The Don Valley way has several heritage walks. In this series of blogs we are going to explore these walks and the fantastic features that can be seen on them.
We’re going to start with the walk in Mexborough titled Sappers, Poets and Pirates. The walk will explore the evolution of Mexborough from a small Iron Age settlement to the industrialised town fuelled by the connections of the canal. The walk is 5.4Km/ 3.4 miles and will take roughly 2 hours. The terrain is mostly paved and includes some road crossings. Part of the walk is on unpaved footpaths and tow paths which are well maintained. It is a circular walk that starts and finishes at the ferryboat Inn near the train station. Click here to see the Don Valley Way page for this walk.
The walk starts at the Ferry Boat pub which is the oldest pub in Mexborough dating back to 1442. It was named this after the workers who used it whom ran a ferry to cross the River Don. It was a favourite drinking spot of the Poet Laureate Ted Hughes.
Castle Hills Park is the second point on the walk. It contains Mexborough’s war memorial payed for by local collieries in honour of Sapper W Hacket who was awarded the Victoria Cross. The memorial was originally built to the right side of the doors to Mexborough council rooms at Market Hall. Towards the end of the 20th Century the Hall was sold and the memorial was moved to its new home at Castle Hills Park where it can be seen today. A second memorial for Mexborough’s railway workers can also be seen on the route outside the Train Station.
The park is named Castle Hill as it is the location of the Mott and Bailey castle, Mexborough Castle. Mott and Bailey castles were introduced by the Normans after they concurred England in 1066. They comprised a large earth mound known as a Mott with a wooden palisade at the top surrounding a stone or timber tower. In most examples an embanked enclosure containing additional buildings (the Bailey) joined the Mott. These castles acted as garrison forts during offensive military operations, strong holds and as aristocratic residences. These castles were built from the 11th to the 13th century until they were superseded by other types of castle. In the 11th century the castle was the manor of Robert de Busli Lord of Tickhill.
Mexborough was an ideal spot for early settlers. The Don would have supplied clean water and a ready supply of fish. The surrounding land would have been perfect for grazing livestock and provided clay for pots as well as wood and stone for building. After the departure of the romans, Mexborough was discovered by Saxon’s from whom id derives its name. Mex from the name of the Chieftain Mjukr (pronounced me-ock) and borough which describes a fortification which was thought to have been located at the sight of Castle Hill Park.
Ted Hughes was a pupil in Mexborough in the 1940’s where he was first introduced to poetry. His school can be seen on the route off College Road. His first poems and stories were published in the Schools magazine, The Don and Dearne. The school can be seen at point five on the walk. You will also pass 75 Main Street, the childhood home of Ted Hughes which has a blue plaque above the door commemorating this.
The walk continues along a stretch of the River off Meadow Way. This area was used by small boats carrying valuable cargo from Sheffield. The route had to be navigated in one day as boats moored in this area were regularly targeted by pirates. Boats often ran aground on this section as the waters were very shallow.
To learn more about this heritage Walk you should try it! You can listen to our audio guide online or on the Don Valley Way App, found on the App Store and Google Play!
In this guest blog we hear from local photographer John Grimbley, who has been documenting the recovery of the industrial riverside along the river Rother.
This is a photographer’s tale of lockdown, intrigue and exploration in the Rother Valley. From March 2020, when travel was curtailed through COVID 19, most of my photography needed to be closer to home. This was necessary to keep fit and avoid going ‘stir crazy!’ I stumbled on a patch of land bordering onto Rother Valley Country Park, once part of the Brookhouse Colliery and Coking Plant, until the 1980’s when it closed.
It was once an area in which ‘open-cast’ mining was also undertaken and, although the area is still heavily polluted, if you take a closer look, there is life! Nature has this ability to bounce back and there really is a lot to see: re-colonising wild flowers in the old ‘pit spoil’ and, on a few occasions, I have even had sightings of roe deer, red fox and tawny owl!
In the spring and summer, there is a profusion of wildflowers; weld, a variety of thistles, oxeye daisy, hawkweed, musk mallow, common birdsfoot trefoil, dog rose and even honeysuckle; along with tree’s such as alder, birch, oak and hawthorn. The area buzzes with a variety of insects.
There is a lot of pollution, with drainage of ochre from the old colliery shafts, which eventually enters Pigeon Bridge Brooke, before finding it’s way into the River Rother.
I have started to undertake a ‘documentary’ record of this area to see how things develop over the years. My initial plan is photograph an Ordnance Survey Map ‘One Grid Square’ of ostensibly unattractive land-its potential for protecting and encouraging wildlife and understanding how the legacy of our industrial activity can mitigated.
Many people pass by whilst I’m taking my photographs (often I’m kneeling or wading in mud!), but few stop, probably thinking the area is a bit of a mess (or this camera guy looks a bit weird!) and quickly walk by. To the casual by passer, this area shows little interest, but on inspection of the ‘spoil’ in the area there is significant evidence of our industrial history and also the potential for environmental improvement.
I would be really keen to speak to anyone who has knowledge of this patch of land – If you do please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Another newsletter and another spell of bad weather to report on. Storm Christoph gave rise to over 200 warnings of expected or possible flooding in England and Wales. The downpours delivered nearly five inches of rain in less than 24 hours to some areas resulting in people being evacuated from their homes, road closures and suspended rail services. Most residents of the Don Catchment were, thankfully, spared this time around though reports of water levels flush with flood embankments hammer home that it was a close call.
With the devastation caused by last year’s floods in the catchment still raw for many, we are reminded once again that we are in a state of climate emergency and that these extreme weather events are, and will be happening more regularly. It is vital that we do as much as we can to improve our resilience to flooding while the root causes of climate change are addressed. Natural flood management (NFM) is a really important part of the toolkit needed to help tackle flood risk together with sustainable urban drainage, hard engineered solutions (like flood walls and levees) and property level protection (e.g. flood doors, higher positioned sockets and electricals). Interest and investment in NFM is increasing all the time as the evidence base for it both in reducing flood risk and delivering a host of other benefits grows. There is still a long way to go but with plans underway for organisations including ourselves to partner up and implement flood alleviation measures throughout the Don Catchment right the way from the hills in the Peak District out to the Humber Estuary, we are hopeful and excited at this step change in managing flood risk here and the impact it could have.
We got out during the storm to see how the NFM measures we’ve already installed with your help were holding back high flows(see leaky dam video below) and visited new sites to understand how water travels through them during heavy rainfall and where best to try and hold it back as part of future schemes.
Happy New Year all! In our first blog of 2021 we hear from Project Assistant, Anthony Cox, on what DCRT got up to last year.
2020 has been a very difficult year for so many. We haven’t been able to see our friends or family as we normally would, but there have also been some surprising benefits for our environment as well.
Can you remember a different time when we were free to travel wherever we wanted to go, see whoever we wanted to see? Well this era was known as January and February 2020. We ran a volunteer day every week during this time with as many people as wanted to come along. This is genuinely enough to give you nightmares in the current climate.
However after the lockdown hit in March we had to adapt to find new ways of volunteering. Our dedicated volunteers were going out on their own or with members of their household to clear up riverside paths and parks in their local areas. This level of dedication has made us all very proud of them and we are very grateful to have such a commited volunteer team. We also ran regular online tea breaks so that volunteers could stay connected online.
When we came out of lockdown we had to adapt our voluntary tasks and make them covid-safe for the volunteer team. We restricted volunteer days to 6 people (volunteers and staff) at a time, and started to run two sessions per day to accommodate more volunteers. We restarted volunteer days for the Hidden Heritage Secret Streams project in Chesterfield, led by Catchment Officer Matt Duffy, and for the Friends of the Don Valley Way, ran by me (Project Assistant Anthony Cox).
Natural Flood Management
We’ve been very busy last year in the field of NFM. Our Natural Flood Management Officer Debbie Coldwell has been developing various NFM projects in the Rother Catchment, with two key schemes getting underway in 2020. The first began at the start of the year before the lockdown where we were preparing to construct leaky dams in the Moss valley. Leaky dams are put in place to hold water back in times of high flow, reducing the amount of water heading downstream and therefore reducing the flood risk downstream. The first day on the site was in February where we had lots of volunteers come out to help us prepare to construct them. However due to the COVID19 issues that followed construction of the leaky dams did not begin until October.
Debbie has also been leading a lot of work on a farm on the banks of the Rother between Grassmoor and Hasland. This work involved multiple innovations including putting in flood storage scrapes and planting a wildflower meadow. This will reduce the flood risk as the rougher meadow vegetation creates more resistance to runoff, and the scrapes can hold water becoming small ponds in times of heavy rainfall. Both activities also create more wildlife habitat on the farm. Click here to read Debbie’s blog on this scheme.
It hasn’t just been Debbie working on NFM though. Volunteer Barry Caldwell has also been conducting his own NFM work at home. He has created his own rain garden to slow the flow of water from his garage roof. Click here to read Barry’s blog about his rain garden. He has also constructed his own permeable paving so that he can park his car and slow the flow of water into the rivers reducing flood risk. Click here to read Barry’s blog on Permeable paving.
Prix Charles Ritz
At the start of the year we were the first ever UK organisation to win the Prix Charles Ritz award for our work on the Living Heritage of the River Don Project (click here to learn more about the project). The award is given to individuals or organisations who make a difference to the rivers they cherish, exhibiting the upmost devotion and commitment to the environment, and celebrates those who champion river improvement work. The prize is awarded by the Fario Club, and this is the first time it has been awarded in the UK. Click here to read more about this prestigious award.
You may be wondering “Anthony, what does a Rivers Trust employee do when you have to work at home during a lockdown?” Well reader, I will tell you. Over this difficult year we decided we would produce a regular newsletter jam-packed with entertaining and educational content. I wrote a regular article on positive wildlife stories to try to give people a boost as let’s be honest, the lockdown was really depressing.
We also created fun activities for children and adults to have something to do. Regular videos were created on a broad range of topics from cycling to garden schools to history, which would hopefully connect more people to their local rivers. Click here to see our YouTube channel.
We also created our learning pool on the website, an educational page for children to learn about their river (click here to view the page). Finally we created 1200 activity packs throughout the year which we have taken to foodbanks so that disadvantaged children have something to let them learn and play throughout the lockdown.
If this year has done anything it has shown us the importance of science to our society. This was our 3rd year collecting data on aquatic invertebrates in the Rother. The project is lead by Community Engagement Officer Sally Hyslop and has been a real battle to keep running this year. Days have been postponed many times due to bad weather and lockdowns, however the data has been collected on what was once the most polluted river in Europe. You can learn more about how we collect this data by clicking here.
This year we installed the last fishpass on the River Don to allow Atlantic Salmon to reach their spawning grounds in Sheffield. The last weir that needed a fishpass was Masbrough Weir in central Rotherham. We worked with Canal & Rivers Trust, The Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council. This was the final piece in a 20 year puzzle for fish passage to the spawning grounds a Salmon Pastures.
Also this year we removed a weir on the River Rother. This will improve fish passage and re-naturalise the river, allowing a wider variety of species to live there. The weir that was removed was Slitting Mill Weir. Special thanks to Project Manager Rachel Walker for leading these projects and for helping the rest of us get through the year.
This year I completed my level 3 apprenticeship in environmental conservation. Finishing an apprenticeship in 2020 was very challenging as it was hard to complete practical work. However I have always enjoyed working for the trust for every day since I started in October 2017. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the staff, trustees and volunteers who have helped me get to where I am now, and a special thanks to my college tutors Craig and Cathryn.
Events were a little different this year, but we still managed to take part in the Chesterfield well dressing festival. Volunteers created a section of a larger design, which we fitted together like a huge puzzle. This welldressing was displayed for two weeks at Tapton Lock on the Chesterfield canal.
We also worked on the Festival of the Mind this year in collaboration with the University of Sheffield. This involved us creating a metal Salmon sculpture which is currently in place outside of Sheffield Train Station. The idea was to promote the River Don and the return of the Atlantic Salmon. We also created a new walking trail map and audio guide for a route following the river from Kelham Island to Sheffield Station. Click here to learn more about the project.
In the Autumn we worked with Rotherham charity Grimm & Co, who work to help children unleash their creativity and learn literacy skills by creating magical stories. In a series of online creative writing sessions, local children explored the history of the river Don and the disappearance of Atlantic Salmon. Working together, the children produced and voiced their own script which will be turned into a short animated film about the salmon’s magical return. Watch this space!
What a year!
I’m not going to pretend 2020 has been our best year at the trust, however we’ve worked hard to achieve as much as we possibly could in these tricky times. We want to thank all of our volunteers for keeping in touch and joining in with our online programme, and our wonderful trustees who have supported us through these strange times. Finally we would like to thank the National Lottery Heritage Fund and our other project funders for allowing us to have the flexibility to adapt our projects, so we can still work to complete them during the lockdowns and restrictions.
So now that we’re starting to see signs of salmon returning to the Don catchment after 200 years of being absent, what value will this bring to the area aside from the intrinsic value of restoring species back to their natural home?
Salmon are considered to be a keystone species – much like beavers. A keystone species is one that has a disproportionate effect on the ecosystem relative to its proportion and is considered an essential element to the healthy functioning of their native environment. Without keystone species the ecosystem would be completely different or not exist at all.
Every stage of a salmon’s lifecycle has a significant effect to their surrounding environment which is the reason why they are considered a keystone species. After two years at sea foraging in the Atlantic Ocean, the nutrients which they have gained can have them growing to around 74 cm in length and 4.5kg in weight. Those nutrients are then brought back upstream and then distributed along the river habitat and beyond.
Their eggs are food for foraging dippers or other fish looking for a quick meal during the winter months when food is scares. As young, alvein and smolts are food for predatory fish such as trout and pike as well as birds which prey on fish such as goosander and heron whilst not forgetting ospreys as they perform unthinkable displays of mechanics plucking whole fish (up to 300g) out of the water. On their journey to and from our rivers, salmon are preyed upon by marine animals such as whales, dolphins and seals to name a few. If they haven’t been snatched by a hungry otter first, when they finally return to their natal hatching grounds, most Atlantic salmon will die after spawning and their bodies will be broken down and recycled back into the ecosystem by aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates. Furthermore, whilst we may not have bears in the UK anymore to carry carcasses into the forests as they do in North America (providing trees with a boost of the nitrogen they need to grow), we do have scavengers such as foxes who may be lucky enough to have a spent salmon wash up along their local riverbank and drag them to a nearby wood to eat.
Not only do salmon have an enormous effect on the ecosystem, they also have an impact on the culture and economy to the places they are present. Highly prized by fly anglers, those wishing to hook the “king of fish” will often travel to Scotland where the salmon runs are most well-known.
What other things will it mean to have salmon back to the Don catchment after their long absence? We will have to wait to see!
In this blog we hear from DCRT Director, Ed Shaw, on how emerging aquatic insects feed the wider terrestrial foodweb…
The beds of most streams and rivers are jam packed with the nymphs of various kinds of insects. This includes (relatively) well-loved insect groups such as mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies, as well as less appreciated groups such as midges and blackfly. Most of these insects share a similar approach to life. They spend the majority of their life as aquatic larvae, slowly growing in the cold water, before they emerge out of the water as adults to find a mate and reproduce, often en masse. Different species tend to emerge at different times in the year, so regardless of when you visit your local river, you will often notice insects ‘dancing’ above water or resting on foliage.
This is why the riverbank is a favoured haunt of the insectivore (animals that mainly feed on invertebrates and insects). Not only is there often an abundance of freshly emerged potential snacks, but many of these snacks, winged and mobile as they are, are actually pretty poor flyers and easily caught. These insects are also often single-mindedly focussed on reproduction that they obligingly neglect their personal safety.
So plentiful and reliable can emergent aquatic insects be that rivers be that some terrestrial predators specialise in catching them. Sand martins make their nests in river cliffs (or in riverside walls in Sheffield) and can be seen swooping across the Don, while grey wagtails bob on rocks or at the water’s edge, snatching up morsels that catch their eye. At night, another aerial predator emerges, Daubenton’s bat, which feast on midges, and can even trawl for prey on the surface of water using their feet.
Invertebrate predators are also drawn to rivers and streams. Well known are the dragonflies and damselflies that patrol back and forth before darting to seize a passing insect. Less well known are the long-jawed orb-weaver spiders that like to set up home near water, building their webs in riparian vegetation, even tilting them over rivers and streams to increase their chances of ensnaring an unlucky emerging insect.
An important quality of emergent aquatic insects as prey is that some species emerge during the colder months, when there are very few other insects around. For example, the common and widespread mayfly species, the Large Dark Olive, can emerge throughout winter. This can make aquatic insects a relatively important source of food when other insect life is scarce. Researchers in a part of Japan with harsh winters observed that wrens (the same species as our own) tended to preferentially forage along streams in search of aquatic insects. Although British winters are comparatively mild, it seems quite conceivable that British insectivorous birds may do the same.
With winter setting in, do look out for those clouds of dancing insects, and if by a river or stream keep an eye out for a mayfly or stonefly. They might end up an important meal for a goldcrest or wren, or against the odds, they might find a mate and start a new generation.
This photo diary documents our Autumn freshwater invertebrate survey of the river Rother. We now have three years of data from this stretch of river, creating a picture of underwater life in the recovering Rother (once considered the most polluted river in Europe!).
With all our protective and life-saving equipment on, we can start our survey. We have 7 sites to survey on this stretch of the river, collecting 21 riverbed samples in total! The samples and data reveal insights into the health of the river.
For each site we record information about the habitat and collect data on the flow, width and depth of the river. We look to see if there’s any evidence of pollution, litter or sewage by recording what we can see (and smell!).
We then start our kick-samples. This sampling method involves positioning the net on the river floor and kicking upstream of it. Kicking dislodges the tiny insects and creatures living on the riverbed, which are then pushed by the river’s current into the net. With the help of volunteers, we then analyse the invertebrates we’ve found.
At DCRT we believe that time spent in nature can be incredibly restorative. In fact there is plenty of scientific evidence that being better connected with nature makes us both healthier and happier people. Being physically active in nature relaxes our nervous system, releases mood-lifting hormones and increases our energy-levels. But, it’s not just positive for our physical health, exposure to nature can help us to manage existing mental health issues and prevent them from occurring in the future – a green prescription for our minds and bodies.
At DCRT we follow the 5 ways to wellbeing, five simple strategies that when incorporated into our lives can improve our health and wellbeing. Here’s some of our favourite wellbeing-focused activities that can bring more nature into our lives during lockdown.
Volunteering provides a space to meet like-minded people and share experiences with people from all walks of life. Our online volunteer tea-breaks and online activities are a great way to stay in touch during lockdown.
Swap the gym for green exercise, like running, walking, swimming or cycling outdoors and feel the benefit. Explore some of the incredible landmarks in the Don Catchment.
Feel the benefit of connecting with nature by finding more about the wild world around you. Join an online wildife identification training course and then practise your new skills.
Did you know that diving beetles are the scuba-divers of the animal world, trapping bubbles of air under their wings which they carry with them underwater to breathe. Or with two pairs of eyes, the surface-dwelling whirligig beetle can see both above and below the water’s surface at the same time? Join Katy Potts, Biodiversity Officer at the Natural History Museum, for an introductory online training course on ‘Beetles of the Riverbank’ and find out how beetles are adapted to life on the water’s edge. Click here to register for a free place.
Take positive action in your community for nature. Try some Nature DIY and create a bug hotel, bird house or bat box from found materials. If you have a garden implement some Natural Flood Management – make a green roof on your shed or create a rain-planter.
A major contributor to increased flood risk is the amount of hard surfaces across our urban areas. Storm water rushes off our roofs, onto paved gardens, down pavements and roads and into drains that often struggle to cope with the volume and speed of water pouring into them. Slowing this water down and capturing it in our gardens is a great way to do your bit to help reduce flood risk. Here’s how to try it: Take a good look at any outside space you have – front and back gardens or yards, driveways, balconies or even that little space by your front/back door. Look for where the hard surfaces are and start to think about how you might make these areas better able to capture rainwater. Turning grey to green is a great way to do this. Remove concrete/slabs where you can and fill them with plants, or add pots and planters.
Be mindful of nature and our place in it. Try an activity to help you better observe nature, such as nature art or forest-bathing.
Shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, has been practised in Japan since the 1980s, prescribed to city-dwellers with hectic lives as a form of eco-therapy. Studies show forest bathing de-stresses and improves sleep, mood and focus.Here’s how to try it:When you go for your next walk, head to the local woods and tune into the nature around you. Hear the bird song, become mindful of the sun’s warmth on your face and feel the cool breeze. Breathe in the clean air and tune into your senses. Practise being still and calm amongst the trees. These top tips from Forestry England show you how it can form part of your daily exercise, just keep in mind social-distancing rules and limits.
Want more ideas how to incorporate both the 5 ways to wellbeing and more nature into your life? Sign up to our monthly newsletter here or go to our News and Activities webpage to read our previous issues.
Let me take you on a walk through some of the mushrooms I have seen over the last few months. Some of them have been on volunteer days and others whilst I’ve just been out and about.
I already knew a few from previous fungi foray’s I’ve been on but I used the FREE app ‘Shroomify’ (https://shroomify-mushroom-id.en.aptoide.com/app) to ID a few of these – it has a really useful key you can use to determine what you’re looking at.
This is the first one I found of the year in Ecclesall Woods – a Common Earthball (Scleroderma citrinum). These next few were also found there.
The classic Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), these were found near Grindleford.
A common conecap (Conocybe tenera) found at the Rother Rec in Chesterfield on a volunteer day. These next ones were also found on the same day.
Tawny Funnel Cap (Lepista flaccida)
Inspired by a squid ink pasta dish i had in Madrid a few years ago, I decided to make these Shaggy Inkcaps into a linguine. I would only reccomend eating mushrooms if you’re certain you know what they are. These grow on the grass out the back of where I live every year.
I also left one of the inkcaps in a bowl over night and they dissolve into ink – hense their name. Here’s a few paintings I did with them…
These are witch’s hat (Hygrocybe conica), found on Anthony’s lawn!
Here at Don Catchment Rivers Trust we have a mission of protecting and restoring rivers in the Don Catchment – this not only includes the Don, but the Dearne and Rother too.
Over the last ten years, we have had a focus on restoring the rivers as a habitat for fish, particularly migrating fish such as salmon. Historically, dozens of weirs were built across rivers to divert water to mills and factories, but this created an ‘obstacle course’ for fish that were unable to swim up and across the weirs. The weirs also fragmented habitats, prevented fish from reaching their spawning grounds, and altered the natural processes a river should have.
Since the trust formed, we have built seven fish pass solutions on weirs along the Don. But we have never had an opportunity to actually remove a weir until recently.
That opportunity arose as part of our Hidden Heritage Secret Streams project at Slitting Mill Weir on the river Rother. The river around Staveley has been altered a lot over the decades to meet the needs of industry – it has been straightened and de-meandered. The original Slitting Mill Weir was several hundred years old, and as the name suggests fed water to the nearby slitting mill, which slit metal bars into rods, to be passed on to other local mills making nails. We know that the Weir was heavily altered, possibly rebuilt using original stones, around the 1950s for the nearby chemical works. Since the works closed the weir has had no use, but remained in the river as a barrier to fish and other wildlife.
So, in October, after about two years preparation to get the appropriate permits and planning permission the weir was removed. We understand that this can be quite a sad sight for people who appreciate built heritage, as do we, but the weir was not listed and ultimately we need to right some historical wrongs – all the weirs in the catchment were man-made structures that led to the decimation of the natural environment.
The weir was removed by using an excavator and the beautiful local cut stone from the crest was salvaged for use by the estate. We opted to leave the stones acting as bank protection in place to serve as a reminder of where the weir used to be. Now, the water level upstream of the weir has returned to a more natural level, and given time the river should start to heal from it’s impoundment.
So, what’s next? Well the team and our citizen science volunteers have been carrying out base line monitoring of the invertebrates in this stretch of the river, so that we can see what impact removing the weir has. We’ll carry on with the post-removal sampling, and will produce our first comparison report in about a years time.
Also, now that the water level has dropped, quite a lot of abandoned tyres have revealed themselves! We’ll organise some clean up days once the spring arrives with some dryer weather, and the Covid-19 restrictions allow larger groups to gather.
There are still more barriers to tackle and habitats to improve on the Rother to allow fish to move up and down the river. Other organisations are working on improvements through the ‘River Rother Restoration’ project, so we hope to see more action soon!