250 years since the Wear changed course

250 years since the Wear changed course

November 17th marks the 250th anniversary of an event that shaped Low Barns Nature Reserve into how we know it today.

The Great Flood of 1771 affected several rivers, including the Tyne, Tees, Wear and Eden and settlements across northern England from 16 and 17 November 1771. Its cause was a sudden thaw of the ice in upper Teesdale, a cloud burst over the Pennines and a continuous period of rain. The destructive nature of this storm saw damaged to many bridges across the Tyne and the loss of 32 lives across the region.

It’s on the River Wear though that our story begins. Rivers are dynamic systems, constantly eroding and depositing sediment, slowly moving their course across their floodplains. The day of the 17th November 1771 saw this happen in the most extreme of circumstances at what is now Durham Wildlife Trust’s very own Low Barns Nature Reserve.

Image and illustrations to show change of course of River Wear

What happened here on this day was not a mere eroding of a bank side but a shift in course of, at its furthest distance, almost half a kilometre. The River Wear moving from what is now the northern boundary of the reserve to its current course, the southern boundary of the reserve.

Today in the old river channel a large area of Alder Carr is present. Carr refers to woodland or scrub that is either permanently or intermittently inundated by water. This habitat is very rare in County Durham and as a result is one of the reasons Low Barns is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). In the spring it is home to a number of nesting birds, including the pied flycatcher, nuthatch and treecreeper.

View of Low Barns Alder Carr as a panoramic

Low Barns Alder Carr

Much has happened to the land at Low Barns since. It has been farmed, quarried, and today restored as a nature reserve. The events of 1771, though, have stood the test of time leaving clues to the past for all to see today.  

River Wear circa 1960 with river course marked on it

River Wear circa 1960. This image, looking back in time. shows how much the site has come on since the sand and gravel extraction days.

River Wear c. 2002 with old and new course marked on it

River Wear circa 2002. This image gives a wider view of the area, showing the Wear further up the valley

Low Barns alder wood sign