“THE river is the reason why we’re here, why we’ve always been here, and it’s time to kindle a new relationship with it.”

So says Anne-Louise Orange, the passionate advocate of the £3.7m River Tees Rediscovered project which has just been granted £1.89m by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The vision is impressive: to alter how the hundreds of thousands of people who live by the Tees from rural Piercebridge, near Darlington to the steelworks at Redcar, interact with the river.

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The money will be spent over five years in two main ways: on schemes to encourage more wildlife to return and improving public access to the waterway.

A total of 20 real projects will be activated by the 140sq km stretch of water starting from this summer funded by the lottery and environmental groups. Projects like turning former industrialised land at Redcar into havens for wildlife, community archaeology education programmes, encouraging little terns to return to the mouth of the Tees, encouraging walkers to take on the Teesdale Way and other, shorter walks.

The public will be asked to actually get their hands dirty. For example volunteers will be needed at the Tees Cottage Pumping Station at Broken Scar, near Darlington, people will be trained in hedge-laying, creating footpaths, maintaining woodland, blacksmithing, pottery and wood carving.

At first glance a casual reader could regard the various projects as a disparate set of river and community schemes arbitrarily lumped together under the same banner. That casual reader would be wrong: the two aims of helping wildlife and improving public access to the river provide an overarching theme for all of the projects.

“It’s taken a lot of work to get to this stage,” says Anne-Louise, delivery manager for the whole River Tees Rediscovered project who explains that Groundwork North East and Cumbria and partner organisations, have been working on the project since 2010 following the success of the Tees Heritage Park project which has improved public access to the river in the Stockton district, not least at the refurbished Preston Park at Eaglescliffe.

“We went out and consulted with the public,” says Anne-Louise. “We spoke to people everywhere, from the Transporter Bridge at Middlesbrough to the River Princess cruises on the river. Wherever we went, whoever we spoke to, two messages came back: we want more wildlife and we want better access. We want to know how to actually get to the river and where to go.

“People still strongly associate the river with industry and we want to work with industry on all kinds of good projects. But the river is beautiful and was here before the industry and will be here for years to come. We want people to engage with it in other ways.

“It’s not just the main river but the becks and tributaries. We find people associate them with floods and dealing with that. However the Environment Agency is looking at ways to deal with flood problems and still have areas where the people can enjoy the water.”

Much of the drive for the River Tees Rediscovered plan has come from Doug Nicholson, a Thornaby lad who has been instrumental in the success of the Stockton-based Tees Heritage Park which has aimed to connect green areas around the river. Now chairman of River Tees Rediscovered, he explains that the river, sometimes viewed negatively as a dirty, industrialised stretch of water, could eventually be used to actively promote the area. “This will highlight the diverse river heritage at the heart of Teesside,” he says. “It provides a real opportunity for us all to pull together and promote Teesside as an attractive and desirable place to live and work.”

Teesside as a place of a beautiful river and rolling, green countryside replete with wildlife and shady, pretty walks...so it was once and so it could be again. And if that happens, we will have people like Anne-Louise Orange and Doug Nicholson to thank.