The River Skerne

Darlington town centre stands on the western bank of the River Skerne, a tributary of the Tees. The confluence of the two rivers lies some four miles downstream, at Croft Bridge. The geographical layout of the Skerne Valley was instrumental in dictating the position of the early town which was located at the first point where the river narrowed sufficiently to allow a crossing place which avoided the low-lying marshlands further downstream. The small stream of Cocker Beck flows through the town from the west, meeting with the Skerne at Northgate.

Whilst evidence of prehistoric settlement in Darlington is limited, there is much to suggest that some form of early settlement was established within the locality by the start of the Neolithic period.  Topographical and geological evidence, dating back some 7,000 to 10,000 years, was unearthed during excavations made in the area to the west of Five Arches Bridge and Hutton Avenue footbridge, at the time of the River Skerne restoration project in 1995.

The name of Haughton le Skerne could be translated as the meadow farmstead by the bright stream or river. Haugh is the first element of the name and means riverside meadow and is a common feature of Northumberland and Durham place names. Ton, meaning a farmstead is common throughout England and like haugh is a word of Anglo-Saxon origin. To distinguish the numerous Haughtons, Houghtons and Hettons from each other the French definite article 'le' was added by the Norman aristocracy to help them identify the places which they ruled. The 'le' associates places like Houghton le Spring, Hetton le Hole and Hetton le Hill with adjacent natural features. Of course, Haughton is identified by the nearby River Skerne, a river which adds a Viking element to this particular place name. Skerne derives from the Old Norse, Skirr meaning bright and clear.

River Skerne Connies Seat

River Skerne on the 6th June 2013

Bright and clear might not be words that many of us associate with the Skerne!  But the evidence is there!  At Ferryhill the Convent of Durham had a swan pool.  Also at Ferryhill the monks had a fish pool.  And in 1631 a lease of Cleaves Cross Farm mentions an eel-ark, which was presumable a device for catching eels which were abundant in the Skerne.  In the mid-1800s 12 different species of fish were counted.  The Skerne was famous for its pikes. 

Taking a later view of the course of the Skerne, it’s easy to see where the pollution problems started. The river Skerne rises on Garmondsway Moor, six miles south-east of Durham City, near the old Raisby Hill Lime Works. As it flows past Trimdon Colliery, it is joined by tributaries from Deaf Hill and Station Town. It meanders between Fishburn and Sedgefield, before passing Preston-le-Skerne where it collects Woodham Burn, which rises to the south of Shildon, and includes Rushyford Beck, which flows from Middlestone, Leasingthorne and Chilton.   All of these south Durham communities were pit villages.

Most of the water in the Skerne had flowed out of their pits, picking up large quantities of coaldust, which it dropped as soon as the current slowed.

One area where the river slowed significantly was at the weir at Blackwell Mill.  There it jettisoned its coaldust into the boating lake that the unemployed men of Darlington had dug. Very quickly, the lake silted up.

Darlington council bought a "special appliance" and every 12 months dredged the lake. In between dredges, most of the town's unemployed men were kept employed digging out the coaly sludge.

"I have seen people carting it into their backyards where it is dried and used for fuel" said Alderman William George Chandler, in 1949.

In it’s normal state the Skerne meanders through a wide floodplain. Over past 200 years it has undergone much straightening and deepening for purposes of flood control and drainage.

The course of the Skerne has also been altered mechanically for a variety of commercial purposes.  And as a slow flowing river taking the path of least resistance, the course of the river has changed naturally over the years.  This probably explains the high and dry packhorse bridge at Ketton.

Ketton Pack Horse Bridge

Ketton Pack Horse Bridge, August 2012

Small as the Skerne is, it was commercially vital to the area.  One example of this comes from an extract from Longstaffe’s History and Antiquities of the Parish of Darlington;  It states that  "Its water is so famous for bleaching linen that great quantities have been sent hither for that purpose from Scotland, besides the vast manufactured stock at Darlington".

More evidence of the importance of the Skerne to the economy of Darlington, Haughton and Burdon lies in the fact that in 1810 in the course of 13 miles there were 12 mills on the Skerne; seven for corn, two for spinning yarn, one for woollens, one fulling mill and one for grinding optical glasses.  Our own mill in Haughton owned by John Kendrew was signiificant in the fact that it was the first in the country to be automated. 

The Skerne and one of its bridges has also fairly recently had national exposure – although not a lot of people know that!  It was of course featured on the back of the 5 pound note until just a couple of years ago.  The Skerne Bridge was part of the route of Locomotion No.1 at the opening of the Stockton Darlington Railway in 1825.  

The Skerne Bridge was designed by Ignatius Bonomi who is one of the more influential people in North-East history, although he is often forgotten about.  As well as doing substantial works at Lambton Castle, Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral, he built Durham Prison and courthouse (1810), Eggleston Hall near Barnard Castle (1820), Dinsdale Spa Hotel near Middleton St George (1829), Burn Hall near Croxdale (1821-34), Croft Spa Hotel (1835) and Clervaux Castle near Croft (1842-3).

All but Clervaux Castle (demolished 1951) remain. Burn Hall is regarded as his masterpiece – Queen Victoria called it “the finest looking estate between the Humber and the Tweed” – and it is also likely that he was in charge Windlestone Hall when that was built for the Eden family around 1834.

Ignatius Bonomi is frequently referred to as the first railway architect. 

Something else to gain national interest was the mystery and intrigue that surrounded an area of the Skerne. You will most probably have heard of the infamous Hell’s Kettles. These three, supposedly bottomless pits also known as `Devil's Kettles' have been the subject of numerous egends and superstitions. Said to have been created by a ferocious earthquake in 1179, locals told tales of them being full of green, boiling sulphorous water. People and animals are allegedly drowned or eaten alive by the pikes and eels that infest their waters.  Longstaffe, the 19th century Darlington historian wrote this about them:  "In the reign of Henry II, the earth rose high at Oxendale, in the District of Darlington, (Oxendale is now Oxney flat) in the likeness of a lofty tower, and so remained from nine in the morning until evening, when it sank don with a terrible noise, to the terror of all that heard it, and being swallowed up it left behind a deep pit".

The pits aroused the curiosity of people the length and breadth of Britain and were even visited by the writer and traveller Daniel Defoe, who dismissed them as `old coal pits'. This they certainly are not, as coal has never been mined in the Darlington area.

Benignly, this area is now a nature reserve and area of special scientific interest! 

Over the past 20 years I have spent a lot of time walking my dogs along the Skerne.  In that time I’ve seen a big change.  20 years ago it was still a bit smelly and dirty.  If the dogs went in they had to be bathed.  Over the past 10 years I began to notice a gradual change in the quality of the water.  And it was about 10 years ago I saw my first kingfisher along the stretch near Burdon Bridge.  I have since seen kingfishers on the stretch behind Robinson’s market garden.  Recently I’ve seen quite large fish near the footbridge at the bottom of Mill Lane, and at Barmpton Bridge. 

So things are going full circle – probably mainly due to the demise of many of the industries further upstream, but also due to the tightening of anti-pollution legislation. 

Although the Skerne is hardly big enough to be called a river, it doesn’t let you forget that it’s there!   Much of the time it’s a 6 inch deep trickle running over a gravely bed.  Generations of children have played happily in it, dogs swim in it, ducks paddle around with their broods. But every so often, as many of us have experienced, it has a sudden personality change!  

Written by Pam Walker, Haughton-le-Skerne Local History Society, 10/09/05