So, the latest information gleaned from the (excellent) UEA library is that, similar to its vague source, the lower River Don originally did not have a direct confluence with the Yorkshire Ouse. The Don still springs out of the peat in several places on Grains Moss above Sheffield. However, what I had not realised was that, prior to Cornelius Vermuyden’s disastrous diverting of the river during the late 17th century, the Don split naturally at Hatfield Chase into two separate streams. One stream flowed into the River Aire, and the other into the Trent.
It seems then, that the Don has always been an ambiguous river, even well before human intervention. It remains even now nigh on impossible to determine exactly where it rises, and having flowed its seventy mile course, originally just meandered almost aimlessly into its ultimate objective of the North Sea.
I like the thought of the river having a character similar to most South Yorkshire folk. Or should I say, of course, the opposite, that the river is the pre-determinate influence. Sheffielders, particularly, maintain a strangely insouciant attitude regarding their origins, likewise with where they’re going to. But in the melange of river and city, in that seven or so miles of intimacy, the Don, fortunately, is loved. Neither above Sheffield, or downstream of it, is the river regarded with such affection. ‘In’t Don’ remains the colloquial means of explaining the disappearance of any valued possession. ‘It’s probably in’t Don’, where everything ends up, one way or another.
The uniquely murky Don, unlike many other similarly polluted water-flows throughout the industrial north, never becomes a torpid stream. It maintains an energetic flow from end to end, despite Vermuyden’s attempt to control it. In fact it is reasonably safe to say, that it is doubtful even in its current, relative unpollutedness, that anyone ever swims in the Don. Some may wade into it in its upper reaches, and others may travel upon it further downstream, but few ever swim in it. It is just too dangerous.
The river’s murky brown colour is explained in its name, Don, originally ‘Dun’. Dun, the ancient English word for brown, has always been the colour of the river, from its source to its end. The several tiny streams that ultimately converge to form the river high on the peat bog of Grains Moss, are all the same deep brown of the peat itself. Even the damming of the river to form the huge Winscar reservoir has failed to remove the peat colour from the water. The brown hue remains strikingly evident below Winscar, and in ancient times it is probable that the river was brown throughout its entire course. In fact, the river was known even in Roman times as the Dun.