FIFTY acres of fenland are to be created in the heart of County Durham as part of a scheme to revitalise the banks of what was once Europe’s seventh most polluted river, the House of Commons has learned.

On Thursday evening, the House was treated to a journey down the River Skerne by Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson as he showcased the £3.3m Brightwater project which is improving the river environment and using its heritage to involve local people and to attract visitors.

The three-year project’s biggest scheme is in the Isles area, between Newton Aycliffe and Sedgefield where for centuries there was a large wetland. However, farmers drained the carrs, and then deep mining used pumps so that the water table dropped by an average of 70 metres.

Mining in the Trimdons area ceased in the 1960s, leaving the Skerne as one of the most polluted rivers in the continent. Now it is cleaning up – and the water table is rising.

“The idea behind creating a managed fen is to spread biodiversity, mitigate climate change and attract tourism,” said Mr Wilson. “There is also a potential plan to significantly increase the size of the fen to create a Great North fen.

“Since the end of the coal-mining era, the landscape has wanted to return to the way it once was, and that should be allowed to happen, but obviously in a managed way that has the support of landowners, Government agencies and local people.”

There may be up to 400 hectares of land which, in time, returns to being a fen.

“The project is not only about the past,” said Mr Wilson. “It is about the present and revealing the natural environment and heritage for residents living in this part of south-east Durham, and it is about the future. It is about making south-east Durham a place to visit. There is so much to see and enjoy but, at present, so much remains hidden, with so many stories untold.”

Brightwater – which takes its name, like the river, from an Old English word scir meaning bright or shining – has already improved the river in the Skernningham area north of Darlington, and its archaeological investigations at Bishop Middleham have yielded elaborate finds which are causing historians to rethink the Prince Bishop of Durham’s activities in the village.

Mr Wilson’s speech was greeted positively by Government minister Rebecca Pow, who had visited the area recently as her son is at Durham University.

She said: “As Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, it is of real interest to me to talk about the Discover Brightwater project, which will restore an important area of the North-East and bring wealth and benefits to the surrounding communities. Although it is still at a relatively early stage, it highlights how important projects that build on tourism and heritage can be to the local economy.”

Mr Wilson told her that the world’s first modern passenger railway, the Stockton & Darlington, crossed the Skerne in north Darlington on the world’s oldest continuously operated railway bridge, which Mrs Pow called a “treasure”.

Mr Wilson said: “The Skerne is the only river to appear on the back of a £5 note, which was issued in 1993 to celebrate the success of the railway pioneer George Stephenson. It included an image of Locomotion No 1 travelling across the Skerne bridge over the river.”

Paul Black, Brightwater partnership manager, said: “We’re delighted that Phil Wilson, who is as passionate about his home area as we are, has taken the opportunity to help a wider audience discover Brightwater. This is an important project funded by the National Lottery, and it helps us connect ourselves with our landscape and our heritage.”