Monthly Archives: May 2015

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>

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/