Wild again

Jon Beer vis­its Black­ton Reser­voir in the high Pen­nines – not stocked for ten years and home to a feisty sort of na­tive trout

Trout & Salmon (UK) - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: JON BEER

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.

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