The living River Don, Sheffield

Heron on the River Don, Sheffield
Heron on the River Don, Sheffield

There was a time, back in the 80’s and much further back than that and nearer today too, that you would not have dipped the tip of a finger into a Sheffield river. The rivers stumbled through the city’s valley’s, those conduits of filth, filled with a chemical soup of toxic substances spewed out by industry, commerce and the less enlightened inhabitants who saw nothing but a receptacle for prams, shopping trolley’s, garden waste and that most ubiquitous of all hinterland treasures, the car tyre. Common amongst the areas anglers was the belief if you cut yourself in the brown scummy water you needed to get to the Northern General Hospital fast and have nurse pump some anti tetanus oil into your veins. Optimists to a man, and they were all men, rejects from the steel mills that were silenced and left to rot on the river banks, they fished not to catch the fish that could never have thrived but to rake back a little control over lives ruined by the money people elsewhere.

As industry left the city’s valleys the silent buildings stopped spewing their orange and brown liquids into the rivers. Derelict buildings don’t attract casual passers by or anglers with time on their hands. Men with no jobs want to sit in nature with at least a hope of catching something, rather than have to scrunch their nose at the scum that drips from the line as they reel in to try another day.  So the riverbanks fell silent, only frequented by those bent on dumping bin liners of rubbish and anything else that was cluttering the view across the patio.

The money people had abandoned the rivers like the steel mills, how can you make money from space where no one wants to go? The politicians turned away from the rivers as they turned away from the people.

Take humans away and nature will take its course. Trees along the banks of the river will flourish, weeds will colonise the edge space between water and dirt, the water will begin to cleanse itself of all that humans have done to it. At some point the city’s rivers got a little help, maybe we just cannot wait, maybe the damage we had caused was too great for the river to be able to heal itself, maybe we are still so arrogant we think only humans can clean up the mess humans make.

Then one Sunday morning whilst people were singing “All things bright and beautiful” the rivers quietly came back to life.

Humans once again frequented the river banks, this time they stepped into the water, bent down stuck their gloved hands into the cold soft liquid and pulled out not a plum but a pram or, prize of all prizes, an old car tyre. Scientists and conservation specialists planned a recovery of a near dead being. And ordinary people saw some hope that their local environment could be made better, but knew it was they who had to do it.

The settling pool on the River Don, Sheffield.
The settling pool on the River Don, Sheffield.

So they did. Local residents, families, school children, anglers, birdwatchers, naturalists, anyone who suddenly found that they could make a difference, they could be heard, were to be found on and in the river. This space lost to junk and nature was awash with voices and sounds and piles of rusting metal and bin liners, and heaps of car tyres.

Soon the river flowed and those who knew built staircases for Atlantic beasts, so they could walk up onto the moors and bring new life. Came the fish too, trout and grayling and they in turn brought the heron and the dipper and glory of all glory’s the kingfisher. Children played in outdoor classrooms in woodland glens, people walked and cycled safely away from traffic, reaping the health benefits of a cleaner, quieter, calm environment. No longer was there a smell of raw sewage no tangy essence of rusting metal melded with a concoction of noxious chemicals.

On a sunny day recently I walked with friends along its eastern bank heading out of the city following the rivers course as it worked its way to the source high upon the moors above Sheffield. We came across an old weir, the steel mill it was built for now long gone and forgotten. It was possibly built of cut Crawshaw Rock from Wharncliffe Crag. It is a wonderful piece of craftsmanship, wide enough to wander about on at low water the blocks so well made and packed together that they have hardly moved in what must be over a hundred years. At some point it must have carried traffic, like a ford, the cut stone was bordered by oak set into the stonework with holes where handrail pillars must have been placed. I stood in the centre and looked up stream gazing along a wide settling pond sitting on a bend of the river surrounded by trees the sky breaking through at their highest point, it’s almost still water waiting to slip over the weir edge. As I pondered this marvel of engineering I became aware of the quiet and stillness and peace.

The stone weir come ford across the River Don
The stone weir come ford across the River Don, Sheffield.

The Don Catchment Trust

Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust

Wardsend Cemetry

Extreme Destinations development at Parkwood Springs, Sheffield

Author: Paul Besley

Writer I have spent most of my life escaping into the Peak District National Park, I have grown to love the solitude it can bring. I also have an interest in the growing field of psychogeography particularly, in post-industrial landscapes. I am the author of Dark Peak Walks published by Cicerone Press. I am also studying Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University.