THE DON GORGE
The Don Gorge is defined as being the stretch of the River Don west of Doncaster in South Yorkshire, which flows from the A1(M) motorway in the east to Conisbrough Viaduct in the west.
As the name implies, the river is bordered on either side by steep limestone cliffs which were carved out over thousands of years by the receding ice flows of the last ice age.
Over the years, quarrying of the limestone cliffs has played a great part in the reshaping of the landscape and continues to do so even today. However, the area is still home to a variety of species of flora and fauna and contains a number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It also contains some agricultural land and a nature reserve owned and wardened by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
Access to the north bank of the Gorge is via Boat Lane in Sprotbrough village and to the south bank by Mill Lane, Warmsworth. Road bridges across the canal and the river link both banks and allow access to the Trans-Pennine Trail which extends through the Gorge on the north bank of the river.
The area represents an opportunity for many recreational activities, such as angling and wildlife observation. Covered Hides in the nature reserve allow viewing over a stretch of water, known locally as "The Flash", which arose due to mining subsidence. Mooring facilities for water transport, both commercial and pleasure, are also available. The Trans-Pennine Trail passes through the nature reserve and accommodates both cyclists and pedestrians. There are numerous woodland paths to explore on both sides of the river.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE DON GORGE
There is a long history of occupation of the area from prehistoric times, although much of the evidence has been lost or destroyed with continuous industrial activity. As one would expect, rivers always attracted human habitation, not only for the advantages of the water course for industrial and domestic use, but also as a means of transportation between various settlements. Limestone was used extensively for building purposes, in particular fortifications such as the nearby Conisbrough Castle which has one of the best preserved keeps in the country. Many buildings lined both banks of the river and industry flourished.
On the south bank, the small village of Levitt Hagg was occupied by quarrymen and their families. Sadly, due to the introduction of mechanised methods of quarrying and the ever-growing frequency of flooding the cottages were demolished in the 1940s and 50s. The only surviving evidence of the activity are lime kilns, the upper portions of which are still visible. The site was also used for the manufacture of keel boats. The earliest record of the area is a rental paid in 1629. The site was eventually cleared completely in 1957.
Other evidence of industrial activity has also suffered a similar fate on the grounds of progress. There were two mills on the banks of the river, the first reference to which was made in a charter of 1279 when Sir William Fitzwilliam let to Henry Carpenter the corn mill at a rental of 20 marks. This mill was sited on the island between the canal and the river. The walk or fulling mill (where cloth was prepared) was situated on the south side of the river on land near the weir. This later became a flint mill. Both were powered by the water of the Don. Unfortunately, little remains of either building, although it is still possible to see large stones on the island downstream of the weir, which were once part of the corn mill, which was demolished when the canal was widened in order to allow larger commercial vessels to operate. This development was also the cause of the destruction of the old lock keeper's cotage.
In what is now a large housing state known as The park, was the local stately home of the Copley family, Sprotbrough Hall, which was built by Sir Godfrey Copley in 1685. Due to the imposition of death duties, the Hall was demolished in 1926 and the land sold for development. There are a few remnants of the outbuildings and gardens, the main one being the stables, now converted into residential accommodation. There is also a balustrade, which can be seen from the Trans-Pennine Trail, which in former times would have formed part ofthe estate garden overlooking the river.
The connection of the Hall with the Don Gorge provides, perhaps, one of the most iteresting of the remaining artefacts. On the Trans-Pennine Trail, near the Lock, are the ruins of what was a pump engine. Little now remains of the mecanism, but some cogs and other pieces of ironwork are still in situ. The pump was commissioned by Sir Godfrey Copley in the late 17th century for the purpose of extracting water from the river and conveying it to the roof of the Hall in order to gravity feed a fountain in the grounds. It is said that the inspiration for such a venture was conceived when Sir Godfrey visited Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and was shown the Emperor fountain, with its jet of 290', by the then Duke of Devonshire. The pump, powered by a waterwheel driven by the flow of the river, was powerful enough to raise water to tanks 100' above and also fed a 35' long swimming pool in the grounds. The pool could be filled in five hours. The river also suppled the village until the water became too polluted.
Several better preserved buildings of the estate are located in the Gorge. As its name suggests, the Toll House, on the north side of the river was the point at which a toll had to be paid n order to cross the bridge. Prior to the construction of the bridges, the only means of crossing the river was by ferry boat.
The Boat Inn has had a varied history, having been the Copley Arms, The Sprotbrough Boat, Boat Farm and Ivanhoe House, the latter because Sir Walter Scott is reputed to have stayed there whilst working on his novel, 'Ivanhoe'. (See http://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/victorian/previctorian/scott/ivanhoe.html for further information about this book.) At one point in its history, it is said that the license was withdrawn when two fellow, 'under the influence', fell into the canal and drowned.
Alongside The Boat Inn, there is a small row of cottages which are contemporary with that of The Boat Inn and certainly formed part of the CopleyEstate. The Coat of Arms on the south-facing wall the The Boat Inn is that of Sir Josph Copley. The Boat Inn was rebuilt in 1840, as were the cottages and several other buldings in the village.
Further upstream, as one walks through the beautiful scenery of the Trans-Pennine Trail, one cannot be other than impressed by the magnificent arches of Conisbrough Viaduct, a great monument to Victorian engineering. Through its arches can be seen the keep of Conisbrough Castle.
So much has been lost that it is essential that what is left must be preserved as visible evidence of the historic importance of this valuable asset known as The Don Gorge.
Don Gorge Community Group