I am very grateful to Leona for taking the time from her research to come to talk to my MA seminar in York. We had a really lively and productive discussion, and could have continued for more than the two hours we were timetabled.
It was very useful for the MA students to meet an early-career scholar who has recently completed her Ph.D., gone on to work on a large project, and in particular a large project that involves engagement with partners outside the academic world. I hope this will encourage them to think about their plans for research and academic careers in a wider context.
In preparation for the seminar, we had all read the materials Leona had provided on the river Tyne, and also examples of the wider environmental history on rivers. This enabled us to consider the case of the Tyne in a comparative framework, to identify aspects of the environmental history of the Tyne that were common to other rivers in the industrial world – of which the extent of pollution was just one – and also to think whether there were aspects of the Tyne’s history that stood out from the wider experience of rivers.
In regard to the latter, both Leona and I were at an advantage as we are both natives of the northeast of England and have grown up with the Tyne flowing past our doorsteps, or at least only a few miles away.
As a child I lived in Newcastle upon Tyne in the 1960s, and remember well the industrial river. (I could hear the sirens marking the changes of shifts in the works along the river from our house in Fenham.) I recall later the decline of this phase of the river’s history, when much of the river banks became derelict as the old industries, not least the shipyards, closed down. The Quayside at night became a place to avoid or be wary, especially when the Norwegian navy came to pay ‘courtesy visits’ and frequented the pubs. More recently, I have witnessed the astonishing rebirth of the Quayside as the heart of a new, vibrant cultural centre rebranded as ‘Newcastle-Gateshead’, with the arch of the Tyne bridge echoed in the Sage concert hall and beautiful Millennium footbridge creating a stunning visage to rival any city I’ve lived in. (A few years ago, I showed it off to a visitor from St. Petersburg, from the middle of the Swing Bridge, who was impressed, and was not just being polite.)
River Tyne with the Tyne Bridge, Millennium Bridge (background) and the Sage concert hall (right). Source: Wikipedia
“This year came a great naval armament over hither south from the Lidwiccians… They went then west about, till they entered the mouth of the Severn; and plundered in North-Wales everywhere by the sea, where it then suited them… but the men of Hertford met them; and of Glocester, and of the nighest towns; and fought with them, and put them to flight… And they drove them into a park; and beset them there without, until they gave them hostages, that they would depart from the realm of King Edward. And the King had contrived that a guard should be set against them on the south side of Severnmouth… Nevertheless, they eluded them at night, by stealing up twice; at one time to the east of Watchet, and at another time at Porlock. There was great slaughter each time; so that few of them came away, except those only who swam out to the ships. Then sat they outward on an island, called the Flat-Holms…”
Extract from the The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year AD 918 (source:britannia.com)
And so, like the Viking raiders of more than a millennium before, three Bristol-based members of The Power and the Water Project Team set forth from the English mainland, and thence across the expanse of the Bristol Channel in search of the sanctuary and isolation of the island of Flat Holm. Situated approximately five miles out to sea from Cardiff and Barry on the south-eastern coast of Wales, Flat Holm is one of two small islands located along a line between the pronounced headland of Brean Down, near Weston-super-Mare, and Lavernock Point, a short distance along the coast from Cardiff. With the discovery in 1988 of a Bronze Age Axe, dating to c. 900 – 700 BC, indicating the presence of humans on the island more than 2000 years ago; records of regular visits during the late 6th century by the Welsh saint Cadoc; and physical and documentary evidence for continuous occupation throughout the past 800 years; this small (approx.. 500m across) expanse of land in the midst of the Severn Sea is of great historic interest. Combined with its important geological features and rich natural heritage, recognised through its status as a SSSI, Local Nature Reserve, and Geological Conservation Review Site (GCR), the island is more than worthy of a visit by anyone with even a passing interest in the Severn Estuary, wildlife, history or archaeology.
The islands of Flat Holm (in the foreground) and Steep Holm (beyond) line up as the cross-estuary ferry “Westward Ho” passes by to the north. Photo: Alexander Portch.
The fact, however, that it also lies along the line of the frequently postulated Cardiff-Weston route for a Severn Barrage, makes it especially significant for this writer. When viewed from afar Flat Holm, with its renowned population of Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus) (approx.. 4000 pairs), a stronghold of the Wild Leek, and historic value as the place where, in May 1897, Guglielmo Marconi first successfully transmitted a message across the open water using his wireless telegraphy system, would appear to be particularly vulnerable to the potential negative impacts associated with the erection nearby of a vast wall of rock, steel and concrete, complete with shipping locks and potentially even a road, railway and series of wind turbines. Despite the obvious presence of humans throughout much of the past 2500 years, demonstrated most tangibly by the remains of defensive fortifications dating to the mid-19th century, further military structures from the Second World war, the ruins of a farmhouse, and a lighthouse; the island still seems, even upon close inspection, like a wild and windswept place, where humans are an invasive species – disturbers of the peace enjoyed by the gulls, rabbits, lizards and sheep. From such a perspective, opposition to a barrage could be seen as wholly understandable and indeed a worthy cause.
Flat Holm lighthouse, located at the southern end of the island. The light is now fully automated and has been powered by solar panels since 1997. Photo: Alexander Portch.
It was, perhaps, with such views in mind that on Wednesday April 16th 2014 project members Peter Coates, Jill Payne Payne and I arrived on “Coal Beach,” at the north-eastern end of the island having traversed the full width of the Channel between Weston-Super-Mare and Cardiff aboard the bow-loading, Island Class Passenger Vessel “Westward Ho”; a rather small yet accommodating ferry which operates between Cardiff, Weston and Flat Holm throughout much of the Spring and Summer months (http://mwmarine.org/index.php/notable-vessels). This included a brief stop-over in Cardiff Bay; an area of water impounded behind a fixed barrier which, since its construction in 1999, has completely transformed the industrial maritime landscape of disused dockside facilities and intertidal mudflats into the social, cultural and recreational hub of modern Cardiff, replete with an opera house, shopping centre and the iconic copper-plated structure of the Senedd, which houses the National Assembly of Wales (see http://cardiffbay.co.uk/index.php/history). When first postulated the Cardiff Bay Barrage, much like its bigger estuarine cousin, met with fierce objection, including from those who feared the loss of important wetland habitats for birds, flora and other coastal wildlife. In many respects their concerns were well-founded, as such resources have indeed been lost; however, it is difficult to overlook the vibrant atmosphere of the area today, nor the smart-looking yachts and well-tended blocks of flats; their balconies overlooking the comings and goings of vessels navigating their way through the three locks which connect the Bay with the wider tidal estuary. For me at least, the experience of being conveyed through a large shipping lock was a first, and one which proved to be an unexpected, yet most welcome, highlight of the expedition. Whilst the locks that would be incorporated into a Cardiff-Weston barrage would be significantly larger, it was still possible to gain a sense of what entering the Severn Estuary Lake from the tidal Bristol Channel might be like for incoming container ships if a Severn Barrage were ever to be built.
Peter Coates watches with interest as one of the three locks connecting the freshwater lagoon of Cardiff Bay with the tidal waters of the Bristol Channel begins to fill with water. Photo: Alexander Portch.
Much as the tide is the key factor motivating the proposals for building a barrage, it is also a conspicuous force influencing the ways in which people, both now and in the past, interact with the island of Flat Holm. Arrival and departure times are wholly subject to the operation of the tides, with boats arriving on the pebble-strewn beaches at high tide, disembarking their cargoes of goods and passengers, then either leaving straight away on the falling tide or, as in the case of our own mode of transport, being left high and dry for up to six hours until the water level once again reaches a height sufficient to float the vessel free. It was perhaps such a characteristic of the two “holms” (a Scandinavian term for a river island) that attracted religious communities during the middle centuries of the 1st millennium AD. On the nearby Steep Holm the ruins of a medieval chapel attest to their presence, whilst on Flat Holm little physical evidence remains for the existence of such a community, with the exception of a cross-inscribed slab found incorporated into the base of the garden wall of the island’s farmhouse. Medieval burials and a curving enclosure ditch, excavated in 1979, may also hint at the whereabouts of some of the island’s earliest structures. With access to the island being governed by the movement of the Channel’s waters and facilitating landings only with great skill and much danger, particularly during inclement weather, the early Christian inhabitants must have found it the ideal place to pray, meditate and practice their distinctive eremitic lifestyle. The workings of the tide may also have played a key role in the island’s infamous history as a haunt for smugglers throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries. In full view of the local authorities in Cardiff, smugglers were known to convey goods to caves in the cliffs on the eastern side of the island in broad daylight, with little apparent concern about the risk of being caught. Such activity was greatly aided by the fact that the authorities lacked a suitable vessel with which to pursue the smugglers; however, even if such a craft had been within their means, their passage out from the mainland would still have been dependent on the timing of the flood and subsequent ebb tides, with any delay providing the perfect opportunity for those engaged in illicit activities to slip away to safety.
The bow-loading Island Class Passenger Vessel “Westward Ho” sitting high and dry as it awaits the incoming tide to free it from its berth on the pebbly shores of Flat Holm Island. From this point it took little more than 15 – 20 minutes before it was ready to depart – a clear demonstration of the speed with which the tide ebbs and flows around the coastline of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary. Photo: Alexander Portch.
It is apparent, therefore, that for as long as humans have interacted with the islands of the Bristol Channel they have, in so doing, interacted with non-human nature. Through knowledge of the tidal cycle people have gained access to Flat Holm, and through exploitation of its mineral resources and agricultural potential they have derived wealth and sustenance. In many respects Flat Holm is an excellent example of how closely human activity can be integrated with the functioning of the “natural” world, as the characteristics that presently justify the island’s status as a SSSI, almost without exception, are the product of anthropogenic influence. The Wild Leeks, for example, are believed to have originally been brought over by the monks who cultivated them on neighbouring Steep Holm, whilst the rabbits were intentionally introduced in the 12th Century. The present plant communities that dominate much of the island’s open landscape, including various grasses, nettles and ground ivy are most likely the result of the rich soils that have built up in response to years of pastoral activity, including manuring by cows, sheep and goats. The Wild Peony was also introduced from Steep Holm, although at a later date, during the Second World War; whilst the thousands of Lesser Black-backed Gulls that call the island their home, and in turn create such a feeling of wildness despite the obvious human presence, only arrived during the 1950s as a result of the abandonment of the military facilities by the 350 soldiers who had been stationed there.
This close ties between human and natural history of the island was further propounded, much to the shock of the project team members, upon conversing with the knowledgeable and welcoming wardens and volunteers of the Flat Holm Project, who have managed and operated the island since 1982 (http://www.flatholmisland.com/). It was initially felt that somehow the gulls of Flat Holm gave the appearance of being somewhat healthier and more “natural” in such a wild and rural setting than their comparatively unkempt urban relatives in towns and cities like Bristol. To be informed, therefore, that the principal food supply for the Flat Holm population comprises the nearby Cardiff City landfill came as quite a surprise. It was also explained that the numerous small bones found scattered across the island were not in fact the remains of predated rabbits, but were predominantly chicken bones; the leftovers from the seagull equivalent of a trip to the local Chinese takeaway. Similarly, pieces of plastic, fragments of children’s toys and plastic balls were also found to represent the colourful trinkets picked up by the birds in their enthusiasm as they scour the dump in search of a chicken drumstick or juicy spare rib. As such, the great majority of litter scattered about the island isn’t the direct result of human carelessness, but is the work of supposedly wild creatures exploiting the products of our own throwaway culture. The fault could thus still be perceived as ours; if perhaps an unexpected and unintentional consequence of our actions. It is also clear, however, that the remarkable number of Black-backed Gulls on Flat Holm are almost wholly reliant on the waste products of human society for their survival and it is believed that their initial arrival and subsequent explosion in numbers could be directly attributable to such a rich and easy source of sustenance. The current population is in fact almost half that which existed earlier in the 20th century, a product of a careful programme of management intended to conserve a maritime grassland habitat across the northern end of the island: yet another example of human involvement in the development and proliferation of nature on this small outcrop of limestone cast adrift in the middle of the Severn Sea.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus) perched on the cliffs at the southern end of Flat Holm. With approximately 4000 pairs, it is very much their island! Photo: Alexander Portch.
If humans have been so pivotal in the development of wildness on Flat Holm, therefore, could it not be argued that further human involvement in the region, even in the form of a barrage, is a continuation of that activity? A central concept in the discipline of environmental history is the idea that throughout much of their existence humans have exerted a profound influence upon non-human nature and, in turn, non-human nature has been a key factor in shaping human history. Indeed for many scholars, humans and nature are indivisible: humans are a part of nature and thus their activities are wholly natural. It is almost certain that a barrage would lead to significant change on Flat Holm, and could result in the loss of many of the species and habitats for which it is presently renowned. But filling the void left by their demise would be a host of new plants and animals that would greatly benefit from the altered tidal regime, the modified air currents (particularly if wind turbines were also constructed) and the varying levels of pollution, both during and after construction Nonetheless, even if the natural world is seen to benefit, there is no escaping the fact that the visual aesthetics of the estuarine landscape, and the feeling of remoteness which so vividly evokes the isolation that must have been appreciated by the early Christian inhabitants, will be irrevocably transformed and perhaps even lost entirely.
Farewell to Flat Holm. Silhouetted against the clear blue sky can be seen a wind turbine, and the foghorn which remained in operation until 1988. In addition to wind power, the island benefits from solar panel arrays and a biomass boiler. Alongside a large Victorian aquifer for storing collected rainwater, it can boast a remarkably high level of self-sufficiency. Photo: Alexander Portch.
Nonetheless, as the ferry departed Flat Holm, Ynys Echni in Welsh, leaving behind the ghosts of Bronze Age explorers, early Medieval monks, Viking raiders and the scores of mariners shipwrecked around its treacherous shores, it wasn’t the inter-connectedness of humans and their environment, or the comparative benefits of barrages and tidal stream turbines that were foremost in my thoughts. Instead, as the first time I had viewed what had always seemed a familiar land/seascape from such a different perspective, I could do little but gaze upon the holms in wonderment at their beauty as they faded in the half light of the setting sun.
I met up with Dr Angela Connelly on Tuesday 8th April in Huddersfield, halfway between her home and mine, for what proved to be a very fruitful session. Angela is also an AHRC-funded Post-doctoral Research Assistant, based at Manchester University, working on the art and sustainability ‘Jetty’ project, led by Professor Wolfgang Weileder at Newcastle University. (For the project website, go to http://jetty-project.info/) In a nutshell, this interdisciplinary project aims to connect the debates of fine art and urban design by investigating how a contemporary public artwork can meaningfully contribute to the lives of local people, the urban environment and local ecology. At the heart of the project is Dunston Staiths, on the south bank of the Tyne. (A staith, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is an elevated landing stage at a wharf that is used for transferring goods from railways cars to boats.) The largest timber structure in northern Europe, Dunston Staiths is currently undergoing extensive restoration before eventually opening to the public. As I drove Peter Coates over the Redheugh Bridge from Gateshead to Newcastle in November 2013, he was instantly transfixed by the magnificent view of it down to our left! I think he was slightly more impressed by the Angel of the North, however.
As well as conducting archival research into the construction of Dunston Staiths by the North Eastern Railway Company in 1893, Angela is working closely with the Tyne and Wear Preservation Trust, which owns the staiths; the Royal Geographical Society; English Heritage, which listed the Staiths Grade II and is overseeing the restoration; and Durham Wildlife Trust, which has conducted an in-depth survey of the wildlife currently flourishing in the new environments of the salt marshes and mudflats around the Staiths. The Trust’s discovery of species such as Golden Plover, Redshank, Teal, Lapwing, Dunlin, Curlew and Cormorants highlights that human activities, such as constructing a large staith in a river, can have unintended, but nevertheless positive impacts on wildlife. A similar situation was highlighted by T.C. Smout and Mairi Stewart in The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History(2012), with reference to ducks having flourished by eating the worms which fed on sewage and the organic discharges from breweries and distilleries; these waterfowl subsequently plunged into rapid decline when the sewage was redirected from the Forth to treatment works to improve water quality (pp. 166-167). I mentioned in an earlier blog that I would look out for similarly positive effects on wildlife in and around the Tyne, and now I have found one, thanks to Angela and the Jetty project.As environmental historians, we should remain mindful that human activities do not necessarily work to the disadvantage of wildlife; sometimes they can invent new, different and welcoming habitats in which rare species can thrive, albeit unintentionally.
Angela has also been involved in research into the local communities, which will be affected by the opening of the Staiths to the public. The area has not attracted large numbers of tourists since it hosted the National Garden Festival at Dunston Staiths in 1989, as part of the wider regeneration of the river, which I was lucky enough to attend as a five-year old girl. (Unfortunately, you’re not lucky enough to see the highly amusing photo of me enjoying the festival with none other than Pudsey Bear himself!)
Regrettably, the Staiths are still unsafe, having been derelict since they were abandoned in the 1980s, and the restoration is still very much in its infancy. Angela has been working with the Royal Geographic Society to create a structured art walk from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, near the Millennium Bridge, along the river to Dunston Staiths, passing several sculptures and outdoor artworks along the way. She has kindly offered to take ‘Power and Water’ project members on this inspiring walk during our forthcoming project team meeting in early June 2014. A local model-railway enthusiast called David, who possesses a wealth of knowledge on the Staiths in their original format before they suffered fire damage during dereliction, will also be joining us for the walk and we look forward to meeting him too.
All in all, a mutually beneficial and productive meeting. Making connections with other relevant arts and humanities research projects is certainly to be encouraged.
Oh, go on then, you can see the Garden Festival photo…
Me, visiting the Garden Festival at Dunston Staiths, aged five. Photo: Leona Skelton