Steps in Tyne: Walking to know the Flow

By Leona Skelton

High Level Bridge

Sunset Bridges (Photo: Leona Skelton)

People have been enjoying north-east England’s River Tyne for centuries. Thomas Bewick, the renowned eighteenth-century engraver and author of A History of British Birds (1797), was raised on the south bank of the Tyne at Cherryburn near Stocksfield. As a child in the 1760s, Thomas ‘persuaded his friends to crowd on to a huge piece of ice, which they steered downstream opposite the Parsonage garden, enjoying the sight of the Revd Gregson raising his hands in despair’.[1] He spent most of his adult years living and working in Newcastle, near his workshop on The Side, but he walked back upriver to his original family home many times. While Bewick’s art was universal in its appeal, his biographer, Jenny Uglow, has highlighted that it is also ‘rooted in Northumberland and in the valley of the Tyne’, elaborating that ‘all his life he walked the banks of the river and he knew it in all its moods, sleepy under early morning mist, driving on in flood, ruffled by wind’.[2] Many of Bewick’s skillfully woodcut vignettes feature people crossing and working alongside the river. He knew his river intimately, and it undoubtedly shaped his life’s work.

Fog on River Tyne

Fog on the Tyne at Low Tide (Photo: Leona Skelton)

In 1859, a librarian of the Royal Society, Walter White, embarked on an extensive tour of Northumberland, including a walk from Alston along the South Tyne and then along the main Tyne to Tynemouth. After having ‘to cross a few acres of turnips to get to the point where the South and North Tyne meet together in one broad stream’, he described Warden Rock (also known as Waters Meet) as ‘a wild spot’.[3] White left us a highly detailed account of the Tyne riverscape, having studied the river’s changing character intently, stopping at many places en route. At Alston, he described the South Tyne as ‘a shallow mountain river, in a bed filled with big stones’.[4] Walking from Haydon Bridge towards Hexham, White described the main Tyne as ‘a smiling vale beautified by cultivation and foliage … rippling cheerfully in reply to the salutations of the leaves’.[5] He was explicitly aware of entering a new and different zone of the river in the estuary, which he called the ‘smoky region’. On reaching the outskirts of Newcastle, at Newburn, he discerned ‘a route that revealed to me a disagreeable variety of dirt and disorder … the great army of industry’.[6]

Dunston Staithes

Dunston Staithes from the South Bank (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Both Bewick’s woodcuts and White’s descriptions of the Tyne resulted from innumerable observations during riverside walks, the former’s of one relatively small section repeatedly over the course of his life and the latter’s during one linear walk from source to sea. Many of the people I interviewed over the course of researching my forthcoming book, Tyne after Tyne, shared their own surprisingly deep and intimate experiences of walking along the river, seemingly repetitive journeys along quite small sections as often as twice a day to walk pet dogs or to commute to work. In the course of analysing these oral history transcriptions, I realised that the walks were far from repetitive because each day, and often every hour, created a necessarily unique riverscape, as the water interacted with widely different weather conditions, different wildlife and different human activities. While reflecting on my interviewees’ stories, I realised that, while I had spent two years researching the river’s archives, grown up near the river and knew the catchment fairly well overall, I was nonetheless unable to talk about even one section in anywhere near the depths achieved by so many of the interviewees. In his influential The Making of the English Landscape (1955), William Hoskins likens landscape to a ‘symphony, which it is possible to enjoy as an architectural mass of sound, beautiful or impressive as the case may be, without being able to analyse it in detail or to see the logical development of its structure’.[7] I wanted to understand just one section of the Tyne in depth, perceiving, as Hoskins advised, ‘the manifold subtle variations on a single theme, however disguised it may be’, so that ‘the total effect is immeasurably enhanced’.[8]

Tyne Bridge by night

Still River (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Since starting my new role as Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University in September 2016, I have been able to commute to work each day (a six-mile round trip), walking most of the distance along a riverside footpath between Dunston Staiths and the Swing Bridge. Some people have asked me, “don’t you get bored walking along the same small stretch day after day?” Each walk is unique and it teaches me something, however small, every day. Even over the course of the last seven weeks, I have seen the river in innumerable moods. I’ve seen it contrasted starkly against and blended smoothly with a wide range of different coloured skies and clouds and I’ve gazed at this powerful, seaward force interacting with the flora and fauna which calls its banks, water and infrastructural installations home. One morning I saw a silvery curved flash jump out of the water and dive straight back into it and realised I’d witnessed a salmon leaping right beside me. Another evening, crossing the river, I looked down at every minute detail of the Tyne Bridge laid out beneath me, as it was reflected on the still, glassy sheet of dark water. That night, I stretched out over the bridge railings and saw my own face reflected in it too. On a bracing afternoon, I saw and heard animated waves crashing down towards the sea as I struggled to keep my eyes open against the strong

Tyne by night

Night Tyne (Photo: Leona Skelton)

wind. I could easily write a book about the Tyne’s natural beauty, about its engagement with the climate and its flora and fauna, but, as my environmental history research revealed, the river’s true story is not that simple. The Tyne is not a natural river, but neither is it entirely a human creation. Inextricably entangled with the river’s so-called ‘natural’ aspects, I have witnessed paddle boarders, speed boaters and anglers interacting with its flow. Nobody can ignore the colossal, multi-layered infrastructural monuments which pull us back to its industrial era of smoke, factory hooters and a hubbub of ships. This infrastructure, too, is merely a compromise between human aspirations and the river’s natural forces and expressions.

Tyne Bridge

The Tyne Bridge (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Appreciation and deep understanding of a micro-scale environment is only possible when one communes with it very regularly, year after year and even decade after decade, usually facilitated by someone living very close to it. For example, Nan Shepherd’s A Living Mountain leaves the reader in no doubt that she visited the Cairngorms a great number of times over the course of her life.[9] Similarly, John Lewis-Stempel’s The Private Life of an English Field: Meadowland, which describes the micro-scale processes and interactions between a farmer, his family and the flora and fauna in one meadow in Herefordshire over the course of one year, confirms the author’s exceptionally intimate relationship with a very small-scale environment.[10] A relatively early and important example of one particularly intimate relationship with the flora and fauna of a local area, Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), was based on an incredible 43 years of nature and weather diaries detailing fastidiously the minutiae of the area around his parsonage in Hampshire.[11] As a historian, I am trained to search for discontinuities, marked and important changes over time which I can explain using documentary evidence. Walking along the same section of the river for over two hours each day has taught me that this formidable river is forever changing, in obvious but also in subtle, complex and unfathomable ways. It is quite literally ‘wonder’-ful. Even focusing on a two-mile stretch of the river, it would be impossible to explain its true complexity in a book. Writing the Tyne’s environmental story over five centuries was a worthwhile and productive task. But it provides a framework which can and should be rendered more complex than words can express by getting out to walk its many sections, time and time again. I’m still hooked on my first two-mile section, and plan to walk with and against its flow for at least another two or three years until I, perhaps, begin to ‘know’ it.

Metro Bridge

Dusky Tyne (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Notes

[1] J. Uglow, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 15.

[2] Uglow, Nature’s Engraver, pp. 402–403.

[3] W. White, Northumberland and the Border (London, 1859), p. 41 (ch. 6).

[4] White, Northumberland and the Border, p. 26 (chapter 4).

[5] White, Northumberland and the Border, p. 40 (chapter 6).

[6] Ibid., p. 51 (chapter 6).

[7] W. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1955), p. 3.

[8] Hoskins, Making of the English Landscape, p. 3.

[9] N. Shepherd, The Living Mountain, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011).

[10] J. Lewis-Stempel, The Private Life of an English Field: Meadowland (London: Black Swan, 2014).

[11] G. White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789).

 

This blog was originally published on the website of the White Horse Press. Leona’s book, Tyne after Tyne will be published by The White Horse Press in March 2017. 

Environmental History of Tidal Power in the Severn Estuary

Plan for Severn Barrage

Thomas Fulljames’ watercolour of his plan for the Severn Barrage, 1849.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In recent decades the interest in renewable energy from sources such as wind, solar and tidal power has steadily increased. However, this interest in harnessing “mother nature’s” energy is not new. Over the past 160 years the Severn estuary has been the focus of numerous proposals to provide a transport route over the estuary, improve navigation and to exploit its large tidal range to generate electricity. As a potential source of predictable, renewable and carbon-free power with the potential to supply up to 5 per cent of current UK electricity needs, such interest is understandable. Despite its potential, the latest proposals, like all its predecessors in the past century and a half, have failed to secure government and public support to build a barrage in the Severn estuary.

How is it that a barrage still has not gone beyond the drawing board? And why are companies, scientists and politicians still willing to invest time, effort and money in further proposals?  Alexander Portch, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Bristol University, investigates these two questions. Although the past 150 years is the main focus, Alexander also investigates earlier efforts to harness tidal power of the Severn and how the activities of people whose lives were bound up with the estuary’s daily tides have shaped the estuary and lands bordering it. This episode of the podcast features an interview with Alexander Portch and his work on the history of the Severn Estuary.

 

Further reading and resources

Blog posts by Alexander Portch on the Power and the Water website.

Severn Barrage Tidal Power”, The Renewable Energy Website

The Severn Bore website

Charlier, R.H., Menanteau, L., ‘The Saga of Tide Mills,’ Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 1:3 (1997), 171 – 207.

Godbold, S., Turner, R.C., Hillam, J., Johnson, S., O’Sullivan, A., ‘Medieval Fishtraps in the Severn Estuary,’ Medieval Archaeology, 38:1 (1994), 19 – 54.

Video showing example of tidal mill: Craftsmen: The Tide Miller, 1951 Woodbridge, Suffolk.

 

Music Credits

Stockholm” by timberman, available from ccMixter

Begin (small theme)” by _ghost, available from ccMixter

Easy Killer (DGDGBD)” by Aussens@iter, available from ccMixter

Exploring environmental History podcast

 

This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

Boosting Society’s Valuation of Water by Blending Environmental History with Social Science and Civil Engineering at the University of Sheffield

By Leona Skelton

After finishing  my  project, ‘Degeneration and Regeneration on the Tyne: River Pasts, Presents and Futures’, in November 2015, I embarked on a challenging but very worthwhile opportunity to work as a Research Assistant at the University of Sheffield within the Sheffield Water Centre’s (SWC) Pennine Water Group (as it came to a close). Since January 2016, I’ve been working within SWC’s new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded (EPSRC) five-year research project, ‘TWENTY65: Tailored Solutions for Positive Impact’.  The project was designed in response to  EPSRC’s Grand Challenge for Water. It aims to find innovative and interdisciplinary solutions to the serious challenges which threaten the UK water industry’s long-term sustainability up to 2065 and beyond, notably its ageing infrastructure, leakage and the low value water users place on water. Working closely with civil engineers, social scientists and industry partners has enabled me to deploy my environmental history expertise strategically and usefully. It has also sharpened my awareness of the practical uses and the unique value of environmental history research in the context of infrastructural, societal, attitudinal and governance challenges in the water industry.

Today, UK water users wash their cars and hose their lawns using water which meets a standard sufficiently high for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing of highly complex medicines. Yet many households are charged little more than £1 a day for the water-supply and sewerage services on which they rely very heavily for the basic processes of daily life. Until people experience an interruption of supply, few truly appreciate the complexity and exceptionally high ‘value for money’ in their water services. If consumers were asked to sort their utility bills into rank order according to: 1) value for money or 2) according to how much they would be prepared to pay for them, how many would place water at the top of either of these hierarchies? Where would broadband and energy fall in relation to water? TWENTY65 is developing disruptive technologies and more effective mobilisation initiatives to increase water users’ valuing of water, to reduce water usage and to give water users a stake in the infrastructure on which they rely so heavily.

As a historian, I’ve considered in depth the factors which have reduced people’s valuation of water over time. Increasingly centralised and efficient water services have facilitated an increasing physical distance between the consumer and the processes of using and disposing of water. In short, the engineers have done too good a job behind the scenes, enabling water users for the most part to take their water supply, waste water disposal and their water engineers for granted. TWENTY65 comprises eight themes, ranging from demand-based technologies for tailored treatment, to robotic autonomous systems for water infrastructure inspection, to integrated urban water management and reuse systems.

I have been working with a social scientist, Dr Liz Sharp, on theme six, ‘Enhancing Water Services through Mobilisation’, which seeks to demonstrate the potentially powerful non-technological ways in which people can be mobilised to change their behaviour as water users. We are arguing that consumers can be encouraged and supported to become more engaged with their water services, water infrastructure and the regulation of water use and abuse in their local communities, obviating at least exclusive reliance on complex and expensive robotic technologies.

Currently, several serious risks endanger water security: climate change, underinvestment in infrastructure, complex and counterproductive regulation of the water sector and water users’ low valuation of water (largely resulting from their poor understanding of its complex and expensive functions). Attitudinal changes brought about by increasing water citizenship initiatives would help to mitigate these risks by reducing water consumption, increasing the value placed on water (and potentially the amount people are prepared to pay for water) and widening water users’ perspectives to embrace the whole ecosystem and the water cycle which runs through it.

TWENTY65 Thought Leadership Clubs (TLCs) enable academics from several disciplines and a wide range of water industry partners to work together to develop potential solutions to the industry’s major challenges. At the last TLC, in Sheffield in July 2016, we discussed many issues, including why the UK government doesn’t have a Water Minister. This is a very good question. If we had a Water Minister, would they be able to catalyse attitudinal changes which could substantially increase the value society places on water? It might be worth a shot. In addition to the TLCs, we are writing eight white papers which will be disseminated across the water industry. They discuss how ‘Big Data’, ‘Water Citizenship’ and the ‘Storage and Recovery of Energy’ from sewerage systems could support the water industry’s long-term sustainability and resilience, drawing from a wide range of case studies from around the world.

The ‘Hydraulic State’, a political-ecologic paradigm coined by historian Karl Wittfogel, (Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957]) developed with five salient characteristics: 1) centralised governance frameworks; 2) technical engineering expertise; 3) investment in hard infrastructure; 4) centralised supply and disposal networks; and 5) disengaged water users. However, in seeking to explore what forms of distributed and user-organised services might replace the ‘Hydraulic State’, surprisingly little attention is given to highly relevant past experiences of water services which were locally distributed, did not rely on costly engineering expertise, were closely aligned with local environmental needs and were not environmentally or financially expensive.

As water managers currently explore whether and how to disassemble technocratic enterprises to make way for more participatory and democratic forms of decision making, past experiences of distributed or transitionary forms of water management may offer patterns of water practices or of institutional-public relations that can inspire the planning of alternative water futures. By looking back through time at the governance frameworks of water use which the Hydraulic State broke down gradually and eventually replaced, I have argued that we can find inspiration for new and different ways of re-engaging water users with the systems and processes which underpin their most vital, life-sustaining utility service.

This invaluable interdisciplinary experience will stand me in good stead as I return to a History Department (and to the Tyne!) in my new role as Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University in Newcastle. In July 2016, I handed in the manuscript of Tyne after Tyne to White Horse Press, and I felt overwhelmed by its 112,000 words. Writing a five-century history of one river’s dramatic story was challenging, to put it mildly, and I was quite proud of a fairly mammoth work, having analysed around 1.5 million words of archival and oral history transcriptions.

But last week, for the first time in months, I visited the river near Gateshead and as I watched the Tyne’s powerful flow charging down its channel towards the sea, my manuscript seemed comparatively pithy. No book, however lengthy, could ever do justice to such a mighty river, packed to the brim with such a multitude of deep and complex meanings in the minds of all of the different people who’ve interacted with it over five centuries. It’s a big river, and I’ve written a big book about it, but I haven’t written the river’s total history. I’ve merely taken a tour through the major milestones, highlighting some of the most insightful socio-environmental relationships it has forged with the humans who have used and abused it, and played with, loved and become frustrated with it, from one generation to the next.

Tyne at Dunston

Looking Upriver from Dunston (Photo: Leona Skelton)

As I looked up the steep river banks behind me towards Windmill Hills, I remembered very clearly sitting up there on a bench one dull, cold day with my primary school class at the age of ten (in 1994, before the new housing estates were built there). The teacher had given each of us a sheet of paper on a clipboard and some charcoal pencils and asked us to draw the riverscape below us. We all smudged the charcoal on the paper to give the impression of enormous clouds of smoke. Everyone’s hands, coats and clothes were marked with the charcoal. We all drew the bridges, the river and the buildings of Newcastle, but some of my classmates drew enormous smoky ships which weren’t there. Others drew very large fish and I drew a big old-fashioned sail ship like the ones I’d seen at the Tall Ships event in 1993. I remember the teacher’s disbelief as she looked at the various pictures. She made us start again. “Draw what you see”, she instructed. But even at ten years old, we were envisioning different rivers in our minds, unique visions of our local river produced from a combination of family anecdotes, memorable events such as the Garden Festival (1990) and the Tall Ships Race (1993), lessons at school about pollution and its impact on fish (always bright orange, smiling, cartoon fish) and our own visits to the river, the beginnings of our generation’s relationship with it, and, not least, of the river’s relationship with us. What would Tyneside’s ten year-olds draw today…? What would the ten year-olds of 1900 have drawn?

 

Links

Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957)

TWENTY65: Tailored Solutions for Positive Impact http://twenty65.ac.uk/About.php

 

 

 

Engineering a “natural” river: Finding parallels in the Pacific Northwest

Impressions from an ASEH 2016 field trip

By Alexander Porch

More than four years ago a remarkable thing happened along the course of the Elwha, a river on the northern edge of the Olympic National Park in Washington State, USA. In a nation renowned for the number of watercourses that have been heavily modified by the construction of dams – for irrigation, hydroelectricity and water supply – a complex operation began to remove the obstructions that had controlled and exploited the river’s flow since the early decades of the 20th century.[i] As the title of a recent publication by the Seattle Times journalist Lynda V. Mapes attests, the Elwha has now become “a river reborn;” although for better or worse is still the subject of some debate.[ii] For the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose claim to the river, its fisheries and surrounding lands, extends back thousands of years, the return to their ownership of sections of the river and the reappearance of the fish that had for so long been prevented from migrating to their natural spawning grounds is undoubtedly a reason to rejoice. Likewise, local recreational fishermen (and women), kayakers, and those appreciative of an apparently unspoilt, pristine riverscape are equally positive about the outcome. But for users of the former reservoir and visitors to camping grounds recently washed out by flooding, the benefits are perhaps less obvious.[iii]

site Elwha Dam

The site of the Elwha Dam following its removal. The embankment in the middle distance is all that remains of the original structure. Photo: Alexander Portch.

I first became aware of the Elwha and its rich and complex history through the discovery of Mapes’ book while researching possible comparative studies to consider alongside the saga of the Severn Barrage. Although the dams may not have made use of the tides as their source of energy, I found the subject fascinating as an example of what can happen to a river when a dam is built and, more interesting still, what the implications are of its subsequent removal many years later. The question arose: if a Severn Barrage were to have been built, would there have ever come a time when a case would be made for its removal and, if successful, what would the outcome be of the river’s “rebirth?

To then have the opportunity to visit the Elwha and the site of one of its former dams (there were originally two – the Glines Canyon Dam in its upper reaches, and the Elwha Dam closer to its mouth) as part of the 2016 American Society for Environmental Historians (ASEH) conference in Seattle was an unexpected, but very welcome, pleasure. The conference – at which I presented a poster on my research – was an enjoyable, productive and intellectually stimulating event, with panels ranging from the application of GIS to the study of industrial London and its overseas trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, to “twentieth-century energy frontiers” and the challenges of doing premodern environmental history. However, the visit to the Olympic Peninsula, the Elwha, and particularly the point at which the river meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca within the bounds of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s reservation, was especially memorable.

The view of the Seattle skyline from the ferry crossing Puget Sound on the return journey from the Olympic National Park. Just visible in the far distance is Mount Rainier, an active volcano. Photo: Alexander Portch.

The view of the Seattle skyline from the ferry crossing Puget Sound on the return journey from the Olympic National Park. Just visible in the far distance is Mount Rainier, an active volcano. Photo: Alexander Portch.

Since the removal of the dams a vast quantity of sediment, previously trapped many miles up-river, has been allowed to flow unobstructed to the sea, being deposited at its mouth. Local tribal members can now walk hundreds of metres out along this accumulated material; with Bald-Headed Eagles gliding majestically overhead, drawn by the return of salmon and other marine species. For me this sight was particularly striking as the Severn is also a river characterised by high volumes of sediment which, it has been suggested, would be trapped behind a barrage, potential blocking and damaging the turbines and requiring regular dredging to keep in check. I wonder what would happen following the removal of a barrage, and the release of all that aggregate?

Newly formed beach

The newly formed beach at the mouth of the Elwha River within the bounds of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribal reservation. Most of this material has been deposited within the past couple of years. Photo: Alexander Portch.

Equally interesting were the insights provided during a stop at the Elwha Dam removal site by one of the archaeologists from the National Park Service who was closely involved in the restoration project. As part of that process archaeological surveys were required, including excavations of prehistoric sites encountered in the vicinity of the dams themselves, and features that were revealed as the lake waters fell and the river resumed a more natural course. Alongside the remnants of early human activity, the dams too were recognised for their historical and archaeological significance. Having been constructed at such an early point in the development of hydroelectricity, and still retaining much of their original machinery, they had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, necessitating detailed historic building surveys prior to their removal. A Severn Barrage has frequently been cited as having an expected lifespan of up to 120 years. After that period had elapsed would it too be considered as an important part of the nation’s heritage; something requiring thorough recording and analysis before finally being retired from service? Or, conversely, would it be preserved as a monument and museum to 21st century innovation and ingenuity? One thing is for sure, at 18 kilometres (11 miles) in length it would keep archaeologists and historic building surveyors busy for a very long time!

N.B. Attendance at the ASEH conference was made possible by a travel grant from the University of Bristol’s Alumni Foundation.

Bald eagle

Bald-headed eagles wait patiently at the mouth of the Elwha, perhaps for salmon returning to their spawning grounds in the now-accessible upper reaches. Photo: Alexander Portch.

[i] https://www.nps.gov/olym/learn/nature/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm

[ii] L.V. Mapes, Elwha: A River Reborn (Seattle, 2013); see also http://projects.seattletimes.com/2016/elwha/

[iii] http://www.seattletimes.com/life/travel/elwha-valley-access-limited-after-undammed-river-wrecks-campgrounds-road/

Reflections on mud, art, history and an exhibition

By Marianna Dudley

For fotogallery please scroll to bottom

Mud. Commonplace, messy, mucky. It is something we squelch through on walks, wash off boots, and rinse away on hands. Have you ever stopped to ponder its historical significance? Its sensory delights? Its visual possibilities?

From 14 – 18 March at the University of Bristol, ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’ project invited the public to do just that, in a free exhibition of work by ceramic artist Tana West, who uses river mud to create beautiful – and thoughtful – objects that connect maker and place, process and product, material and environment.

In 2009’s ‘Subject for Change’ Tana walked the length of the River Severn, researching and digging for mud as she went. It was this artwork that captured my attention, as postdoctoral researcher investigating aspects of the Severn’s environmental history on ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’. Her rigorous research process, the importance she placed on experiencing the changing river environment, and the production of objects which held clues to the river’s history within them, connected with the research of the project on a number of levels.

When you work on the Severn, mud asserts itself, historically and physically. It is a river whose water is the colour of chocolate milk, dense with mud and silt particles kept suspended by surface run-off upstream and the tidal movements of the lower reaches. Environmental historian of the early modern Severn landscape, John Morgan, shared with me a source he’d found in the Bristol city archives, in which the river mud was held in high esteem.  In a letter from Captain Charles Symes to Edward Southwell about building out near Sea Mills in 1694, Symes claimed of local river sand that ‘when tis Dry its Licke aney Rock and much stronger then aney Other Morter, (as well it may) Takeing up Such a Deal of Lymme’.  This mud, much like the mud that Tana uses in her art, was valued for its malleable qualities, its strength and its usefulness.

In recent times, not everyone has valued mud in the Severn. John’s source contrasts with a modern source I’ve found, a 1966 article in The Western Daily Press. It discussed the possibility of a tidal barrage across the Severn which would have the effect, the author thought, of stopping the tidal movement and allowing the silt in the water to settle, turning the estuary from brown to a ‘more attractive’ blue.  Until that point, I hadn’t considered the muddy ‘brown-ness’ of the river to be a problem, or something that people might not value. I am fascinated by the tides and the rich ecosystem supported by the mud and silt of the river. But to some others, mud is problematic. It is not a passive substance, but something that has shaped opinion, and identities. Between early-modern builders and twentieth century tidal power enthusiasts is a big space in which to think about mud.  The idea for ‘Into the Mud’, and later ‘Land + Water,’ was born.

‘Into the Mud’ secured funding from the AHRC’s Connected Communities Summer Festival fund to hold an outdoor creative workshop on the banks of the river Severn in June 2015. Tana led the workshop, which brought together members of ‘The Power and Water’ and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ projects (which share research interests in water, rivers, and local understandings of place and identity); amateur potters; members of a local community group, Ideal Action; and passers-by. By creating a temporary manufacturing base down by the river, the workshop enabled informal, creative, environmentally-responsive expressions and discussions to take place. Two participants wrote about the experience here.

But we weren’t done with mud yet – there was more to say, and do. Tana visited the University of Bristol and I showed her around Royal Fort House, the home of the university’s research institutes. The ornate rococo detail on the ceilings, walls and cornices, Tana revealed, were made using some of the same techniques she’d shown us in the workshop. There were alcoves crying out for vases; plinths pleading for pottery!

We decided to hold an exhibition called ‘Land + Water’, that combined new pieces made by Tana in response to the venue; older pieces made from Severn mud; and the products of the riverside workshop. Two talks were also planned, with the help of the Institute for Advanced Studies (who also made available the beautiful Verdon-Smith Room and all manner of logistical support).

At the first public talk, Tana talked about her work and research, with comments by the project leads of ‘The Power and the Water’ (Prof. Peter Coates) and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ (Prof. Owain Jones), who both participated in the workshop. In the second, organized by IAS, a multidisciplinary collection of academics spoke on anything ‘mud’ related, for 5 minutes, to inspire conversations surrounded by Tana’s work.  Throughout the week members of the public were welcomed to the exhibition, and left their comments in a Visitor Book. Among the works on display were ornate vases and ‘mass’ produced tea-cups (river mud turned delicate, beautiful and functional); ceramic installations ‘Into the Vernacular’ and ‘Under the Road, a River’ (that echo the utility of ceramics in building, sewerage, and water systems); and a print of diatoms, the microscopic inhabitants of mud that sustain the wildlife of the Severn estuary, made using Severn mud on paper.

Through ticket ‘sales’ for the (free) events, and visitor comments, we know that over one hundred people interacted with the exhibition, notwithstanding the challenge of finding it – the University of Bristol desperately needs a dedicated exhibition space. We also know that, for some, seeing Tana’s work, engaging with the discussions around it, and thinking deeper about mud, land and water, has changed the way they view the river’s place in city life and everyday experience.

Mary-Jane, Librarian: ‘I shall look more closely at the different types/colours of the Severn estuary mud in future’

Ben, postgraduate student: ‘ A superb reflective experience. Thank you for letting me in to your way of the seeing the world. A beautifully layered exhibition portraying such a dynamic place’

Kelvin, unemployed: ‘Love the way the work fits in the building – coming up the stairs and seeing this is a brilliant complement’

Robert, historian: Fabulous. I begin my mornings at Sea Mills on the river bank by the station – 3 minutes by train into Clifton Down. This is such a stimulating exhibition and way of bringing the river into the city (and into Royal Fort House)

Faye, ecologist: ‘An interesting study of the environment, history, and art. Thank you’.

(all comments from the ‘Land + Water’ visitor’s book)

 

Photogallery

All images by Marianna Dudley

Somerset, a ‘green and pleasant’ energy landscape?

Hinkley A

The decommissioned Hinkley Point A nuclear power station in its rural Somerset setting.
Image: Adrian Flint

With its agro-pastoral landscape of hedgerows, fields, and rolling hills and levels, often-sleepy Somerset may be the very picture of rural England – the quintessential ‘green and pleasant land’. To reinforce this, the area gained a variety of landscape and environmental designations over the course of the twentieth century, including Exmoor National Park and the Quantock, Mendip and Blackdown Hills Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).

At the same time the Somerset region is a twenty-first-century hub of energy production that faces further intense energy development, both renewable and non-renewable. It is the site of the Hinkley Point nuclear power stations A and B, and, potentially C, as well as new supersized transmitter pylons. It is also increasingly – often controversially – dotted with wind- and solar-power projects.

To what extent are the two faces of Somerset in conflict with one another? After all, Somerset has a long, proud record of historical energy provision, if its coal mining and other industrial activities are taken into account. How is it that inconsistencies between public expectations of landscape beauty and energy security have developed?

As a historian of the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge, Jill Payne has worked on the historical dichotomy between energy provision and the aesthetics of landscape and environmental protection in South West England. In this episode of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast series, Jill explores what people have come to expect in terms of energy security and how this squares with the issues involved in the desire to protect and preserve landscape and environment in ‘green and pleasant’ England.

Further reading and resources

Jill Paynes blog posts on the Power and the Water website.

Quantock Hills blog posts on the Histories of Environmental Change website.

Luckin, Bill, Questions of Power: Electricity and Environment in Inter-War Britain (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1990).

Nye, David E, American Technological Sublime (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1994).

Williams-Ellis, Clough, England and the Octopus (Geoffrey Bles: London, 1928).

 

Music credits

Marcos Theme” by Loveshadow, available from ccMixter

Out in the rain” by offlinebouncer, available from ccMixter
Exploring environmental History podcast

 

This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

The Lost Workscape of Tyneside – a video

Note: This guest blog is by Hunter Charlton, a 2015 graduate of Bristol University’s History Department. Hunter, who grew up in Bellingham, Northumberland, wrote a final year undergraduate dissertation entitled ‘Landscape and Change: Shipbuilding and Identity on the Tyne’. (If interested, you can access his dissertation through this link:  http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/history/documents/dissertations/2015charlton.pdf)

When I heard that Hunter was planning to make a film based on his dissertation topic, I was keen for the ‘Power and Water’ project to be involved (especially since he’s surfed the Severn Bore on at least one occasion, and tells me that Bristol’s proximity to The Bore was one of the reasons he chose to study here). The project is delighted that it was able to cover the cost of including film clips from the North East Film Archive (NEFA). Hunter’s film is entitled ‘Scorched Earth’.

Peter Coates

 

Scorched Earth

Memory fastens on sight. I learnt this while speaking with Frank Duke, a shipwright who had worked the length of the River Tyne and spent his working life building super tankers. It was not simply the loss of his job, but the changing relationship with the industrial landscape of Tyneside that led him to feel alienated by his surroundings, the past and a deep loss of identity.

Scenes of demolished shipyards, redundant and vast open spaces, haunt the landscape along the Tyne from Hebburn to Tynemouth. As one resident of Wallsend told me, ‘the absence of ruin often demonstrates the ruin’. The last vestiges of the Tyne’s industrial prowess are now in their final stages of decay and a decade has elapsed since the last remaining shipyard on the river, Swan Hunter, closed shop.

The loss of industry’s visual record from the landscape is shocking for two reasons. Firstly, we live in a heritage culture which dismisses monuments of the working class, whether in the form of coal, steel, shipbuilding or engineering works. Secondly, in their transience, industrial ruins betray a sense of permanence granted by the materials out of which they are constructed: concrete, iron, steel and brick.

Every single shipyard I visited was an exhibition in decay. They felt haunted, quiet and beautiful in their contorted state of ruin. Even in the archive footage from the 1980s that I included in my film there seems to be an attempt to eulogise these monumental structures and venerate a dying industry.

Today, as we walk through regulated cities, the site of a ship launch or the view of decaying berths at Hawthorn Leslie are untrammelled in their unique oddness. For someone like myself, born in 1992, who never witnessed these industrial landscapes in their prime, I find the site of industry captivating in its bizarreness. In making a documentary about these themes I wanted to better understand how people adapt to deindustrialised spaces and how such alterations become internalised by communities which inhabit the boundary between “industrial wilderness” and modulated environments.

Hunter Charlton

The Oldest Geordie: Environmental History of the River Tyne

Rivers are at the heart of defining the identity and lifestyle of many cities around the world, and that is nowhere stronger than in Newcastle on Tyne in the Northeast of England on the banks of the River Tyne. The people who live on the banks of the Tyne are fiercely proud of their river. Once the river was an industrial powerhouse of the British Empire, and by the 1880s the Port of Tyne exported the most coal in the world, and the river was amongst the world’s largest shipbuilding and ship-repairing centres.

There has been much consideration of how the River Tyne has shaped Tyneside and Tynesiders, but very little appreciation of the enormous extent to which people have shaped the river. To bear out this invisible history of the river, historian Leona Skelton, a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the University of Bristol, has worked on a research project that challenges us to think from a river’s perspective and to include in our river histories the flow pathways which rivers ‘wanted’ to follow, regardless of the changes that humans have forged upon the river. On episode 69 of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast Leona challenges us to look at a river as an historical actor with its own agency.

Leona’s Research was part of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council funded environmental history initiative “The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures”, that focuses on environmental connectivities that have emerged in Britain since industrialisation.

 

Further reading and resources
Archer, D., Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the River Tyne (Ovingham: Daryan Press, 2003)

Chaplin, M., Tyne View: A Walk around the Port of Tyne (2012).

Charlton, B., Upper North Tynedale: A Northumbrian Valley and its People (Northumbrian Water, 1987).

Cioc, Mark, and ebrary Academic Complete. The Rhine: An Eco-biography, 1815-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

Levine, D., and Wrightson, K., The Making of an Industrial Society: Whickham, 1560-1765 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Mah, A., ‘Memory, Uncertainty and Industrial Ruination: Walker Riverside, Newcastle on Tyne’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 34, no. 2 (2010), pp. 398-413

Marshall, M., Tyne Waters: A river and its salmon (London: H F & G Witherby, 1992)

Rennison, R., Water to Tyneside: A History of the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company (Newcastle: Newcastle & Gateshead Water Company, 1979)

Blog of Leona Skelton

 

Music credits

So Cold” by @nop, available from ccMixter

Clash” by zorza, available from ccMixter

Healing” by Stefan Kartenberg, available from ccMixter

Exploring environmental History podcast

 

This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

Video: Waters Meet, Warden, Northumberland

By Leona Skelton

About two miles from the Northumbrian market town of Hexham, close to the villages of Warden and Fourstones, is the spectacular confluence and the beginning of the main River Tyne, known locally as the Meeting of the Waters or Waters Meet. Here, the North Tyne (which flows south-east from Deadwater Fell near Kielder and the Anglo-Scottish border) meets the South Tyne (which makes its way north from near Alston high in the Pennines before turning sharply east towards Hexham) in a breath-taking natural compromise between the respective bodies of water, each possessing a different speed, colour and character of flow. As several of the oral history interviews which I conducted in January 2015 revealed, this is a favourite spot for many people living throughout the Tyne catchment (competing with equally popular sites such as the Collingwood Monument at Tynemouth and the regenerated Newcastle-Gateshead quayside) and it’s not hard to see why when you visit the site in person. Its relative isolation from roads, housing and other human distractions enables visitors to appreciate the soundscape of the waters’ communications as eddies crash together and the waters make their journey henceforth in unison to the North Sea. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen salmon leap out of the water and it’s great to see them heading up either the North Tyne or the South Tyne in a purposeful manner back to spawn and then die on the precise gravel beds where they once hatched. It’s a popular place for anglers, and private rods have been available only recently, from 2012, by the family which has owned the beats for four generations. Some forty miles from their respective sources and thirty miles from the sea, the Meeting of the Waters is a must-see site for anyone trying to understand the river, its character, its flow and its wildlife.

Links:

http://www.wardenfishing.co.uk/watersmeet.html

http://www.fishpal.com/England/Tyne/Warden-Watersmeet/?dom=Pal

http://www.bridgesonthetyne.co.uk/motw.html

Video footage provided by Gordon Ball, gbmediaspecialists.com

Inside the Mystic River: Riding the Severn Bore

By Peter Coates

When thinking about rivers – and trying to think like a river – I like to compare (with apologies to Arthur Miller) the (more detached) View From the Bridge with the (more involved) View From Under the Bridge. Last Thursday morning (29 October) there was a 4-star bore on the River Severn, which is not as big as a 5-star bore (the highest rating), but impressive enough. This was my third bore. But the previous two occasions had been mainly visual experiences (with a bit of an aural accompaniment thrown in as the onrushing waves scoured the sides), standing on the bank near St. Peter’s Church, Minsterworth and then at The Old Passage pub on the Arlingham horseshoe bend.

Rollercoaster

All aboard the rollercoaster. Photo: Leona Skelton

This time, though, with my colleague, Marianna Dudley, I got on and (somewhat) in the river, thanks to world record-holding Severn Bore surfer Steve King and master mariner Duncan Milne of Epney, whose 4-metre RiB (rigid inflatable boat) with an Evinrude outboard sometime glided across the smooth surface yet also bounced around on the bore in both directions. At times, unbidden, the water filled up the boat nearly to the gunwales; then, within seconds, the boat emptied of its own accord.

Duncan delivered us safely back to the bank where, though soaked, we were none the worse for our experience. Deliverance is the title American writer James Dickey chose for his first and best known novel (1970), about the adventures and misadventures of four middle-aged suburbanites from Atlanta who take a weekend canoe trip down a turbulent river in the Appalachian wilderness. Like John Boorman’s 1972 screen adaptation (starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voigt), the book has lost none of its power to thrill and shock (I bet they all wish they’d decided to play a few rounds of golf instead).

But Dickey was also a poet of the river. ‘Inside the River’ (1966) invites the reader to ‘follow your right foot nakedly in to another body’ and to ‘put on the river like a fleeing coat’ [1]. After taking a tumble, Marianna put on a coat of the more conventional kind: a dry suit. Yet whether or not you were literally dunked in the Severn estuary’s big muddy waters, the ride injected a healthy dose of material meaning into that hackneyed phrase, immersive research.

Upper limit Severn

The view downriver from Maisemore Bridge. Maisemore Weir and Lock are the upper limit of the tidal Severn. Photo: Leona Skelton

As we chased the Bore, tacking back and forth across the head of the tide, we got as thoroughly soaked to the skin as Dickey’s four friends who hurtled pell-mell down the fictional Cahulawassee River in northern Georgia. I hasten to add that the similarity between Gloucestershire and Georgia ends there (Epney is a far cry from Aintry). Well, almost. The river whose rapids the foursome decide to shoot is about to be impounded by a dam. I knew that a barrage across the Severn to harness its tidal power will kill off the Bore. But to hear it from the river’s mouth – the surfers who’ve been riding it for decades and of whom it’s said that their veins run with muddy water – drove this ominous prospect home with eloquent force. For the bore is a source of wonder as well as a site of exhilarating recreation.

In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Mark Twain recounted his pre-Civil War career as a steamboat pilot (the ultimate dream of every boy raised on the banks of the river T.S. Eliot called a ‘strong brown god’ in ‘The Dry Salvages’ [1941]). Sipping tea in the café at Saul after we got off the river, listening to the likes of Duncan, Steve and the two Stuarts talk about the enigmatic tidal flows and infinite variety of subtle and unpredictable permutations and differences between stretches of water, referring to the data bank of fluvial knowledge stored in the head of every experienced bore surfer, I was reminded of the passages that left the strongest impression when I first read Twain’s reminiscences as a callow youth.

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day [2]

But then he speaks of his growing disenchantment and sadness as he gets to know the river better and becomes more accomplished. Mastering the ‘language of this water’, though a ‘valuable acquisition’, came at a heavy price.

I had lost something too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river…The romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat [3]

I was never convinced by that supposedly inverse relationship between enchantment and knowledge, between poetry and prose. And my recent experience on and off the Severn in the company of boatmen confirmed that knowledge and enchantment can happily co-exist on a mystic river, whether over there or over here [4].

 

Notes

[1] From Drowning with Others: Poems (Middlebury. Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1966), 91.

[2] Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Airmont Publishing, 1965), 57-58.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Mystic River is a short river in Massachusetts, whose Wampanoag name (muhs-uhtuq) translates as ‘big river with waters driven by waves’.

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