WE are up to our neck in it, and sniggering like a schoolboy. We’ve found evidence of things called Detritus Tanks, Effluent Carriers, Percolation Filters, Humus Tanks and Sedimentation Tanks.

And then there were the Sewage Screens which had “electrically-driven raking apparatus” – can you imagine what they did? – and which, according to the 1930s blurb, featured the most “efficient means of lubrication provided by grease nipples”.

And, finally, there was sludge. Lots and lots of sludge: a Sludge Pumping Station, a Sludge Mains, a Farrers’ Patent Mieder Sludge Collector (which cost £3,300 in 1938 from Birmingham), and there were numerous Sludge Drying Beds.

In fact, there was sludge as far as the eye could see, and the nose could smell.

The sludge was spread out on the farmland where now golfers trudge at Stressholme to the south of Darlington.

Once you know this, you might look at their course – now called Blackwell Grange – in a slightly different way, because it seems to be on a plateau several metres above the natural lie of the land. It couldn’t be, surely, that has become elevated by metres and metres of generations and generations of human effluent?

Once-upon-a-time, Stressholme was fertile farmland, with the Skerne on its east side, the A167 road to Croft bridge running down its west, and the farms of Oxen-le-Fields on its southern border.

But in 1876, Darlington council approached Robert Henry Allan, of Blackwell, and asked to purchase his 150 acre Stressholme estate to turn into a sewage farm. Mr Allan protested that he didn’t want to sell but, for the good of the town, he agreed to accept £29,105 18s 5d – according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, that’s £3.2m in today’s values, which is a pretty sum whatever age you live in.

The Stressholme estate, like today’s golf course, was accessed from the north by a meandering farm track known as Snipe Lane. The nightsoilmen would have carted the contents of people’s privies along Snipe Lane to Stressholme, although as the new sewerage system was connected up, the unfortunate nightsoilmen were rendered redundant by the flushing toilet.

By 1888, a pumping station and reservoir had been built beside the Skerne at the foot of Snipe Lane. The effluent would have been allowed to settle to the bottom of the reservoir; the clean water would have been sluiced off into the river, and the sludge would have been pumped out onto the fields to dry.

There was an engineman’s cottage near the pumping station, and Stressholme’s Georgian farmhouse became the home of the sewage farm manager.

Just to further sully the area, it was also used as a rubbish dump (treasure hunters digging into the dump were chased off in 1989).

All this effluent changed the character of the area forever. Dr Richard Taylor Manson, a well known nature-lover, walked from Blackwell to Croft-on-Tees through the sewage farm in 1898 and complained: “Utilitarians, sanitarians and irrigationists have substituted prose for poetry, a straight uninteresting road for a well wooded romantic lane and have not made any improvement to ‘the balm of the air’.”

Dr Manson was following a footpath that is now known as the Teesdale Way, and he was beating around the bush. With 150 acres of sludge baking in the sun, Stressholme must have stunk to high heaven.

In the late 1930s, Darlington council upgraded the sewage farm, spending £77,320 on everything from Detritus Tanks to Humus Tanks to Farrers’ Patent Mieder Sludge Collector (it was a bottom-of-the-reservoir device that allowed the clean water to drain into the river while collecting the sludge).

Recent Memories have had several nibbles at the sewage works, which prompted Ron Pearson to get in touch. He was born in 1941 in Springfield Farm, the neighbour of Stressholme, where he lived for his first 13 years.

“Some of my memories are a bit vague, but one thing is crystal clear – the smell!” he says.

“The fields of the sewage farm were divided by a rectangular pattern of drainage channels. At each intersection, there was a brick-built sluice with drop down wooden gates.

“Raw sewage was pumped into these channels at the sewage works, and by means of the sluices and gates, could be directed to specific areas of the land to decompose and dry out.

“The land was continually tilled. Your vehicle enthusiasts may be interested to know that, because of the land’s understandably boggy nature, the machine used was an Oliver tractor fitted with “square wheels”.”

These square wheels appear to have been Howard Rotopad Tracks. The large, round rear wheels of the tractor were replaced by square-shaped, tank-like caterpillar tracks which, despite their angular shape, rolled quite smoothly across the compacted sludge. Can our vehicle enthusiasts tell us any more about them?

Ron continues: “The land where the sewage was disposed of was, of course, too wet and too contaminated to be used for any commercial cropping. It used to be covered in giant weeds, and, in the summer months, tomato plants – apparently, the human digestion system does not cope very well with tomato seeds!”

This is fantastic detail. So the seeds of every tomato consumed in Darlington from late Victorian times ended up dumped on the field of sludge at Stressholme.

As advances in clean-up technology were made, so the Victorian infrastructure was gradually dismantled – Ron reckons the distinctive pumping station with its tall chimney disappeared in the 1950s – and the dispersal of sludge became more sophisticated, and underground, due to the use of round filtration beds.

This meant there was no longer any call for acres of sludge drying beds, and in the early 1970s, Stressholme golf course was laid out across the sludgy fields.

Over the decades, the sewage treatment works has moved south from Snipe Lane, and in 2008 it benefitted from a £17m upgrade by Northumbrian Water, which allows it to process 70m litres of wastewater a day – 805 litres per second – and it is now accessed by its own private drive off the A167.

SO what’s left of the Victorian sewage farm? The golf course is green and leafy and not at all tomatoey, and the Teesdale Way footpath runs through it to Oxen-le-Field. The clubhouse appears to be on the site of the Georgian Stressholme farmhouse which was demolished in the mid-1980s.

Of the Victorian pumping station, the engineman’s cottage is lost beneath the A66. It was where the tarmac of Snipe Lane peters out into a shrubby track.

But you can make out the footprint of the old pumping station, and once you know of the area’s sanitary past, you can see all sorts of brick channels hidden beneath the ivy and the undergrowth.

And then there is Snipe Pond, the original settling tank built, we reckon, in the late 1870s. It still has cast iron wheels and sluicing paraphernalia poking out of the water and lurking in the margins – perhaps the remnants Farrers’ Patent Mieder Sludge Collector.

When the water level in the reservoir drops, the old walls of the tanks reappear.

We established in Memories 368 that it was empty in the late 1950s and that in the early 1960s it was filled and stocked with fish by the Darlington Brown Trout Association, which had to give it up because of vandalism problems.

For the last five or so years, the council-owned pond has been looked after by the Friends of Snipe Pond. Not only have they restocked it as a free fishing pond, but they have expanded its area with the help of grants so that there is a WildPark of wildflowers and footpaths which is now well used by youngsters from the nearby Skerne Park estate.

The Friends have turned this potentially deathly haunt of vandals into a tranquil area of natural beauty which, because of its past, has an appealing air of industrial decline to it.

As with all voluntary groups, the Friends scratch a living from donations and whatever grants they can muster, and they are always in need of a little muscle to help ensure the area doesn’t get too overgrown.

You can find them on Facebook – search Friends of Snipe Pond – or you can join them at their monthly meeting at 6pm on the last Thursday of each month in the South Park clocktower lodge, or you can email the secretary paul.harman63@ntlworld.com

  • If you have any other information or memories about Stressholme and its sewage farm, we’d love to hear from you. Please email chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk. With thanks to Paul Giroux for his splendid photographs.