A FASCINATING project to revitalise the heritage in the countryside surrounding a North-East river is taking shape. PETER BARRON reports

TWENTY five miles long, with its origins in the limestone hills of County Durham, the River Skerne may not be among the best known rivers of the North-East of England.

The Tyne, the Wear and the Tees may take precedence but the Skerne not only has a fascinating history but it holds a unique place in England’s green and pleasant land.

Curiously, it is the only river in England that flows inland. From Hurworth Burn, near the Trimdons, it cuts away from the North Sea and it is only when it meets the Tees at Croft, near Darlington, that it concedes to finally make its way to the ocean.

The river’s name derives from the Old Norse word “skirr” – meaning “bright and clear” – and harks back to the effect of sunlight on what was once a vast wetland area, teeming with wildlife.

That was the inspiration behind the name for the “Bright Water Project” which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and led by Durham Wildlife Trust. Other partners include Durham County Council, Darlington Borough Council, the Environment Agency, Durham Bird Club, the Tees River Trust, Highways England, Network Rail, the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland and various community and local history societies.

The project’s aim over four years, starting in January 2018, is to reveal, restore and celebrate the heritage of the Bright Water area around the Skerne’s stubborn and quirky path.

And one of the main aims of the development stage of the project during 2017 is to recruit an army of volunteers to be part of that historic celebration and to help bring the area’s heritage back to life.

“It really is a fascinating project and there are so many different ways to get involved,” says Bright Water’s development officer Aimee Nicholson, who has a background in renewable energy and habitat management and works with development manager Susan Hepworth.

By 2021, £3m will have been spent on the project and one of the key challenges will be to create a major new nature reserve near Bishop Middleham. That part of the region was covered in wetlands in medieval times and home to colonies of birds.

Over the centuries, agricultural practices have dried out the countryside and it looks very different now to how it did in medieval times. But with increased rainfall and changes to land management, the countryside is beginning to revert back to how it was, with new ponds and lakes springing up over the past 20 years or so.

Castle Lake is a prime example. Not so long ago, it was a field where only carrots prospered. Now, it ienthusiastically described as “the jewel in Bishop Middleham’s crown”. Proudly established as Durham Bird Club’s nature reserve, it hosts waders like the Spoonbill and Little Egret, and has had twitchers scurrying for sightings of rare species such as the Bean Goose, Red-crested Pochard, Black-necked Grebe, Black Stork, and Red-rumped Swallow.

“The aim is to take what we already have and develop the habitat so that it becomes a new wetland corridor for birds,” says Aimee. “It’s a really exciting part of the project.”

But that is by no means the only Brighter Water opportunity volunteers will be able to engage in. Archaeological digs will take place at two key sites – Bishop’s Castle at Bishop Middleham, and the East Park Roman settlement at Sedgefield. Village atlases, documenting local history in more detail than ever, will be created at Bishop Middleham, Sedgefield, Aycliffe Villlage, Heighington, Haughton-le-Skerne and Sadberge. And improvements will be made to the connectivity between public rights of way in order to encourage more people to venture out into the North-East countryside.

“The scope of the project is huge so there’s no end of things to do, from habitat management and community digs to helping with guided walks,” says Aimee. “At the moment, we’re conducting a survey to find out how volunteers want to be involved and the response so far has been really encouraging.”

It may be 10,000 years since the days of the Skirr but the Bright Water landscape around the River Skerne is about to turn full circle – and local people have a chance to look on the bright side of life.

• Anyone who wishes to get involved in the project should contact Aimee Nicholson at anicholson@durhamwt.co.uk or click here

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