Where’s the Wear’s weir?

There was minor excitement in Durham – and some consternation amongst the rowing fraternity – when river levels dropped rapidly overnight last week.  The river had been very low for some time but was 20 cm lower on Wednesday morning (28 June) due, we learned, to a failure in a sluice gate on the weir just below Prebends Bridge.   It does not look very dramatic in the picture above (a temporary – but not wholly effective – repair had been effected a couple of days earlier) but, as the hydrograph below shows, it was enough to alter the levels to a point where rowing becomes difficult.  The following two days were wet and miserable and the rain caused levels to increase again (note the steep rise on the evening of 29 June as floodwater washed down from Weardale) before gradually tailing off over the next few days.  My photograph was taken in the afternoon of 2 July when levels were back to normal.

“Normal” is, however, a tricky word to apply to any river, so diverse are the alterations to which they are subject.  For me, the ponded section of the Wear upstream of the weir is all I have known and the view of the cathedral looming over the Fulling Mill and its weir is the quintessential impression of Durham, immortalised in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings.  Without that weir there would be no rowing on the river – an important “ecosystem service” within the city (see “Bring on the dambusters …”) – yet that dip in the hydrograph on Tuesday morning offers us a rare glimpse into what the river would have looked like in summers in the far past.  Rowers would be not be very happy were this to pesist but perhaps canoeists would prefer faster-flowing water?  Maximising the ecosystem services that a river provides often involves a trade-off between competing needs.

River levels in the River Wear at New Elvet (NZ 272    ) from 27 June to 2 July.  The orange line indicates the point at which flooding may occur.   From: https://flood-warning-information.service.gov.uk/station/8288425

I saw the opposite situation on the River Tees at Egglestone, just downstream from Barnard Castle.   Turner visited this location as part of the same trip that took him to Durham in 1797 and he sketched the view of Egglestone Abbey which he later worked up into a painting and engraving.   In his pictures you can see an old paper mill, what appears to be a weir across the Tees and open ground on the steep land in front of the abbey itself.   The view today is quite different: the mill is still there, albeit in a dilapidated condition and there is thick woodland on the river banks which completely obscures the view of the abbey.   There is also no sign of the weir but the mill race that diverts river water through the mill can still be seen, though water only flows through when the river is high.

I did wonder if this meant that the weir had been completely washed away since the mill had fallen derelict but another possibility is that the weir is artistic license on Turner’s part.  He made his sketch in 1797 but there is no obvious weir in the drawing that has survived.  The painting on which the engraving is based dates from about twenty years later, and it is possible that the weir was added to the composition, based on memories of other localities that he visited on that trip (including Durham).   The presence of a weir also cannot be confirmed from a painting by Thomas Girtin from about the same time but it is possible that he, too, worked up his watercolours some time after his sketching trips and relied on hazy memories.  And, as we know that Girton and Turner were acquainted, Turner may have fed off Girton’s interpretation of the scene, compounding the intital error.

Egglestone Abbey near Barnard Castle.  Engraved by T. Higham after J.M.W. Turner. 1822.   Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

The other possibility is that we are not looking at the same river as Turner or Girtin.   The river we look at today is downstream of major reservoirs at Cow Green and on two tributaries, the Greta and Balder, none of which were present when they visited.   Cow Green, in particular, was designed with regulation of the water supply in mind, in order to ensure that there was enough for the industries in Teesside.  One consequence is that there is more water in the Tees during the summer now than when Turner and Girtin visited.   Maybe a weir would have been necessary at that time to keep the water level high enough to feed the mill race during the summer?

So here, as in the Wear, “normal” is a difficult word to apply.   First impressions are that the river is now in a more natural state than two hundred years ago because an impediment to natural flow has been removed.  When we look more closely, however, we see that the river we see today is, in fact, a different type of “abnormal” to that which Turner and Girton sketched.   But we also need to remember that Turner and Girton’s interpretations are not entirely trustworthy guides to the past either.  There is much to be said for walking backwards into the future but occasionally this may mean that we trip ourselves up …

The view across the River Tees towards Abbey Mill and Egglestone Abbey from approximately the same place as Turner’s view.  The mill is just visible amongst the trees in the middle of the picture.


David Hill (1996).  Turner and the North.   Yale University Press, New Haven and London.


Lake Lakelake Lake

Lake Lakelake Lake


This post is my small contribution to the Greek economy, as the words “rain”, “August” and “Yorkshire” may occur in sufficiently close proximity to encourage any readers contemplating a holiday in the UK to consider putting their pennies into the pockets of Greek hoteliers instead.   I’m just back from a break, walking in the Yorkshire Dales, having dropped off my youngest son at the Lord of the Flies theme park that is the Leeds Festival.   As you may have noticed if you follow this blog, I don’t really do “holidays”, at least not in the traditional sense of “stop thinking about work” so here goes …

The photograph above shows Semer Water, the second largest lake in the Dales, after Malham Tarn although, this being limestone country, neither is particularly large in absolute terms. It is a glacial lake less than a kilometre long and no more than 10 metres deep. We parked our car at the village of Bainbridge, about 3 km to the west, then circumnavigated the lake, alternately putting on and taking off waterproofs at the whim of the passing clouds.   The photograph above captures the lake at one of the sunnier moments during the day. Not complaining, just commenting.


Semer Water, photographed from the approximate location where J.M.W. Turner painted his view of “Simmer Lake” in 1816 (inset).

Just beyond the east end of the lake there is a sign encouraging visitors to sit at the location where J.M.W. Turner sat to paint his view of “Simmer Lake” in 1816.   The low clouds in Turner’s view show that the weather was no better in July 1816 than it is today.   My view along the lake, however, was obscured by a row of trees. Note the relative positions of the large boulder with respect to the lake then and now: sometime between Turner’s visit and ours the lake level was artificially lowered (using explosives to remove some of the terminal moraine at the outfall, I was told) in order to expose the low-lying area to the west so that they could be used for grazing.   That may explain why the boulder today is so much further from the lake shore than in Turner’s day.

The name of the lake itself is quite interesting: it is variously reported as “Semer Water” (Ordnance Survey maps), Semerwater (Natural England documents) and even Lake Semerwater (interpretation board at west end of lake).   The word “Semer” is, itself, derived from two Old English words for lakes: “sæ” (close to the German “see”) and “mere”, so Semer Water is, effectively, “Lakelake Lake” and Lake Semerwater is just plain ridiculous.   It is enough to drive a man to drink and, fortunately, the Moorcock Inn at Garsdale Head serves Wensleydale Brewery’s Semer Water beer, a refreshing light ale that you almost certainly cannot buy in Greece.   So there is one reason why it is worth visiting Yorkshire in August after all…