With the trout fishing season in North East England now underway, there’s no time like the present for Part Two of our Spring Fly Fishing feature on Northumbrian Rivers. This time, we’re visiting the River Derwent, a tributary of the Tyne that flows for thirty miles along the County Durham/Northumberland border from former lead-mining country in the foothills of North West Durham to the confluence with its larger neighbour close to the Metro Centre in Gateshead. Once again, we’ll take a walk, from the upstream end down, along the banks of one of the main angling clubs, The Axwell Park & Derwent Valley Angling Association, whose waters stretch some eight miles from pastoral Lintzford all the way to the industrial fringes of Tyneside.
Indeed the Derwent is a ‘good’ example of a river that’s suffered greatly from industrial pollution in the past, yet has made a remarkable recovery to rank among the finest trout streams in the whole North East. A full account of this river’s fascinating history since 1865, from an angling perspective, can be found at The Fishing Archives website (http://www.fishingarchives.com/) in “River of Eternal Youth” (Parts One to Three), a series of articles featured in the ‘Angling Culture’ section.
The river rises above the Northumberland village of Blanchland, flowing due east before discharging into the popular day ticket trout fishing mecca, Derwent Reservoir, near Ruffside Hall. Below the dam, some four miles downstream of Ruffside, the river swings south east towards Eddy’s Bridge where it accepts releases from two other much smaller reservoirs, Hisehope and Smiddy Shaw, via the Hisehope Burn. From here, the Derwent settles into a more or less continuous north easterly direction, passing the villages of Allensford, Shotley Bridge, Ebchester, Blackhall Mill and Lintzford. By this point, it has acquired the runoff from four significant tributary streams and is of a width similar to the Wansbeck at Morpeth, a size it retains for the next ten or so miles to its confluence with the tidal river Tyne.
For angling purposes, the lower river, from Lintzford down to its tidal reaches, is preserved more or less continuously by the Axwell Park & Derwent Valley Angling Association, an angling club that takes its name from an old colliery of the same name situated at the bottom end of the valley. APDVAA was founded in 1928 by miners that worked at the Axwell Park Pit, leasing bankspace on the river around the nearby villages of Winlaton Mill, Lockhaugh and Rowlands Gill.
The Derwent is, by nature, a trout stream. Except for its short tidal stretch, it lacks any of the coarse species found in the River Tyne and even its thriving grayling stocks are the result of introductions just before the turn of the twentieth century (see River of Eternal Youth, Part One). Indeed there isn’t much on the Derwent that might appeal to any angler without a fairly traditional approach to the fundamentals of game fishing. APDVAA’s upstream neighbour, the Derwent Angling Association, totally prohibits the use of any kind of non-fly fishing equipment (although the upstream worm is permitted after July 1st), and while Axwell Park allow more all-encompassing methods for worm fishing after June 1st, this is only on those short sections of the river adjoining the parks at Rowlands Gill and Derwenthaugh. The rest of the river remains fly-only all season-long and few members are ever seen carrying bait rods.
The APDVAA’s water commences not far below a large weir at Lintzford, about half a mile upstream of Rowlands Gill. This stretch runs along the left bank though a deep wooded gorge topped by the A694 Shotley Bridge road and is the haunt of many a good-sized trout and grayling in its darkened waters. Parking is available on a redundant section of old road, alongside the A694, at the upstream end of Lintzford and, although access along the riverbank from the opposite end of the hamlet is possible (go past the stone bridge and the path begins just downstream of some newer houses), this route is treacherous in places. A less surefooted angler would be better advised to follow the footpath that accompanies the main road as it snakes back towards Rowlands Gill and then take the track on the right that leads down to the river just before the sign for the village. This path takes you straight down to a series of deeper pools at the bottom end of the stretch that are enshrouded by overhanging foliage – the inaccessible nature of this half-mile beat’s numerous glides and deeper sections certainly lends itself to the better quality of its inhabitants. Be warned however, the rocks can be treacherous and the pools deepen very sharply in places, so take extra care and maybe even a wading stick on this section!
The Lintzford beat lasts about half a mile to the edge of Rowlands Gill and after a half-mile break because of bankside housing, the fishing resumes on that side beneath an old railway viaduct that now carries the Derwent Walk country path from Gateshead to Consett, in addition to the Coast to Coast Cycleway from the Tyne Piers to St. Bee’s Head in Cumbria. The river makes a wide left hand turn here, creating an extensive far bank deep that can be productive to a well presented fly, despite the sedate nature of the flow.
The slow current is caused by a small weir situated on the downstream edge of a road arch about two hundred yards below the viaduct, the bridge carrying the B6314 to Burnopfield. It is at this point that Axwell Park’s water commences on the right hand bank, at the beginning of land belonging to the National Trust’s Gibside Estate. Parking here is free – not in Gibside, but in a rubble car park just off the B-road next to the start of the Derwent Walk on the Rowlands Gill side – access to the slower section beneath the viaduct is by going down the track that leads down the hill from this car park.
From the bridge, the water on the Rowlands Gill bank is available to fairly inexpensive day tickets that can be bought at the caravan park shop about quarter of a mile downstream. The far bank (Gibside) is members only, although day tickets that allow access to all the association’s waters can be obtained at a slightly greater cost. The river from here down to Lockhaugh Meadows can also be fished using the Tyne Angling Passport (http://www.tyneriverstrust.org/index.php/home/what-we-do/conservation/tyne-angling-passport).
The first feature is the weir pool, a swim best fished from the right bank, not least because of the fact that the park side is often overrun with tourists in the warmer months – including those with a tendency to paddle and throw sticks for dogs to chase into the water! Consequently, the best time to fish here is either early or late but, with the bank on the estate side extremely steep, if you do decide to fish during the day, you should at least have that bank all to yourself.
Which is just as well – as the other consideration is that the only way to fly fish effectively is off that side! In conditions of normal flow, the current running over the obstruction passes through the arch nearest to the right bank, flowing diagonally beyond the crest of the weir before forming a back-eddy that slides serenely past rocks on the park side that belie the sudden depths the pool plumbs.
The depth on the fishable side is quite obvious – and sudden – with a brisk current lasting twenty to thirty yards even in low water conditions. Close to the weir, the pool fishes well in early season to a weighted fly presented upstream in the Czech Nymph style. Try the GBHE or Pheasant Tail in tandem with a March Brown, early doors, with the brown replaced by a black pattern later on. Towards the tail, with the depth decreasing slightly and current subsiding, ‘across and down’ in the traditional wet fly mode is best and, of course, the whole feature can be fished – at the right time of year – with a dry.
The choice of fly you’ll need to make is commensurate with most north country trout streams, but once the fly life on the river begins to stir (usually from about April onwards) olive patterns will become a mainstay of the Derwent angler’s fly box, with the large dark olive Baetis rhodani a prolific feature on spring days, as described by Derwent Angling Association secretary, Alan Farbridge, whose excellent article “A Year on The River Derwent” is also well worth a look: http://www.derwentangling.co.uk/about/a-year-on-the-river-derwent/ . Into April and May, hawthorn flies will often stray onto the water in large numbers and in late-May, the mayfly will become a brief but very important factor in the diet of this river’s trout.
Downstream of the weir pool, the river becomes a quick succession of glides and shallow pools until it starts to deepen ahead of a sharpening right hand bend downstream of the caravan park. The river begins to meander quite markedly here, retaining a reasonable depth while sharp bends produce several tantalising runs. Be careful here, though, as electric wires cross the river at several points, including one of the better looking spots!
Access to this part of the river can be from either bank, although wading across is impossible for some distance, owing to the depth. The right bank can be followed by walking up the access road for Gibside before climbing over a gate into an open field. You can then follow the fence on your left that marks the top of the bank, climbing through at several points as the river swings round to the right.
The left bank is less straightforward here. Access from Rowlands Gill Park is easy but after the caravan site, right of entry is blocked due to a conservation area and it’s a fair walk from here to get to the next section of bank (an annexe) on that side. Firstly, follow the main A694 towards Newcastle for about quarter of a mile, then bear right onto the Derwent Walk, going towards Swalwell. Follow this path for another half a mile, then bear right again through a gate, at an old railway bridge, before taking the metalled lane to the right down a long hill. This access road leads to a car park for bird watchers and access to the river is possible by following a path past a small pond with a bird hide.
Whilst the left bank is interrupted again by another conservation area, the opposite bank is continuous right through Gibside, although deviations away from the river may be necessary in places due to the rough nature of the terrain. There are paths; however, to achieve a complete passage through to Lockhaugh Meadows, with several highly productive runs en route, including ‘the wall’ where the main footpath comes right alongside the river. Soon the Derwent, which has been almost straight for about a mile, begins to meander again as it hits a succession of rocky outcrops which in turn produce several highly productive pools.
By this point we have reached Lockhaugh Meadows, the fishing on the left bank has resumed, and the river must be forded if following it downstream from the Gibside estate, this being possible at a set of rapids immediately down from where the river begins to swing round to the right. The Gibside beat quickly becomes inaccessible due to high banks, as the Derwent snakes first right and then left in a sweeping 180-degree turn that lasts little over quarter of mile, before passing back under the former railway at the majestic Nine Arches Viaduct. The bank-side foliage, which has been intermittent on the straight section, becomes far denser here, but a fly can still be placed over most lies with careful casting.
A gently undulating open field on the inside of the bend affords easy access to the left bank (which can also be reached by continuing on the Derwent Walk, as before, for an extra half mile, then turning right before the viaduct), the first big pool commencing where the river rushes over a limestone sill at the bottom of the rapids you can cross, forming what is almost a natural weir pool. This feature is around forty yards long and up to eight feet deep in places, courtesy of the relentless rush of water. By the bottom end of the pool, the river is already being pushed back to the left by the towering right hand bank, making the whole run an ideal place for casting wet flies and nymphs across and down. At the tail, the current is forced over another set of rapids and arrives at the next much shallower pool after rushing through another limestone outcrop. This pool is almost the same length as its upstream neighbour but is almost straight and because of this, its depth and stronger current, is less prolific, although it is always the home of a good number of trout.
Once again the river rushes through rocks, with deep pools containing fast water that will fish to a heavy fly as it swings left in a relentless arc beneath the high banks on the far side. At last, about two hundred yards upstream of the viaduct, the river enters a more sedate phase, lunging under one last far-bank limestone shelf before slowing into a couple of slower, shallower pools in the shadow of the nine arches.
The fishing ceases here on both banks for about quarter of a mile and access into neighbouring Derwenthaugh Park (the former site of Derwenthaugh Coke Works) is by ascending the steps to the left of the river and crossing over the viaduct. Immediately on the other side, a metalled path on the left (signed as the C2C cycleway) drops back down to the river, the point at which it comes alongside the right hand bank being the place where fishing recommences. The river here is swinging back round in the opposite direction to its course on the upstream side of the viaduct, the tall hill on the inside of the bend being what remains of the coke works’ former slag heap. There are several good pools here before the river slows on approach to a small weir called High Dam, an obstruction which used to divert service water to both the coke ovens and their predecessor, Crowley’s Iron Works.
This weir pool is much shallower than both the one at Rowlands Gill and the top pool in the meander at Lockhaugh Meadows, but nevertheless it will hold fish. Just get there early! However, there are more productive pools just downstream which are far less accessible to both kids and visitors to the park.
One such spot is just downstream of a sharp left hand bend, two hundred yards below the stone footbridge over which you will just have crossed. Take the path that follows the river downstream and after the bend, just before another smaller bridge crosses the outlet from an ornamental pond on your left, turn right down a narrow dirt track that takes you right down to the river. Upstream of the place where the outflow joins the main river, there is a long pool that will fish to all the methods already described – at all times of the season.
The fishing from here on downstream is mostly from both banks, the left bank adjacent to Derwenthaugh Park remaining similar in nature all the way to the bottom of the fishery, and the right bank consisting mainly of open fields with a couple of brief interruptions. Access here is relatively easy on both sides, the only hazard being a row of electricity pylons whose wires cross the river about three quarters of a mile below High Dam. However, there is less bankside foliage on those parts of the right bank where you can fish, and you should, in theory, be able to progress from pool to pool unimpeded by park-goers. Unfortunately, crossing the river on this beat has been made extremely difficult of late owing to the collapse, during the September 2008 floods, of the Butterfly Bridge that used carry the Clockburn Lonnen path coming down from Whickham. It is therefore necessary to choose a bank and stick with it.
Shortly after the pylons, the river begins to deepen markedly on its approach to another weir – the largest on Axwell Park’s waters – a feature beside a tennis court that marks the tidal limit of the river on its downstream side. The weir pool here is surprisingly small for such a large obstruction and not particularly deep, but it is nonetheless popular with anglers as, at certain times of the year, this marks the furthest point that sea trout taking a detour from the Tyne can ascend the Derwent. The installation of a fish ladder in the not-too-distant future should hopefully alleviate this situation and the prospect of sea trout fishing on late summer evenings from the river at Lockhaugh, Gibside and Rowlands Gill is a tantalising thought!
We’re near the downstream limit of Axwell Park waters now, and a bridge two hundred yards below the weir allows the river to be crossed again and both banks of this tidal section are available to members for a further quarter of a mile down to the B6317 Swalwell road bridge. It’s been an eight mile walk if you’ve been following the river all the way from Lintzford, but hopefully those trout have made it well worthwhile!
Bus services: The 45 & 46 Newcastle Eldon Square Bus Station to Consett services pass through Swalwell, Winlaton Mill, Rowlands Gill & Lintzford, while the 47 Eldon Square to Blackhall Mill calls at Swalwell, Winlaton Mill & Rowlands Gill. All three services are operated by Go North East and call at The Metro Centre Interchange. In addition to the free parking at Lintzford and Rowlands Gill, you can also leave your car at Thornley Woods Country Park (on the A694 between Rowlands Gill & Winlaton Mill), which is about a half mile walk from Lockhaugh Meadows, and there are two car parks in Derwenthaugh Park (Winlaton Mill) which are right next to the river.
Details on how to join Axwell Park & Derwent Valley AA or the availability, whereabouts and cost of day tickets are given on their website: www.apdvaa.co.uk. For more articles similar to this and information on many other North East rivers visit The Fishing Archives (http://www.fishingarchives.com/). Details on many fishing opportunities in the region can be found in ‘North East Fishing Marks & Venues’.
©Pete McParlin 2010. All Rights Reserved.