Royal Grammar School


Monks, Mines and Midges

Monks, Mines and Midges

Year 8 students who are part of the RGS Geography Society (GeogSoc), were joined by two members of staff (Miss Morrow and Mr Downie) spending a cold April Sunday in the upper reaches of the Derwent Valley, where they discovered just how fundamental Geography is to pretty much everything.


The 6km walk started at Baybridge next to the River Derwent, where rock formations exposed by river erosion gave evidence of the geological structure of this once tropical location. The students were soon delving in the river deposits hunting for examples of the valuable minerals which past tectonic upheaval had introduced to the area.

The earth movements which created this part of the North Pennines were tempered by the modifying effects of fluvial erosion and deposition, which the group were able to explore, culminating in the creation of a suitable secluded and sheltered site with sufficient farming, forestry and fishing potential to support a 12th Century community of white-robed Premonstratensian monks.

The monks' monastery established the village which took its name from the colour (in French) of their habits, Blanchland. However it was the minerals discovered by the river which brought industry, noise and a frighteningly short life expectancy to the inhabitants of post-Reformation Blanchland, as a leading mining hub.

Climbing the track out of the village, fueled by sweets from the local Post Office and at a some pace, the team emerged at the ruins of the Shildon lead mine. Visitor boards with reproduced maps show the geography of the lead workings and the miners' housing once found here before high costs and mineral exhaustion brought the industry to an end. 

Heading past Pennypie House (such a lovely name), which no longer sells pies for a penny to passing lead miners, it was possible to contrast the plants examined in the West Plantation woodland ecosystem of the sheltered valley bottom with those of the exposed heather moorland 100 metres higher on Bulbeck Common and to reflect on the different land uses of the present day which the geographical shaping of the landscape has generated.

Pausing for a walk over the Derwent Reservoir dam on the drive home, everyone was treated to an unexpected lesson on the geography of entomology. Learning that clouds of midges will readily abandon swarming over water to swarm all over people on a Sunday field visit instead. Quite literally, at the end of the trip, everybody was all a buzz.