Saints and Sea Power in the Tidal Waters of the Irish Sea

By Alexander Portch

In 2008 the Bristol-based renewable energy developer, Marine Current Turbines[1] (MTC), installed the world’s first grid-connected tidal stream turbine in the waters of Strangford Lough on the eastern coast of Northern Ireland. Known as SeaGen S and capable of generating up to 1.2 GW of electricity from the kinetic energy of the Lough’s fast-flowing tidal currents, the device represented a significant step forward in the development of commercially-viable tidal power technologies. The recent near-collapse of MCT following the decision of Siemens, their owners, to sever their connection with the wave and tidal energy industry, served, however, as a reminder of just how much still needs to be achieved before tidal stream and tidal range devices start to receive the same level of investment and support as that enjoyed by other, more prolific renewable energy initiatives like wind and solar[2].

Nonetheless, SeaGen remains in situ, its blades rotating in unison with the twice daily rise and fall of the tide and, thanks to a 24 hour monitoring system, continuing to generate power with minimal adverse impacts on nearby marine fauna[3]. Furthermore, with the recent announcement that Atlantis, another wave and tidal energy company, is to throw MCT a lifeline, the future of tidal power in the Lough would appear to be secure[4]. A rare tale of success, which stands in stark contrast to the on-going saga of failed enterprises in the Severn Estuary.

Interest in the potential inherent in the tidal cycle of Strangford, and other similar environments around the coast of the British Isles, is, however, nothing new, with the achievements of the SeaGen device reflecting similar trends dating back more than a thousand years. In 1999 excavations at the site of Nendrum Monastery on Magee Island, the largest such landmass in Strangford Lough, resulted in the re-interpretation of linear wall structures in the waters to the east of the monastic complex as mill dams, rather than fish weirs as had hitherto been believed. Over subsequent seasons of fieldwork, the well-preserved remains of three successive phases of milling activity were revealed, with dendrochronological dating providing confirmation that this was the site of the earliest example of a tide mill in the world[5].

The first mill was shown to have been constructed between AD 619 and AD 621 and comprised a large dam, 110m in length, which served to impound water within a triangular millpond, 6,500 m2. The pond would fill at high tide and be retained as the tide receded outside the embankment, thereby providing a source of motive power to drive a horizontal waterwheel as it was released back into the Lough. This wheel would have been located in a wheelhouse positioned at the southern corner of the millpond. In the late 7th or early 8th century the first mill fell out of use and was replaced by a second complex of features on the same spot. The most marked change was a reduction in the size of the mill pond, with a new dam forming a smaller, rectangular area of impounded water adjacent to the shore. This was then largely destroyed by the final imposition of a third mill, again in the same location and dating to the end of the 8th century AD. Alongside a wealth of stone and waterlogged wooden artefacts, including a variety of stone slabs marked with crosses, the excavations yielded the almost intact upper millstone from this later development.

Remains Tidal Mill Pond

The surviving remnants of the mill pond embankments now lie largely submerged beneath seaweed and vegetation spreading from the shoreline. In the centre is the long, straight wall associated with the second and third mills, demarcating the boundary of a narrow millpond adjacent to the shore, whilst in the distance to the left is the embankment for the first millpond. Photo: Alexander Portch

Within the remarkably extensive literature on the history and archaeology of tide mills and early water mills, Nendrum has since become an icon of this site-type. Further fieldwork in Ireland is increasingly revealing just how commonplace such structures were in the early medieval period but, at present at least, Nendrum would appear to be where it all began. With my own interest in the recent and much deeper history of the interactions between humans and the non-human process of the tidal cycle, Nendrum has long been a source of some fascination and it was thus with great anticipation that I finally arrived there on a bleak and blustery day in late April. Despite the unseasonal weather conditions and the overcast leaden skies, the atmosphere of the place was tangible and it was a thrill to see the still imposing remnants of the mill pond walls in person. Thankfully a respite from the cold was provided by a superb, if somewhat modest, visitor centre which included a balanced array of written information, artefacts excavated from the site itself, interpretative reconstruction illustrations, a model of the site and an engaging, if rather dated, television documentary (great for someone nostalgic for the 90s, but otherwise in need of updating!).

Model medieval monastery

The fascinating and highly detailed interpretative model of Nendrum located in the centre of the monastery’s visitor centre. It pre-dates the discovery of the tide mills but provides a good insight into what the site may have been like a millennium and a half ago. Photo: Alexander Portch

In many respects this is the real antecedent of the ill-fated Severn Barrage. Whilst recent proponents of tidal range technology frequently tout it as an advanced technology of the future, a means by which to harness an apparently un-tapped source of endless and predictable energy, and an alternative to “old-fashioned” or “out-dated” forms of electricity generation like coal and nuclear, in reality it is nothing of the sorts. Its origins lie in the ingenuity and hard work of people living centuries earlier driven both by their need to extract power from whatever sources were available and their devotion to a power somewhat more intangible. Their lives seem almost impossible to comprehend in the fast-paced, digital age in which we now live, being bound up with cycles of day and night, ebb and flood that have long since been rendered obsolete through modern innovations. Nonetheless, with the recent proposals for a tidal lagoon near Swansea Bay only one step away from receiving government consent[6], it may soon come to pass that the tidal cycle regains some of its former importance as a source of power and sustenance at the heart of our own society.

N.B. For those interested in reading in far greater detail about the excavations at the Nendrum tide mills, a comprehensive archaeological monograph is available: T. McErlean, T. & N. Crothers, Harnessing the Tides: The Early Medieval Tide Mills at Nendrum Monastery, Strangford Lough (London: The Stationery Office, 2007).

 

Notes

[1] http://www.marineturbines.com/

[2] http://www.theengineer.co.uk/news/-siemens-hunts-for-buyer-to-take-on-marine-current-turbines/1019559.article

[3] Keenan, G., et al. “SeaGen Environmental Monitoring Programme Final Report.” Royal Haskoning: Edinburgh, UK, January (2011).

[4] http://www.imeche.org/news/engineering/atlantis-buys-marine-current-turbines-29041502

[5] McErlean, T.C. et al, ‘The Sequence of Early Christian Period Horizontal Tide Mills at Nendrum Monastery: An Interim Statement,’ Historical Archaeology, 41:3 (2007), 63 – 75.

[6] http://www.tidallagoonswanseabay.com/

 

What’s in a name? Life, luck, and Derbyshire mine and sough names

By Carry van Lieshout

Beans and Bacon Mine, Horse Buttock Mine, Stop Thief, Hie-thee-home, Danger Level, Peace Forever: these are just some of the many evocative names of old Derbyshire lead mines and soughs that I encountered in my research. Robert Macfarlane’s recent book on the relation of landscape and language, Landmarks (2015), celebrates the idiosyncrasies of regional words for particular natural phenomena and features. The Derbyshire landscape is full of such unusual place names emerging from its mining heritage, which evoke a sense of people’s relationships with the landscape and their workplace, as well as with the unusual and unfamiliar spaces of the underground world.

While there were many mines that were simply given the name of their owner, or were named after local features or landmarks, others provide a glimpse into the lives of those who named them. Some mines reflect the everyday experiences of the miners, such as Dirty Face mine (and Dirty Face sough), or the challenges of working underground, as evidenced by the Danger Level, and Watergrove, which suggests a mine in need of drainage. The Lousey Level on the other hand seems to indicate an occasion where this drainage did not work as well as it should.

A Dragon Shaft, in the vicinity of an engine raising water from the mine, conjures up a sense of the smoke and fire of the steam engines required in mine drainage – ‘dragon’ was an established metaphor for early steam technology, also seen in a pamphlet against York Buildings Waterworks’ engines in central London.[1]

Many of the mines carry names that allude to the element of luck involved in the metal mining industry. A mine was named and claimed on discovery, at which point it was still uncertain how rich it would prove to be. As a result, some of the names reflect the hopes miners would have had for their mine: Good Luck mine and Luck at Last evoke the ‘eureka!’ moment of a miner hitting a vein, while Who can tell grove and Hit and Miss mines were perhaps named by more weary miners.

Similar hopes are reflected in naming a mine after existing mines which were very successful. This explains the presence of the Potosi mine and sough, and the Golconda Mine in the middle of Derbyshire, both named after far-away places that had a mythical attraction to miners hoping to find similar riches. Luck and fate were important aspects in a miner’s life, as hitting a good vein could make the difference between poverty and riches. Signs and premonitions were taken very seriously as a result: Stafford’s Dream mine refers to a miner who had a dream of where the lead would be found – and indeed, there was a vein at the dreamt location.

Some mines seem whimsical and poetic, such as Peace forever, Stand to Thyself, Buy the Truth and Sell it Not. Others convey a sense of humour: Beans and bacon mine refers to the nearly Bacon vein, which was likely named after a miner (Bacon was a local name). Finally, in a 1980s case of premonition, there was a Wham sough and a Crimbo sough quite closely together – this cheered me up to no end!

Other names remain mysterious, such as Water Leg, Catchflee, Dogskin, and Sing-a-bed. Any thoughts?

 

Source: all mine and sough names were found in Dr J.H. Rieuwerts’ 4 volumes of Lead Mining in Derbyshire (2007-2012)

[1] Anonymous, The York-Buildings Dragons (London, 1726).

Podcast: The UK National Grid: history of an energy landscape and its impacts

We take electricity for granted and do not think of where it comes from when we switch on a light or use an electrical appliance. But behind the electricity coming out of a wall socket lays an entire energy landscape of poles, wires, electrical substations and power stations. It is imposed on the landscape like a gigantic web, a grid that has become almost part of the natural scenery.

Just over a century ago this electricity grid did not exist. Power generation was local or at best regional and often based on the burning of coal or the use of locally produced gas. In less than a century the grid covered the entire United Kingdom and many other countries. It revolutionised our lives, the way we worked and it made air in cities a whole lot cleaner. But how did the development of this energy landscape impact on the landscape and environment? What were the social and economic consequences of the expansion of the grid?

This history is now researched by Cambridge based PhD candidate Kayt Button. Her project is 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. Episode 66 of the Exploring Environmental History podcast features Kayt’s work and discusses the development of the UK National Grid, and how it changed people’s lives, its environmental impacts and how the past informs the future development of the grid.

Web resources
Exeter Memories: Electricity Generation in Exeter
South Western Electricity Historical Society
UK National Grid at 75

Music credits
Dance of the Pixels” by Doxent Zsigmond, available from ccMixter
Snowdaze” by Jeris, available from ccMixter

 

Watch the video visualisation of the introduction of the podcast:

 

Exploring environmental History podcast

 

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

Podcast: Environmental history of a hydrological landscape: the soughs of Derbyshire

Under the Peak District of Derbyshire is an subterranean network of drainage tunnels, the so-called soughs that were used to drain the lead mines of the region.

Up till the 16th century most lead mining In the Peak District done on the surface and miners followed horizontal seams. By then the surface seams were exhausted and miners had to sink shafts to reach rich underground seams. By the 17th century most mines were down to the water table. To prevent the mines from filling up with water drains or ‘soughs’ were cut through the hills to a neighboring valley. The construction of soughs changed the hydrological landscape of the Peak District, both below ground and above. In some cases the soughs not only drained mineshafts but also the small rivers above, which as a result were dry most of the year. The construction of soughs also reduced the flow of watercourses powering the mills of the early Industrial Revolution. This led to legal conflicts between sough builders and others who relied on the availability of water. Petitions were submitted to the courts and many of these court cases rumbled on for decades.

During the 20th century the soughs were largely forgotten but recently the soughs have been rediscovered for their industrial heritage on the one hand, and their detrimental effect on the hydrology of the landscape, pitting heritage values versus ecological restoration, creating a new battle ground of interests.

This edition of the Exploring Environmental History podcast examines the environmental history of the Derbyshire Soughs with Carry van Lieshout, a historical geographer at the University of Nottingham. She works on a research project that investigates the environmental and cultural history of the Derbyshire soughs in order to inform understandings of this largely forgotten cultural landscape and to develop management and conservation strategies for underground heritage.

Further reading

From Lead to Tail: an Environmental History of the Derbyshire Soughs. Poster presented by Carry van Lieshout at the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal, July 2014.

Peter Coates, Who killed the Lathkill? (or, when is a river is no longer a river?), The Power and the Water blog, 5 Nov. 2014.

D. Ford and Rieuwerts, J., Lead miners’ soughs in Derbyshire, Geology Today, 23 (2007): 57–62. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2451.2007.00604.x

 

Music credits

Like Music (cdk Mix, 2013 & 2014)” by cdk, available from ccMixter

Watch the video visualisation of the introduction of the podcast:

Exploring environmental History podcast

 

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

Between cultural and natural heritage

By Marianna Dudley

chateau Chenonceau

“Fairytale castle”, chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

Chenonceau is a chateau worthy of a fairytale princess. It has turrets and gardens and galleries – and a river running through it. Built between 1514 and 1522 on the site of an old mill, it became the home of Diane de Poitiers, mistress of King Henry II. Diane loved the chateau, and built the bridge over the river. On Henry’s death in 1559, his widow Catherine de Medici demanded that Diane exchange Chenonceau for her chateau Charmont. Catherine built the galleries upon Diane’s bridge, and ruled France as regent from the building. Renaissance intrigues, not fairytales, brought this building to life.

Foundation Royaumont

Foundation Royaumont, a former abbey. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

I was in France following an AHRC-Labex Franco-British workshop, where Care for the Future project members were brought together with French Labex counterparts, to discover each other’s research and discuss possibilities for future collaboration. The 2-day workshop was held in a former abbey transformed into a cultural centre – the Royaumont Foundation – to the north of Paris, a stunning setting for the ‘Delving Back into the Past to Look into the Present’ workshop.

The workshop was the result of an initiative by Andrew Thompson, director of the Care for the Future programme for the AHRC in Britain, and Ghislaine Glasson Deschaumes, director of Les Passés dans le présent (the Laboratoire d’excellence based at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Defense, France). The two funding schemes had such close themes – Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past, and The Past in the Present: History, Patrimony, Memory – as well as an emphasis on working with external heritage partners, and supporting early career researchers, that Andrew and Ghislaine have taken the opportunity to forge collaborative links between the two. Future funding will allow members of the two schemes to connect and apply for funding for joint research projects.

Carry van Lieshout and I were there to represent ‘The Power and the Water’, describe our research and be alert for potential links with French researchers present. My paper, ‘Between natural and cultural heritage, and human and natural archive’, discussed the importance of placing environments and natures at the heart of our understandings of heritage – as they have been historically, for example in the conservation movement in the UK and the global national park movement. It suggested that the language of heritage acquires new meaning when situated in a public sphere with many and multiple ties to place and nature – heritage breeds, heirloom vegetables, and keystone species are just some of the vocabulary used to add value to things by invoking heritage both cultural and natural. I suggested that, as historians and heritage professionals, we should be alert to the natural archive as a source and site for history, in addition to the cultural archive, and continue to place importance on landscapes, animals, ecosystems, natural cycles – and the histories and cultures they inform – in our discussions of heritage. In her paper ‘River or Ruin? Connecting Histories with Publics’, Carry explored how different valuations and understandings of an intermittent river and its heritage are playing out in the Peak district, and suggested that to widen our understanding (and expectations) of heritage-in-place to accommodate both natural and human interventions might allow contestations between past, present and future use to move forward.

interior of Chateau Chenonceau

Splendour of the interior of interior of Chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley

After an intense two days of workshopping, I took some time to see more of French heritage in situ. Thus, I ended up at Chateau Chenonceau on a bitterly cold January morning, fully absorbed in the Renaissance splendor of the house, from the kitchens down below to the roaring fires that brought life (and much-needed warmth) to bed chambers and sitting rooms. This was cultural heritage at its best.

But then, in the gallery exhibition, a quote from Marguerite Yourcenar stopped me in my tracks, and brought the natural heritage of the chateau, somewhat hidden beneath the weight of tapestries and brocades and copper pans, back to the fore:

 

 

 

Let’s look at it from a new perspective, leaving aside these very well-known figures, these silhouettes on the magic lantern of French history… let’s think about the countless generation of birds that have flocked around these walls, the skillful architecture of their nests, the royal genealogies of animals in the forests and their dens or their unadorned shelters, their hidden life, their almost always-tragic death, so often at the hands of man.

Take another step along the paths: let’s dream about the great race of trees, with different species taking over in succession, compared to whose age four or five hundred years means nothing.

Another step further on, far from any human concerns, here is the water in the river, water that is both older and newer than any other form, and which has for centuries washed the cast offs of history. Visiting old residences can lead us to see things in a rather unexpected way. (Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (1962)

 

Yourcenar, the French writer and first woman to be inducted into the Académie Française (in 1981), looked beyond the materiality of the chateau to connect its history with that of the surrounding lands and waters that supported it, and suffered for it.[1] Her words spoke to me as an encouragement for environmental historians to raise the profile of the natural archive, and as a reminder that we are far from the only ones to seek and value natural heritage alongside other manifestations of history. I look forward to the opportunities that the initiative between AHRC and Labex presents for us to connect with French scholars with similar convictions and research interests. Sincere thanks to Andrew, Ghislaine, and the AHRC/Labex staff for bringing us all together, and starting conversations that are sure to develop.

[1] ‘Becoming the Emperor: How Marguerite Yourcenar reinvented the past’, The New Yorker (February 14, 2005)

 

What I learned at Hinkley Point – or why a nuclear power station is not like a bicycle

By Erin Gill

Hinkley B nuclear powerstation

Hinkley B nuclear power station (Photo: Erin Gill).

People often have firm opinions about the merits – or otherwise – of nuclear power. I’m no exception. When I set out early one morning in Sept 2014 for a tour of Hinkley Point B nuclear power station in Somerset with members of the Power & Water network I felt certain that my views wouldn’t be altered by what I would see and hear. I was wrong.

I was excited about the visit to Hinkley Point – this would my first visit to an operational nuclear power station and I wanted to see whether my general understanding of how reactors work was accurate. As we drove out of Bristol toward the site I thought about the two reasons why I have long opposed nuclear power (in a rather passive way). First, there is the inherent risk of catastrophic failure. Second, there is the unresolved issue of what to do with nuclear power stations’ ongoing production of radioactive waste, including highly-radioactive spent fuel rods.

There are several other arguments against nuclear energy – including the possibility that radioactive emissions could be a factor in the increasing number of childhood cancers – but for me the two make-or-break issues have been the twin dangers of nuclear disaster and waste. I don’t think energy production needs to be so risky.

So I was unnerved to realise, after a fantastic tour of Hinkley Point B led by informative and intelligent EDF staff, that I now have a new – a third – reason to oppose nuclear energy. I had not expected my opposition to nuclear power to harden, but it had. The EDF tour was exemplary, but it couldn’t help but expose a central problem: that it takes far, far too much effort, by too many people, who must all be very, very careful all of the time – and whose actions must be triple-checked by others – to produce what is really not very much electricity for the nation.

I am not interested in presenting a detailed case about nuclear power’s lack of economic competitiveness. Others have done this very well. Instead, I simply want to express my astonishment at what I witnessed: the staggering and inescapable inefficiencies of nuclear power generation. It is such a dangerous form of electricity generation that everything takes place at a snail’s pace and every tiny action is monitored so many times…I really don’t know how people work there without going mad with the tedium. Surely, humanity no longer needs to make so much of an effort – whilst putting the health of people and the environment at so much risk – in the pursuit of such a paltry amount of power. We have better solutions now, some of which need the financial support that we are misguidedly giving to nuclear power (I’m thinking here of the construction of high-voltage direct current – HVDC – interconnector cables between the countries that border the North and Baltic Seas, so that spare electricity can be traded rather than wasted.)

 

A 1960s mainframe

Relying on nuclear power today is like using one of those gargantuan 1950s computers that take up half a university campus but are only capable of spitting out useful data once every few months. And building new nuclear reactors is like choosing to do this at a time when it’s possible to use a 4G smartphone at a cost of about £20/ month.

Any new method of power generation should become easier and more efficient with time, not less efficient and more risky. As Hinkley Point B nears its 50th year of operation, it seems little more than a hulking symbol on the Somerset shoreline of a technology that has failed to improve with time; a technology that limps along requiring more and more assistance with each passing year.

Of course, the new reactors at Hinkley Point C will – if they’re finally built – be somewhat more efficient, for a few years. (Until their cores develop cracks prompting nuclear safety authorities to demand lower generation rates.) But even a brand new nuclear power station cannot offer even a fraction of the efficiency gains and cost savings being achieved by photovoltaics and wind. In the past decade the power generation game has inexorably changed and nuclear no longer makes any sense as a ‘transitional’, low-carbon technology. It’s been left in the dust.

Let me offer an example of the inefficiency that nuclear power necessitates. Each of Hinkley Point B’s two reactors is served by an enormous machine used to remove spent fuel rods and replace them with fresh rods. These bespoke machines take a full eight hours to very carefully – ever so slowly – remove one set of highly-radioactive spent (ie. used-up) fuel rods and replace them. This essential process ensures the reactors are ‘fed’ with the uranium and graphite-rich rods required for the generation of electricity. The reactors can’t run without the rods.

This eight-hour operation is risky, thanks to the highly radioactive nature of the spent fuel rods, and EDF’s staff are rightly proud of the care they take to ensure everything goes smoothly. After this painstaking procedure is completed, the rods are even more carefully transported to a cooling pond for temporary storage. Eventually, each of these spent fuel rods is tenderly transported by road and rail from Somerset to Cumbria, where they are stored in facilities that are acknowledged by all parties involved in the nuclear industry as seriously inadequate. One day the UK will build an underground storage facility – in granite – to house these spent fuel rods for thousands of years, but until this ‘deep geological storage facility’ is constructed we keep them in cooling ponds at Sellafield, where they pose a risk to local environmental and human health. This is not an opinion, this is a fact.

But I don’t want to focus on the the very real safety concerns about nuclear power. I want to draw attention to how inefficient and painstaking it all is. All the effort by so many people at Hinkley Point B and for what? For an average annual rate of electricity generation below 500MW per reactor. It’s enough to make a person weep. More than half a century of nuclear power generation in the UK and this is what we get?

I was relieved to learn during the Hinkley tour that safety is not taken lightly there. In fact, every three years, all operations cease for a three full months to allow for a comprehensive check of the station’s physical state and processes, known as a statutory outage. During this period approximately 9,000 people spend time onsite as part of these checks. That is a staggering number. In addition to the hundreds of staff employed during normal operations to cosset these two reactors so that they can each generate at a rate below 500MW, there are 9,000 extra people every three years just to make sure it’s still safe. This makes no sense. Almost every new regular-sized offshore wind farm being built off the UK coast will have a capacity approaching 500MW. The turbines need maintenance and repair, but they don’t need anywhere near the numbers of people that nuclear power stations need. Larger wind farms due to be built over the next decade will produce more than double the projected 3,200MW output of Hinkley Point C. As an example, Dogger Bank offshore wind farm, to be built in phases more than 100km off Yorkshire, will have a capacity greater than 7,000MW when complete.

 

A bicycle brain

I could go on, but I won’t. Opinions about nuclear power have become so polarised that I doubt anything I write will ever influence the views of someone who has already decided that nuclear power is a ‘good thing’. So I’ll end by admitting that I am a cyclist and that cycling has possibly influenced my views on industrial efficiency. I cycle to and from work most days and so I ‘know’ in a visceral, physical sense what real efficiency feels like. One of the oddest and loveliest things about the bicycle is that it is the most efficient form of human-designed transportation that exists to date. It’s true, look it up. The bicycle requires a surprisingly modest exertion of somatic energy in exchange for the production of enough power to travel at a speed of between 10-15mph.

No other machine invented by humans comes close to the efficiency of the bicycle – and those of us who cycle gradually realise this. If it looks like a breeze for us, that’s because it is a breeze (except when we’re going up hill)!

As I see it, nuclear power stations are the antithesis of the bicycle. They are the equivalent of a hulking military tank inching forward, built using vast quantities of finite resources, fuelled by even more irreplaceable materials, and manned by an enormous team of people who carefully keep the whole thing from blowing up. I am grateful to every single person who works at Hinkley Point B for keeping the reactors there functioning as well as they can. But I am truly mystified as to why the UK government is so committed to building yet another inherently inefficient (and, yes, dangerous) hulk on the Somerset coast. The energy generation equivalent of the nimble bicycle is available – in the form of a number of renewable technologies that are fast becoming commoditised and whose costs are tumbling. Even better, they generate electricity without the risk of poisoning the land and/or the people.

 

From One Big River to Another: Local Musicians Muse on Life, Death and Rebirth (?) on the Tees and Tyne

By Peter Coates

I’ve just revisited an e-mail that Jill Payne sent the project team a few days before we met up in Newcastle earlier this year. She reminded us that Chris Rea’s song ‘Steel River’ echoes the sentiments of Jimmy Nail’s lament to the working Tyne, ‘Big River’. (I remember seeing Rea in concert in Newcastle City Hall circa. 1974, when he was the support act for Lindisfarne at one of their famous Christmas concerts.) In fact, Rea anticipated Nail’s emotional mood by a decade: whereas ‘Big River’ was released in 1995, ‘Steel River was the opening track on the 1985 album, ‘Shamrock Diaries’ (though its best-known track is arguably the second, ‘Stainsby Girls’).

Rea hails from Middlesbrough and his river is the Tees, but the scenario and message are identical – a stark and painful contrast between the thriving industry on its banks in the 1960s, when Rea was growing up there, and the late 1980s, when a post-industrial river was clean enough for salmon to return but meaningless to those who once worked in the steel mills (the industrial and chemical sector whose thirst for water lay behind the decision to dam the North branch of the Tyne in 1974, but which was largely moribund by the time Kielder reservoir and dam were opened by the Queen in 1982). Here’s the third and final verse of ‘Steel River’ that Jill pasted into her e-mail.

They say that salmon swim in steel river
They say it’s good to see them back again
I know it hurts to see what really happened
I know one salmon ain’t no good to them
They were born and raised to serve their steel mother
It was all they taught and all they ever knew
And they believed that she would keep their children
Even though not a single word was true
Say goodbye steel river.

‘Pure magic’, reads one of the comments that accompanies the version of ‘Steel River’ posted on YouTube, ‘makes me proud to come from Teesside…listening to this takes me back to the days when we were a thriving industry, the world needed Middlesbrough’s steel to exist’. ‘This song says it all’, comments another viewer (62,136 views to date): ‘it tears my heart out’. ‘It is physically impossible for anyone born in these environs not to cry when local boy Chris Rea’s paean to this lost world…strikes up on the jukebox or radio’, reflects Daniel Gray (Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels Through England’s Football Provinces [Bloomsbury,2013, 18).

Most of the other comments strike more or less the same note. But there’s one that’s a bit different, a bit less lachrymose, and a bit more hopeful: ‘This [song] is an inspiration for every Briton who can recall that the country was once great. Let’s get back to making lots of stuff out of steel – but perhaps we can clean it up just a tad better than before. Salmon is still compatible with steel-making’.

River Tees

River Tees looking towards Middlesbrough. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wasting Millions… of Stories, Insights and Experiences? An Inspiring Workshop on Academia, Environments and Engaging with the Public(s)

By Leona Skelton

David Matless, a Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Nottingham, highlighted an important story from the history of academic public engagement in his presentation at the University of East Anglia’s ‘Environment(s) in Public(s)?’ workshop on 3rd November 2014. It was a story from 1911, the year in which the renowned Arthur Tansley, a Botanist and pioneer in the science of Ecology and a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, embarked on an in-depth study of river valleys and species in the Norfolk Broads. He and his academic team purposely ignored a group which they referred to pejoratively as ‘local workers’ in their quest to understand this particular environment. This led them to exclude most of the members of the local naturalist societies and clubs, who, of course, understood their local environment very intimately indeed. The story ended happily, however, as the academics did a U-turn, eventually including the ‘local workers’ in their project, after admitting that their knowledge was both valuable and useful to their study.

This historic story is hugely relevant in the light of recent academic research funding objectives, encouraging academics to beat their own imaginative, successful and above all useful ‘pathways to impact’, ensuring that their research has a real use and benefit for wider society, and rightly so. Environmental historians are approaching this objective not as a one-way process, but as an opportunity for symbiosis. Following the albeit redrafted example of Tansley, to inform their research, many are successfully utilising the often very deep knowledge, experience and understanding of those who live, and have long lived, in particular environments, who face particular local environmental challenges as part of their daily lives. They are conducting oral history interviews and attending meetings of local history groups, wildlife charities and local sporting and outdoor pursuit clubs and societies, as well as ensuring that such research delivers benefits on the ground in the environments under their study by contributing to future policies or leaving beneficial educational or recreational legacies behind. Ruth Tittensor’s From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, its Construction and Landscape (2009) is a good example of an environmental history which has been enriched by direct engagement and participation of experienced local people in its creation.

The two concepts of 1) locals contributing to academics’ publications and 2) academics providing pathways to beneficial impact in local communities are not mutually exclusive. Very often, the process of involving the public in academic research can produce benefits in their own right. Creating a volume of oral history interviews, which provide a snapshot of local life, the environment and locals’ projections for their future provides a legacy, which benefits the community at large as well as facilitating increased academic understanding through publication.

The purpose of the workshop held at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and hosted jointly by 3S: Science, Society and Sustainability (which is a research group at UEA), Science in Public and the Broads Authority, was to interrogate the question of whether or not academics should tailor their approach to public engagement more specifically to multiple and separate publics with which they aim to engage rather than simply to the whole public. For example, should busy farmers, a canoeing club and a Parish Council be amalgamated into one homogenous group called ‘the public’, which incorporates all non-academics, or rather given special consideration as respective publics with different needs, different capabilities for contribution and potentially different sensitivities? The argument is further complicated by the issue of different environments; even within one country, a sheep farmer living in an upland location might require a different approach to an arable farmer in East Anglia, for example. The general consensus was that more detailed consideration should be given to the particular needs and expectations of the groups we approach for public engagement through our academic studies and that it is indeed useful to imagine ‘publics’ rather than the ‘public’.

The issue of scale was also raised, in relation to climate change, highlighting the propensity for people to force change at local, regional and even national scales, compared to the general disinclination of the majority to invest in forcing global change. Globally, the goal is too big, and, as Angela Cassidy pointed out in her paper on ‘Animals, People and Places: Connecting Public Debates about how we Live in a Changing World’, using the image of a polar bear, which is remote to the majority of the world’s population, is probably far less effective than using more immediately relevant images of a flooded village or a family and their pets in distress. The workshop was grounded within quite a small scale by its focus on the environment surrounding the University of East Anglia, the city of Norwich, the rivers, farms, broads and coast of the East of England, but the questions which the workshop raised could be applied to many other different environments on a far wider scale, and they are relevant to all academics working with environments, including environmental geographers, environmental historians, ecologists, artists and environmental scientists.

Ultimately, academics can think imaginatively, not in desperation as salesmen and women under the pressure of punitive targets, and not from above as benefactors who kindly impart their infinitely superior knowledge, but rather as inspiring positive forces in local communities, who approach the publics with whom they intend to engage as equals, offering to give as much as or even more than they take. Working with practitioners, businesses, museums, engineers, councillors and charities can speed up the process of public engagement for academics, but such collaborations can also enhance such professionals’ own work by introducing exciting, interesting and beneficial elements from our academic research to their projects and schemes which would otherwise have not occurred to them. Alexandra Johnson, Curator at the London Science Museum, explained how she worked with artists to create an exhibition called ‘The Rubbish Collection’, which showcased to the public in a creative and visually attractive style all of the items of rubbish which were disposed of by the museum over a period of thirty days. Despite the widely held perception among some of the public that waste-disposal and recycling is a boring and overkilled topic, they were inspired by the exhibition because of the imaginative and visually stimulating manner in which the issue was conveyed. Environmental historians, too, can design imaginative, innovative and ultimately useful ways in which to introduce the benefit of hindsight – the mistakes, successes, issues and debates of the past – to contribute to present-day challenges.

Our own project, ‘The Power and the Water: Reconnecting Pasts with Futures’, aims to reconnect severed, but important, links between historic and present problems in the development of the UK’s energy and water infrastructure. In my own project, I have learnt as much, and in some cases even more, from attending the Clean Tyne Project’s Steering Committee or riding downriver on their debris-collection vessel, from talking to local volunteers working at the Low Light Heritage Centre, or to the volunteers of the Tyne Rivers Trust’s Riverwatch at their 10th Anniversary celebrations, or by taking a tour of Howdon wastewater treatment works with Northumbrian Water, a tour of the Port of Tyne facilities or an art walk to the Dunston Staiths. All of these experiences have provided insights into the problems faced throughout the Tyne catchment today, which inform and enrich my archival research into the problems of the Tyne’s past, which in turn can and will (very soon) inform and enrich those present day institutions’, charities’ and authorities’ approaches to improving future Tyne policies.

Rubbish from Tyne

Power & Water project leader, Peter Coates, rejuvenated after observing the work of the Clean Tyne Project aboard their debris-collection vessel, the ‘Clearwater’ (Photo: M. Dudley)

The workshop at UEA was a success precisely because of the diversity of its attendees. A journalist, a museum curator, an ecologist, the director of the Norfolk Broads Authority, environmental historians, scientists and geographers, chemists and members of the public. We achieved a great deal in one day through face-to-face and direct communication. It certainly boosted my own conception and attitudes towards public engagement. Academics are doing really well in their efforts to include publics in and to improve the experiences of publics through their research, but they can and should always try to do better. For every ten stories, insights and first-hand experiences we incorporate into our research, there are millions more which we have not heard and will not incorporate, and which are arguably being wasted. Perhaps technology will provide an even larger opportunity to capture and analyse this important source of information in the future, in the way that citizen science projects have been developed recently on scales which were unthinkable fifteen years ago. Until then, we are wasting millions… millions of stories, millions of insights and millions of experiences.

 

Links

http://www.3s.uea.ac.uk/

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/rubbish_collection.aspx

http://tyneriverstrust.org/what-we-do-2/community-engagement/riverwatch/

http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/

http://www.cultivatinginnovation.org/blog

http://www.erica.demon.co.uk/EH/reviews/72_Chaplin.pdf

http://scienceinpublic.org/

 

Who killed the Lathkill? (or, when is a river is no longer a river?)

By Peter Coates

In Alaska, environmentalists are currently fighting a proposed coal mine in the watershed of the Chuitna River, 45 miles southwest of Anchorage. This strip mine will not only destroy salmon spawning grounds. It will literally remove 11 miles of the Chuitna’s Middle Creek tributary by mining through and therefore dewatering it. If the project goes ahead, there will be no mystery about why Middle Creek disappeared.

In the former lead mining areas of Derbyshire’s Peak District, there’s a disappearing river too. But there’s also a sense of mystery about its strange behaviour. One of the Key Stage 2 activities that the Lathkill Education Service attached to the Lathkill Dale National Nature Reserve runs for local schools is ‘why the river disappears – solve the mystery of the disappearing River Lathkill through this investigation of the geology and wildlife of the area’ [1] (‘kill’, incidentally, means ‘creek’, ‘stream’ or ‘channel’ in old Middle Dutch, and was a name attached in the seventeenth century to creeks and streams across what became the northeastern United States – as in Kill Van Kull, Bronx Kill and Schuylkill River). Natural England, which manages the Lathkill Dale reserve – one of five reserves that make up the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve – also refers to the Lathkill’s ‘vanishing act’. As Natural England proceeds to explain, the upper river’s disappearance is part of the legacy of the two lead mines (established in 1740 and 1797 respectively) that operated in Lathkill Dale until the mid-nineteenth century: ‘the soughs are responsible for causing the river to dry out today’ [2]. ‘Where has the river gone? is also the question posed on the interpretative board that Natural England has erected at the bottom of the ladder that leads to the mine shaft under Bateman’s House (an engine house converted into a dwelling for the mine agent and his family, though empty since the 1840s).

signage Bateman’s House

‘Where has the river gone?, interpretative signage, Bateman’s House (photo: Peter Coates)

Who (or what) has been messing about with the Lathkill? Our project team meeting in Derbyshire in early October provided the opportunity to find out. Our schedule included a field trip to Lathkill Dale, one of the key sites for Carry’s and Georgina’s study of the area’s soughs – underground channels forged to drain water from the area’s lead mines. Our walk began down in the dale at a point where our guide, John Barnatt, an archaeologist with the Peak District National Park Authority, could stand with his back to the (at the time) water-less Lathkill River, whose peculiar annual lifecycle we now began to piece together.

Field trip

John Barnatt of the Peak District National Park Authority, with his colleague, Sarah Whitelaw (in red), and members of the project team, including (to Sarah’s immediate right) sough investigators Georgina Endfield and Carry van Lieshout (Photo: Peter Coates)

The Lathkill River is not exactly unique, though. It’s normal for streams running through limestone strata riddled with a network of natural caves to flow underground in summer or periods of drought when water levels are low. But this seasonal tendency is accentuated by the construction of soughs that lowered the water table and created a network of diversionary channels that can capture river water.

For some, the river’s seasonal disappearance is a problem to be resolved. (This interest group includes anglers: the Lathkill brown trout is a renowned quarry that merits inclusion in James Prosek’s definitive compendium, Trout of the World [2003], in which Prosek quotes the comment [1653] of a friend of Izaak Walton, James Cotton, that the Lathkill ‘breeds the reddest and the best Trouts in England’ [3].) Because of what Natural England refers to on its Bateman’s House signage as the ‘dramatic’ impact on the river and its wildlife, the managing agency is ‘currently exploring means of sealing the riverbed’ so that the water does not drain off into Magpie Sough. Whether this waterproofing remedy will be sufficient in itself to restore a perennial flow to the Lathkill is now increasingly debated, however. Since some of the river’s water travels through Magpie Sough, plans now focus on the establishment of some sort of blockage in the sough in addition to sealing the riverbed – and this blocking proposal is a major source of controversy (many thanks, Carry, for bringing this latest development to my attention).

Bridge

A (fluvio-centric) view from under the bridge across to Bateman’s House (Photo: Peter Coates).

But has the river really disappeared? And what do those who want to ‘improve’ the sometimes dry river want to restore? A living river? An attractive recreational resource for anglers? Rather than dwell on the seasonal absence of water or the fortunes of fish (during dry spells, trout can be trapped by receding water levels and this entails relocation), we might want to think about attaching a new story to the Lathkill, a story that diverts attention to the seasonal presence of a riverbed carpeted lush vegetation, for example. For me – as an outsider visiting for the first time and someone who has no stake in the debate – the problem is not so much the seasonal disappearance of the river’s water, but our generic expectations of what a river should be. After all, though the Lathkill’s liquid content may vanish on a regular basis, its form and overall function remain the same. This replacement narrative tailored to this particular body of water might begin by reclassifying the Lathkill as an intermittent stream. This would elevate it to the respectable international company of a distinctive type of watercourse that includes the arroyo seco ([seasonally] dry stream) of southwestern North America. This would also underscore its status as a different river rather than a lesser one (compared, that is, to a ‘proper’ river). And if the privilege of re-naming the intermittent stream that flows through Lathkill Dale were mine, I would not hesitate to call it the Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill.

It is a shame that the cause of preservation is often reduced to a clash between the attributes of cultural heritage and those of natural heritage, with the respective interests of History and Nature being advanced by ‘the archaeologists’ and ‘the historians’ and the one hand and ‘the ecologists’ on the other. Environmental historians, it seems to me, are well positioned to reconcile these two often warring positions.

Lathkill River

The Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill, aka Lathkill River (Photo: Peter Coagtes).

linear pasture

The Lathkill, even when drained of its liquid content, is anything but dry. On the damp day of our visit, I got soaked from my boots to above my knees walking down its lush linear pasture (Photo: Peter Coates

Notes

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves

[2] Natural England, Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve (2010), p. 3.

[3] James Prosek, ‘Trout of the World’, Field and Stream, October 2003, p. 77.

 

Reflections on the ground and the grid: framing infrastructure and connectivity

By Paul Warde

In a collection of autobiographical interviews, Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney refers at one moment to ‘no longer being part of the ground, but part of the grid’. He was thinking about the changes in farming since his childhood, brought up as the eldest son of a cattle trader and smallholder in County Derry. It’s one of those comments that we can instinctively understand, and we know Heaney as perhaps the pre-eminent poet of the ground: of the bog bodies, the ‘narrow ground’ of Irish sectarianism, of his farming childhood.

And yet… what is the difference being evoked here: between ‘the grid’ and ‘the ground’? Heaney did not grow up on some kind of subsistence holding. His father may have largely plied the fairs and farms of Derry, but the cattle he traded were destined for British markets and he also sometimes took the ferry across the North Channel. Many of the objects and machines that Heaney writes about do not belong to some ur-world of ancient farming practice, but came with mechanization and are the output of late nineteenth and twentieth century factories. Having once worked at the Ulster Folk Museum I am familiar with this stuff myself, having a particular fondness for the planes made by Alexander Mathieson & Son at their Saracen Works in Glasgow until 1966 (my grandfather had a set of their tools for his cabinetmaking). It’s hard to imagine that my grandchildren will view anything I get from Screwfix today in the same light. The tools of two or three generations ago were factory-made, smelted and wrought in a coal-fired world that wrecked people’s lungs, dissolved our buildings, choked plantlife and acidified watercourses. And yet, retrospectively, they seem to belong to a somehow more human world, as things that still extended our capacities rather than supplanted us. And in that, them having a poetics is entirely justified. Is there a poetics of the mobile phone or the microwave? Or is this a blinkered view of past technology, and connections lost – the conceit of every generation confronted with the shock of the new?

So what’s the difference between the ground and the grid? In some ways, it seems to me that project The power and the water turns around this distinction: examining both the reasons why we recognise it, but also its complications. Our connections with the basic utilities for life – and by extension nature itself – have been repeatedly re-wrought since the Industrial Revolution. How, and with what consequences? When did this process begin, is it continuous or episodic, and how are certain ‘expected connections’ hard-wired into us during this process? The difference between a world of ground and grid can’t just lie in new connections with outside markets, or the use of technological aids or external power sources; steam power has been around for three centuries, for example. Commerce, on a greater or lesser scale, for much longer. For Heaney there was certainly, I think, an issue of the value of weightiness, living on the land but also where tools and machines were things that could be propelled by hand or that the hand can know. Even when fired by coal we feel their work partakes of our life. And indeed isn’t coal, which you have to shovel into an engine or a boiler, still open-handed ground in all its mineral certainty? All qualities that the grid, the tablet and mobile phone don’t have, even if somewhere down the wires is a power station immolating a million tons of coal dust. Heaney’s poetic objects are freighted: their mass can breach time, whether back to an ancient Danish bog, or the yard – the haggard – of an off-the-grid farm in the 1940s. In Heaney, even souls have body: an extraordinary lightness, and yet still belong to that material world that weighs into us. In contrast, the grid is somehow completely intangible. A nothing.

Of course, what sustains modern grids and infrastructure is far from intangible: it has a massive ecological footprint, it involves enormous quantities of concrete and minerals. And yet, in everyday life, in the life we take in hand, it’s not there. You can certainly feel the power when you stand next to an enormous transformer field, or the connector at Hinkley B nuclear plant that conveys the electricity from the power station’s dynamos out to the grid: the largest plug you will ever see. But how many people have ever seen these things? Of course, we can ask the same of a river. It is not hard, standing at a river’s mouth, to think of the soft stream in the hills which becomes the mighty Tyne. But how many people think of this when they turn on a tap or run the washing machine? Did industrialisation and deindustrialisation respectively bring people closer to, or distance them from their rivers – in the case of the Tyne a flow whose notions of greatness we attach to it are surely connected with the mining and heavy industry that stood along it? These questions can, perhaps, be answered as matters of fact and knowledge: what do you think are the sources of the water and power you use? But they are also part of our imaginative infrastructure, or put another way, a kind of structure of insight that everyday life drills into us.

These questions put me in mind of Melanie Challenger’s 2013 book On Extinction, in which she begins looking out her window over heathland in Cornwall, and pondering the death of the tin mining industry. A book you might expect to be about species – and that takes us from Cornwall to Antarctica to northern Canada and back to good old Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire – is as much an inner journey, understanding extinction as being about what we choose to remember. We all and everything will be extinct; in that sense, extinction is completely unremarkable; it’s just death. So to think about extinction is a choice of words, a way of talking about the past and relating to it in the present. This seems interesting to me as a way of thinking about the changes that encompass our industrial heritage: the soughs of Derbyshire and the lost shipyards of the Tyne – to the environmental impact of industrialisation, and what rewilding might mean in the future. Are there distinct or common ways of grappling with extinction that are, so to speak, connected to our habitual connections and associated expectations?

In 1979 the art historian Rosalind Krauss wrote an essay on grids in modernist painting, describing an aesthetic that was ‘flattened, geometricized, ordered… antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature’. For Krauss, the modernist grid mimicked the logic of modernist society, producing a valueless, purely functional and exchangeable (or interchangeable) space. This argument puts me in mind of Robert Sacks’ book on Human territoriality, and J.C.Scott’s famous Seeing like a state. Scott essentially reverses Krauss’s thinking to argue that modernist infrastructure was in many ways an aesthetic choice imposed on the world, rather than the aesthetics being a response to mass production and industrial society. But all these treatises have something in common: they associate modernity, the grid, with the abolition of place. Modernity brings about a state of connections that are so complete and effortless their effects are to disconnect, leaving people with an unsavoury sense of dependence on forces that you cannot influence (you cannot even pray to them, or give libations and sacrifices). In fact, a state of being that may be enabling, yet disempowering.

Of course connections to grids – electrical, water and other – were often and still are seen as hugely welcome, markers of civilization – that word still certainly being used in interwar Britain – and opportunity: Here the grid has both ‘a vigorous free spirit and a propensity to control’ in the words of another art historian, Hannah Higgins. So it could be that rather than imposing some order on history, we will find ourselves writing the history of paradoxes.

Ground is what we feel beneath our feet: it steadies us, is as irreducible as nature (irreducibility being the very definition of nature according to Kant). Grid in contrast is at once rigid and boundless, entirely abstract. But such antimonies aren’t necessarily between hand and network, natural and artificial, or say, face-to-face relations and impersonality. At least, maybe the history that moves us from a world that seems more grounded to one that appears, Matrix-like, to emanate from the logic of the grid itself, is not so much a descriptive history of ‘material flows’ and their consequences, but a history of how we have imagined the (literally) unsettling experience of changes to our environments. Confronted with actual locations these oppositions – ground/grid, personal/impersonal, real/abstract – become ways to describe aspects of the experience, not a way we can absolutely categorise places. Indeed ‘The environment’ for me is a way of describing that very awkwardness; a word that describes everything outside yet connects it, in an act of solipsism, to ourselves; a way of talking about nature that makes it ‘of us’, and that connects it to abstraction. But it’s not something that we generally feel. Can you feel the environment in your bones, or wherever you do the feeling thing? As we currently think about the concept, I doubt it. The age of ‘environment’ is not age of connection, but more of a sensibility that we have got ahead of ourselves; something that demands policy, although for uncertain ends. It is, perhaps, the perfect idiom for what some of us now call the Anthropocene, time strung between the ground and the grid.

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