Monthly Archives: October 2015

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

By Leona Skelton

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

Walton Plaque

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

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

Walton Hall

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

Stop HS2

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

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

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

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

 

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

Tidal Power: A Question of Scale?

By Alexander Portch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carew Cross

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

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

Carew Castle

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

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

Carew Mill

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

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

Causeway

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

Brief Encounters of the urban “Wild” Kind

By Alexander Portch

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

Otter

Otter (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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