Windermere and Leven Association

The river Leven flows out of Windermere at its most southern point and after a distance of approximately 8 miles into Morecambe Bay. Fast flowing in its early stages it flows in a generally south westerly direction from Newby Bridge to Haverthwaite where it enters its plain stage and starts its gentle meander to Greenodd where its estuary is joined by that of the river Crake. The only other major tributary is Rusland Pool which flows down the Rusland Valley and joins the Leven about half a mile above the Greenodd footbridge. The settlements along the river are Newby Bridge, Backbarrow, Haverthwaite (including the hamlet of Low Wood) and Greenodd. The river narrows very considerably at Backbarrow and it is a sobering thought to consider that all the rainfall in this huge catchment, which includes all the many rivers and streams that flow into Grasmere, Rydal Water, Elterwater & Windermere, has to flow under that narrow bridge. The valley was carved out of the rock at the time of the last ice age and due to its generally rocky nature as far as Haverthwaite it has remained little changed over the millennia.

The fish

Over past centuries the Leven has supported good runs of both sea trout and salmon, however in the first half of the 20th century it was best known as being a most prolific sea trout river. Good runs of salmon were common throughout the 1950’s and 60’s until disease took a heavy toll during the 1970’s. With the exception of a few good runs in the 1980’s there has generally been a steady decline of both sea trout and salmon over the past 30 years. In good years catches of over 300 salmon have been recorded, but more recently figures have often been only a tenth of that. The river continues to hold an excellent stock of native brown trout and fish of over 3 lbs.’ are not uncommon. In 2002 the number of salmon returning to spawn had fallen to such low levels that the Environment Agency introduced a bye-law making the release of all caught salmon compulsory throughout the catchment. Eels, as is the case in most of Europe, are now present in relatively small numbers. Until the early 1960’s very productive eel traps were in place below Newby Bridge and good quantities used to be sent by rail to the London markets. Elvers could be seen in their hundreds of thousands on their annual migration upstream, particularly when negotiating their way up the many obstacles in the river. Sea lamprey are known to migrate upstream to spawn in the gravels just above Low Wood Bridge.

Problems on the river

Why does the Leven not have the runs of migratory fish that it enjoyed in the past? Ask ten fishermen and you will get ten different opinions! Most experts now believe that the answer does not lie with just one cause. It would appear that the two main problems are water quality and lack of flow. Water quality has been a reflection of the huge increase in population which has taken place, both permanent and of visitors right round Windermere, Grasmere, Rydal & Elterwater. Lack of flow has been due to a number of reasons, including alterations in seasonal rainfall and extraction from Windermere for water supplies to central Lancashire. Bird predation has hugely increased as goosanders, mergansers & cormorants travel further inland than they used to some years ago. Then there is the major question of what is happening to the population out at sea? Are they being caught in significant numbers? Have they lost some of their main feeding grounds? These questions all deserve answers and it is to this end that the SCRT is devoting much of its time and funding. The main stretch of the river is, as previously stated, very rocky in nature and we do not therefore have any of the problems caused by poaching of the river bank by cattle. This is a problem on some of the rivers that flow into Windermere and much work has been carried out to fence off these problem areas. The banks of the Leven have good tree coverage, certainly in excess of the 50% that is generally considered to be desirable, and fish therefore have plenty of shaded areas.

Industrial heritage

The Leven Valley has a rich and varied industrial history, made possible by fast flowing water to provide the power required. The first corn mill, controlled by Cartmel Priory, was built in Tudor times at Backbarrow. Other industries at various times since then have included: bobbin mills, two iron works, a gunpowder works, a fulling mill & dye works, an acid manufacturer, a paper mill, a woollen mill, cotton mills, an ultramarine pigment factory (established in 1890 and continued in production for over 90 years) and three electricity generating stations, two of which have been modernised during the last 60 years and continue to operate. Much of the raw material required for these industries was bought by boat up the Leven to Haverthwaite where it was off loaded and transported up the valley by horse and cart. Similarly much of the finished goods were transported down river and then by sea to their various markets.