mountain biking, as well as much scope for the walker.

The River Wear (pronounced /ˈwɪər/ weer) is a river in North East England, rising in the Pennines and flowing eastwards, mostly through County Durham, to the North Sea at Sunderland.

River Wear Valley Map

Map of North East England

Geology and History
The Wear rises in the east Pennines, an upland area raised up during the Caledonian orogeny. Specifically, the Weardale Granite underlies the headwaters of the Wear. Devonian Old Red Sandstone in age, the Weardale Granite does not outcrop, but was initially surmised, and subsequently proved, as a result of the Rookhope borehole. It is the presence of this granite that has both retained the upland nature of this area (less through its relative hardness, and more due to isostatic equilibrium), and accounts for heavy local mineralisation, although it is considered that most of the mineralisation occurred during the Carboniferous period. Mining of lead ore has been known in the area of the headwaters of the Wear since Roman times, and continued into the nineteenth century when it accounts for the early extension of the then-new railways westwards along the Wear valley. Fluorspar, another mineral associated with the intrusion of the Weardale Granite, became important in the manufacture of steel from the late c19 into the c20; previously unwanted dumps of it were taken away for this purpose. Along with overlying Carboniferous Limestone and Carboniferous Coal Measures, both important raw materials for iron and steel manufacture, as well as Carboniferous sandstone, useful as a refractory material, the local presence of fluorspar explains why iron and steel manufacture flourished in the Wear valley, Consett and Teesside during the nineteenth century; ironstone was won from around Consett and Tow Law, then around Rookhope, while greater quantities were imported from south of the Tees. These sources were in due course used up or became uneconomic. Spoil heaps from the abandoned lead mines can still be seen, and since the last quarter of the twentieth century have been the focus of attention for the recovery of gangue minerals, such as fluorspar for the smelting of aluminium. However, abandoned mines and their spoil heaps continue to contribute to the mineral pollution of the river and its tributaries. This has significance because the River Wear is an important source of drinking water for many of the inhabitants along its course. The former cement works at Eastgate, until recently run by Steetley, was based on an inlier of limestone.
The upland area of Upper Weardale retains a flora that relates, almost uniquely in England, to the end of the last Ice Age, although it almost or entirely lacks the particular rarities that make up the unique "Teesdale Assemblage" of post-glacial plants. This may, in part, be due to the Pennine areas of Upper Weardale and Upper Teesdale being the site of the shrinking ice cap. The glaciation left behind many indications of its presence, including lateral moraines and material from the Lake District and Northumberland, although surprisingly few drumlins. After the Ice Age, the Wear valley became thickly forested. During the Neolithic period and increasingly in the Bronze Age, the forests were progressively cleared for agriculture.
It is thought that the course of the River Wear, prior to the last Ice Age, was much as it is now as far as Chester-le-Street. This can be established as a result of boreholes, of which there have been many in the Wear valley due to coal mining. However, northwards from Chester-le-Street, the Wear may have originally followed the current route of the lower River Team. The last glaciation reached its peak about 18,500 years ago, from which time it also began a progressive retreat, leaving a wide variety of glacial deposits in its wake, filling existing river valleys with silt, sand and other glacial till. At about 14,000 years ago, retreat of the ice paused for maybe 500 years at the city of Durham. This can be established by the types of glacial deposits in the vicinity of Durham City. The confluence of the River Browney was pushed from Gilesgate (the abandoned river valley still exists in Pelaw Woods), several miles south to Sunderland Bridge (Croxdale). At Chester-le-Street, when glacial boulder clay was deposited blocking its northerly course, the River Wear was diverted eastwards towards Sunderland where it was forced to cut a new, shallower valley. The gorge cut by the river through the Permian magnesian limestone can be seen most clearly at Ford Quarry.

Walsingham Town

In the 17th edition of Encycloaedia Britannica (1990), reference is made to a pre-Ice Age course of the River Wear outfalling at Hartlepool.
Much of the River Wear is associated with the history of the Industrial Revolution. Its upper end runs through lead mining country, until this gives way to coal seams of the Durham coalfield for the rest of its length. As a result of limestone quarrying, lead mining and coal mining, the Wear valley was amongst the first places to see the development of railways. The Weardale Railway continues to run occasional services between Stanhope and Wolsingham.


River Wear source at Wearhead

Rising in the east Pennines, its head waters consisting of several streams draining from the hills between Killhope Law and Burnhope Seat, the head of the river is held to be in Wearhead, County Durham at the confluence of Burnhope Burn and Killhope Burn.

Burnhope Seat

This is shown on Ordnance Survey maps, and on the County Durham GIS online. However, a map produced by Durham County Council, and used on an interpretation board at Cowshill shows the River Wear extending from Wearhead to Killhope. Excepting that this apparent extension of the Wear is an error, it can be assumed that there are attempts to reclassify Killhope Burn as the River Wear. This would make sense, as it would then give the River Wear a source.

Killhope Burn

The river flows eastwards through Weardale, one of the larger valleys of west County Durham, subsequently turning south-east, and then north-east, meandering its way through the Wear Valley and County Durham to the North Sea where it outfalls at Wearmouth on Wearside in Sunderland. The 60 miles (97 km) from head to mouth. Prior to the creation of Tyne and Wear, the Wear had been the longest river in England with a course entirely within one county. The Weardale Way, a long-distance public footpath, roughly follows the entire route, including the length of Killhope Burn.

Wearhead to Bishop Auckland

The wooded riverbanks of the Wear as it flows from Stanhope to Frosterley

There are several towns, sights and tourist places along the length of the river. The market town of Stanhope is known in part for the ford across the river. From here the river is followed by the line of the Weardale Railway, which crosses the river several times, through Frosterley, Wolsingham, and Witton-le-Wear to Bishop Auckland.

Bishop Auckland to Durham

On the edge of Bishop Auckland the Wear passes below Auckland Park and Auckland Castle, the official residence of the Bishop of Durham and its Deer Park. Castle Chapel

A mile or so downstream from here, the Wear passes Binchester Roman Fort, Vinovia, having been crossed by Dere Street, the Roman road running from Eboracum (now York) to Coria (now Corbridge) close to Hadrian's Wall. From Bishop Auckland the River Wear meanders in a general northeasterly direction, demonstrating many fluvial features of a mature river, including wide valley walls, fertile flood plains and ox-bow lakes. Bridges over the river become more substantial, such as those at Sunderland Bridge (near Croxdale), and Shincliffe. At Sunderland Bridge the River Browney joins the River Wear.


When it reaches the city of Durham the River Wear passes through a deep, wooded gorge, from which several springs emerge, historically used as sources of potable water.

A few coal seams are visible in the banks. Twisting sinuously in an incised meander, the river has cut deeply into the "Cathedral Sandstone" bedrock. The high ground enclosed by this meander is known as the peninsula, forming a defensive enclosure, at whose heart lies Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral and which developed around the Bailey into Durham city. That area is now a UN World Heritage Site.

Beneath Elvet Bridge are Brown's Boats (rowing boats for hire) and the mooring for the Prince Bishop, a pleasure cruiser.

The River Wear at Durham was featured on a television programme Seven Natural Wonders as one of the wonders of Northern England.
In June each year, the Durham Regatta, which predates that at Henley, attracts rowing crews from around the region for races along the river's course through the city. Seven smaller Regattas and Head Races are held throughout the rest of the year, which attract a lower number of competitors. There are 12 boathouses and 20 Boat Clubs based on the Wear in Durha.
Two weirs impede the flow of the river at Durham, both originally created for industrial activities. The Old Fulling Mill is now an archaeological museum. The second weir, beneath Milburngate Bridge, now includes a salmon leap and fish counter, monitoring sea trout and salmon, and is on the site of a former ford. Considering that 138,000 fish have been counted migrating upriver since 1994, it may not be surprising that a family of cormorants live on this weir, and can frequently be watched stretching their wings in an attempt to cool off after feeding. The river's banks also lend their name to a hymn tune Elvet Banks in the LCMS 2006 hymnbook, used (appropriately) for a hymn for baptism.

Durham to Chester-le-Street

Finchale Priory on the banks of the River Wear between Durham City and Chester-le-Street.

Note the wooden footbridge across the river on the right of the photograph.

Between Durham City and Chester-le-Street, 6 miles (10 km) due north, the River Wear changes direction repeatedly, flowing south westwards several miles downstream having passed the medieval site of Finchale Priory, a former chapel and later a satellite monastery depending on the abbey church of Durham Cathedral. Two miles downstream, the river is flowing south eastwards. The only road bridge over the Wear between Durham and Chester-le-Street is Cocken Bridge. As it passes Chester-le-Street, where the river is overlooked by Lumley Castle, its flood plain has been developed into The Riverside, the home pitch of Durham County Cricket Club. Passing through the Lambton Estate (still owned by the Lambton family, and briefly a lion park during the 1970s) the river becomes tidal, and therefore navigable.

Chester-le-Street to Sunderland

River Wear at Washington with Fatfield Hill in the distance

On exiting the Lambton estate the river leaves County Durham and enters the City of Sunderland, specifically the southern/south-eastern edge of the new town of Washington. At Fatfield the river passes beneath Worm Hill, around which the Lambton Worm is reputed to have curled its tail.
Already the riverbanks are showing evidence of past industrialisation, with former collieries and chemical works. A little further downstream the river passes beneath the Victoria Viaduct, (formally called the Victoria Bridge). Named after the newly-crowned queen, the railway viaduct opened in 1838, was the crowning achievement of the Leamside Line, then carrying what was to become the East Coast Main Line. A mile to the east is Penshaw Monument, a local iconic landmark. As the river leaves the environs of Washington, it forms the eastern boundary of Washington Wildfowl Trust.


As the river approaches its outfall into the North Sea, it flows past St. Peter's Campus, University of Sunderland.

Shadows in Another Light, a sculpture in which the shadow cast by a tree represents a hammerhead crane, unique to the Sunderland shipyards, can be seen at the left of this image.
Having flowed beneath the A19 trunk road, the river enters the suburbs of Sunderland. The riverbanks show further evidence of past industrialisation, with former collieries, engineering works and dozens of shipyards. In their time, Wearside shipbuilders were some of the most famous and productive shipyards in the world. The artist L. S. Lowry visited Sunderland repeatedly and painted pictures of the industrial landscape around the river. Three bridges cross the Wear in Sunderland: the Queen Alexandra Bridge to the west, and the Wearmouth rail and road bridges in the city centre.
On both banks at this point there are modern developments, some belonging to the University of Sunderland (St. Peter's Campus; Scotia Quay residences) and to the National Glass Centre. A riverside sculpture trail runs alongside this final section of its north bank. The St Peter's Riverside Sculpture Project was created by Colin Wilbourn, with crime novelist and ex-poet Chaz Brenchley. They worked closely with community groups, residents and schools.
As the river approaches the sea, the north bank (Roker) has a substantial residential development and marina. A dolphin nick-named Freddie was a frequent visitor to the marina, attracting much local publicity. However, concern was expressed that acclimatising the dolphin to human presence might put at risk the safety of the dolphin regarding the propellors of marine craft. The south bank of the river is occupied by what remains of the Port of Sunderland, once thriving and now almost gone.
The River Wear flows out of Sunderland between Roker Pier and South Pier, and into the North Sea

Milburngate Bridge (foreground) and Framwellgate Bridge (background) are respectively modern and ancient. The series of weirs is on the site of an ancient ford, whereas a modern fish-counter on one of the weirs allows the National Rivers Authority to count the fish (mostly trout and salmon) migrating upstream.

The original Wearmouth Bridge, when it was first opened in 1796, was the largest single span bridge in the world, and only the second iron bridge after the one at Ironbridge in Shropshire. It was reconstructed in 1857 and again in 1927 with the addition of a large steel arch support structure to cope with the heavier volume of traffic. It is the last bridge the Wear flows under before it reaches the North Sea.

1 comment:

  1. As a geologist and former resident of the area I much appreciated your post on Weardale. I am also currently involved , as a volunteer, with the WQeardale Railway and just wanted to point out that since May of tghis year we have reopened the whole of the line from Stanhope To Bishop Auckland (15miles) and now run a regular daily passenger service for the community in the Dale and to being visitors the area - see www.