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

 

 

One comment

  • Erin Gill

    The idea that a river is only working when it’s a fully industrialised river and not when it’s providing the unique set of ecosystem services (a hateful term!) that only healthy rivers can offer – a habitat for freshwater fish species, a source of drinking water for us and farm animals are just two of them – is a powerful one for anyone who grew up with this type of river as the backdrop to daily life. As people in the UK increasingly grow up alongside quiet rivers that appear to be healthy – but that are often significantly impaired ecologically – will demand grow for cleaner and healthier? Or will the apparently clean and mildly healthy become the status quo?

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