River Rother, Yorkshire

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The Rother at Staveley, Derbyshire

The River Rother is a river 27 miles long in Derbyshire and Yorkshire. The town of Rotherham in the West Riding of Yorkshire is named after it.

He Rother rises near Clay Cross in Derbyshire, and flows through the centre of Chesterfield, where it feeds the Chesterfield Canal. Further downstream, it flows through the Rother Valley Country Park and enters the West Riding of Yorkshire, passing through some of the suburbs and neighbourhoods of Sheffield, before joining the River Don at Rotherham.

By the banks of the river are the coal mining districts, and from the 1880s the coal and waste from the mines and the towns on its banks got into the water. The fish died and the river became lifeless; by 1974 it was reckoned to be the most polluted of the rivers that are part of the River Don catchment. The pollutants came from coking plants, inefficient sewage treatment plants, and the manufacture of chemicals. Major investment in upgrading the sewage treatment works took place, and in the treatment of industrial effluent before it was discharged to the river. The closure of the main coking plants also aided the recovery of the river.

The restocking with fish began in 1994. By 1996, there was evidence that the fish populations were self-sustaining, and the river is now a venue for organised angling.

A short section of the river in Chesterfield was once navigable, and may become so again as part of a development project, while there are plans to use the course from Rother Valley Country Park to Rotherham for the Rother Link, which would connect the Chesterfield Canal to the River Don Navigation. The lower river is managed because of flood risk, and there are three regulators which can be used to restrict the flow. Their operation normally causes flooding of washlands, rather than centres of population, which might otherwise be inundated.


The source of the river is at Pilsley near Clay Cross in Derbyshire, from where it flows to the west for a short distance, before turning to the north. The valley is shared with the rail line from Derby to Rotherham, which crosses the stream; the first two of a total of 20 crossings before the river reaches the eastern edges of Danesmoor. The Rother is joined by another stream before passing to the west of North Wingfield, after which the Red Lead Mill Brook joins from the west. Before reaching Chesterfield, Birdholme Brook joins it from the west at Birdholme, Calow Brook joins from the east at Hady, and the River Hipper joins it on the southern edge of the town.

Between Chesterfield and Tapton, the river flows over a large weir while the canal is protected from flooding by a flood gate.[1] The two waterways remain close as they flow northwards between New Whittington and Brimington, where the River Drone joins from the west. At Old Whittington both turn to the east, before turning north again at Staveley. Just before Renishaw, the river passes Slittingmill Farm, once the site of a slitting mill constructed by George Sitwell in the 1650s, used to split iron bars from his furnaces into thin strips for the manufacture of nails, and the first to be constructed in the East Midlands.[2]

After the River Doe Lea joins the Rother from the east, the river is crossed by a grade II listed two-arched bridge built around 1840 by the North Midland Railway, which carries a minor road to the golf course.[3] It continues to the east of Eckington and the west of Killamarsh to arrive at the Rother Valley Country Park, where the course is largely man-made, as the park is part of a flood-defence scheme.

The river was diverted to run close to the railway to the west while 1.7 million tons of coal from the reserves under the park were removed by open cast mining between 1976 and 1981.[4] The channel was then rebuilt once mining had ceased and the pit had been filled in.[5] The visitor centre uses a part of Bedgrave Mill, which was constructed around 1100, and is one of the first mills known to have been built on the River Don and its tributaries.[6] Continuing northwards, the river passes through the Sheffield districts of Beighton and Woodhouse, followed by the Rotherham districts of Catcliffe and Treeton, flowing on to its meeting with the River Don at Ickles in Rotherham.[7]

Navigation and development

Within Chesterfield, the river was once navigable, as the Chesterfield Canal joined the river and used it to access basins on the western bank. The first basin was connected to the river near Wharf Lane footbridge, but the coming of the railway severed the link, and a new basin was constructed to the north of the Brimington Road bridge in 1890. The canal company were not authorised by their Act of Parliament to use the river, but did so despite that.[1]

This stretch of the river forms part of a £300 million redevelopment project called Chesterfield Waterside, which will provide housing and amenities in an area which is currently derelict land. The project involves the creation of a short length of new canal to create an island in the centre of the site.[8] A new basin has been constructed near the site of the 1890 basin, although it has not yet been connected to the river. Outline planning permission for the whole site was granted on 15 March 2010.[9]

The planned Rother Link canal will use part of the river to connect the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation to the Chesterfield Canal.

Flood defences

Canklow regulator

The River Rother is managed by the Environment Agency to mitigate flooding in the Catcliffe and Rotherham areas, through a series of regulators and washlands. The regulators are used to hold back the flow of the river, and the washlands consist of low-lying land adjacent to the river which flood when the flows are held back. This allows flood flows on the River Don to pass through Rotherham before the water from the Rother does so. There are three regulators, at Canklow, Woodhouse Mill and Meadowgate.[10]

Prior to 1958, flooding was a persistent problem near the lower reaches of the river, with Beighton, Catcliffe, Treeton and Woodhouse Mill particularly at risk. When the River Rother Improvement Scheme was first proposed in September 1958, analysis of flood flows revealed that peaks flows on the Rother generally reached the River Don at Rotherham after the peak flow on that river had already passed. Enlarging the channel of the Rother would have resulted in the peak flows reaching the Don earlier, effectively moving the problem of flooding downstream to Rotherham. The scheme therefore recognised the need to create and manage washlands to hold back the excess flow under these conditions.[11]

The first regulator to be installed was at Woodhouse Mill.[12] It is a vertical sluice gate, and is situated at the downstream end of the Woodhouse Mill washlands nature reserve. A railway embankment crosses the nature reserve, and flood arches allow the water to flood both sides of the tracks. There are no floodbacks between the river and the reserve, which results in it flooding soon after the gate is closed.[10] The mechanism here was manufactured by Ransomes and Rapier in 1956,[13] and the regulator was commissioned in 1959.[12] The Canklow regulator, situated close to the A630 link road from junction 33 on the M1 motorway, is also a vertical sluice gate, which when closed causes progressive flooding of seven washland areas on both sides of the M1, capable of holding 53,700,000 cubic feet of flood water.[10] It was installed in 1969 as part of a major road-building project, which saw the M1 motorway and the A630 road built across the washlands.[12]

The third regulator is at Meadowgate, within the boundaries of the Rother Valley Country Park. This provides additional storage capacity.[10] and its operation results in progressive flooding of the Meadowgate Lake, the Nethermoor Lake and the main lakes. Levels within the park were carefully designed to allow it to flood in this way, and there are a number of sluices and flap gates so that stored water can be released back to the river in a controlled fashion. The regulator is of a different design to the other two, as the gate is located on the bed of the river, and rotates upwards as required. The regulator was operated in 2000, resulting in the Meadowgate and Nethermoor lake flooding, but water levels remained around a foot below the level at which the main lakes would flood.[14]

These works have been tested to capacity; in June heavy and sustained rainfall in Yorkshire caused the level of the River Rother at Rotherham to reach the highest level ever recorded and the regulators were manned 24 hours a day in order to manage the water. Power failed at the Canklow regulator and the site was evacuated in case of a breach of the dam at Ulley Reservoir.[10] The Meadowgate regulator was closed, and all four of the Rother Valley Country Park lakes flooded within the next 12 hours. Water levels dropped over the next three days and little damage was caused.[15]

Water quality

Laman Blanchard, writing in 1836, described the Rother as "a beauteous stream", and noted that chub, roach and perch were caught by fishermen who fished from its banks. It was also one of the main sources of salmon for the River Don system.[16] The river did not suffer from the worst effects of the industrial revolution until the 1880s, when the development of coal mining on several of its tributaries resulting in a rapid deterioration in water quality. The industry itself discharge minewater to the river, which contained large volumes of solids, which were deposited on the river bed, smothering the vegetation. The villages which grew up around the mines often had little or no sewage treatment facilities, and hence sewage found its way into the river. The River Doe Lea, the River Drone and the Pools Brook became lifeless sewers, as did the Rother. Derbyshire County Council obtained a ruling from the Chesterfield County Court in 1905, which required local authorities to stop polluting the river, and gave them three years to construct sewage treatment works. However, the growth in population outstripped the efforts to resolve these issues, and the river continued to deteriorate.[17]

In 1974, the river was the most heavily polluted of the rivers in the River Don basin.[18] For most of its course, it was rated "Grade F" on the Environment Agency's scale of river quality; the worst level. The main sources of pollution were from coking plants, where coal was carbonised, from discharges from inefficient sewage treatment plants, and from the manufacture of chemicals.[19]

The catchment area of the river is industrial and urban, and was the location for 48 sewage treatment works, the discharges from which fed into the river. Of these, eleven were deemed to be unsatisfactory in 1974, and a programme of rationalisation and improvement had reduced the number of works to 29 by 1996. Those closed included all of the unsatisfactory ones. Many of the remaining works are small, but the three major ones are located at Old Whittington, Staveley and Woodhouse Mill. Major upgrading of the Old Whittington sewage treatment works was carried out in the late 1980s and again in 1993, and has included the addition of a nitrification plant to remove ammonia from the effluent. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in water quality since 1993. Staveley works was built in 1993, and also includes a nitrification plant, while Woodhouse Mill works was commissioned in 1979, and replaced a number of poorly-performing smaller works to the south-east of Sheffield.[19]

The river was also affected by discharges from the Staveley Chemicals and the Coalite Chemicals sites. Staveley Chemicals were producing chlorine and sodium hydroxide by electrolysing brine, and the water discharged from the site contained significant quantities of mercury and ammonia. Mercury in particular is highly toxic to fish even in small concentrations, and in 1987, the works was discharging around 51 lb a year into the river. The works, which was taken over by Rhône-Poulenc Chemicals, was fitted with a mercury recovery plant, and now virtually no mercury is discharged. The Coalite site was manufacturing chemicals from the liquors produced as by-produce of the adjacent coking plant, and was discharging chlorinated compounds into the river. These were treated as part of a scheme to improve the discharges from the coking plant.[20]

Water quality was also affected by four coking plants, at Orgreave, Brookhouse, Avenue and Coalite. Discharges from them significantly increased the ammonia content and the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of the river. Orgreave was discharging effluent with 146 mg/l of ammonia in 1985, which needed to be around 70 per cent lower to improve the river quality to Grade D, but the plant closed in 1991, and water quality has improved dramatically since. Discharges from Avenue coking plant were diverted into a foul sewer in 1986, to enable them to be treated at Old Whittington treatment works. The plant closed in 1992, but there were problems with phenolic oils leaching from the original storage lagoons into the river for some years after closure. Discharges from the Coalite plant reached the river through its tributary, the River Doe Lea. Again, there were significant improvements to the treatment of effluent in 1984, 1989 and 1996. Brookhouse was the smallest of the four works, but closed in the early 1980s before remedial works were implemented. The coking plants were the worst polluters of the river, and their closure has resulted in water quality being significantly improved.[21]

A biological survey was carried out in 1993, near Rother Valley Country Park, and only seven types of invertebrates were found, all of which were highly tolerant to pollution. It was recognised that the straight engineered channel where the river had been re-instated after coal mining was not well suited to the support of life, and so a stone weir was constructed, to help with natural aeration of the water, and to increase the flow velocity so that the gravel below the weir was scoured clean.

A bay was constructed above the weir, where fish could escape when the river was affected by flooding or pollution incidents. A trial release of fish, funded by contributions from Rhone Poulenc, Coalite Chemicals and Yorkshire Water, was made in April 1994. Half of the total of 2,500 chub and 2,500 roach were released near the new weir, and the other half at Hall Road in Staveley. It soon became clear from anglers that the fish were spreading along the river, and a further 40,000 fish were released that winter. Another survey in September 1995 revealed good growth rates in the fish, and barbel were thriving. Brown trout, thought to have come from the River Hipper or the Barlow Brook, were also found in the Rother, and since these are much less tolerant to organic pollution and low oxygen levels, were a clear indicator that conditions were improving. The following year, chub and dace were released at Old Whittington, and clear evidence that the fish were breeding in the river was found. The river had become a self-sustaining fishery again, and organised angling began for the first time in over 100 years.[22]


("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about River Rother, Yorkshire)
  1. 1.0 1.1 Richardson & Lower 2006, pp. 30–32
  2. About Derbyshire, Eckington, accessed 2010-10-07
  3. National Heritage List 1109621: Road bridge, Renishaw Park
  4. Rotherham MBC, The Waleswood walk around Rother Valley, Doorstep Walk No 4
  5. Rotherham web, Rother Valley Country Park, accessed 2010-09-18
  6. Firth 1997, Part 1:10
  7. Rotherham Unofficial, River Rother, accessed 2010-09-18
  8. Waterways, Summer 2010, Issue 228, Inland Waterways Association
  9. Chesterfield Borough Council, Chesterfield Waterside, accessed 2010-06-14
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 Environment Agency, Rotherham 2007 flood assessment, accessed 2010-08-30
  11. Firth 1997, Part 1:22
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Firth 1997, Part 1:23
  13. Manufacturers plate attached to structure
  14. Rother Valley Country Park, Flood control, accessed 2010-08-31
  15. Eye witness account by RVCP ranger
  16. Firth 1997, Part 2:18
  17. Firth 1997, Part 2:14
  18. Firth 1997, Part 3:8
  19. 19.0 19.1 Firth 1997, Part 4:5
  20. Firth 1997, Part 4:5-6
  21. Firth 1997, Part 4:6-7
  22. Firth 1997, Part 3:23-25