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09/11/2007 Archived Entry: "River Tees"

The River Tees, photographed by Heather Lofthouse

The River Tees; see this photo on Flickr
Photograph © Heather Lofthouse

A few weeks ago, I took a trip with some friends along the River Tees on board the Teesside Princess. We embarked at Castlegate Quay in Stockton and chugged at a leisurely pace upriver to Yarm. Our party was around a couple of dozen, with a splendid lunch and a convenient bar and we had a marvellous time.
The most impressive and surprising aspect of our journey was the calm beauty of the Tees as it flowed at a gentle pace towards the industrial conurbation with which Middlesbrough is so strongly associated. However, with the Transporter Bridge well and truly behind us, our journey was marked with the lush vegetation of the riverside, some splendid houses with river frontage and the wildlife that has made its home on and near the water. We could have been cruising along any of the splendid rivers of England.
Some of us will associate the River Tees with shipping, docks and heavy industry, while for others it will bring to mind the mighty High Force many miles away in the hills. The stretch of the river we were on may not be as famous as other parts, but a reminder of the river’s journey was revealed by the colour of the water – it was the colour of rich brown ale, though not because of dirt or mud, but because of peat. The quality of the water between Stockton towards Yarm is excellent, thanks to the Tees Barrage which lies a short distance down river from Castle Quay. This prevents pollution from reaching the higher parts of the river, and the benefits are obvious when cruising between banks of wild flowers and lush vegetation. Fishermen were out in force too, a sure sign of a healthy river.
Another sign of a healthy river is the number of wild birds that frequent its waters and banks. We saw a family of mute swans with four cygnets, and a few coot scurrying for shelter beneath the overhanging vegetation. Mallard ducks and moorhens were plentiful too, sometimes in pairs and on one occasion in a group of around thirty. We might have seen a heron or two, kingfishers, little grebes, otherwise known as dabchicks and even a goosander, but perhaps we were too busy enjoying the good food and companionship to notice them!
I think the sound of the approaching boat would have alerted the foxes and roe deer which inhabit the riverside and I am sure that the dense vegetation supports mice, voles and shrews, weasels and stoats as well as riverside creatures such as water voles, otherwise called water rats. When swimming, these charming small creatures look like rats, hence their alternative name, but they are truly voles. Grey squirrels can also be seen and they are probably the most likely to be noticed, being more bold and cheeky than most other species.
Among the varied vegetation along the banks, surely the patches of giant hogweed are the most spectacular. This plant, introduced to this country in the 1880s, has colonised several areas of the riverbank and it stands high above the surrounding vegetation, a true giant among plants. It is related to the parsley family of plants that adorn our roadsides. This includes fool’s parsley, wild angelica, pepper-saxifrage, wild parsnip and hogweed. Most of us are familiar with hogweed as a roadside plant; with its umbrella-like flower heads in white or pink. It is the most common of the parsley family and for generations schoolboys have used its hollow stems to make peashooters. The plant had another use in the past as it was harvested for feeding pigs, hence its name. However, its bigger cousin, the giant hogweed, is dangerous and is easily identified because it can grow up to twelve or thirteen feet in height (4m or so). Its general appearance is very similar to its smaller cousin but it contains a chemical that can cause severe blisters to the skin if touched.
There was history along our route too. Much in evidence were reminders of the district’s association with railways. Yarm’s part in the foundation of the railway system is well known. The five founders of the famous Stockton to Darlington railway met here in February 1820. The venue was the George and Dragon Inn in Yarm’s High Street and the meeting’s purpose was not seen as something which would change the world – all the men desired was that Parliament should help them construct a public railway. Their scheme was approved and it led to the very first public railway and the eventual creation of the modern rail network. From our boat a reminder of Yarm’s association with the railways could be seen in the impressive viaduct, one of the largest in the country and built in 1851 at a cost of £80,000.
All, in all this was a very pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon.

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