The delights of Derbyshire’s rivers

PUBLISHED: 09:00 20 June 2014

The River Lathkill

The River Lathkill

Jim Dixon

Whether your preference is for watching wildlife, walking or fishing, Derbyshire’s rivers are life-enhancing. Jim Dixon extols their delights...

Beresford Dale - beloved of Charles CottonBeresford Dale - beloved of Charles Cotton

Last spring I travelled on one of the world’s largest rivers, the mighty Nile. As we tacked across the mile-wide course I reflected on how clear, refreshing and life-giving the water of this great river is. On its banks people farm, built great cities and, over thousands of years, developed the foundations of our world civilisation. Just a few hundred yards from the bank there was nothing – only arid, dusty and lifeless desert. One of the boatmen told me that ‘in this world, there are only two things that are innately good: a river and one’s mother’.

In the Peak District we have 900 kilometres of rivers, with 24 that are named. They vary from the tumbling torrents draining the moors to the spring-fed rivers that empty the limestone aquifers in the limestone dales. A characteristic of our limestone landscape is that as much of the water runs underground as well as above ground. To the poet Charles Cotton these brooks were ‘streams supplied below, which scatter blessings as they go’.

The blessings are still many. Peak District rivers are rich in wildlife: home to grey wagtails and kingfishers and also to brook lamprey, bullhead, brown trout and grayling. The water from our limestone aquifers provides drink for the dairy and livestock animals that graze in the waterside meadows. Most of our rivers are easily-accessible on well-maintained paths where visitors can spot a dipper or a wild trout rising. Much of Derbyshire’s water supply comes from these rivers, too. In Youlgreave, water is still supplied by the Youlgreave Water Works Limited, one of the very few private water companies in Britain.

As Cotton and Walton did, famously chronicled in The Compleat Angler in 1653, many anglers still cast a fly on Peak District rivers and this is an important part of our culture, economy and environment. It is possible to experience great game fishing over much of England but, to me, the Peak District has a unique draw. The 360 year Walton heritage, the range of rivers from tiny streams to the great Derbyshire Derwent and the fantastic national park landscape make any fishing visit here a charming experience.

A brook on Derbyshire's Eastern MoorsA brook on Derbyshire's Eastern Moors

To the West of the Dove the rivers Manifold and Hamps are tiny limestone rivers with a tendency to dry in the summer but which can, in the right conditions, be fun rivers to fish. On the Eastern flanks of the Peak District the rivers have a more aristocratic heritage, and you can choose between beats owned by the Dukes of Rutland, on the lower Wye, or Devonshire, on the Derwent and upper Wye. The Wye is a more reliable river than the Dove and you can buy tuition and rods from the Peacock at Rowsley or from the Chatsworth Estate.

A great introduction to fishing in the Peak District is to call in to Pete Arfield’s Bakewell fly-fishing shop. Actually, few visits to Pete’s tiny shop stacked to the ceiling with rods, reels and waders, are ever short. Think of a visit as a fly-fishing seminar complete with audience participation from the lengthening queue of fishers waiting patiently in line. Pete knows the rivers well, remains a very active angler himself and gives generously of his expertise. He is delighted with your custom even if your purchase amounts to only a handful of flies.

The fisheries on the Wye between Bakewell and Rowsley, and on the tributaries the Lathkill and Bradford, have been in the Haddon ownership for centuries. It is lightly fished and includes one of the most prestigious beats in England, the Duke’s beat. The fisheries here have always been managed sensitively and, since 2004, river-keeper Warren Slaney has ceased stocking and runs the entire fishery through sustainable management of a natural brown trout population. Habitats have been restored, weirs removed and, in the farmed valley, the river banks have been fenced.

Whilst our rivers are loved by residents and visitors alike and, broadly, are well-managed by very supportive landowners, they are not without their problems. Peak District National Park Authority ecologist Rhodri Thomas explains these concerns: ‘Overall our Peak District rivers are high quality compared with lowland rivers, but there is a moderate to high risk of low flows causing ecological damage. In some seasons recently we’ve seen complete seasonal drying in some rivers and low flows and poor water quality on others. I fear that the climate change predictions of hotter and drier summers could make this much worse in the future’.

The River Wye in floodThe River Wye in flood

In her recent book, A River in Time, Christine Gregory describes the challenges the River Bradford faces. The subject matter is very complex, but Christine unpicks this complexity in a masterly matrix that gives us a multi-dimensional view of the River Bradford. We are taken on a dam by dam, rock by rock and tree by tree journey from the source to confluence. We are also taken on a scholarly journey in time in which Christine weaves the geological timelines alongside the more recent human history, telling us about farming, mining and fishing. Christine’s prose and pictures tell us about the science, literature and expert views and the quality of her research is very high indeed. But she also gives a voice to the people whose lives are so intimately tied up with the river, including the community and the river keeper.

As rain falls in the catchment over time, it does so much more than erode a channel. It has sculpted all of the wealth of the karst landscapes features above and below ground – the cliffs, pinnacles, dale sides, caves and caverns. Today, the landscape includes fields and farms, woods and hedgerows and scattered homes and villages. To sustain the ‘blessings’ that Cotton awakens us to, depends on understanding the entire catchment and all that happens in it. I’m heartened that so many people of influence and ability share my passion for the Peak District rivers and have their best interests at heart.

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