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The River Wear ( , ) is a river in North East England, rising in the Pennines and flowing eastwards, mostly through County Durham, to the North Seamarker at Sunderlandmarker.

Geology and History

The Wear rises in the east Pennines, an upland area raised up during the Caledonian orogeny. Specifically, the Weardale Granite underlies the headwaters of the Wear. Devonian Old Red Sandstone in age, the Weardale Granite does not outcrop, but was initially surmised, and subsequently proved, as a result of the Rookhope borehole. It is the presence of this granite that has both retained the upland nature of this area (less through its relative hardness, and more due to isostatic equilibrium), and accounts for heavy local mineralisation, although it is considered that most of the mineralisation occurred during the Carboniferous period. Mining of lead ore has been known in the area of the headwaters of the Wear since Roman times, and continued into the nineteenth century when it accounts for the early extension of the then-new railways westwards along the Wear valleymarker. Fluorspar, another mineral associated with the intrusion of the Weardale Granite, became important in the manufacture of steel from the late c19 into the c20; previously unwanted dumps of it were taken away for this purpose. Along with overlying Carboniferous Limestone and Carboniferous Coal Measures, both important raw materials for iron and steel manufacture, as well as Carboniferous sandstone, useful as a refractory material, the local presence of fluorspar explains why iron and steel manufacture flourished in the Wear valleymarker, Consett and Teesside during the nineteenth century; ironstone was won from around Consett and Tow Law, then around Rookhope, while greater quantities were imported from south of the Tees. These sources were in due course used up or became uneconomic. Spoil heaps from the abandoned lead mines can still be seen, and since the last quarter of the twentieth century have been the focus of attention for the recovery of gangue minerals, such as fluorspar for the smelting of aluminium. However, abandoned mines and their spoil heaps continue to contribute to the mineral pollution of the river and its tributaries. This has significance because the River Wear is an important source of drinking water for many of the inhabitants along its course. The former cement works at Eastgate, until recently run by Steetley, was based on an inlier of limestone.

The upland area of Upper Weardale retains a flora that relates, almost uniquely in Englandmarker, to the end of the last Ice Age, although it almost or entirely lacks the particular rarities that make up the unique "Teesdale Assemblage" of post-glacial plants. This may, in part, be due to the Pennine areas of Upper Weardale and Upper Teesdale being the site of the shrinking ice cap. The glaciation left behind many indications of its presence, including lateral moraines and material from the Lake Districtmarker and Northumberland, although surprisingly few drumlins. After the Ice Age, the Wear valley became thickly forested. During the Neolithic period and increasingly in the Bronze Age, the forests were progressively cleared for agriculture.

It is thought that the course of the River Wear, prior to the last Ice Age, was much as it is now as far as Chester-le-Street. This can be established as a result of boreholes, of which there have been many in the Wear valley due to coal mining. However, northwards from Chester-le-Street, the Wear may have originally followed the current route of the lower River Teammarker. The last glaciation reached its peak about 18,500 years ago, from which time it also began a progressive retreat, leaving a wide variety of glacial deposits in its wake, filling existing river valleys with silt, sand and other glacial till. At about 14,000 years ago, retreat of the ice paused for maybe 500 years at the city of Durhammarker. This can be established by the types of glacial deposits in the vicinity of Durham City. The confluence of the River Browneymarker was pushed from Gilesgate (the abandoned river valley still exists in Pelaw Woods), several miles south to Sunderland Bridge (Croxdale). At Chester-le-Street, when glacial boulder clay was deposited blocking its northerly course, the River Wear was diverted eastwards towards Sunderland where it was forced to cut a new, shallower valley. The gorge cut by the river through the Permian magnesian limestone can be seen most clearly at Ford Quarry.

In the 17th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1990), reference is made to a pre-Ice Age course of the River Wear outfalling at Hartlepoolmarker.

Much of the River Wear is associated with the history of the Industrial Revolution. Its upper end runs through lead mining country, until this gives way to coal seams of the Durham coalfield for the rest of its length. As a result of limestone quarrying, lead mining and coal mining, the Wear valley was amongst the first places to see the development of railways. The Weardale Railway continues to run occasional services between Stanhope and Wolsingham.


Rising in the east Pennines, its head waters consisting of several streams draining from the hills between Killhope Law and Burnhope Seatmarker, the head of the river is held to be in Wearheadmarker, County Durham at the confluence of Burnhope Burn and Killhope Burn. This is shown on Ordnance Survey maps, and on the County Durham GIS online. However, a map produced by Durham County Council, and used on an interpretation board at Cowshill shows the River Wear extending from Wearhead to Killhope. Excepting that this apparent extension of the Wear is an error, it can be assumed that there are attempts to reclassify Killhope Burn as the River Wear. This would make sense, as it would then give the River Wear a source.

The river flows eastwards through Weardalemarker, one of the larger valleys of west County Durham, subsequently turning south-east, and then north-east, meandering its way through the Wear Valley and County Durham to the North Seamarker where it outfalls at Wearmouth on Wearsidemarker in Sunderlandmarker. The from head to mouth. Prior to the creation of Tyne and Wear, the Wear had been the longest river in England with a course entirely within one county. The Weardale Waymarker, a long-distance public footpath, roughly follows the entire route, including the length of Killhope Burn.

Wearhead to Bishop Auckland

There are several towns, sights and tourist places along the length of the river. The market town of Stanhopemarker is known in part for the ford across the river. From here the river is followed by the line of the Weardale Railway, which crosses the river several times, through Frosterleymarker, Wolsinghammarker, and Witton-le-Wearmarker to Bishop Aucklandmarker.

Bishop Auckland to Durham

On the edge of Bishop Aucklandmarker the Wear passes below Auckland Park and Auckland Castlemarker, the official residence of the Bishop of Durham and its Deer Park. A mile or so downstream from here, the Wear passes Binchester Roman Fortmarker, Vinoviamarker, having been crossed by Dere Street, the Roman road running from Eboracummarker (now Yorkmarker) to Coria (now Corbridgemarker) close to Hadrian's Wallmarker. From Bishop Auckland the River Wear meanders in a general northeasterly direction, demonstrating many fluvial features of a mature river, including wide valley walls, fertile flood plains and ox-bow lakes. Bridges over the river become more substantial, such as those at Sunderland Bridgemarker (near Croxdalemarker), and Shincliffemarker. At Sunderland Bridge the River Browneymarker joins the River Wear.


When it reaches the city of Durhammarker the River Wear passes through a deep, wooded gorge, from which several springs emerge, historically used as sources of potable water. A few coal seams are visible in the banks. Twisting sinuously in an incised meander, the river has cut deeply into the "Cathedral Sandstone" bedrock. The high ground enclosed by this meander is known as the peninsula, forming a defensive enclosure, at whose heart lies Durham Castlemarker and Durham Cathedralmarker and which developed around the Baileymarker into Durham city. That area is now a UN World Heritage Site. Beneath Elvet Bridge are Brown's Boats (rowing boats for hire) and the mooring for the Prince Bishop, a pleasure cruiser.

The River Wear at Durham was featured on a television programme Seven Natural Wonders as one of the wonders of Northern England.

In June each year, the Durham Regatta, which predates that at Henley, attracts rowing crews from around the region for races along the river's course through the city. Seven smaller Regattas and Head Races are held throughout the rest of the year, which attract a lower number of competitors. There are 14 boathouses and 20 boat clubs based on the Wear in Durham.

Two weirs impede the flow of the river at Durham, both originally created for industrial activities. The Old Fulling Mill is now an archaeological museum. The second weir, beneath Milburngate Bridge, now includes a salmon leap and fish counter, monitoring sea trout and salmon, and is on the site of a former ford. Considering that 138,000 fish have been counted migrating upriver since 1994, it may not be surprising that a family of cormorants live on this weir, and can frequently be watched stretching their wings in an attempt to cool off after feeding.

The river's banks also lend their name to a hymn tune Elvet Banks in the LCMS 2006 hymnbook, used (appropriately) for a hymn for baptism.

Durham to Chester-le-Street

Between Durham City and Chester-le-Streetmarker, due north, the River Wear changes direction repeatedly, flowing south westwards several miles downstream having passed the medieval site of Finchale Priorymarker, a former chapel and later a satellite monastery depending on the abbey church of Durham Cathedralmarker. Two miles downstream, the river is flowing south eastwards. The only road bridge over the Wear between Durham and Chester-le-Street is Cocken Bridge. As it passes Chester-le-Streetmarker, where the river is overlooked by Lumley Castlemarker, its flood plain has been developed into The Riversidemarker, the home pitch of Durham County Cricket Club. Passing through the Lambton Estate (still owned by the Lambton family, and briefly a lion park during the 1970s) the river becomes tidal, and therefore navigable.

Chester-le-Street to Sunderland

On exiting the Lambton estate the river leaves County Durham and enters the City of Sunderlandmarker, specifically the southern/south-eastern edge of the new town of Washingtonmarker. At Fatfieldmarker the river passes beneath Worm Hill, around which the Lambton Worm is reputed to have curled its tail.

Already the riverbanks are showing evidence of past industrialisation, with former collieries and chemical works. A little further downstream the river passes beneath the Victoria Viaduct, (formally called the Victoria Bridge). Named after the newly-crowned queen, the railway viaduct opened in 1838, was the crowning achievement of the Leamside Line, then carrying what was to become the East Coast Main Line. A mile to the east is Penshaw Monumentmarker, a local iconic landmark. As the river leaves the environs of Washington, it forms the eastern boundary of Washington Wildfowl Trustmarker.


Having flowed beneath the A19 trunk road, the river enters the suburbs of Sunderlandmarker. The riverbanks show further evidence of past industrialisation, with former collieries, engineering works and dozens of shipyards. In their time, Wearside shipbuilders were some of the most famous and productive shipyards in the world. The artist L. S. Lowry visited Sunderland repeatedly and painted pictures of the industrial landscape around the river. Three bridges cross the Wear in Sunderland: the Queen Alexandra Bridge to the west, and the Wearmouth rail and roadmarker bridges in the city centre.

On both banks at this point there are modern developments, some belonging to the University of Sunderland (St. Peter's Campus; Scotia Quay residences) and to the National Glass Centremarker. A riverside sculpture trail runs alongside this final section of its north bank. The St Peter's Riverside Sculpture Project was created by Colin Wilbourn, with crime novelist and ex-poet Chaz Brenchley. They worked closely with community groups, residents and schools.

As the river approaches the sea, the north bank (Roker) has a substantial residential development and marina. A dolphin nick-named Freddie was a frequent visitor to the marina, attracting much local publicity. However, concern was expressed that acclimatising the dolphin to human presence might put at risk the safety of the dolphin regarding the propellors of marine craft. The south bank of the river is occupied by what remains of the Port of Sunderland, once thriving and now almost gone.

The River Wear flows out of Sunderland between Rokermarker Pier and South Pier, and into the North Seamarker.

See also



  • Natural Environment Research Council, Institute of Geological Sciences, 1971, "British Regional Geology: Northern England" Fourth Edition, HMSO, London.
  • Johnson, G.A.L. & Hickling, G. (eds.), 1972, "Geology of Durham County", Transactions of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Vol.41, No.1.
  • 'Wear River', "Encyclopaedia Britannica", 17th Edition, 1990.


Image:River Wear Sunderland Bridge railway viaduct 20070630.jpg|Croxdale Viaduct carries the East Coast Main Line railway between London and Edinburgh over the River Wear at Sunderland Bridge, near Durham CityImage:River Wear Sunderland Bridge 20070630.jpg|This old stone bridge at Sunderland Bridge, near Durhammarker City, once carried the Great North Roadmarker from Londonmarker to EdinburghmarkerImage:River Wear Sunderland Bridge (2) 20070630.JPG|Sunderland Bridge over the River Wear near Durhammarker City. The brown colouration of the water is due to moorland peat that has been washed into the river upstream during heavy rainfall.Image:River Wear Shincliffe Bridge 20070630.JPG|The 1826 old stone bridge at Shincliffemarker, near Durhammarker CityImage:River Wear Maiden Castle Bridge 20070630.JPG|Maiden Castle footbridge links the University of Durham's sports centre with its football and rugby pitches across the river. Running over the footbridge at a certain speed creates a resonance such that the bridge vibrates.Image:River Wear Baths Bridge 20070630.JPG|Baths Bridge is a footbridge named after the swimming baths at the southern end of the bridge. In warm summer weather, youths eschew the chlorinated water of the swimming pool, and throw themselves into the river from the centre of Baths Bridge, a feat that requires courage as the river is shallow.Image:River Wear New Elvet Bridge 20070630.JPG|New Elvet Bridge over the River Wear in Durhammarker CityImage:River Wear Elvet Bridge (1) 20070630.JPG|Elvet Bridge over the River Wear in Durhammarker City. Elvet Bridge is now largely pedestrianised.Image:River Wear Durham Kingsgate Bridge 20070630.jpg|The River Wear in Durhammarker City, looking towards Kingsgate Bridgemarker from Elvet BridgeImage:River Wear Durham Prebends Bridge (1) 20011229.jpg|Prebends Bridgemarker over the River Wear in Durhammarker City. Although built as a road bridge, subsidence due to coal mining beneath the bridge means that Prebends Bridge is almost exclusively pedestrianised.Image:Durham City 30c 20031207 Prebends Bridge 02a.jpg|Prebends Bridge over the River Wear in Durhammarker City.Image:Durham City 35c 20030907 River Wear 01 upstream.jpg|Milburngate Bridge (foreground) and Framwellgate Bridgemarker (background) are respectively modern and ancient. The series of weirs is on the site of an ancient ford, whereas a modern fish-counter on one of the weirs allows the National Rivers Authority to count the fish (mostly trout and salmon) migrating upstream.Image:Durham City 20030907 Pennyfeather Bridge 03 (originals).JPG|Pennyferry Bridge is a millennium footbridge over the River Wear in Durham City.Image:River Wear 20070701 Cocken Bridge 01.jpg|Cocken Bridge over the River Wear is the only road crossing between Durham and Chester-le-Street. It is a narrow bridge on a twisty, narrow road, but serves as a rat-run between the A690 at West Rainton and the A167 between Pity Me (Durhammarker City) and Chester-le-Streetmarker, by-passing Durhammarker city centre.Image:River Wear 20070702 Washington Fatfield Bridge 01.jpg|Fatfield Bridge over the River Wear, in Fatfield, beside Worm Hill, and close to Penshaw Monumentmarker.Image:River Wear 20070702 Washington Victoria Viaduct 01.jpg|Victoria Viaductmarker over the River Wear near Washington. This massive railway viaduct, a spectacular engineering feat on the Leamside Line, was completed in 1839, and carried the East Coast Main Line between London and Edinburgh until 1872.Image:River Wear 20070702 Hylton Viaduct 01.jpg|Hylton Viaductmarker carries the A19 over the River Wear. North and South Hylton are respectively on the north and south banks of the river; Washington lies upstream and Sunderland downstream. Many years ago, a ferry plied the river close by, and the name of the road from which this photograph was taken is called Ferryboat Lane. Washington's Nissan car factory is just beyond the viaduct, built on the site of the former Sunderland Airport.Image:Wearmouth bridge.jpg|The original Wearmouth Bridgemarker, when it was first opened in 1796, was the largest single span bridge in the world, and only the second iron bridge after the one at Ironbridgemarker in Shropshiremarker. It was reconstructed in 1857 and again in 1927 with the addition of a large steel arch support structure to cope with the heavier volume of traffic. It is the last bridge the Wear flows under before it reaches the North Sea.

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