Gill Beck water quality issues

There’s been an upsurge of interest nationally and locally in the quality of water in our streams and rivers. Nationally, the Environment Agency report on 17th September revealed the depressing fact that all UK watercourses are polluted in one way or another.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/17/rivers-in-england-fail-pollution-tests-due-to-sewage-and-chemicals

Locally, Ilkley Clean River Campaign have been valiantly fighting the inertia of Yorkshire Water and the authorities to reduce the shocking amount of raw sewage dumped into the river where many people swim and paddle.

https://sites.google.com/view/cleanwharfeilkley/home

So, it’s perhaps not a surprise that we have our own issues. In case you were thinking that our pristine Beck was …well, pristine, it’s perhaps time to publicise the fact that there are at least two places that we’re aware of where raw, untreated sewage also enters the Gill Beck.

Combined sewer overflow (CSO) at Tong Park: the grey slime emanating from these CSOs is made up of billions of bacteria -many of them antibiotic-resistant and potentially disease-causing. This outflow pipe runs from Baildon and actually goes under the lake before entering the Beck.

CSOs are a consequence of the design of our waste water system -often dating back to the Victorian era. Excess rainfall is channelled into the same pipes as sewage. As a safety valve in times of intense rainfall there is built-in allowance for overflow to run straight off into streams and rivers. In reality this happens at times of intense rainfall……and also at other times….or, in some cases, most of the time!

Fixing this problem is a big challenge and, in reality, requires a vast infrastructure investment programme with political backing. This is an uphill battle in the face of large, well-connected, privately-owned and profit-orientated water companies. I stand to be corrected but my impression is there’s not much the environment agency can do when you or I ring to say ‘there’s sewage flowing into our Beck’….because, to a degree, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

This summer we’ve seen an enormous number of families out enjoying the wild bits of the valley and playing in the stream.

Other potential sources of pollution include farming and industry. Fortunately, we’re lucky that, to the best of my knowledge, the farmers along the Gill Beck valley are very good in this respect.

Last week, alarmingly, the Beck looked like this…

Silt from groundworks upstream making the Beck run brown: mid-September 2020

In contrast to its usual clarity:

A more normal state of water clarity in the Beck at Otley Road

This silt stemmed from construction works upstream. The issue isn’t quite as disastrous as serious slurry pollution but it’s still not great for the Beck ecosystem. Silt at this level adversely affects invertebrate populations by smothering them. Obviously, fewer invertebrates leads to fewer fish, birds, mammals and so on.

Privately, our view is that some works and development is inevitable with the number of people living in the area but there are relatively straightforward technical ways of reducing this kind of problem when work is planned in advance. Since the success of businesses involved in leisure and tourism relies largely on the valley being a beautiful natural environment we’re surprised that those involved weren’t more careful.

On a positive note, this summer has seen work start on the final fish passes which will allow migratory fish such as Salmon and Sea Trout to get up into the Aire above Leeds for the first time in over a century.

https://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/18636454.next-step-starts-get-salmon-river-aire/

Smaller streams such as the Gill Beck are potential spawning grounds for these fish when they make it through. It’s really exciting to think that we could have Salmon spawning on our doorstep. It’s important the Beck is in decent shape for them. Happily, it’s mostly pretty good in comparison to other watercourses; we’ve seen Brown Trout up as far as the caravan park this summer. We regularly have Otters, Kingfishers and Dippers. However, the situation clearly needs watching.

If you have any concerns about pollution or water quality in the Beck then please get in touch. Together we can monitor the situation and take effective action when necessary.

Après le déluge

It rained. A lot.

The Gill Beck going the full Zambesi at Tong Park after storm Ciara: Sunday 9th Feb
Water almost up to the bottom of the bridge at the dam
And briefly flowing over the old weir again
A raging torrent heads for the viaduct

All this action has substantially re-engineered the Gill Beck.

We now have a long stretch of steep sandy bank
And new water features: all the fine silt has been stripped out of the river bed leaving clean shingle. Looks good for trout spawning.
A beach! Already with sprouting Butterbur
The old stream bed has dried out again but the damp conditions are ideal for Opposite-leaved Golden Saxifrage -one of the signature plants of the valley.
The new design seems to suit the resident Dippers (Photo Paul Marfell)

The History of Tong Park

Many thanks to Peter Hughes for bringing this gem to our attention:

Published in 1995

That cover photo apparently dates from about 1925: a time when Denby’s Mill (now Tong Park Industrial Estate) was still a thriving industry.

The first chapter looks at the geology and pre-history of the area. The last two glaciations of the current Ice Age, the Anglian and Devensian, saw complex ice movements amid successive advances and retreats. At some point a moraine formed between ice in the valley of the Gill Beck and the Airedale glacier. This spur across the mouth of the valley is the site of Tong Park station and receives the southern end of the viaduct. The whole landscape is studded with smaller moraines, drumlins and erratic rocks.

Human presence is documented from about 4000 BC by the presence of stone age implements of the Magelmose culture. From about 3000 BC Bronze Age technology followed: with progressive forest clearance. Stone carvings which litter the area from this time.

https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=48900

Celtic Iron Age culture is known from Yorkshire only from about 300 BC.

With the principle ‘Inclosures’ Act of 1773 and other similar legislation across the centuries stone walls were built around ‘Parlimentary’ fields in the valley. These overly the earth ridges and furrows created by earlier farmers dating back to the Celts. The long S-shaped ridges are still visible on pasture and golf courses.

Ridge and furrow on Bradford Golf Course highlighted in melting snow: these earthworks may date back up to 2000 years.

At the ends of all of these fields are lynchet banks thrown up by the ploughs as they turned.

Weecher and Reva reservoirs, receiving run off from Burley and Ilkley moors, are the sources of the Gill Beck’s flow. Reva was completed in 1894.

Chapter two covers natural history: the list of species indicates little loss of diversity between the time of writing and today’s situation. In fact, I have the distinct impression that the valley is probably richer in flora and fauna today than it has been for much of the last century. It certainly looks considerably more wooded and wilder today than it does in many of the photos from the days when several thousand watched cricket matches at Tong Park. As Benedict Allen observes in his book ‘Rebirding’ ….’The post-industrial areas of Northern England have a very different aspect …In these areas vegetation freestyles in a way rarely permitted in any nature reserve or across much of the country….Here, less land is managed -and more is simply left’.

Chapter three documents the industrialisation of Tong Park. By 1778 there was a water mill on the site owned by messrs Halliday and Watson. Subsequently Thomas Gill upgraded this with the construction of Gill Mill. It’s unclear to me whether the name of the Beck derives from this.

William Denby and sons, incorporated in 1820, followed them and soon thereafter set about constructing the chain of upstream dams and reservoirs which ensured water supply to the factory. As well as the familiar main dam at Tong Park there are additionally the dam at the ‘frog pond’ on the north side of the beck, the Red Brick Dam below Moorside Farm, the New Dam on the Jum Beck above Hawksworth and the dam west of Ash House Farm, Sconce whose name remains unknown to me. At one time there was a large reservoir below the main dam and above the viaduct and enclosed by the bend in the beck.

Originally engaged in spinning, weaving and dyeing the business later progressively specialised in dyeing and fabric coatings. The tall chimney still nears the name ‘Denbirayne’: a patented waterproofed fabric.

The chimney of the former Denby Mills: photo by Paul Marfell (thanks Paul)

The book includes a lot of detail of the lives of the inhabitants of Tong during the heyday of the mill. The impression is of a tight-knit, self-contained community; almost all of whom worked at the mill or were related to those who did. The men played cricket and football in the valley, grew vegetables and kept pigs. The village gathered in the wesleyan methodist chapel (which also possessed a library) on Sundays, did their washing on Fridays and shopped in the Tong Park Street Co-op. They also swam in the lake at the dam. Many of the men went to fight in the world wars; frequently failing to return.

This loss which must have had a profound impact on the small community. A sadness compounded over subsequent decades by bitter industrial disputes and the ultimate decline of the textile industry. The main street was lined with terraced stone cottages which were demolished in the 1960s: a shame since they look very fine in photographs.

Can trout access the Gill Beck?

There has been concern that the ‘step’ down in the bed of the Gill Beck at the top of the underpass below the main Otley Road might be a barrier to movement of fish. Effectively this is like a small weir. Trouble is that rectifying it would likely be a substantial project.

Having just seen this video (second clip in tweet below), I’m encouraged that maybe they can make it up anyway.

Maples and Elms

There are numerous planted trees around the golf courses in the valley: mostly Hazel, Birch, Rowan and Ash.  Along the crumbling remnants of the ancient stone walls which crisscross the landscape between the fairways are an older generation of native trees.

maple upper
There are quite a few Field Maples hidden around the margins of the ancient field system which pre-dates the golf courses. This is the grandest: a geriatric who must be a couple of centuries old.
mapleleaf
Characteristically, the bark is extravagantly gnarled.
maplekeys
The ‘keys’ are rather charmingly pink tinted.
maple
It’s nice to see that there is at least one young tree bursting from the wall close by.

Similarly, Wych Elm doesn’t stand out like the big Oak, Ash and Beech but, when you start looking at each tree in turn along the walls you find there are plenty of medium -sized individuals.

elmtree
I presume that any larger Elms will have succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease.  However, there are plenty of smaller specimens like this one behind the upper erratic boulder on the Hawksworth side.
elm
The leaves are larger than on ‘English Elm’ but have the same asymmetric base.

Eels at Tong Park and fish in the Gill Beck and Aire generally

Eels occurred historically in the Aire and its tributaries but were greatly reduced, if not completely wiped out by the pollution associated with the industrial revolution. However, there are recent records which probably represent recolonisation..and possibly some reintroductions.

https://aireriverstrust.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/River-Aire-Fish-2012.pdf

At least 6 or 7 Eels have been caught in the last few years in the dam at Tong Park:

Eel at Tong Park

It’s just amazing that this fish was probably born in the Sargasso Sea (round about Bermuda) and, in the subsequent 10-15 years will have travelled the Atlantic Ocean, North Sea, Humber, Aire and Gill Beck. Having declined by at least 90% in Europe, Eels are now classified as ‘critically endangered’.

The Gill Beck also supported healthy populations of Brown Trout and Bullhead when last surveyed by the Environment Agency. We look forward to the prospect of Salmon and Sea Trout making it past the weirs in Leeds next year when the last fish pass goes in…. thanks to the Aire Rivers Trust:

https://aireriverstrust.org.uk/