What do you do when you've just finished walking the length of one of Yorkshire's rivers? You walk another one, of course. Having tackled The Foss, retired York psychiatrist BOB ADAMS is now taking on the River Derwent. Here's the first leg of his journey...

The River Derwent is a strange river. Why? Because it appears to flow away from the sea. It arises in the North York Moors, but avoids the sea at Scarborough to flow west and then south to meet the Ouse opposite Drax power station.

Before the ice age the Derwent entered the sea at Scalby, near Scarborough. But a tongue of ice and then glacial deposits blocked its outflow and, together with the Rye, the two rivers formed a lake in the Vale of Pickering. That state of affairs could not last forever so an outlet formed at Kirkham gorge and the water flowed south to join the Ouse.

There are actually four river Derwents. The Yorkshire version can claim to be the longest at 71.5 miles and, as it is in Yorkshire, is clearly the best. The most well known River Derwent arises in the Derbyshire Peak District and flows into the Trent. The Cumbrian version forms Derwent Water before flowing north to join the sea at Workington. The Geordie Derwent arises at Consett and flows into the Tyne near the Metro Centre.

The word Derwent is Celtic for a valley with oak trees.

Day One. Lost Bridges and a Castle

Day one was spent exploring the confluence of the Derwent with the Ouse around Barmby-on-the-Marsh with a seven-mile walk to Wressle and back. It was a windy day in September when I parked at the free car park at the ‘recreational facility’ at Barmby Barrage, where the Derwent enters the Ouse, to begin my walk.

The Derwent ends as strangely as it begins. It appears to flow in an upstream direction to join the Ouse. This is not usual for rivers. Is it trying to avoid the sea again? A more logical explanation is that the Romans may have altered its course in order to reduce the distance of the Derwent mouth from the legionary fortress at York. A weir at Wheldrake then controlled the level of water in the lower Derwent.

Barmby Barrage was built in 1975, partly as a flood-protection system to control the level of water in the Derwent as the Ouse is tidal, and also to enable a regular flow of water into the water treatment works at Loftsome Bridge. The barrage is an impressive construction with two huge sluice gates and a lock. But before crossing it and heading up-river, I headed half a mile east to look for the remains of Long Drax Swing Bridge.

I have to admit to being a bit of a lover of disused railways. On previous walks I explored the tunnels of the now dismantled and long forgotten Hull and Barnsley Railway. The line once carried coal to Hull and took the more difficult route under the Yorkshire Wolds, near South Cave. I wanted to see where the line crossed the Ouse. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Long Drax Swing Bridge, constructed in the 1880s, was once a massive structure of three spans of lattice girders, with a central support and operating cabin in the middle of the river. The Hull and Barnsley railway was a bit of a white elephant closing in 1968 after struggling to make much of a profit. The bridge was demolished in 1976. There is now nothing left but the abutments, impressive in themselves, on either side of the river. Just beyond, to the south loomed the cooling towers and chimney of Drax power station.

But it was time to get on with the walk.

After crossing the barrage I set off along the right bank of the river, walking on the top of the flood defence. Across the river to my right were the back gardens of some of the houses of the village. Barmby-on-the-Marsh used to be a prosperous settlement strategically situated next to two navigable rivers. It was once a centre for the manufacture of sailcloth, until the industrial revolution mechanised the manufacturing process.

To my left, in the distance, the spire of Hemingbrough church stuck up like a sharp pencil. The last of the summer harvest was being gathered in and there was a thrum from a digger clearing weed and mud from a nearby ditch. Who said the countryside was a quiet place?

I gradually left Drax power station behind me as I walked on to Loftsome Bridge. Drax is the only one of the three great coal-fired power stations of this area still in use, having switched largely to wood power. The other two, now closed, are Eggborough and Ferrybridge. Ferrybridge lost its cooling towers on the October 13, a sad day for those interested in landmarks.

The new Loftsome Bridge was built in the 1930s to carry the A63 from Selby to Howden. The original bridge was a wooden structure with a swinging central section to allow barges through. An old coaching Inn, now the Loftsome Bridge Boutique Hotel and Restaurant, was still very much in use. Down by the river I could just make out what I thought were the footings of the original bridge, when the road passed much closer to the inn.

I continued the last mile down a lane to the village of Wressle and its castle. Wressle Castle was originally built in the 1390s by the Percy family. It passed into royal hands on two occasions after the Percys took part in rebellions against the king. The castle was finally partly demolished in the civil war and is now a ruin. Unfortunately the building is not open to the public.

Wressle church, dedicated to St. John of Beverley, certainly is. The present church was built, unusually out of brick, in 1796. The Parliamentarians had demolished the original church at the same time as the castle.

I returned the way I had come, along the riverbank, but keeping to the left side all the way, passing the water treatment works and eventually arriving back at Barmby-on-the Marsh. A lot of information about an area’s history can be found by visiting the local church. But sadly St. Helen’s church was closed. It looked like the door had not been opened for weeks.

I discovered a notice on the floor of the porch, partly hidden under a pile of leaves, that informed me that the church had been closed in 2007 and the Diocese of York were taking views about its future use. It did not look as if any conclusion had been reached as yet for this grade 2 listed building. The church is notable for the attractive copper roof capping its tower, now lime green in colour.

  • The next stage of Bob's exploration of the River Derwent will start at Wressle railway station. "I will have to get up in the dark as the only train stopping there in the morning leaves York at 07.21," he writes. Watch this space...