Monthly Archives: June 2015

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

By Jill Payne

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

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

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

Team members at Avon

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

By Marianna Dudley

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

What?

FoN team

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

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

Public engagement

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

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

Bottle water

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

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

Plastic trash

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

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

Eloise Govier

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

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

Why?

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

Drewitt at Stand

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

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

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

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


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

 

 

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

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

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

By Peter Coates

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

Confluence Tyne

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

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

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

Before clean up

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

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

After clean up

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

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

Environmental historian at work

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

Tyne Mouth

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

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

Newcastle Quayside

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

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

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

 

NOTES

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

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

 

 

Tyne talks exhibition

Team member Leona Skelton has developed an exhibition for the Old Low Light Heritage Centre at North Shields about the history of the Tyne River and the people living on its banks. Placing the river itself at its heart, this exhibition enables us to hear the Tyne’s own story, of the enormous changes it underwent as it wove itself literally and metaphorically through Tyneside’s story and Tynesiders’ lives from 1530 to the present.

The exhibition opens on 11 June and will run until 25 June. More info on the Old Low Light Heritage Centre website.