Tag Archives: environmental history

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

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

 

 

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.

Podcast: Environmental history of a hydrological landscape: the soughs of Derbyshire

Under the Peak District of Derbyshire is an subterranean network of drainage tunnels, the so-called soughs that were used to drain the lead mines of the region.

Up till the 16th century most lead mining In the Peak District done on the surface and miners followed horizontal seams. By then the surface seams were exhausted and miners had to sink shafts to reach rich underground seams. By the 17th century most mines were down to the water table. To prevent the mines from filling up with water drains or ‘soughs’ were cut through the hills to a neighboring valley. The construction of soughs changed the hydrological landscape of the Peak District, both below ground and above. In some cases the soughs not only drained mineshafts but also the small rivers above, which as a result were dry most of the year. The construction of soughs also reduced the flow of watercourses powering the mills of the early Industrial Revolution. This led to legal conflicts between sough builders and others who relied on the availability of water. Petitions were submitted to the courts and many of these court cases rumbled on for decades.

During the 20th century the soughs were largely forgotten but recently the soughs have been rediscovered for their industrial heritage on the one hand, and their detrimental effect on the hydrology of the landscape, pitting heritage values versus ecological restoration, creating a new battle ground of interests.

This edition of the Exploring Environmental History podcast examines the environmental history of the Derbyshire Soughs with Carry van Lieshout, a historical geographer at the University of Nottingham. She works on a research project that investigates the environmental and cultural history of the Derbyshire soughs in order to inform understandings of this largely forgotten cultural landscape and to develop management and conservation strategies for underground heritage.

Further reading

From Lead to Tail: an Environmental History of the Derbyshire Soughs. Poster presented by Carry van Lieshout at the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimarães, Portugal, July 2014.

Peter Coates, Who killed the Lathkill? (or, when is a river is no longer a river?), The Power and the Water blog, 5 Nov. 2014.

D. Ford and Rieuwerts, J., Lead miners’ soughs in Derbyshire, Geology Today, 23 (2007): 57–62. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2451.2007.00604.x

 

Music credits

Like Music (cdk Mix, 2013 & 2014)” by cdk, available from ccMixter

Watch the video visualisation of the introduction of the podcast:

Exploring environmental History podcast

 

This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

Between cultural and natural heritage

By Marianna Dudley

chateau Chenonceau

“Fairytale castle”, chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

Chenonceau is a chateau worthy of a fairytale princess. It has turrets and gardens and galleries – and a river running through it. Built between 1514 and 1522 on the site of an old mill, it became the home of Diane de Poitiers, mistress of King Henry II. Diane loved the chateau, and built the bridge over the river. On Henry’s death in 1559, his widow Catherine de Medici demanded that Diane exchange Chenonceau for her chateau Charmont. Catherine built the galleries upon Diane’s bridge, and ruled France as regent from the building. Renaissance intrigues, not fairytales, brought this building to life.

Foundation Royaumont

Foundation Royaumont, a former abbey. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

I was in France following an AHRC-Labex Franco-British workshop, where Care for the Future project members were brought together with French Labex counterparts, to discover each other’s research and discuss possibilities for future collaboration. The 2-day workshop was held in a former abbey transformed into a cultural centre – the Royaumont Foundation – to the north of Paris, a stunning setting for the ‘Delving Back into the Past to Look into the Present’ workshop.

The workshop was the result of an initiative by Andrew Thompson, director of the Care for the Future programme for the AHRC in Britain, and Ghislaine Glasson Deschaumes, director of Les Passés dans le présent (the Laboratoire d’excellence based at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Defense, France). The two funding schemes had such close themes – Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past, and The Past in the Present: History, Patrimony, Memory – as well as an emphasis on working with external heritage partners, and supporting early career researchers, that Andrew and Ghislaine have taken the opportunity to forge collaborative links between the two. Future funding will allow members of the two schemes to connect and apply for funding for joint research projects.

Carry van Lieshout and I were there to represent ‘The Power and the Water’, describe our research and be alert for potential links with French researchers present. My paper, ‘Between natural and cultural heritage, and human and natural archive’, discussed the importance of placing environments and natures at the heart of our understandings of heritage – as they have been historically, for example in the conservation movement in the UK and the global national park movement. It suggested that the language of heritage acquires new meaning when situated in a public sphere with many and multiple ties to place and nature – heritage breeds, heirloom vegetables, and keystone species are just some of the vocabulary used to add value to things by invoking heritage both cultural and natural. I suggested that, as historians and heritage professionals, we should be alert to the natural archive as a source and site for history, in addition to the cultural archive, and continue to place importance on landscapes, animals, ecosystems, natural cycles – and the histories and cultures they inform – in our discussions of heritage. In her paper ‘River or Ruin? Connecting Histories with Publics’, Carry explored how different valuations and understandings of an intermittent river and its heritage are playing out in the Peak district, and suggested that to widen our understanding (and expectations) of heritage-in-place to accommodate both natural and human interventions might allow contestations between past, present and future use to move forward.

interior of Chateau Chenonceau

Splendour of the interior of interior of Chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley

After an intense two days of workshopping, I took some time to see more of French heritage in situ. Thus, I ended up at Chateau Chenonceau on a bitterly cold January morning, fully absorbed in the Renaissance splendor of the house, from the kitchens down below to the roaring fires that brought life (and much-needed warmth) to bed chambers and sitting rooms. This was cultural heritage at its best.

But then, in the gallery exhibition, a quote from Marguerite Yourcenar stopped me in my tracks, and brought the natural heritage of the chateau, somewhat hidden beneath the weight of tapestries and brocades and copper pans, back to the fore:

 

 

 

Let’s look at it from a new perspective, leaving aside these very well-known figures, these silhouettes on the magic lantern of French history… let’s think about the countless generation of birds that have flocked around these walls, the skillful architecture of their nests, the royal genealogies of animals in the forests and their dens or their unadorned shelters, their hidden life, their almost always-tragic death, so often at the hands of man.

Take another step along the paths: let’s dream about the great race of trees, with different species taking over in succession, compared to whose age four or five hundred years means nothing.

Another step further on, far from any human concerns, here is the water in the river, water that is both older and newer than any other form, and which has for centuries washed the cast offs of history. Visiting old residences can lead us to see things in a rather unexpected way. (Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (1962)

 

Yourcenar, the French writer and first woman to be inducted into the Académie Française (in 1981), looked beyond the materiality of the chateau to connect its history with that of the surrounding lands and waters that supported it, and suffered for it.[1] Her words spoke to me as an encouragement for environmental historians to raise the profile of the natural archive, and as a reminder that we are far from the only ones to seek and value natural heritage alongside other manifestations of history. I look forward to the opportunities that the initiative between AHRC and Labex presents for us to connect with French scholars with similar convictions and research interests. Sincere thanks to Andrew, Ghislaine, and the AHRC/Labex staff for bringing us all together, and starting conversations that are sure to develop.

[1] ‘Becoming the Emperor: How Marguerite Yourcenar reinvented the past’, The New Yorker (February 14, 2005)

 

Wasting Millions… of Stories, Insights and Experiences? An Inspiring Workshop on Academia, Environments and Engaging with the Public(s)

By Leona Skelton

David Matless, a Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Nottingham, highlighted an important story from the history of academic public engagement in his presentation at the University of East Anglia’s ‘Environment(s) in Public(s)?’ workshop on 3rd November 2014. It was a story from 1911, the year in which the renowned Arthur Tansley, a Botanist and pioneer in the science of Ecology and a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, embarked on an in-depth study of river valleys and species in the Norfolk Broads. He and his academic team purposely ignored a group which they referred to pejoratively as ‘local workers’ in their quest to understand this particular environment. This led them to exclude most of the members of the local naturalist societies and clubs, who, of course, understood their local environment very intimately indeed. The story ended happily, however, as the academics did a U-turn, eventually including the ‘local workers’ in their project, after admitting that their knowledge was both valuable and useful to their study.

This historic story is hugely relevant in the light of recent academic research funding objectives, encouraging academics to beat their own imaginative, successful and above all useful ‘pathways to impact’, ensuring that their research has a real use and benefit for wider society, and rightly so. Environmental historians are approaching this objective not as a one-way process, but as an opportunity for symbiosis. Following the albeit redrafted example of Tansley, to inform their research, many are successfully utilising the often very deep knowledge, experience and understanding of those who live, and have long lived, in particular environments, who face particular local environmental challenges as part of their daily lives. They are conducting oral history interviews and attending meetings of local history groups, wildlife charities and local sporting and outdoor pursuit clubs and societies, as well as ensuring that such research delivers benefits on the ground in the environments under their study by contributing to future policies or leaving beneficial educational or recreational legacies behind. Ruth Tittensor’s From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, its Construction and Landscape (2009) is a good example of an environmental history which has been enriched by direct engagement and participation of experienced local people in its creation.

The two concepts of 1) locals contributing to academics’ publications and 2) academics providing pathways to beneficial impact in local communities are not mutually exclusive. Very often, the process of involving the public in academic research can produce benefits in their own right. Creating a volume of oral history interviews, which provide a snapshot of local life, the environment and locals’ projections for their future provides a legacy, which benefits the community at large as well as facilitating increased academic understanding through publication.

The purpose of the workshop held at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and hosted jointly by 3S: Science, Society and Sustainability (which is a research group at UEA), Science in Public and the Broads Authority, was to interrogate the question of whether or not academics should tailor their approach to public engagement more specifically to multiple and separate publics with which they aim to engage rather than simply to the whole public. For example, should busy farmers, a canoeing club and a Parish Council be amalgamated into one homogenous group called ‘the public’, which incorporates all non-academics, or rather given special consideration as respective publics with different needs, different capabilities for contribution and potentially different sensitivities? The argument is further complicated by the issue of different environments; even within one country, a sheep farmer living in an upland location might require a different approach to an arable farmer in East Anglia, for example. The general consensus was that more detailed consideration should be given to the particular needs and expectations of the groups we approach for public engagement through our academic studies and that it is indeed useful to imagine ‘publics’ rather than the ‘public’.

The issue of scale was also raised, in relation to climate change, highlighting the propensity for people to force change at local, regional and even national scales, compared to the general disinclination of the majority to invest in forcing global change. Globally, the goal is too big, and, as Angela Cassidy pointed out in her paper on ‘Animals, People and Places: Connecting Public Debates about how we Live in a Changing World’, using the image of a polar bear, which is remote to the majority of the world’s population, is probably far less effective than using more immediately relevant images of a flooded village or a family and their pets in distress. The workshop was grounded within quite a small scale by its focus on the environment surrounding the University of East Anglia, the city of Norwich, the rivers, farms, broads and coast of the East of England, but the questions which the workshop raised could be applied to many other different environments on a far wider scale, and they are relevant to all academics working with environments, including environmental geographers, environmental historians, ecologists, artists and environmental scientists.

Ultimately, academics can think imaginatively, not in desperation as salesmen and women under the pressure of punitive targets, and not from above as benefactors who kindly impart their infinitely superior knowledge, but rather as inspiring positive forces in local communities, who approach the publics with whom they intend to engage as equals, offering to give as much as or even more than they take. Working with practitioners, businesses, museums, engineers, councillors and charities can speed up the process of public engagement for academics, but such collaborations can also enhance such professionals’ own work by introducing exciting, interesting and beneficial elements from our academic research to their projects and schemes which would otherwise have not occurred to them. Alexandra Johnson, Curator at the London Science Museum, explained how she worked with artists to create an exhibition called ‘The Rubbish Collection’, which showcased to the public in a creative and visually attractive style all of the items of rubbish which were disposed of by the museum over a period of thirty days. Despite the widely held perception among some of the public that waste-disposal and recycling is a boring and overkilled topic, they were inspired by the exhibition because of the imaginative and visually stimulating manner in which the issue was conveyed. Environmental historians, too, can design imaginative, innovative and ultimately useful ways in which to introduce the benefit of hindsight – the mistakes, successes, issues and debates of the past – to contribute to present-day challenges.

Our own project, ‘The Power and the Water: Reconnecting Pasts with Futures’, aims to reconnect severed, but important, links between historic and present problems in the development of the UK’s energy and water infrastructure. In my own project, I have learnt as much, and in some cases even more, from attending the Clean Tyne Project’s Steering Committee or riding downriver on their debris-collection vessel, from talking to local volunteers working at the Low Light Heritage Centre, or to the volunteers of the Tyne Rivers Trust’s Riverwatch at their 10th Anniversary celebrations, or by taking a tour of Howdon wastewater treatment works with Northumbrian Water, a tour of the Port of Tyne facilities or an art walk to the Dunston Staiths. All of these experiences have provided insights into the problems faced throughout the Tyne catchment today, which inform and enrich my archival research into the problems of the Tyne’s past, which in turn can and will (very soon) inform and enrich those present day institutions’, charities’ and authorities’ approaches to improving future Tyne policies.

Rubbish from Tyne

Power & Water project leader, Peter Coates, rejuvenated after observing the work of the Clean Tyne Project aboard their debris-collection vessel, the ‘Clearwater’ (Photo: M. Dudley)

The workshop at UEA was a success precisely because of the diversity of its attendees. A journalist, a museum curator, an ecologist, the director of the Norfolk Broads Authority, environmental historians, scientists and geographers, chemists and members of the public. We achieved a great deal in one day through face-to-face and direct communication. It certainly boosted my own conception and attitudes towards public engagement. Academics are doing really well in their efforts to include publics in and to improve the experiences of publics through their research, but they can and should always try to do better. For every ten stories, insights and first-hand experiences we incorporate into our research, there are millions more which we have not heard and will not incorporate, and which are arguably being wasted. Perhaps technology will provide an even larger opportunity to capture and analyse this important source of information in the future, in the way that citizen science projects have been developed recently on scales which were unthinkable fifteen years ago. Until then, we are wasting millions… millions of stories, millions of insights and millions of experiences.

 

Links

http://www.3s.uea.ac.uk/

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/rubbish_collection.aspx

http://tyneriverstrust.org/what-we-do-2/community-engagement/riverwatch/

http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/

http://www.cultivatinginnovation.org/blog

http://www.erica.demon.co.uk/EH/reviews/72_Chaplin.pdf

http://scienceinpublic.org/

 

Bridging the Gap between Urban and Environmental History in Lisbon, Portugal

By Leona Skelton and Carry Van Lieshout

Just in case we hadn’t seen enough of Portugal, in July 2014 at the World Congress of Environmental History in Guimaraes, we revisited the country in early September to attend the European Association for Urban History Conference: ‘Cities in Europe; Cities in the World’. We benefited from some highly innovative and thought-provoking sessions on diverse topics of Urban History, ranging from Lucy Beeckmans’ ‘A Multitude of Inbetweens in African Urban Spaces’, to Martin Melosi’s ‘Cities, Environment and Sustainability’, to Nicholas Kenny’s ‘The Senses and Urban Public Space’. And our own session, organised by Dolly Jorgensen and Tim Soens, ‘Urban Sanitation before the Sanitary Revolution’, formed a cohesive and highly focused argument, which we hope to present in the form of an edited collection soon. There were lots of social opportunities for academic discussion and networking, including an open-air, floodlit banquet for all six hundred delegates at the City Museum Gardens, complete with wandering peacocks and vast amounts of custard-based cakes, and a 2.5 hour circular cruise around the River Tagus, enabling us to appreciate the scale of Lisbon’s spectacular rivers, cruising past the Vasco da Gama and the 25 de Abril bridges, the Belem Tower and the Christ the King monument.

Vasco da Gama Bridge

Vasco da Gama Bridge over the River Tagus, Lisbon. (Photo: Leona Skelton)

 

Peacock

Peacock at the conference dinner reception. (Photo: Carry van Lieshout)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leona: One comment I heard during the conference made me think a lot about landscape, environment and the labels which we attribute to particular places: ‘place is a space which we have made meaningful’. I want to think much more deeply about what motivates a community, group or individual to turn a space into a place, and then over time successively to change the use and thereby the meaning of that space from a place for industry, a place for food production, a place for housing, a place for art, a place for biodiversity, a place for sport and recreation. Is Lisbon’s Commercial Square, where I sat in one place from 1pm until 5pm, very happily, between the end of the conference and my flight home, a ‘place’ because it was the site of royal power until the great earthquake of 1755, and the hub of commercial activity thereafter, or is it a ‘place’ because it features the impressive Triumph Arch, runs right up to the water’s edge at a small, but very urban, beach? Is it a ‘place’ because it provides an excellent view of the 25 de Abril Bridge, the Tagus and the Christ the King Monument?

Triumph Arch, Lisbon

Looking towards Commercial Square through the Triumph Arch, Lisbon (Photo: Leona Skelton)

25 de Abril Bridge

The View towards the 25 de Abril Bridge and Christ the King Monument, from Commercial Square, Lisbon (Photo: Leona Skelton)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who decides when a space becomes a place and does it matter? Is a golf course any less edifying than Northumberlandia, a large artwork sculpted into the land near Cramlington, Northumberland? Historians have long appreciated the large extent to which daily lives have been shaped by the built, manmade environment, but what about the use or multiple uses of those buildings and spaces, how natural or manmade an environment is, the biodiversity of wildlife, the potential to play in a space or place? Historians have also long appreciated the large extent to which the visual impact of the environment impacts on daily life experiences, but what about sensory history: the smell, the touch, the taste and the sound of an environment? The reason why I spent so much time sitting in Commercial Square was because it excited and satisfied more of my senses than merely sight alone. Any thoughts?

Commercial Square, Lisbon

A Table with a View, Commercial Square, Lisbon (Photo: Leona Skelton)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carry: Leona’s thoughts about environmental impacts on daily life experiences in the past really chimed with my own reflections on the conference. Starting at our own session, which by its nature dealt with the smellier and dirtier aspects of urban life, I thought about the many sensory experiences people must have had. This train of thought continued during a session on ‘city lights’ that I attended the next day, which included a paper by A. Roger Akirch on resistance to street lighting. It made me think about how, for much of history, human lives were partly lived in the dark. People were able to navigate around their own spaces – houses certainly, but also their streets and neighbourhoods – relying on their sense of touch and sound, in addition to their sense of direction and internal maps of familiar spaces. This really chimed with my own experiences going down old mines and caves in the Peak District. Unable to rely on visual landmarks, as to my untrained eye all walls just looked like rock, and unable to rely on the familiar patterns of streets or landscapes that normally guide my sense of direction, I felt utterly disorientated. I thought about the miners feeling at home in their underground world with very little or no light, and the internal maps they must have developed in order to find their way. I wondered to what extent do the sources we have of an historical place bias us towards the visual? Does our reliance on the sense of sight in our overly lit world come at the expense of our other senses? There is scope for both historians and geographers to consider the impact of people’s sensory experiences.

Memories of the Tyne: a response to “Inspiring the next generation of Environmental Historians”

By David Moon

I am very grateful to Leona for taking the time from her research to come to talk to my MA seminar in York. We had a really lively and productive discussion, and could have continued for more than the two hours we were timetabled.

It was very useful for the MA students to meet an early-career scholar who has recently completed her Ph.D., gone on to work on a large project, and in particular a large project that involves engagement with partners outside the academic world. I hope this will encourage them to think about their plans for research and academic careers in a wider context.

In preparation for the seminar, we had all read the materials Leona had provided on the river Tyne, and also examples of the wider environmental history on rivers. This enabled us to consider the case of the Tyne in a comparative framework, to identify aspects of the environmental history of the Tyne that were common to other rivers in the industrial world – of which the extent of pollution was just one – and also to think whether there were aspects of the Tyne’s history that stood out from the wider experience of rivers.

In regard to the latter, both Leona and I were at an advantage as we are both natives of the northeast of England and have grown up with the Tyne flowing past our doorsteps, or at least only a few miles away.

Newcastle Quayside before 1990s

Newcastle Quayside before redevelopment (1990s). Source: Wikimedia Commons

As a child I lived in Newcastle upon Tyne in the 1960s, and remember well the industrial river. (I could hear the sirens marking the changes of shifts in the works along the river from our house in Fenham.) I recall later the decline of this phase of the river’s history, when much of the river banks became derelict as the old industries, not least the shipyards, closed down. The Quayside at night became a place to avoid or be wary, especially when the Norwegian navy came to pay ‘courtesy visits’ and frequented the pubs. More recently, I have witnessed the astonishing rebirth of the Quayside as the heart of a new, vibrant cultural centre rebranded as ‘Newcastle-Gateshead’, with the arch of the Tyne bridge echoed in the Sage concert hall and beautiful Millennium footbridge creating a stunning visage to rival any city I’ve lived in. (A few years ago, I showed it off to a visitor from St. Petersburg, from the middle of the Swing Bridge, who was impressed, and was not just being polite.)

River Tyne with the Tyne Bridge, Millennium Bridge (background) and the Sage concert hall (right). Source: Wikipedia

River Tyne with the Tyne Bridge, Millennium Bridge (background) and the Sage concert hall (right). Source: Wikipedia

This blog post is a response to Leona’s earlier piece Inspiring the next generation of Environmental Historians at the University of York

Inspiring the next generation of Environmental Historians at the University of York

By Leona Skelton

Having spent a large proportion of my time analysing the volumes of the Tyne Improvement Commission (up to 1939, so only 3 decades to go!), and one week in late January at the National Archives in London, I emerged last Tuesday, 18th Feb, from a quiet, focused and highly productive world of research to discuss my Tyne project with several environmental history MA students at the University of York. Thankfully, I hadn’t forgotten how to teach, or indeed, how to talk at all. I delivered the seminar alongside the course leader, Professor David Moon, an environmental historian who has worked extensively with us on our previous AHRC-funded projects, ‘Local Places, Global Processes: Histories of Environmental Change’ and its follow-on, ‘The Places that Speak to Us and the Publics We Talk With’.

Preparing for the seminar provided an opportunity to take a few steps back and organise the copious amount of archival material I have thus far amassed. I prepared some power point slides, and divided the Tyne’s story chronologically into four sections: The Pre-Modern River, 1500-1800; The Industrial River, 1800-1975; The Kielder Scheme and Regeneration, 1975-present; and the Tyne’s Future. I also presented a few slides on the existing literature, emphasising how different and exciting forms of media are currently enabling a diverse range of people to engage with the Tyne’s history.

  • Tyne View: a walk around the Port of Tyne, was published in 2012 to tell the story of an epic walk along the Tyne’s tidal section, from South Shields to Tynemouth via Wylam Bridge, by four locals (a photographer, a writer, an artist and a poet). The successful book contains an exciting mixture of social history, photography, illustrations, interviews with locals and poetry.
  • Tyne View’s author, Michael Chaplin, has written a theatre production called ‘Tyne’, which celebrates the history of Tyneside’s great river using dramatization and a combination of music, images and stories written by several local writers. I am delighted to have a ticket to see the production at the Customs House, South Shields, on Saturday 1st March (watch this space for my critique!).
  • Sting’s recent album, ‘The Last Ship’, released in late 2013, provides a deep insight into the river’s industrial past, with clever lyrics describing intimate details from working lives, providing a direct line to the industrial Tyne. My favourite song is ‘Skyhooks and Tartan Paint’ – listen to it online and I guarantee that it will make you smile. If you need any Geordie to English translations, you know where I am!

I was delighted to meet such an enthusiastic group of students, who had prepared exceptionally well for a consequently fruitful and mutually beneficial seminar discussion. They were particularly interested in how my research findings could be used to inform and shape future Tyne policies as a result of working hard during the research project to build relationships with relevant governmental bodies, local charities and water companies. We discussed my invitation to join the Clean Tyne Project’s Steering Committee to plan their 25 year anniversary celebrations, which will take place in summer 2014, and their kind offer to demonstrate their important debris collection work on the river to all ‘Power and  Water’ team members at our Team Project Meeting in Newcastle in early June 2014.

We also discussed the Dunston Staiths Restoration project, which is going to use recycled wood, collected from the river and provided free of charge by the Clean Tyne Project, to restore the UK’s largest timber structure. Dunston Staiths were built originally in 1893 to facilitate the discharge of coal from the railway to keel boats. Once completed, the restored staiths, which will be open to the public, will form an important part of future generations’ education and heritage, as well as making an important contribution to tourism.

We discussed the complex relationship between the Tyne and human activity, in terms of what we have done to the river and what the river has done to us as a two-way, symbiotic process. The subject of unintentional, positive impacts of human activity on rivers was raised, and we discussed the example, highlighted by T. C. Smout and Mairi Stewart in their The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History (2012), of ducks having flourished by eating the worms which fed on sewage and the organic discharges from breweries and distilleries and then subsequently plunging into rapid decline when the sewage was redirected from the Forth to treatment works to improve water quality (pp. 166-167). We also discussed Smout and Stewart’s example of how the removal of the mills upriver changed the Forth’s flow, which reduced the numbers of dragonflies and frogs (p. 174). I am going to keep my eyes open for similar processes in the Tyne’s history.

The students asked if the River Tyne has accumulated any nicknames. This is something which I have not considered thus far; if people have used affectionate or derisory nicknames when referring to the river, this could provide a useful route to understanding how the meaning of the river changed from generation to generation. The archives are full of derisory descriptions of the river, such as ‘cursed horse pond’, ‘simply a creek’ and ‘open sewer’, but an actual personifying ‘name’ for the river is a different concept entirely. I will look into this matter further.

The seminar was a great idea, suggested by David Moon, and proved to be a roaring success. I hope that the students took as much from the seminar as I did. I would like to thank the University of York, Prof. Moon and his MA students for the warm welcome I received last week and on behalf of the Power and the Water team, I wish them the best of luck with the rest of their environmental history course.

 

Read David Moon’s response to Leona’s reflections on inspiring environmental history students

The humanities and Engaging with Government

By Marianna Dudley

The Power and the Water is an environmental history project.  We are investigating how our twenty-first century understandings and experiences of place and community have been shaped by historical environmental processes. But, in creating the project and shaping its research path, thoughts of current and future environmental challenges were never far away.

We want, from the outset, to connect our research into the pasts of our project sites with possibilities for their futures.  Working with external partners such as Northumbrian Water and engaging with local independent experts such as Dr Jim Rieuwerts (a sough historian working with Carry and Georgina in Derbyshire) is helping us identify research questions and think about how our research will be useful for government, energy and utilities companies, heritage bodies, and local interest groups. Our interest in water management and infrastructure feels particularly timely in the wake of the extensive flooding here in the Southwest and other parts of Britain.  Now, questions of the impacts of climate change, discussions of best practice and planning for the future in water management and infrastructure, and the evident power of water to impact on lives and livelihoods have made many of the issues we are investigating part of widespread public debate and put them firmly on the policy agenda. The AHRC-Institute for Government’s ‘Engaging with Government 2014’ course that Post Doctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) Carry van Lieshout and I attended in London 11-13 February couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Institute for Government (IfG) sits just off the Mall, deliberately close to the centres of power in Whitehall. The UK’s leading independent charity and think tank promoting more effective government, it works with cross-party and Whitehall governance to increase government effectiveness and promote good policy making, with an emphasis on the use of evidence to support policy. As academics, the key way to influence or engage with policy is by presenting our research as evidence to inform decisions.  The course taught us that it matters how we go about doing this, and imparted some techniques for doing so. Being aware of the changing political landscape, for example, is helpful: crisis points and changes of office create windows of opportunity, for it is at these times that new approaches are often taken, and policy-makers are looking for experts (us!) and new ideas.   It also matters how our research itself is presented.  It must be accessible, succinct, direct – and, with the preference of civil servants for statistics – full of usable data.  For us arts and humanities scholars, this presented some issues that we worked through over the course –  more on which later.

Jill Rutter is programme director at the IfG and led the course, which was specifically for Arts and Humanities scholars working in areas with the potential to engage with policy. Before working at the IfG, Jill was director of strategy and sustainable development at DEFRA; previous civil service roles include policy lead on tax, development and local government finance.  She was able to explain to us the structures of government and processes of policy-making that are necessary to know in order to engage meaningfully with decision-making.  This crash-course in the theories and realities of politics and policy-making was one of the most useful aspects of the course.  What was made clear, across the three days, was that in order to be heard by civil servants you have to know who to target.  You essentially have to do your homework by mapping out where the power lies, and who makes the decisions.  This is one area of engaging with government that we, as researchers, should all be able to do.  We are well-versed in doing our background reading and establishing key research questions.  By extending early project research to include stakeholder mapping – identifying key figures and networks in your subject or case study area – not only are you better placed to connect with relevant decision makers, but you have a usable working picture of relationships and decision-making in your area that can aid your research too.  Stakeholder mapping in this respect is a win-win exercise that I suspect many of us do to some extent anyway, but that benefits from a rigorous and focused approach.

IfG brought in a range of people working at the heart of government to speak to us, including Stephen Aldridge, Director of Analysis and Innovation at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Stephen was convinced of the importance of the humanities (especially history) to his Department’s policymaking, but recognized that there was a heavy preference for statistical evidence. If government ultimately wants neat stats and big data, how can we – who work with narrative, long-term change, visual and textual documents, testimonies and case studies – hope to register on the short attention span of a time-harried civil servant?

There are ways, and the responsibility lies with us.  We need to make it easy for non-academics to quickly understand our research.  By quickly, I mean, in a paragraph. Producing regular newsletters and blog posts (tick) creates a flow of information through which we can create an audience for our work, from stakeholders we already work with to those we think should be taking notice. But in this form of communication, brevity and clarity are key.  We can (and do!) save methodological concerns and academic debate for journal articles and extended dialogues. When we take our work into the public, non-academic sphere, things like presentation and design can also make a real difference to how it is received, and are worth budgeting for where possible.

If we are looking to engage with government and gain a voice in decision-making processes, we must be prepared to raise our own profiles as academics. We are looked to as experts in our field.  A public profile and willingness to engage with media outlets are part of this. The IfG’s director of communications, Nadine Smith, impressed upon us the power of networking, through twitter – gaining info on public lectures, events etc. – and in person.  Though using social media was a predictable suggestion, the reminder to use it proactively (seeking out key figures, gaining public voice) and intelligently (directing people to our website and blog posts, where they can learn more about our project) was useful. The course achieved the impossible, and got me to finally join Twitter: @DudleyMarianna; project feed: @envirohistories.

Hearteningly, several speakers confirmed the value of a good case study.  We already know this: part of the previous, AHRC-funded ‘Local Places, Global Processes’ research network (part of the Researching Environmental Change programme) was to explore why the local can convey global narratives such as climate change in a meaningful way. This new project, having grown out of that research network, is enacting those convictions by placing local case studies at the heart of the research methodology.  But it is great to hear that those within (or with the ear of) government agree.  This is an area, I think, where arts and humanities scholars have a real chance of communicating change and perceptions of change, where numbers and data cannot.  Case studies, connecting pasts and futures, the local with the global, the personal with the societal and environmental, are the secret weapon in our toolkit.

The last word on this (bearing in mind my point about brevity) I give to Wayne Martin, a philosopher whose Essex Autonomy Project is influencing how government deals with issues of patient autonomy in mental healthcare.  Wayne gave us a masterclass in how to connect with multiple external partners and influence policy.  Yet, he said, at the end of the day it comes down to one thing:  good research.  Really, really good research.  Because if we are researching the things that matter, producing work that deserves to be heard, and working hard to make sure it is disseminated, then people will take notice. And that, I think, we can all do.

With thanks to the AHRC and the Institute for Government for running the course; and for Jill Rutter, for delivering it with indomitable energy.