Speed vs History: HS2 and the World’s First Nature Reserve at Waterton Park

By Leona Skelton

One of the things I’ve noticed since moving from Newcastle on Tyne to Wakefield five years ago is how relatively fewer famous people have originated from this county town of West Yorkshire which I now call home. In Geordieland, I was positively swimming in famous names, blue plaques, game-changing careers and local inventions, from Thomas Bewick, George Stephenson and William Armstrong, to the footballers Gazza and Alan Shearer, among many, many others. My observations around Wakefield over the last half a decade have yielded: an eighteenth-century novel’s protagonist, The Vicar of Wakefield, created by Oliver Goldsmith; the twentieth-century artist and sculptor, Barbara Hepworth; and the 70s and 80s pop group, Black Lace, which created “Agadoo” (unfortunately!). I don’t envisage Wakefield’s Tourist Information Centre commissioning tea towels and mugs covered in the names of famous Wakefielders any time soon!

Walton Plaque

Blue plaque in the village of Walton, terming Charles Waterton an ‘Originator of Nature Sanctuaries’. Photo: L. Skelton

The person I’ve omitted from this esteemed list, of course, is Charles Waterton (1782-1865), a pioneering conservationist who as early as 1820 turned his birthplace at Walton Hall (near Wakefield), to which he returned after travelling around South America, into the WORLD’S first wildfowl and nature reserve. He built a nine-foot high wall around his Waterton estate, populated it with the very first bird nesting boxes and carried out various ground-breaking and important experiments by swapping eggs and observing the birds’ behaviour in minute detail. He also fought a lengthy court battle throughout the 1840s against a nearby soap works which he believed was poisoning his trees and lakes and eventually had it removed by court order. This Wakefield man was arguably an environmentalist and his estate is a testimony to his foresight and environmental attitudes. I have walked around his estate innumerable times, and many local people deeply appreciate having the world’s first nature reserve on their doorstep. As I am a passionate advocate of looking back into the medieval and early modern, as well as the post-industrial, epochs in any attempt to understand the origins and development of modern environmental attitudes and values, I was naturally drawn towards Charles Waterton’s story. His intriguing projects ranged from paying locals 6d for hedgehogs which he then released into his park to constructing a sandbank for sand martins and a stone tower featuring twenty nesting holes.

Walton Hall

The ancestral home of Charles Waterton, Walton Hall (built in 1767 on an island within a 26-acre lake). Photo: L. Skelton

Stop HS2

A ‘Stop HS2’ sign on the road between the Wakefield villages of Cold Hiendley and Ryhill. Photo: L. Skelton

You can probably imagine my horror when I discovered that the modern speed machine that is HS2 is proposed to blast straight through Waterton Estate, ruining Waterton’s vision and the very long-established and indeed globally important site of his progressive nature reserve. Of course, there is a local campaign to persuade the government to spare Waterton Park in their planned route for HS2, and even Sir David Attenborough has joined Wakefield Council in this noble, heavily politicised and increasingly urgent fight. UNESCO is seriously considering awarding the estate World Heritage Status, which would certainly protect it under law, but right now plans are still in place to blast the railway directly through Walton’s beloved trees. Just as Waterton protected the lake and the trees from the soap works, and from the onslaught of industrialisation more generally, we now surely must follow in his footsteps and protect his legacy from the invasive intrusion of HS2. We ignore, and destroy the legacies of, early (pre-1850) environmentalists and their relationships with environmental resources, systems and processes to our detriment, and to the detriment of environmental history as a whole.

We don’t have to look very hard at all to find examples of technological innovation and its direct impact on the environment in the early modern period. One example of a man who realised quite literally the power of the water was Rowland Vaughan. He was born in 1559 in Herefordshire, fought in the Irish Tudor Wars and then returned home to marry his cousin, Elizabeth Parry, in 1585. Elizabeth owned a manor and a water mill on the River Dore, a tributary of the Wye, and Rowland inspected the manor on a regular basis. During one inspection in March 1587, he noticed a small spring caused by a molehill and that the grass was a richer green underneath the flowing water and he devoted the next twenty years of his life developing a water meadow irrigation system, which he published in his Most Approved and Long Experienced Water-Workes (1610). Rowland created a complex of channels and trenches, dams and sluices, including a three-mile diversion off the main river which he called Trench-Royal. It was a truly original innovation achieved through a great deal of manual labour (albeit mostly that of his employees), a lot of patience and simple trial and error. Ironically, however inspiring the mole had been in the formation of his initial idea, Rowland hunted moles from his irrigation system, calling their undermining of his earthworks ‘burglary’. Though he died in 1628, his water works were still being used successfully in the late nineteenth century and his story demonstrates the enormous power of early modern ideas and technology as well as the power of the water itself.

Within many environmental history topics, I think that important but often hidden linkages connect how particular aspects of the environment were utilised, experienced and managed in the early modern period (1500-1850) and the ways in which those same aspects of the environment came to be exploited, controlled, abused, enjoyed, regulated and protected from 1850 right up to the present day and into the future. These deep foundations are crucial to understanding the precise manner and characteristics of current environmental issues and challenges. In short, the further back in time we can trace the very precise pathways which have been taken in relation to the use and abuse, the protection and damage, of natural resources, systems, landscapes and environments, the sharper our recent past, present and future in relation to the environment will become. As Robert MacFarlane explained in Mountains of the Mind (2003), a history of attitudes towards mountains, ‘each of us is in fact heir to a complex and largely invisible dynasty of feelings: we see through the eyes of innumerable and anonymous predecessors’. This, too, can be applied to attitudes towards the environment, conservation and sustainability, misconceived by many as an exclusively modern invention. Characters such as Rowland Vaughan and Charles Waterton prove that modern environmentalism developed gradually over centuries, not decades, but their delicate and vulnerable legacies can be swept away worryingly quickly unless firm and urgent action is taken to protect them so that future generations can share their vision, their ingenuity and, perhaps most importantly, their insight into and genuine love of nature and the environment.

 

Further Reading:

Edginton, B., Charles Waterton: A Biography (Cambridge, 199

MacFarlane, R., Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003)

Uglow, J., Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (2007)

‘Sir David Attenborough backs Campaign to have HS2 Threat Estate designated as Heritage Site’, Yorkshire Post, 17/04/2015: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/main-topics/politics/sir-david-attenborough-backs-campaign-to-have-hs2-threat-estate-designated-at-heritage-site-1-7216101

http://www.thestar.co.uk/news/events-to-honour-naturalist-charles-waterton-150-years-on-since-his-death-1-7263333

Tidal Power: A Question of Scale?

By Alexander Portch

Whilst the remarkably well preserved site of Nendrum Monastery on the western shores of Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland may feature the earliest known example of a tidal mill in the world – and, by extension, effectively the starting point for the process of technological evolution that has resulted in today’s tidal energy devices like barrages, lagoons and tidal stream turbines[1] – it suffers from an issue encountered frequently in archaeology: namely that of incomplete evidence and the need to interpret what survives, with the likelihood that any interpretation will be fraught with inaccuracy and conjecture.

This may be familiar to viewers of Channel Four’s Time Team (now sadly also confined to the depths of the past) where, almost on a weekly basis it seemed, entire settlements were reconstructed in astounding detail seemingly on the basis of little more than a handful of pottery shards, the occasional pit, and perhaps the odd wall or two. Admittedly it is in fact possible to say a great deal about a site even if the items listed above comprise the sum total of all features and objects uncovered; not least the fact that a structure existed, its likely whereabouts and possible form and function, and – using the pottery – a likely date for its occupation. The pottery could even hint at possible trade links with faraway places. In order to present this assemblage and any resulting interpretations to a lay audience, however, some form of visual reconstruction is usually necessary and this is where imaginations begin to play a more prominent role, as demonstrated by the often spectacular 3D (re)creations of roundhouses, Roman villas and other assorted ancient monuments, through which Tony and the team could stroll at their leisure.

It is quite likely that many of these efforts are reasonably close to the truth, and even if they fall short of the mark, they do at least succeed in providing entertainment for some, and even inspiration for others (myself for one). Thus, the numerous reconstruction illustrations encountered in the museum at Nendrum Monastery, including a rather impressive physical model of the whole site, served to provide valuable insights into what the location may have been like throughout the duration of its occupation. This included the tide mill, which, despite its sophistication was also a wonderfully simple way of extracting usable energy from the regular rise and fall of the water in the Lough. Such mills may well also have existed around the shores of the Severn Estuary throughout the latter half of the 1st millennium AD; although, as yet, no examples have been identified.

What did exist in more recent times, however, were far larger and more complex structures, such as those at Berkeley and Westbury-on-Severn, both in Gloucestershire. These were certainly in operation from the 18th century, and possibly earlier. Whilst the basic mode of operation differed little from the early medieval tide mills of Northern Ireland, including Nendrum, involving the impounding of water at high tide within a pond, and its subsequent release through waterwheels as the tide ebbed, they also made full use of more modern forms of milling technology, such as vertical wheels, and gearing mechanisms. The latter could enable multiple millstones to be operated by only one or two wheels, whilst simultaneously providing the necessary power to hoist sacks of grain into the upper storeys of the building.

In the case of the example at Berkeley much of the machinery remains in situ within the building (so I have been informed), now derelict following the demise of the last commercial enterprise there in 2004. This may, however, have little to do with tidal power as the mill was converted during the 20th century, first to steam power and then to electricity, whilst the millpond and tailrace have since silted up. In order to fully understand how such facilities operated, therefore, and, in turn, their significance within the context of local communities for whom the tidal cycle of the Severn may have functioned as a focus of livelihood and identity, it seemed necessary to see a tide mill as it might have existed a century or more ago.

There are presently only five restored tidal mills in the British Isles. This may seem like a good number for those who are unfamiliar with such features, as I was only two years ago; however, considering that more than 700 mills were once in existence around the Atlantic coasts of Europe, including many in the British Isles,[2] the remaining examples can hardly be seen as representative. Nonetheless, those that do survive have been restored with care and attention to detail, enabling at least two of them to function once again as they may have done during their working lives. The closest mill to Bristol, where I am currently based, is that at Eling near Southampton which, until it closed for refurbishment earlier this year, produced its own flour on an almost daily basis. Beyond that, the other options were either an expedition to the coast of Suffolk and the working mill at Woodbridge or the slightly more accessible example at Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire. From an archaeologist’s perspective the choice wasn’t difficult to make, and without further delay I headed west.

Carew Cross

The 11th century Carew Cross stands, tall and imposing, facing the eastern entrance to the castle (with the well-positioned Carew Inn visible behind). Photo: Alexander Portch.

The castle at Carew has stood on its promontory overlooking the nearby Carew River, a tidal arm of the Cleddau Ddu, since the beginning of the 12th century when the Norman rulers of England sought to extend their influence into Wales; however, a defensive settlement has been shown to have existed there from the Iron Age. The nearby Celtic cross, one of the finest in Wales, may even hint at the location’s status as a royal centre for the Welsh Kingdom of Deheubarth prior to the arrival of the invaders from the east. It is also likely that a mill existed nearby to supply the castle during the medieval period; however, documentary records for a tide mill date from the 16th century with the present structure being of 19th century construction.[3]

Carew Castle

The West Range of Carew Castle, with its two 13th century drum towers, occupies a commanding position overlooking the still waters of the impounded mill pond. Photo: Alexander Portch.

The building comprises four floors, in addition to the under storey which houses the two vertical waterwheels, and functioned primarily as a corn mill, grinding grain into flour. After a relatively long period of use (longer than most modern power stations at least), the mill ceased operation in 1937 until its restoration in the 1970s. Initially the machinery was put back to use for demonstration purposes; however, now it stands dormant – clean, tidy, well-organised, but too fragile to resume operation. Recent feasibility studies have investigated the potential for breathing new life back into the now arthritic cogs, wheels and gears, in addition to the possibility of installing a modern turbine for generating electricity but, much like the great majority of tidal energy proposals, it remains little more than a report rather than any determined action.

Carew Mill

Carew tidal mill, visible in the distance from a vantage point high up in the nearby castle. Now largely abandoned (with the exception of the occasional wedding party and the regular stream of visitors and re-enactment groups) the castle now provides the ideal habitat for a diverse range of flora and fauna, including more than half of the species of bat found in Britain. Photo: Alexander Portch.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the mill at Carew is the causeway linking the mill building on one side of the river channel with the far bank and housing both the wheels beneath the building, and the sluice gates which allow water to enter during the flood tide. In effect this is a barrage. A very small barrage, at least in contrast to those proposed for the Severn, but a barrage nonetheless, and probably not much smaller than the Annapolis Royal tidal barrage in Nova Scotia.[4] It comprises a solid wall built laterally across the width of a river, thereby effectively cutting off an arm of the waterway from the “natural” operation of the tides. The tides do still affect the millpond created by this structure, but they now rise and fall at the whim of the mill owner or operator (presently the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority). Essentially this could be seen as merely a small-scale version of what might have come to pass on the Severn if a barrage had ever been built. And on that basis, would it have been such a bad thing? At Carew during my visit it was the mill pond that provided the most conspicuous habitat for wading birds, including shell duck and heron, sustained no doubt by the schools of fish that could be seen swimming in the relatively clear waters. The flow of the incoming tide was also discernible, whilst the scent of the salty waters still pervaded the air.

Causeway

The causeway at Carew Castle Tidal Mill: an early tidal barrage? Source: Alexander Portch

But then, the Carew River has no tidal bore, which would be entirely eradicated by a Severn Barrage, and its populations of fish are almost certainly less substantial and diverse than the much larger and more complex Severn. Five hundred years ago the mill pond causeway may have been relatively expensive and could have taken months to build, but that contrasts starkly with the billions of pounds and close to a decade required for the Cardiff-Weston barrage proposals of recent years. In many respects the issue of tidal power is very much a question of scale. Small-scale developments, in terms of size of the buildings and structures, the geographic space they occupy and influence, and the time they take to build have generally been more popular and successful; as demonstrated by the many hundreds of tide mills, the few successful examples of tidal barrages and the current trend towards investment in small-scale tidal turbines and tidal lagoons. Meanwhile, despite the unwavering faith of some its advocates, the comparatively massive Severn barrage continues to flounder. A large-scale fish in a relatively small sea.

 

Notes

[1] http://powerwaterproject.net/?p=562

[2] W.E. Minchinton, ‘Early Tide Mills: Some Problems,’ Technology and Culture, 20:4 (1979), 777 – 786.

[3] For more on the cross, tide mill and castle see: J.R. Kenyon, ‘Carew Cross, Castle and Mill,’ Archaeological Journal, 167 (2010), 29 – 33.

[4] http://www.nspower.ca/en/home/about-us/how-we-make-electricity/renewable-electricity/annapolis-tidal-station.aspx

Brief Encounters of the urban “Wild” Kind

By Alexander Portch

An otter in Bristol. A mere glimpse; a surge of water, a stream of bubbles and the hint of a tail and two rear paws disappearing into the murky depths of the harbour’s impounded waters. Then gone.

Otter

Otter (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This now represents my first and only siting of a “wild” otter. Hitherto my experience of these elusive and once endangered creatures had been solely through the medium of the screen, usually to the accompaniment of David Attenborough’s familiar narration and, almost by definition, comprising depictions of windswept Scottish lochs or broad North American rivers, hemmed in by miles of forest and mountains, seemingly devoid of human presence. For my first “real-life” encounter with an otter (Lutra lutra) to take place in the very heart of one of Britain’s busiest cities seems incongruous, and utterly unexpected. I had heard rumours of such sightings before but, much like reports of seals in the Severn or Great White Sharks off the coast of North Cornwall,[1] I had assumed they were uncommon – almost “freak” incidents – not something that would be witnessed by someone such as myself, and certainly not whilst casually strolling along the quayside a Friday morning on my way to the train station.

Surely otters, like Eagle Owls (Bubo bubo) and Beaver (Castor fiber), are the preserve of veteran naturalists; wind-swept, weather-beaten individuals whose hours spent ensconced in hides perched high on rugged hills are rewarded with observations of the sort of (non-human) nature everyday office (or library)-dwelling folk will rarely, if ever, have a chance to emulate. The same might once have been said for other seemingly exotic creatures, particularly in urban environments long characterised by low biodiversity and high levels of air, soil and water pollution. Creatures like the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), a pair of which had been gazing placidly down at me all the while as I stared wide- (or should that be wild-) eyed down at the otter.

Clearly, however, times have changed. A century ago the area of the city docks where I was fortunate enough to see my first otter was a centre of sugar refining and iron working. During the second world war it bore witness to some of the most intense and destructive air raids by the Luftwaffe (nearby castle park is now a green space in large part due to the damage wrought during the Bristol Blitz).[2] Until relatively recently the cleanliness and clarity of the harbour’s water was also less than ideal. Prior to the construction and opening of the floating harbour in May 1809, the River Avon could at least benefit from the twice daily flushing provided by the flooding and ebbing tides. Once sealed, however, the harbour rapidly became stagnant, and polluted by the regular discharge of sewage from the city and the many ships that made Bristol such a prosperous and (in)famous international port. Whilst this issue was addressed in part through the development by Brunel of a dredging system using a number of sluices emptying into the “New Cut”, it wasn’t until the decline in commercial shipping towards the latter half of the twentieth century and the emergence, more recently, of an interest in the need to create a clean, healthy and pleasant urban environment, that conditions have improved sufficiently to support a wide array of floral and faunal populations.[3]

In many respects, therefore, the return of the otter is perhaps no great surprise; although “return” isn’t perhaps the most appropriate term in this instance. It is almost certain that otters existed along the Avon (and its tributaries the Frome and Malago) in the area that is now central Bristol long before the settlement developed into a wealthy port and cosmopolitan modern city. The intervening centuries, however, have borne witness to the complete transformation of the region’s waterscape, such that the Avon at this point is now a predominantly anthropogenic river. Where once the tides surged upstream from the Severn, the water now flows slowly and placidly within the confines of the harbour; its levels changing almost imperceptibly in conjunction with the opening and closing of locks and sluices. At present that massive tidal range is diverted along the New Cut, a channel carved out through human labour, which two hundred years ago didn’t exist at all. The otters have thus colonised a new human-made space and can, in many respects be considered an entirely urban population. Alongside the Peregrines, roosting high up on the ledges of a former electricity power station, these creatures are a clear example that every so often human activity can in fact have positive benefits for other elements of nature. Given the frequency with which reports concerning the interactions between humans and the rest of “nature” highlight negative impacts and impending threats, such as anthropogenic-enhanced climate change, I think this is something to celebrate.

And it’s not confined to cities. Even within the context of my own focus of research – the history of efforts to harness the power of the tides in the Severn Estuary, and the wider subject of tidal power throughout the British Isles and beyond – the potential for a more positive, almost symbiotic relationship between people and other plants and creatures is increasingly apparent. Research into the environmental implications of wave and tidal energy devices, in addition to offshore wind turbines, now concentrates as much on their ability to function as new habitats for marine creature as the possibility that they may exert a harmful effect.[4] Whether such technology will ever prove to be wholly benign and largely beneficial remains to be seen, but as the 21st century thirst for electricity shows little sign of abating it would surely be a good thing for the sources of that energy to give back to the world as much as they take away.

A brief internet search reveals that my otters aren’t newcomers. In 2011 the BBC reported that otter scat had been found in the harbour area, whilst remote cameras caught the creatures responsible during their night time forays.[5] The Bristol Naturalists Society now operates an otter recording programme, and the City Council lists otters amongst the various species that now call the city home.[6] I may not have made a unique discovery or an original contribution to science, but I have at least been given a new insight, however brief, into a city I thought I knew; much like the river Severn, which I still feel as though I’m discovering for the first time, despite having lived within sight of it for much of my life. Now when I wander along the concrete pavements, holding my nose against the traffic fumes, diverting my attention from the clatter of police helicopters overhead, or ambulance sirens nearby, I can at least rest assured that somewhere, not too far, away the principle sounds and smells are the gentle splash of an otter as it slips gracefully through the harbour waters, and the odour of its fresh fish dinner.

 

Notes

[1] At least I had assumed sitings of seals in the Severn were uncommon until I found this: https://www.facebook.com/keiththeworcestershireseal. For the shark: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/great-white-shark-is-spotted-off-cornwall-1115302.html.

[2] See the Know Your Place website to view various historical maps of the city, in addition to information regarding past activities in the city derived from the Historic Environment Record (HER): http://maps.bristol.gov.uk/knowyourplace/

[3] A brief history of the development of the harbourside is provided in a “Character Appraisal & Management Proposals” document produced by the Bristol City Council: http://www.bristol.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/planning_and_building_regulations/conservation/conservation_area_character_appraisals/City%20Docks%20Conservation%20Area%20Appraisal.pdf

[4] J.C. Wilson & M. Elliott, ‘The habitat-creation potential of offshore wind farms,’ Wind Energy, 12:2 (2009), 203 – 212; R. Inger, M.J. Atrrill, S. Bearhop, A.C. Broderick, J. Grecian, D.J. Hodgson, C. Mills, E. Sheehan, S.C. Votier, M.J. Witt and B.J. Godley, ‘Marine renewable energy: potential benefits to biodiversity? An urgent call for research,’ Journal of Applied Ecology, 46:6 (2009), 1145 – 1153; C. Frid, E. Andonegi, J. Depestele, A. Judd, D. Rihan, S.I. Rogers and E. Kenchington, ‘The environmental interactions of tidal and wave energy generation devices,’ Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 32:1 (2012), 133 – 139.

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-14298095/

[6] http://bns.myspecies.info/content/bristol-otter-survey-group; https://www.bristol.gov.uk/sites/default/files/assets/documents/otter.pdf

Into the mud

Severn Beach

Location of the workshop at Severn Beach. Photo: Marianna Dudley

‘Into the Mud’ (21 June 2015) was an outdoor workshop organised by Marianna Dudley, from the University of Bristol’s Department of Historical Studies as part of a collaboration between ‘The Power and the Water’ and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ projects, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Summer Festival.

Artist Tana West ran the workshop which used clay extracted from the Severn riverbed at Aust. Tana is interested in exploring the intersections between nature and culture by using materials at hand.

The location, at Severn Beach, was ideal to work creatively with mud from the river and to make connections between object, processes, origin and materials, by creating a temporary manufacturing base on the riverbank.

Here, two workshop participants, Mireia Bes and Ana Miguel, reflect on why they attended the workshop and how it has changed their understanding of, and relationship with, rivers.

 


Mireia: I found out about this event at Festival of Nature and immediately decided to join. I’ve been doing pottery since I was a kid, but I rarely have the chance to do pottery with clay that comes directly from the landscape, it was always detached from my surroundings. There´s something quite primal about sourcing your own clay and doing pottery on the spot that really attracted me.

Ana: I found it fascinating as it brought together some of my passions: research, the environment and pottery. My experience with academia and the university has been through a formal approach of seminars and lectures. In this case, the location, format, material and topic were integrated in an innovative fashion. We engaged in a natural and relaxed way which allowed us to increase our creativity. Pottery is a recent discovery in my life. It allows me to connect with my creative side and disconnect from the daily life. I loved the idea to be outdoors with clay in my hands from the mud of the river.

Mireia: It was a luxury to be doing pottery at Severn Beach. The mix of the natural landscape left behind by the tide with the industrial buildings and the lack of people despite the sunny day, gave it a bit of a dystopian feel. For me the actual trip there, was as interesting as the final destination. Leaving the centre of Bristol and seeing a new landscape emerge and change until we got there. Sometimes we just jump into a train and get out at the final destination without even paying attention to the landscapes we see through the window. I had the chance to share the trip with Peter Coates who told me about the history of the area and that totally changed the experience, I felt I was more connected to that landscape.

Ana: The bank of the river Severn was the perfect location for this workshop. We were in the Severn Estuary which is one of the biggest estuaries in Europe. It was an impressive location: we could see the windmills and a really long bridge. The colour of the water is brown which created a real connection with the mud. We were surrounded by mud and different varieties of algae.

For me one of the most important aspects was the (de)contextualisation of the workshop. When I think about a pottery class, the image is of a room indoors. However, ‘Into the Mud’ was an outdoor workshop. We were surrounded by the origins of the clay, working with mud from the river and learning about the environment. Being in this new location generated an atmosphere, relationships and conversation completely different from a normal class.

Working with clay

Ana and Mireia working with clay. Photo: Marianna Dudley

Mireia: The clay actually came from Aust and it was there when we arrived, which was a relief as I didn´t have wellies! It was funny to work with that clay because it has a different texture. It was interesting to change this idea of the clay as something that comes in a bag for you ready to use to something that you can actually source from nature and work it to transform it into objects. We were also constructing something together, working as a group, which is not something that usually happens in a pottery studio.

Ana: Being so close to the clay’s origins connected me more with the environmental aspect of pottery. I have never thought before about the relevance of where the clay comes from and also that it was so easy to get clay from natural resources near me. We used the mud from the river to construct a waterpipe. We also used some objects around us to work with the clay such as algae or plastics. A key aspect in this process was that the researchers from the ‘Power and the Water’ project were explaining us the history of river Severn, the landscape and the connection with their projects.

We took some clay/mud to our pottery class, but all of a sudden it was decontextualized: it smelled and it felt wetter and stickier than when we used it on the beach. Our fellow potters didn’t really engage with the new material… but Mireia and I will use it anyway, we now have a special connection with this material.

Mireia: I really like cities that have rivers because I feel they create spaces for social interactions and connect you with other lands and people that the same water will touch. Obviously rivers are very important from an ecological point of view and for the societies that grow around them, but at a personal level I had never experienced a direct interaction where the river was actually providing me with something that then I could transform into an object that could have a function in my day to day life. It was a new way to look at rivers.

Ana: My main contact with rivers has always been from tourism and leisure. I have enjoyed the rivers with activities like canoeing or having a bathe. Another aspect of my relationship with rivers is from the point of view of the lack of water. Coming from a country [Spain] where we experience frequent droughts, I have experienced water cuts and the close monitoring of water levels in rivers and reservoirs in the weather forecast. This generates a completely different relationship with water than someone could have in England, for example, where there is a lot of rain, water and recent problems with floods. Since I have been living in England, for four years now, my relationship with water and rivers has been transformed.

 

As a result of the day we learnt things about pottery, history and landscape, and the relationships amongst those. But most of all it was a reminder on how important it is to create spaces to have proper conversations with people and how much you can learn from those. All of us had something to say about water and our relationship with it.

We really valued the opportunity to learn about the research that is taking place at the University through a workshop like that. Research is usually presented in a more formal way such as lectures or seminars and it is more difficult for the public to access. We also felt that the collaboration with other disciplines, an artist in this case, was key for us to engage with the research in a meaningful way through a practice that is relevant to our lives. It offered an opportunity to experiment, collaborate and learn in a relaxed way.

 

Stories of Consumption, Waste and Community in Bristol – European Green Capital 2015

By Jill Payne

‘The Power and The Water’ Project’s focus (read Marianna Dudley’s recent blog on this) at the Bristol Festival of Nature, 12-14 June, currently the largest free event of its kind in the UK, highlights the power of place as a platform for historical and political environmental debate. At our stand, the general Festival theme of all things ‘nature’ had a Bristol slant: hidden histories of Bristol’s rivers. Festival-goers interested in Bristol (mainly local, but also from up and down the country) came to talk to us about Bristol issues, and to compare these with issues elsewhere.

Aspects of local history depicted on our posters brought visitors over to share folk memories and childhood reminiscences with us: the River Avon as a busy shipping route; the whale that washed up on the banks of the River Severn in 1885; the traditional traps or ‘putchers’ used in the Severnside salmon-fishing industry. These opened the way for more contemporary topics: water quality and riverine/marine litter, especially non-biodegradable plastics waste, and possible solutions to this problem, about which there is considerable community feeling. Many people, it seems, regularly undertake their own private litter-picks along the river banks and other green spaces where they like to walk – and also feel strongly that the issue is as much one of plastics ubiquity as it is about responsible waste disposal.

Of course, many aspects of local waste management and water quality have improved significantly since the days when, as our posters showed, the River Frome became so polluted on its way through Bristol that the nineteenth-century solution was to culvert it. However, we can also look back to the era when Bristol water was an industry in itself, rather than a conduit for industrial and domestic waste. In the eighteenth century, bottled water from Hotwells on the banks of the Avon, then just downstream of the city and a famous spa destination, was exported as an elixir of health[1] – with the consequent rise in demand for glass bottles providing impetus for the Bristol glass industry.[2] Those eighteenth-century glass bottles can be seen as part of a cycle of bottled-water consumption extending forward to today’s plastic riverbank detritus, and, hopefully, towards future strategies for dealing with this and other products of the petrochemical age.

Team members at Avon

‘The Power & The Water’ Project team members and associates on the River Avon tidal floodplain at Sea Mills with plastics waste for the Festival of Nature stand, May 2015. Photo: J Payne.

The power of place in stimulating environmental debate also underpins the European Commission’s Green Capital initiative, which supports and encourages European urban authorities in their environmental commitments and achievements. Next week, Bristol will be halfway through its year as European Green Capital. Before it hands over the title to Slovenia’s Ljubljana in 2016, Bristol’s environmental provisioning will be given a global showcasing at the UN’s 2015 Paris Climate Conference in December.

Bristol’s presentation at the Paris Conference must necessarily focus on the future; viable strategizing for the environmental scenarios that may lie ahead will, however, be enhanced by further understanding of past as well as current and future issues, and the relationships that bind them.

 


[1] See for example ‘The Bills of Lading of Noblet Ruddock & Co, 1720’ in WE Minchinton, ed, The Trade of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century (Bristol Record Society, 1957), pp. 78; 80.

[2] William Matthews, The New History, Survey and Description of the City and Suburbs of Bristol (W Matthews, 1794), p. 40.

Historians at the Festival of Nature, 12-14 June 2015

By Marianna Dudley

In second week of June, ‘The Power and the Water’ project ran its first ever stand at the Festival of Nature, Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. It was a first not only for the project but for the School of Humanities too, as it was the first time a non-science subject had been included in the University of Bristol tent.

What?

FoN team

The Power and the Water Team, and 2nd Year Biology Student Volunteers, ready to engage with the public! Photo: Milica Prokic.

‘Hidden River Histories’ took the research that the Bristol-based team members are doing (Power and Water is a three-strand project with researchers at Nottingham and Cambridge Universities too) to create an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience. We knew that the Festival is a popular event for all ages and backgrounds. Established in 2003, it is the UK’s biggest free celebration of the natural world with two days of free interactive activities and live entertainment across Bristol’s Harbourside. We wanted to introduce the field of environmental history to Festival-goers, and specifically some key themes in our project: how the natural world is intertwined with the human; how past water and energy uses might inform current and future environmental values; and how local issues fit with global environmental change.

Public engagement

Talking about river waters and history with members of the public. Photo: Peter Coates.

Our stand could not be boring: we were representing History and the Humanities among a sea of Science stands! For the kids we knew would visit (Day 1 of FoN is Schools Day), we had to provide something interactive – something they could get their hands on. Luckily, in environmental history, we have no shortage of fascinating natural, and unnatural, items to work with. River waters from four ‘Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the often-forgotten Malago (Bedminster) bottled in clear glass took an idea that was originally inspired by a Canadian artwork[1] to become an interactive way of thinking about tides, water quality, rivers-as-ecologies, and a quick way of testing people’s knowledge about their local rivers. Kids shook up the river waters and urgh-ed at the murky Severn and Avon. But they were fascinated to see old photos of salmon fishing and a beached whale in the estuary (in 1885), and we were able to talk about how ‘brown’ is not always ‘bad’, and how, from a salmon’s perspective, a nicely tidal, turbid (unbarraged!) River Severn is exactly where you’d want to be. The ‘pure’ Frome, on the other hand, was the river that was so dirty in the 19th century that the city chose to bury it.

Bottle water

Bottled water from the Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the Malago. Photo: Milica Prokic.

The bottled rivers were a way-in to talking about Bristol’s watery past, but we also wanted to discuss Bristol’s water future, particularly with an issue that we’d observed on field trips down to the riverbank at Sea Mills (a suburb of Bristol). On the intertidal zone there, plastics are a huge problem, brought in on the tides. The issue of marine litter connects local environmentalism with a global plastics issue – the river banks of Sea Mills with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic trash

One item of plastic trash from the banks of the Severn. Photo: Milica Prokic

We collected a huge array of discarded plastic items one morning in May. Guided through Health and Safety requirements by the Centre for Public Engagement, we decided to bag the plastic items (in yes, more plastic – the irony was not lost) and create a Trash Table, in which the rubbish was laid bare for the public to see, pick up, question and discuss. It had something of a forensics scene about it, compounded by the presence of numerous, enigmatic, lost shoes. We’ve been discussing ‘future archaeology’ as an interesting methodology, and it provided us with our key question: what stories would future historians and archaeologists tell about us now, based on these non-degrading plastics? In addition to confronting the environmental impacts of consumer culture, visitors to the stand could engage in some informal, but not inconsequential, narrative building.

Eloise Govier

Artist Eloise Govier and her hi-vis installation, made from polystyrene found by the Avon. Photo: Milica Prokic.

Though an exercise in public engagement in itself, we were able to highlight other public engagement and knowledge-exchange initiatives we’ve been working on. Artist Eloise Govier has been collaborating with researcher Jill Payne on installations that encourage people to think about energy. Her high-vis block of polystyrene – sourced on our forage along the Avon – was a great talking point, likened to cheese, Spongebob Squarepants, fatbergs and a meteorite! Artists from the Bristol Folk House also contributed works, based on an outdoor workshop we ran at the Ship’s Graveyard on the River Severn at Purton. We made them into free postcards that included our project website and contact info, encouraging future communication. The watercolours updated our visual record of the river and helped us to think about how people see and value the River Severn today, and how this connects with – or departs from – traditions of viewing land- and waterscapes in Britain.

Why?

A 3-day presence at the Festival of Nature was the culmination of months of planning by me and Jill (Payne, researcher on Power and Water). We had our first meeting before Christmas, and plenty since! Was it worth the effort? Unreservedly, yes. In terms of disseminating our project research, FoN allowed us to communicate our work – and raise awareness of the vitality of environmental history at Bristol – to a huge number of interested citizens. We await attendance figures for this year but last year, over 4, 385 people attended the UoB tent. In 2013 it was 6, 284. This year the weather was good and there were queues to enter the UoB tent, so we are confident that attendance was a strong as ever.[2]

Drewitt at Stand

Naturalist and broadcaster Ed Drewitt drops by to say hello. Ed provided a wildlife commentary for our project boat trip down the Avon

But public engagement of this kind goes way beyond sheer numbers. The process of planning the stand has been productive, helping us identify the themes in our work that hold interest (and are therefore useful for telling histories, in and beyond academia). The photo of the 69ft whale beached at Littleton-on-Severn was a side-story to my research, but people were fascinated by why and how this creature came to Bristol. A trip to Bristol City Museum to track down the bones is being arranged, and the animal inhabitants of the river will be more visible in my work as a result.

Moreover, good public engagement goes beyond disseminating research. They may be buzzwords in funded research, but ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘co-production of knowledge’ are very real benefits of engaging with groups and individuals beyond the academy. For a project like ours, which is interested in public environmental discourses and people’s relationships with place, talking with the public is a key source of information, and a way in which we can build research questions, identify key issues, and meet people who can aid our research. We learnt of more hidden rivers in Bristol, community action groups, and old records of the Severn Bore. We were also asked why we were not being more active on the issue of plastic waste, prompting us to reflect on the aims of the project, and the role of academics in communities where sometimes, actions speak louder than words. It was useful to recognize our strengths and limitations, as perceived publicly, and to articulate our key aim of providing sound research from which people can become informed, and motivated. Getting involved in an event such as Festival of Nature is a useful reminder that rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are the public too, offering a particular set of knowledge and skills but equally willing to learn from others.

As researchers funded by the public purse (through the UK Research Councils) the expectation that we take our work beyond the university is entirely reasonable. Public engagement is now built into funding applications, and the impact it can produce is a measurable output of research. Meaningful public engagement, based on principles of knowledge exchange and co-production, is a pathway to tangible impact, rather than a one-sided conversation. If we hope to achieve impact, that is, through our research change the way a group thinks or acts with regards to a particular issue or topic, then we must engage with the ‘group’; talk to them, identify key concerns, think about how our research can address issues and contribute to understanding and practice. The language of ‘impact’, public engagement and knowledge exchange, serves to reinforce the academic/public divide. The practice of such ideas, through events such as Festival of Nature, helps to overcome such distinctions. It’s also (whisper it) fun


The Power and the Water project would like to thank the Centre for Public Engagement (University of Bristol) for all their logistical and design support; the 2nd Year Biology volunteers that helped man the stand with enthusiasm; Eloise Govier, for the loan of her artwork and for helping on School Day; and Milica Prokic and Vesna Lukic, for filming, photographing, and mucking in over the FoN weekend.

 

 

[1] Emily Rose Michaud, ‘Taste the source (while supplies last) (2006-present)’ in Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis (eds), Thinking with water (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013), 133-38

[2] Thanks to Mireia Bes at the Centre for Public Engagement for attendance numbers.

Tyne Talks and River Walks (or, environmental history – not a load of ‘waffly bollocks’)

By Peter Coates

Hot on the heels of our Project Workshop in Bristol, I was aboard an evening flight to Newcastle. Heading up the northwest coast to Solway Firth before turning eastward, it seemed that the descending sun was frozen on the western horizon: there was as much daylight on landing in Newcastle as there’d been when we took off 50 minutes earlier.

Confluence Tyne

Confluence, looking east: Peter at Waters Meet, where the Tyne’s two branches converge (Photo: Leona Skelton)

The brisk schedule Leona had prepared for my 36-hour visit reminded me of how much we’d packed into our 72-hour team meeting on Tyneside precisely a year ago. Back in the Premier Inn Quayside (this time, though, in a room fully exposed to the incessant cries of the downtown-loving kittiwakes whose nests stud the sides of the Tyne Bridge this time of year) and after another slap-up Weatherspoons breakfast al fresco on the quayside, near the magnificent old Fish Market (now some grotty night club), we drove out west to the confluence of the river’s North and South branches near Hexham, where we were transfixed by the meeting of the waters (and duly noted the privatized, angling club section of river stretching to the west). From the bucolic Waters Meet, we doubled back, headed for the coast, passing through the Walker Riverside area that features in Alice Mah’s book, Industrial Ruination, Community, and Place: Landscapes and Legacies of Urban Decline (2012) and her article, ‘Memory, uncertainty and industrial ruination: Walker Riverside, Newcastle on Tyne’ (International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2010), en route to the Low Light Heritage Centre on Fish Quay, North Shields.

The launch of Leona’s ‘Tyne Talks’ exhibition at Low Light (12-25 June) provided the opportunity for me to meet Ceri Gibson, River Watch Manager at Tyne Rivers Trust, beneficiary of Leona’s recent sponsored solo hike the length of the Pennine Way (and in the nick of time: she’s about to move on to a job in the Lake District). I also met Jayne Calvert of the Clean Tyne Project (breakfasting back on the quayside Friday morning, our old friend ‘The Clearwater’ chugged upriver, though minus the ‘Tyger of the Tyne’, I’m afraid, which has been removed on health and safety grounds). The Low Light’s curator, Pearl Saddington, told me she did not encounter environmental history while studying history at Newcastle University, but, on the strength of Leona’s display, granted that it involved far less ‘waffly bollocks’ than some of the history served up these days. The Low Light, built in 1727 to help guide shipping into the treacherous mouth of the river in the days before the piers were built, was the perfect venue for ‘Tyne Talks’ [1] Leona’s environmental history was pieced together from materials such as seventeenth-century disputes over the river adjudicated at the Tyne River Court and a photo of the God of the Tyne. But pride of place was given to striking quotations from her recent interviews with Tynesiders about their views, experiences and memories of the river. [2]

Before clean up

‘Tyne Talks’: Reflections on the Tyne, before clean-up (Photo: Peter Coates). Click Image to enlarge.

‘The Spirit of the Tyne’ is the name of one of the two ferries that ply between North and South Shields – and the one we rode on. Yet it’s clear that there’s no singular spirit of the river. The other ferry is called ‘The Pride of the Tyne’, and it’s just as clear that the source of that pride varies considerably. Leona divided her oral histories between ‘Before the Clean Up (pre-1980)’ and ‘After the Clean Up (post-1980)’ and her selections underscored the lack of agreement over what constitutes a busy river and a living river. Before 1980, the Tyne was ‘a busy, busy river’. Another interviewee recalled that ‘the noise from the river was fantastic, it was just incessant’, and ‘big, vast and exciting’ was a further description. At the same times, others Leona had interviewed referred to ‘a dirty old Tyne’ and how it had been ‘in a pretty sorry state’.

After clean up

‘Tyne Talks’: Reflections on the Tyne, after clean-up (Photo: Peter Coates). Click Image to enlarge.

After 1980, though, with a cleaner river, the quality of bigness, for some, had shifted to the river’s signature fish that was back in town: ‘big salmon jumping under a bridge’. And the river was busy again, ‘absolutely teeming with life’ – though life of a different kind to human activity. The reborn Tyne was even characterized as ‘a happy river’. But for others, it has been stripped of vitality and meaning: ‘now it’s silent’; ‘the river’s dead’; ‘it’s a wasted resource at the moment’; and (what I think is Leona’s favourite) ‘I really do think that the river should be working for a living’. Providing the biotic conditions to nurture salmon, otters and human swimmers and anglers did not constitute work according to this scenario.

Environmental historian at work

Caution: environmental historian at work. Deep in concentration, Peter cuts Velcro into strips. In 1995, Richard White published an essay – inspired by a popular bumper sticker in a logging town in Oregon during the spotted owl controversy – entitled ‘”Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?”’: Work and nature’ (see William Cronon (ed), Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature). There’s no need to pose this question about environmental historians. (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Tyne Mouth

Looking out to sea. ‘The Spirit of the Tyne’ crossing from North to South Shields, for a pint of Pacifica ale at The Steamboat. (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Regardless of whether the river is putting in a decent day’s labour or loafing around, Leona certainly put me to work. In fact, she gave me a decidedly dangerous task, informing the guests that I would speak for a few minutes about why the Tyne is nearly as important as the Mersey. Having rigorously and systematically compared the two rivers and their twin river cities’ commercial, architectural, sporting and musical accomplishments, the score with five minutes left was something like Liverpool 8, Newcastle 2. (On the ferry across the Mersey, they still play ‘Ferry ‘cross the Mersey’, but on the ferry ‘cross the Tyne, of course, they don’t have an equivalent song to play, though you’d think they could at least manage Lindisfarne’s ‘Fog on the Tyne’ or Jimmy Nail’s ‘Big River’.) And when we start talking pubs, well, the Crown Posada sure is a swell place, but where’s Newcastle’s answer to The Philharmonic?

Newcastle Quayside

Next stop, Copacabana: Newcastle Quayside Seaside’s potted palms swaying in the gentle, early morning Summertyne breeze. (Photo: Peter Coates)

In one respect, though, and this is perhaps the all-important consideration, I had to agree with the brag on the Tyne Rivers Trust pop-up banner that the Tyne is ‘England’s greatest river’: it’s incontrovertibly England’s greatest salmon river, historically and once again. That evened up the score (as did our foray across the river to The Steamboat in South Shields, once again Camra’s Pub of the Year). But those of us gathered at the Low Light could at least all agree that big northern rivers, whose august company includes the Clyde and Tees, knock the spots off that puny, over-exposed southern stream that passes itself off as the national river. Final score: Big Northern Rivers 19, London’s River 1.

Heading south to Bristol the next day on the Friday afternoon flight, the plane passed over the mouth of the Tyne. From my window seat, I could see, directly beneath us, snug in its berth at North Shields, the DFDS Seaways ferry to Amsterdam that leaves daily at 17.00. (The previous evening, pouring the wine and opening the crisp packets in preparation for the exhibition launch, I glanced out of the eastward facing window just in time to catch the grand spectacle of the ship exiting the river.) Forty minutes later, on its final descent, the plane crossed the mouth of the Avon at pretty much the same point where our boat turned and headed back into Bristol during our project workshop field trip down the river to Avonmouth. The start of the week met the end of the week; the Avon flowed into the Tyne and the Tyne flowed back into the Avon. Just don’t call it connectivity.

 

NOTES

[1] Tony Henderson, ‘New North Shields Heritage Centre opens its doors at the historic Fish Quay’, The Journal, 28 October 2014, at http://www.thejournal.co.uk/north-east-analysis/analysis-news/new-north-shields-heritage-centre-8010993

[2] Tony Henderson, ‘River Tyne’s story revealed in study by environmental historian’, The Journal, 14 January 2015, at http://www.thejournal.co.uk/north-east-analysis/analysis-news/study-environmental-historian-investigates-500-8456443

 

 

Harvesting Oral Histories: Life, Work and Fog on the Tyne

By Leona Skelton

Researching the environmental history of just one natural system, the River Tyne in North East England, enables me to conduct very deep archival research into a plethora of organisations’ records, but most of the extant archives are heavily engendered by the objectives of the employees who produced them. Moreover, they tend to focus on noteworthy, official events and major changes rather than more prosaic, everyday life experiences and personal, yet deep and important, relationships between Tynesiders and their beloved Tyne. Some records were written by seventeenth-century scribes working for the oligarchic Newcastle Corporation; others were written by the successive secretaries of the profit-driven Tyne Improvement Commission (1850-1968) or by those working for the national government’s Standing Committee on River Pollution which was appointed to test the river water in the 1920s and 30s. The minutes of the Tyne Salmon Conservancy (1866-1950), based upriver in Hexham, provides yet another very different perspective, transporting the researcher to a world of tweed-wearing anglers who worked hard to install fish passes, to protect the Tyne’s fish from pollutants and to restock rivers to ensure the continuance of their sport. But in all of these important records there is something missing: the gritty, the mundane, the real life experiences which demonstrate how the river’s meaning has changed as it wove its way through the lives and livelihoods of individuals, communities and the whole Tyneside region, from day to day, year to year and decade to decade, as the river underwent unprecedented and dramatic change both environmentally and in terms of how it looked, sounded and smelled to the people who sensed and experienced it directly.

Unfortunately, there is no scratch and sniff on the pages of seventeenth-century manuscripts or Victorian committee minute books, but you can sit down and talk to someone who worked on the Tyne in the 1950s and ask them to describe their sensory experiences of the river, how it made them feel and when, how and why that changed over the course of their lives. Cue the Dictaphone and an enormous pack of AA batteries! I don’t need to argue the case for the enormous benefits of oral history, but I believe that its unique benefits to environmental historians are yet to be fully appreciated. Environmental history pushes historians, perhaps more so than those working in any other sub-categories of our discipline, to incorporate into our research absolutely every aspect of a particular environment, landscape or natural system, which leads us necessarily to consider all of the senses, including sound, smell, taste and touch as well as sight. Although it is limited to living memory, oral history has an enormous potential to reconstruct past environments, to answer questions which simply cannot be answered as a result of a long stint in the archives. Even a personal diary is limited by the parameters of what has already been committed to paper; it is a finite resource. Whereas in an oral history interview, the researcher designs and then asks the questions and can chase up answers to those questions with further specific and penetrating questions in a responsive, exciting and fluid conversation, responding to the interviewees’ body language, tone and emphasis. It’s not quite creating history, but it certainly allows the researcher to harvest the particular information they need in order to answer particular research questions.

Intimate anecdotes revealed in oral history interviews have illuminated the official histories I have tracked and they have imparted colour into the detailed framework which I have carefully constructed from river legislation, the coming and going of local and national governmental bodies and other organisations, world wars and major engineering projects. In short, they bring the river’s history to life and provide insightful meaning to the environmental development of the river. How else could I have learnt about the ‘chiming’ of hollow ‘ice baubles’ which hung one morning on the overturned tips of grass blades as they swung gently over the water on the river banks between Fourstones and Haydon Bridge on the South Tyne? And how else could I have heard tales of children living in Hebburn on the south bank of the Tyne estuary in the 1950s who called the river their ‘playground’ and spent entire days building rafts, sailing down the river and shooting at the ubiquitous rats with air rifles? Or the woman who moved from Dundee to North Shields specifically because the Tyne’s riverscape reminded her of the Firth of Tay and her native home. I could list a thousand stories from only twenty-six interviews lasting between twenty and thirty minutes. Some are poignant, some make me laugh and some even make me cry, but they’re all part of the Tyne’s history and I couldn’t have completed this project without them. The experiences of Tynesiders like my Grandad, who clocked on and off throughout their lives, worked innumerable shifts around the river, who literally contributed to the enormous volumes of domestic and industrial waste which poured into the estuary via over 270 sewers and who now use the much cleaner river for leisure, sport and for therapeutic reasons at the most difficult times of their lives, are central to understanding what we have done to the river and what the river has done to us.

Of course, oral history itself is a form of public engagement in its own right and the interviewees are as interested in my research as I am in their experiences of the Tyne. It has been a wonderfully symbiotic process and very worthwhile in terms of the admittedly large amount of time spent on locating interviewees, organising interviews, finding appropriate locations in which to conduct them and then transcribing and analysing the recordings. The environmental historian cannot travel back in time to experience past landscapes and environments themselves, but they can talk to the people who did experience them and to people who witnessed gradual and dramatic changes day by day over decades. If the right questions are asked, the interviewee can take the environmental historian to the heart of highly complex issues such as change over time, conflict and meaning as they perceived it. Previously, I conducted an oral history research project in Kielder in Northumberland, between 2012 and 2013, as part of another AHRC-funded project, ‘The Places that Speak to us and the Publics we Talk with’. This also took me to the heart of how the successive and dramatic changes in Kielder’s twentieth-century environment, from sheep farming to commercial forestry to the flooding of the valley which is now Kielder Reservoir, have impacted on social, cultural and economic lives in the local area [see Oral History Journal, vol. 42 (2014), pp. 81-93] . Although other insightful projects have been conducted, notably Ruth Tittensor’s work on Whitelee Forest near Glasgow, An Oral History of Whitelee Forest (2009) and Peter Friererici’s oral history project in the American South West, What has Passed and What Remains: Oral Histories of Northern Arizona’s Changing Landscapes (2010), I am surprised by how little environmental historians have used this exceptionally useful method of understanding environmental change, experience and meaning. I think there is substantial scope for environmental historians to utilise oral history to a far greater extent, perhaps eventually working towards the formation of an environmental oral history society…? Where do I sign up?!

 

Further reading

Ecological Oral Histories, Navigating the Green Road: A Guide to Northern Arizona University’s Environmental Resources [webpage]. Accessed online at www.greenguide.nau.edu/oral_history.html.

‘Special issue: talking green: oral history and environmental history’, Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, vol 33, (2013).

David Todd and David Weisman, The Texas Legacy Project: Stories of Courage and Conservation, College Station: Texas A and M University Press, (2010); Texas Legacy Project, www.texaslegacy.org.

Thirteen Million Plastic Bottles: Venice Awash

By Peter Coates

Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti

Image 1: Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, home of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, overlooking the Grand Canal, next to Ponte dell’Accademia, location of Waterscapes conference. (Photo: Peter Coates)

While Marianna was engaged in watery pursuits and contemplating plastic encased water in Bali, I was in Venice, the ultimate European water city, at a conference on Waterscapes as Cultural Heritage (Georgina Endfield and Carry Van Lieshout also participated with a talk on their Derbyshire sough research). The day I gave a paper about the restoration of the Tyne’s salmonscape an article entitled ‘The Death of Venice’ appeared in the Independent.

The article focused on the impact on the ever-dwindling numbers of Venetians of remorselessly increasing tourist numbers, rising rental and property prices and local politicians dipping into the cookie jar of cash earmarked for improvement of the city’s defences against the rising waters that, according to some experts, will completely submerge the city by the end of this century. [1]

Cruise ships

Image 2: Poster on Strada Nova depicts protestors who took to the waters of the Grand Canal in September 2013 to register their opposition to cruise ships. Over the past fifteen years, the number of cruise ships visiting Venice has increased five-fold (Photo: Peter Coates)

Tourism in Venice these days is a far cry from the gentility of the Grand Tour that brought the likes of Thomas Mann’s protagonist in Death in Venice (1912), Gustav von Aschenbach. Overwhelmed Venice currently receives 20 million visitors a year. The aforementioned article did not address the environmental problems associated with such staggering quantities of visitors. The erosive backwash – Venetians call this phenomenon moto ondoso (the motion of the waves) – of the staggering quantity of motorized boats, supersized, large and small, plying the city’s waters are just one of these problems. [2] (The aesthetic horror of the gargantuan cruise ships that block out the sky and obliterate the views is another matter.)

Bottles on beach

Image 3: Bottles on the beach near San Pietro di Castello waterbus stop (Photo: Peter Coates)

The most visible environmental problem, though, is that the 20 million visitors leave behind 13 million empty plastic bottles [3]. These bottles bob up and down in almost every canal and, wherever there are stretches of inaccessible pebbly shores rather than quayside facing the lagoon, fetch up and accumulate in small hills.

Rubbish bins, where they are provided, overflow with plastic bottles and even those properly disposed of on terra firma create an enormous and enormously expensive waste disposal headache for the local municipality – a problem of Balinese proportions.

Dog and fountain

Image 4: Dog refreshment (Photo: Peter Coates)

And yet, there is plenty of water on tap in Venice – and it’s free. Back in 2008, the local authorities launched a campaign to encourage the use of the public water fountains dotted around the city. [4] The water is in fact potable (unlike in Bali), but the fountains are dilapidated and there are no signs to reassure passers-by that the water is not only safe but good to drink. The only use of fountain water that I observed during my recent visit was made by a local dog owner to cool off a thick-coated Labrador during the mini-heat wave that had struck the city. In fact, local inhabitants are not much better than tourists in this regard: Italians consume more bottled water than any other Europeans, and are second in the world after Mexico. [5]

Venice’s Biennale International Art Exhibition opened for its 56th show a few days before my visit. This year’s show has drawn fire from art critics for its highly politicized content (‘There an awful lot of fretting about the state of the world’; ‘art for the planet’s sake’). [6] But for

UK art

Image 5: ‘Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf’ (Photo: Peter Coates)

me, this urgency was an attraction. A collateral event by the New Art Exchange (East Midlands, UK, supported by Nottingham and Nottingham Trent universities), featured a bright green Astroturf mini-version of the United Kingdom bobbing up and down in the insalubrious bankside waters of a canal near the former naval shipyard, the Arsenale. This is one of the nine ‘holes’ of a fully playable mini golf course (‘Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf’), each of which has been designed by a different artist. And you try to hit the red ball onto the dry land of the UK. The artist responsible for this final hole, Ellie Harrison, aims to inject a serious message about climate change and environmental refugees into this crazy activity. She speculates that ‘the UK as an island state is likely to remain temperate as global temperatures continue to rise and many parts of the world become uninhabitable. The indirect impact of this on the UK could be a massive influx of “climate refugees”, making the current backlash and animosity towards immigrants we are currently witnessing in Europe seem trivial’. [7] Landing safely on UK territory clearly wasn’t that easy. When I was there, most of the balls were bobbing around in the water, and, eventually, one of the staff went over to fish them out with a net.

It’s a pity that nobody in Venice is employed to fish out the plastic bottles. I closed my eyes, and it wasn’t hard to imagine this cut-out model of the UK – or Venice itself – drowning under the groaning weight of plastic water bottles.

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Notes

[1] Winston Ross, ‘The Death of Venice: Corrupt officials, mass tourism and soaring property prices have stifled life in the city’, The Independent, 14 May 2015.

[2] Chris Catanese, et al., Floating around Venice: Developing Mobility Management Tools and Methodologies in Venice (Worcester, MA.: Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 21 October 2008), 5.

[3] ‘Venice sinking under weight of 13 million plastic bottles’, 4 October 2010, https://italexpat.wordpress.com/2010/10/04/join-the-venice-time-for-tap-campaign/

[4] John Hooper, ‘Venice urges tourists to drink from water fountains’, The Guardian, 4 June 2008.

[5] http://www.acquaparadiso.it/en/italians-number-one-in-europe-for-the-consumption-of-mineral-water/. On our fixation with bottled water, see Andy Opel, ‘Constructing purity: Bottled water and the commodification of nature’, Journal of American Culture 22/4 (Winter 1999): 67-75; Catherine Ferrier, ‘Bottled water: Understanding a social phenomenon’, Ambio, 30/2 (March 2001): 118-19; Peter Gelick, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2010).

[6] Laura Cumming, ‘56th Venice Biennale review – more of a glum trudge than an exhilarating adventure’, The Observer, 10 May 2015; Roberta Smith, ‘Review: Art for the planet’s sake at the Venice Biennale’, The New York Times, 15 May 2015.

[7] http://www.nae.org.uk/exhibition/em15-venice—doug-fishbones-leisure/79

Plastic Oceans: Connectivities of waste

By Marianna Dudley

Bristol-based Power & Water researchers have been exploring the inter-tidal river banks at Sea Mills, a suburb of Bristol where the River Trym meets the Avon and flows to the Severn estuary. PDRA Jill Payne lives locally, and has observed the extent of plastic waste on the riverbanks, deposited daily by the tides and quickly subsumed into the riverine landscape thanks to fast-growing grasses that cover the waste. The plastic detritus is not biodegradable, however.[1] When we walk on the riverbank, plastics, polystyrene and glass crunch underfoot. The riverbank is impregnated with rubbish.

plastic rubbish

A small selection of some of the plastic debris picked up by project members during a riverbank forage at Sea Mills, Bristol (Photo: Marianna Dudley)

Marine waste is a truly global issue, due to the processes of production, consumption and distribution that connect people, places and plastics. I was vividly reminded of this recently, when, days after exploring Sea Mills (where marine litter such as deep-sea fishing crates is brought in on ocean currents and tides to land alongside more local detritus – drinks cans, shopping trolleys, etc) with Jill, I found myself contemplating marine litter on a beach in Bali (another feat of global connectivity). I’ve been there before, and recalled the beautiful beaches, lush vegetation and warm waters that contribute to the ‘island paradise’ reputation. What I’d forgotten (or blocked from my mind) is that the paradise is marred by plastic waste, on the streets, on the beaches, and in the seas. Where traditional waste management methods of burning rubbish coped with localized, largely vegetal trash, in a swiftly developing economy and society such practices are inadequate. Increasingly, plastic waste that doesn’t burn easily gets dumped, and washed into watercourses. The situation on Bali has been greatly amplified by the waste generated by its tourism industry. Tourists are advised not to consume tap-water, and in the tropical heat, guzzle bottles of water instead to stay hydrated. But with no island-wide waste collection or recycling scheme, the bottles pile up, or end up in the ocean, along with plastic bags and other non-biodegradable items. Here they meet plastics that have washed up from Java, and further afield. When surfing or snorkeling in Balinese waters, these plastic presences are visible and unavoidable. To give a sense of the scale of the issue facing the island, Bali expects to receive 4 million foreign visitors in 2015[2]. That’s an awful lot of plastic bottles yet to be consumed and discarded.

My experiences in Bali connected with my involvement in project activities at home, particularly working with Jill to develop ideas for public engagement that address the issue of marine litter, as it figures in the lives and landscapes of Bristolians.   My previous mental blocking out of the plastic problem on Bali’s beaches encouraged me to reflect, this time round, on expectations of landscape and beauty, vs. realities of responding to environmental problems.

In Bali, I found innovative and committed activism bringing communities of locals, expats and tourists together. I visited the Green School in Ubud, where green values are at the heart of a holistic approach to education that has been commended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (who visited in 2014). Two Green School students, Isabel, 12, and Melati, 13, have led a Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign that has accrued over 60,000 signatures to date, and have succeeded in persuading the Governor of Bali, Bapak Made Mangku Pastika, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to take measures to minimize plastic bag use on the island by 1 January 2016. Their dream is for Ngurah Rai International Airport to greet tourists with the words: ‘Welcome to Bali, do you have any plastic bags to declare?’[3] In Bali, student-led activism is making a difference, though it may take time for change to become tangible.

Tourists are also being made aware of their plastic footprint thanks to cafes, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses engaging with anti-plastics campaigning. Guests are encouraged to refill old water bottles (at a cheaper rate than buying a new bottle) or invest in a resusable (non-plastic) container and say no to the always-offered plastic carrier bag when possible. Though the visibility of the plastic problem is evident in Bali, so too are the responses to it.

Visibility is a useful tool in encouraging people to think about waste, environment, and the possibilities of local activism as part of a global issue. One of the challenges of the Sea Mills site is that the rampant grass effectively conceals the litter beneath. From a distance, or at a glance, this is a verdant liminal landscape. Closer inspection reveals the strata of objects beneath. So one idea that Jill and I have developed for the Power and the Water presence in Bristol’s Festival of Nature (FoN) is to retrieve some of the plastics from the Sea Mills riverbank, and make them visible to Bristolians. We will forage for these non-comestible, non-biodegradable objects, and present them to the public as artefacts of contemporary life, in which ocean currents and local actions both place plastics in the landscape. On our Harbourside stand (12-14 June), people will be able to handle the found items and reflect on what they might tell us about our relationship with land, water, and energy production and consumption. We have also been inspired by project PhD student Alex Portch’s interest in ‘future archaeology’.[4] These objects, already embedded in the riverbank, will form a historical record by which we may be judged in future. What will they say about us, our present time, past actions, and future hopes? Using the found plastics, members of the public may create narratives that express contemporary concerns, or simply tell a story about who we are and what we use in daily life.

Plastic art Longbardi

Pam Longobardi and her art on cover Sierra Magazine. Image: Pam Longobardi, with permission.

The visual remains an effective tool to communicate environmental change, and we are also engaging with artists, notably Eloise Govier to reinterpret found plastics and polystyrenes in creative ways. Eloise’s work will feature on our FoN stand. In this respect, we are connecting with a visual trope in the arts whereby found plastics are reappropriated as art objects and curated in order to stimulate reflection on personal and societal responsibilities, local and global environmental challenges, and natural and unnatural materials. Pam Longobardi’s recovered flotsam artwork Plastic Looks Back graced the cover of Sierra magazine in 2014.

Tattoo

SAS maritime tattoos to highlight the marine litter problem. Image courtesy of Surfers Against Sewage.

She believes that ‘a persuasive piece of eco-art can be an effective tool in the arsenal of social change’.[5] Alejandro Duran’s series of installations, ‘Washed Up: Transforming a Trashed Landscape’ addresses the presence of plastics in Sian Ka’an, Mexico’s largest federally protected reserve and UNESCO world heritage site and actively seeks to change our relationship with consumption and waste; while UK-based Surfers Against Sewage deployed the highly stylized imagery of maritime tattoos in their latest campaign to highlight the scale of the marine litter problem. As tattoos, they hope, the images convey a ‘sense of permanence, something that the marine litter crisis is threatening if action is not taken soon’.

Visual and material evidence are powerful communicators, and we are looking forward to observing how the different elements of our FoN presence – water samples, historical documents, works of art, and found objects – not only communicate project research to the public but also start conversations and build relationships which will shape our work – both how we research, and how we communicate it – in the months to come. We will also be developing ideas for community-based responses to marine (and other) waste, and welcome interest from groups or individuals who might want to collaborate with us. From Balinese beaches to British riverbanks, rubbish represents cycles of human production and consumption, borne on natural forces of currents, winds, gyres, and tides, and deposited at our feet. Do we walk on, or do we stop and pick up the trash?

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Notes

[1] I use the term non-biodegradable cautiously, as recent research suggests that some plastics (polyethylene) may be broken down by gut bacteria in plastic-eating waxworms. Though this offers hope for future solutions for eradicating persistent plastic waste, at the present time plastic remains stubbornly present in our ecosystems, long after its production and use. See Yang et al, ‘Evidence of Polyethylene Biodegradation by Bacterial Strains from the Guts of Plastic-Eating Waxworms’, Environment Science Technology 48:23 (2014), 13776 – 13784

[2] ‘Bali eyes 4m foreign tourists’, Jakarta Post 15 Jan 2015

[3] Green School Bamboo News, ‘Governor of Bali signs MoU with BBPB Team’, 1 Dec 2014 <https://www.google.co.uk/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=green+school+plastics+campaign+bali&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&gfe_rd=cr&ei=gxdaVZj0L-3H8gfc_ICwDQ>

[4] see Laura Watts, ‘Future Archaeologies: Method and Story’ keynote given at Society of Museum Archaeologists Conference, Winchester 2009; and ‘OrkneyLab: An Archipelago Experiment in Futures’, in Ingold and Janowski (eds.), Imagining Landscapes (Ashgate 2012)

[5] Steve Hawk, ‘Spout: the Finer Side of Flotsam’, Sierra online, September 2014 < http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2014-5-september-october/spout/finer-side-flotsam>

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