Jon Beer visits Blackton Reservoir in the high Pennines – not stocked for ten years and home to a feisty sort of native trout
The feisty native trout of the Pennines' Blackton Reservoir challenge Jon Beer
REGULAR READERS WILL BE aware of my wife’s penchant for a spot of machicolation. That sort of stuff is bound to rub off: these days, I fancy, I know my way round an embrasure – enough to tell a merlon from a crenel, at any rate. Which was all I could make out through the murk and rain of the high Pennines that night. It was the first week of June. It had been warm and dry for a month: it was going to get a whole lot warmer and dryer. But not here, not yet. I’d just spent a pleasant day among the mayfly of the Derbyshire Wye but now I was 100 miles further north and 500ft higher on the fells of the upper Tees. It was raining as the last of the twilight was snuffed out by low cloud. The headlights lit a couple of signs on the gatepost: “Uneven track road. Users do so at their own risk” and “CAUTION: Track only suitable for 4x4 vehicles”. Which is daunting stuff for a man in a camper. I crept down the track for half a mile with water glinting in the dark to my right. The track swung right and climbed to thread across a narrow dam and there, outlined against the last of the light from the west, were the crenellations of a castle turret. It disappeared into the murk as I pulled up beyond the dam and doused the lights. I was tired and a bit sad. And a whole lot sadder when I dashed through the rain to turn on the gas at the back of the van and slipped over in something soft and very smelly. That, Gentle Reader, was the nadir: things improve hereafter. I left my befouled shoes under the van and climbed inside, pulled the curtains, switched on the lights and put a cassoulet on the stove for supper. It was cosy under the duvet and I went to sleep to the comforting patter of rain on the roof. The rain had stopped, the cloud had lifted: it was a lovely morning. I was having a second cup of tea when a car pulled up on the grass beyond the van and a man came picking his way through the sheep shit towards me. Simon Lee is a Waterside Park Ranger with Northumbrian Water. Last night I’d fetched up in their park beside Blackton Reservoir. But Simon wasn’t here to move me on or sick up a parking ticket. Parking – even overnight for camper vans – is free to fishermen. And Simon and I were going fishing. Simon is the chairman of Frosterly Angling Club on the River Wear and we’d met in The Black Bull beside the river last year (T&S February 2018). He thought I ought to have a look at Northumberland Water’s wild trout fisheries in the valley of the River Tees. So did I. And here we were. Northumbrian Water has four wild trout fisheries in the Tees valley. Cow Green is the biggest, enclosing the headwaters of the Tees itself: it is also the highest, at 1,600ft. It lies some three miles from the main road but once, remarkably, boasted a bus stop at the waterside car park. This was, it appears, something of an idle boast. Selset Reservoir holds back the headwaters of the River Lune – the Durham Lune, that is – a small tributary joining the Tees at Middleton-in-teesdale. A mile or so to the south, in the adjoining valley, the headwaters of the River Balder are impounded in Baldershead Reservoir. These two waters are similar in size, each nearly a couple of miles long, and more or less the same height, around 1,000ft above sea level. All three reservoirs were built in the 1960s. And then there is Blackton Reservoir, where we met on that morning in June. Blackton is easily the
smallest of these wild trout fisheries, just one twentieth the capacity of Cow Green. It is also the oldest by some 70 years. Blackton hails from the Golden Age of reservoir building, in the pomp of Victoria’s reign at the end of the 19th century. I am forever in awe of the breathtaking confidence and competence of these Victorians. They believed they could do anything, build anything and build it in style – the prevailing style being Gothic Revival, taking its inspiration from the architecture of the middle ages. Public buildings like the Natural History Museum and the Houses of Parliament borrowed the arches, windows and fol-de-rol of medieval cathedrals: reservoirs drew on the more robust features of medieval castles. The valve tower at Lake Vyrnwy is surely the most fanciful example of this “Reservoir Gothic” – with the twin towers at Derbyshire’s Derwent Reservoir perhaps the most formidable bastion. But the modest tower at Blackton, the ruin I’d glimpsed through the drizzle last night, has all the arrow slits, crenellations and machicolations Judi could ever wish for. Blackton was once a stocked fishery but, ten years ago, the stocking was halted when the track I’d crept along last night had deteriorated. The fishery was closed and Blackton lay fallow for a decade. The stocked fish had long since grown old and died leaving just the native browns who’d been living in these hills since the ice left. Blackton re-opened this spring as a wild trout fishery in this lovely, lonely setting. The trappings of a stocked fishery are long gone: there are no boats, no café, no facilities of any kind save for a single forlorn picnic table, ideally suited, it seems, for scratching a sheeply itch. I am not one of nature’s reservoir fishermen. I have never fished Farmoor or Rutland Water, Grafham, Blagdon or Chew: they all cost money – far more than I could afford when I took to fly-fishing. More than I really want to pay now. I don’t own fast-sinking lines, shooting heads or eight-weight anything for much the same reason. My fishing began on small wild streams for small wild trout and graduated to small mountain lochs and lochans. My tackle and techniques stayed cheap and simple: a floating line, a few approximately traditional flies and hopelessly misplaced optimism. And armed with these we set off to fish Blackton. Nothing was rising. I’m getting fed up with writing
these words this year. At first I put it down to a cold spring, then to a hot summer – or I’ve not been in the right place at the right time. Either way I’ve seen remarkably little surface activity this season. Perhaps I just need better glasses. It began with a little pluck, that first electrifying sign that there is life down there. Something had taken a passing fancy to the small Bibio on the point or the hairy Ullswater Muddler on the dropper. It happened again. And then again. And then stopped. Was it worth changing the fly? Clearly, we had bored anything in the vicinity so better to change that first. We fished along the north shore, rounding a small bay where Blind Beck trickled under a low stone bridge. We were fishing in a meadow of bluebells and white umbellifers that sloped down to the shore when a horse-drawn carriage came rattling past, looking quite at home against the ancient stone walls and farm buildings of the timeless Pennine fells. I looked back to see Simon’s rod bending against the clouds and our first Blackton trout. It was a fine fish, a shade under the pound, handsome rather than pretty, with muted spots on a background of olive-grey. My first fish, a few minutes later, was a little smaller and a little dingier. And so it went on. We were a little further along the shore when we came across the bedraggled remains of an oystercatcher in the margin, a victim, Simon said, of the Beast from the East. Arctic winds brought deep snow and freezing temperatures in the last week of February, lasting until the third week of March. Oystercatchers are largely coastal birds, finding their food between the tides, but in recent decades some populations have moved inland, living on earthworms on farmland. The weeks of deep snow and frozen ground proved too long a winter for many of these birds. It’s a phrase that has other echoes by Blackton reservoir in Baldersdale. Too Long A Winter was the title of the television documentary in 1972 that brought the life of one remarkable woman to the nation’s attention. The programme depicted the remorseless hardship of farming in the high Pennines in winter. Hannah Hauxwell had run the dilapidated Low Birk Hatt Farm single-handedly for 12 years since the death of her parents. She was 46 years old and struggling to survive on an income of £260 a year – less than one fifth of the average salary at the time. The farm had no electricity or running water. She filled a kettle from a rivulet in the field to make a cup of tea. She had a single milking cow: her income came from selling its calf each year. It was a life of constant privation, working outside in ragged clothing through the pitiless Pennine winter. She was thoughtful, uncomplaining and remarkably cheerful. For three days after the broadcast, Yorkshire TV’S phone line was jammed with enquiries and offers of help from viewers. Hannah’s spirit and plight had touched the nation. A local factory raised money to get
an electricity supply to Low Birk Hatt. With donations from well-wishers Hannah bought two more cows, but her lifestyle changed very little. She still lived alone on the farm, tending her cattle in all weathers. But her story was not forgotten: she got letters and donations from around the world. In an age before reality TV she had become one of its first stars. Yorkshire TV made several later visits, chronicling the changes in her life including, in 1988, her decision that she could no longer manage to keep farming at Low Birk Hatt. Hannah retired to the village of Cotherstone at the end of the dale where the Balder joins the Tees. Low Birk Hatt Farm stands beside the shore, at the far end of Blackton reservoir. It had been built by Hannah’s great-grandfather. Its 80 acres had always been farmed in the traditional way, carried on by Hannah, without the use of artificial fertilisers or weedkillers. In 1988 the farm was bought by Durham Wildlife Trust. The three unimproved pastures, rich in rare wild flowers, are now a SSSI nature reserve on the north shore of Blackton reservoir – “Hannah’s Meadow”. About the same time, the end of the reservoir adjacent to Hannah’s Meadow was designated as a nature reserve by Northumbrian Water. Fishing stops where the little beck that once filled Hannah’s kettle joins the reservoir. This nature reserve is a boon for the fisherman: for the sake of its wildlife every effort is made to maintain the water level in the reservoir. After a warm, dry month the nearby reservoirs of Balderhead and Selset were shrinking, their margins expanding and drying out with a hot, dry summer ahead. Blackton was still brim full. We turned and fished our way back towards the dam with its curious Gothic embellishment. I was warming to this little gem of a reservoir with every feisty fish.
A sloping meadow of bluebell and white umbellifer on the shore of Blackton Reservoir.
RIGHT The Victorian gothic valve tower.
Water levels are maintained in summer for the benefit of the adjacent nature reserve.
ABOVE The bizarre bus stop timetable at Cow Green reservoir.
The picnic table at Blackton, in use as a full-featured scratching post.
The first trout of the day. A good fish with strangely muted colours.
Cattle in a flower-rich pasture above Blackton (not Hannah's Meadow, alas).
JON BEER is the president of the Wild Trout Trust. He fishes all over the world and is the author of three books: Gone Fishing, The Trout and I, and Not all Beer and Bezencenet.
Simon scraps with another fish, on his way back to the dam.
A final handsome wild trout.