Tag Archives: Leona Skelton

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 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.

Northumberland’s ‘Hardest’ Geordie forces us to think about Landscape Art and the Definition of a Beautiful Landscape

By Leona Skelton

During my summer holiday in Northumberland, I visited the relatively new land sculpture, Northumberlandia, near Cramlington. Northumberlandia could certainly handle herself in Newcastle on Tyne’s drinking and clubbing centre, the Bigg Market, containing 1.5 million tonnes of rock, soil and clay, towering 100 feet high and measuring a quarter of a mile long. Changing with the seasons, and designed to mature over generations, she reflects the local people’s relationship with the environment, providing a welcome sanctuary for dog walkers, tourists and hill walkers, notably to the exclusion of cyclists. This ‘Lady’, covering a 46-acre, free access, community park, and containing over four miles of footpaths, is certainly worth a visit. As can be seen in the photos, she is perhaps best appreciated from the air, but the majority of her visitors don’t own private choppers, so they wander the ground – under her nostrils, along her fingers, over her brow and down her legs. It certainly makes for an unusual (and completely free) day out.

Northumberlandia’s Face

Northumberlandia’s Face (Photo: Leona Skelton)

The landowner, the Blagdon Estate, with the Banks Group, a Durham-based land development and mining company, funded the £3 million project privately to sugar the pill of restoring the neighbouring Shotton surface coal mine, which is now back in operation, feeding the UK energy industry. The site is now maintained by the Land Trust, with the support of Northumberland Wildlife Trust. Inspired by the adjacent Cheviot Hills, which are renowned for their gentle curves and majestic presence as they watch over the county, Northumberlandia was designed by her creator, the American born architect Charles Jencks, to celebrate the female form. Jencks describes the site as a ‘cosmic setting’, explaining that through his work, he attempts to find relationships between ‘the big and the small, science and spirituality and the universe and the landscape’ – quite an ambitious brief!

Northumberlandia’s Right Hand

Northumberlandia’s Right Hand (Photo: Leona Skelton)

The tourist attraction, which presents a very tangible and graphic example of a human impact on the landscape, inspired me to think about: landscape protection and damage; the definition and definitions of a beautiful landscape; nature, sculpture and art; and how we have forged, continue to forge and, indeed, to express our ever-changing relationship with the environment. In December 2013, shocking statistics were aired in the media, confirming that UK golf courses took up more land than UK homes. To take golf courses as an example, does constructing them damage or enhance the environment? It’s a hugely controversial and ultimately subjective question. Many golfers would argue that a well-tended and pristine golf course is a form of landscape beauty in itself, as they genuinely appreciate, admire and enjoy the environment of manicured fairways and greens, artificial lakes and ponds and sculpted bunkers filled with clean and soft sand, the hallmarks of an impressive golf course, for which a substantial number of golfers are prepared to pay large sums of money. How many golfers, however, object to the extensive use of pesticides, weed killers and machinery to obliterate nature and effectively sculpt the landscape in order for them to play their apparently land greedy game? Can both a golf course and wild flower, moorland wilderness be beautiful, admired and cherished? The answer is yes, but the respective groups of admirers, I guess, would be almost mutually exclusive.

Northumberlandia reminded me of the land art which appeared across the beautiful, albeit agricultural, landscape of the Yorkshire Dales during Le Tour de France in July 2014. The project, Fields of Vision, produced twelve pieces of artwork, which were created on the hillsides visible from the cycle route, with the intention of entertaining the cyclists and spectators, as well as showcasing Yorkshire proudly to the world in no uncertain terms. Co-ordinated by Pennine Prospects, a rural regeneration company for the South Pennines, the artworks were produced by artists, young farmers, scientists, cyclists, communities and landowners. The giant images included a flat-capped farmer, one man and his dog, a poem and the image of a bike, literally worn into the hillside by a plethora of cyclists following a designated track in the shape of a bike.

Transforming the landscape into art is not a new concept, having been an expression of human relationships with the environment since ancient times. The giant man engraved into a chalk hill above Cerne Abbas in Dorset is believed to date back to the Iron Age. If we are to develop our understanding of human relationships with the environment, perhaps these very obvious expressions of human culture, installed into the landscape to communicate a particular and enduring message, using the land itself as a medium for communication, might be a good place to start.

Finally, as I can’t possibly write a blog without referring to my current Tyne project, the Jetty Project’s ‘Cone’ sculpture, recently erected on Dunston Staiths, is also well worth a visit. It dominates the Tyne riverscape in a powerful and deeply symbolic way, I’m sure you’ll agree.




Aerial View of Northumberlandia: http://www.lbc.co.uk/britains-newest-and-biggest-tourist-attraction-59229/view/26887


BBC Magazine: ‘How much of the UK is covered in golf course?’ [24/12/2013] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24378868


BBC News, England: ‘Aerial artworks for Tour de France in Yorkshire’ [09/06/2014]





One Eye on the Tyne -the Other on the Time!

By Leona Skelton

Having researched the development of drainage and sewage disposal systems (1500 to the present), for the last decade of my life, I felt enormously privileged to have been invited by Northumbrian Water to be shown around the facilities at their extensive Waste Water Treatment Works at Howdon, Newcastle on Tyne. The day I had been dreaming of (literally) since I can remember had arrived: Thursday 5th June 2014. By the time Team Power and the Water had assembled at our hotel’s reception for my stamp test, to confirm that everyone was wearing steel toe capped boots, I could hardly contain myself! Over the past few months, project members had dutifully visited various building trade stores around the country and, as I was relieved to see, they were all wearing appropriate – if amazingly diverse – footwear.

Disaster struck as we travelled to the site in the form of a big tunnel. Despite all of our combined academic degrees, we took the wrong turn down the ‘Tyne Tunnel Only’ road to South Tyneside! A snip at £3.20 return, per vehicle, and all very worthwhile for the team to see the Tyne Tunnel in all its glory first hand, but more to the point, it cost us fifteen precious minutes. My dream had been cut short and I was not happy. Speeding to the works as swiftly as we could, we discovered a fellow historian, who was joining us for the visit, looking very confused, stranded on a roundabout. Where is this place? Is it a national secret? Peter Coates duly rescued him and we arrived at reception to meet Andrew Moore, Northumbrian Water’s Director of Research, some twenty-five minutes late.

We were delighted to meet our tour guides, Tony and John, who gave us a fascinating presentation, explaining the history of the interceptor sewer, the catchment area which Howdon treatment works serves and an overview of the processes and systems carried out at the site. Hard hats and high visibility jackets were added to our steel toe capped boots and off we went, in two groups, to discover the wonders of Howdon.


Breaking in the Boots on the Site Tour. Photo: M. Dudley

First stop was the initial screening machines, which de-rag the waste and remove the grit washed down off the roads along with the rainwater, known as preliminary treatment. I looked through the windows at the complex arsenal of machinery designed to perform what many might be forgiven for assuming is a relatively simple function of physical separation. The waste from this process is sent directly to landfill while the residual waste is sent for primary treatment in large, covered settling tanks. The stress of being sucked down the Tyne Tunnel could not have been further from my mind. This is where the magic began…

The site was much larger than I had expected and I was mightily impressed by the complexity of the whole operation. It looks impressive above ground, let alone underground.

Underground waterworks

Team Power and the Water going Deeper Underground (not for the first time that morning!) Photo: M. Dudley

After the de-ragged waste has been allowed to settle, the sludge is removed from the liquid waste and, along with similar sludge brought by tankers from other treatment works, some of it is made into useful agricultural fertiliser while the rest is used to generate energy. The new anaerobic digestion technology, which came online in 2012, is really exciting. It allows Northumbrian Water to convert organic waste into biogas that can then be converted into electricity. Their AD (Anaerobic Digestion) technology is going a long way towards helping Northumbrian Water to achieve their goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions of 2008 by 35% by 2020. Walking up 23 feet of stairs to the top of one of the AD tanks rewarded us not only with a spectacle of the amazingly complex AD plant, but also with a very welcome bonus view of the Tyne, which lay immediately to the south, allowing project members to appreciate the scale of Tyneside’s mighty river.

Back to the liquid waste which, due to primary treatment, consequently possesses far less capacity to reduce dissolved oxygen in the river. The liquid undergoes secondary treatment in large, open, concrete tanks, where the bacteria feeds on the sewage in the presence of oxygen until the liquid’s demand for oxygen is minimal, thus rendering it significantly less harmful to the river. Minimal, remaining bacteria is then removed from the water using ultra violet light before the water is ready to be released into the River Tyne.

Radiant Blogger

The Radiant Blogger Underground at the Treatment Works. Photo: M. Dudley

We were given a fantastic insight into all stages of treatment and everyone was thrilled to have been given such an absorbing tour of Northumbrian Water’s essential work at a site whose vital function most people take for granted. We then had lunch and asked questions about the site, discussing potential areas of collaboration between our team and theirs. We all learnt a lot and what we saw gave us much to think about. Later, over dinner, Peter Coates sulked for a few minutes because he wasn’t allowed to feel the not so pungent ‘material’ that comes out of the plant between his fingers. But if that’s the only complaint, I think the trip can safely be termed a success.

Further developing of our relationship with project partner Northumbrian Water is integral to the aims of the Tyne element of the ‘Power and Water’ project and will also help advance the overall project’s wider aspirations in terms of impact and engagement. I’m delighted to have been invited to meet Northumbrian Water’s Customer Engagement Manager, Lucy Denham, on 26th June in Newcastle. I’m really looking forward to embracing the challenge of finding exciting and useful ways of deploying my research to inform, and hopefully to enhance, this increasingly important area of Northumbrian Water’s work.

is integral to the aims of the Tyne element of the ‘Power and Water’ project and will also help advance the overall project’s wider aspirations in terms of impact and engagement. I’m delighted to have been invited to meet Northumbrian Water’s Customer Engagement Manager, Lucy Denham, on 26th June in Newcastle. I’m really looking forward to embracing the challenge of finding exciting and useful ways of deploying my research to inform, and hopefully to enhance, this increasingly important area of Northumbrian Water’s work.

Connecting with the ‘Jetty’ project

By Leona Skelton

Dunston Staiths

Dunston Staiths, source: Wikipedia

I met up with Dr Angela Connelly on Tuesday 8th April in Huddersfield, halfway between her home and mine, for what proved to be a very fruitful session. Angela is also an AHRC-funded Post-doctoral Research Assistant, based at Manchester University, working on the art and sustainability ‘Jetty’ project, led by Professor Wolfgang Weileder at Newcastle University. (For the project website, go to http://jetty-project.info/) In a nutshell, this interdisciplinary project aims to connect the debates of fine art and urban design by investigating how a contemporary public artwork can meaningfully contribute to the lives of local people, the urban environment and local ecology. At the heart of the project is Dunston Staiths, on the south bank of the Tyne. (A staith, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is an elevated landing stage at a wharf that is used for transferring goods from railways cars to boats.) The largest timber structure in northern Europe, Dunston Staiths is currently undergoing extensive restoration before eventually opening to the public. As I drove Peter Coates over the Redheugh Bridge from Gateshead to Newcastle in November 2013, he was instantly transfixed by the magnificent view of it down to our left! I think he was slightly more impressed by the Angel of the North, however.

As well as conducting archival research into the construction of Dunston Staiths by the North Eastern Railway Company in 1893, Angela is working closely with the Tyne and Wear Preservation Trust, which owns the staiths; the Royal Geographical Society; English Heritage, which listed the Staiths Grade II and is overseeing the restoration; and Durham Wildlife Trust, which has conducted an in-depth survey of the wildlife currently flourishing in the new environments of the salt marshes and mudflats around the Staiths. The Trust’s discovery of species such as Golden Plover, Redshank, Teal, Lapwing, Dunlin, Curlew and Cormorants highlights that human activities, such as constructing a large staith in a river, can have unintended, but nevertheless positive impacts on wildlife. A similar situation was highlighted by T.C. Smout and Mairi Stewart in The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History (2012), with reference to ducks having flourished by eating the worms which fed on sewage and the organic discharges from breweries and distilleries; these waterfowl subsequently plunged into rapid decline when the sewage was redirected from the Forth to treatment works to improve water quality (pp. 166-167). I mentioned in an earlier blog that I would look out for similarly positive effects on wildlife in and around the Tyne, and now I have found one, thanks to Angela and the Jetty project. As environmental historians, we should remain mindful that human activities do not necessarily work to the disadvantage of wildlife; sometimes they can invent new, different and welcoming habitats in which rare species can thrive, albeit unintentionally.

Angela has also been involved in research into the local communities, which will be affected by the opening of the Staiths to the public. The area has not attracted large numbers of tourists since it hosted the National Garden Festival at Dunston Staiths in 1989, as part of the wider regeneration of the river, which I was lucky enough to attend as a five-year old girl. (Unfortunately, you’re not lucky enough to see the highly amusing photo of me enjoying the festival with none other than Pudsey Bear himself!)

Regrettably, the Staiths are still unsafe, having been derelict since they were abandoned in the 1980s, and the restoration is still very much in its infancy. Angela has been working with the Royal Geographic Society to create a structured art walk from the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, near the Millennium Bridge, along the river to Dunston Staiths, passing several sculptures and outdoor artworks along the way. She has kindly offered to take ‘Power and Water’ project members on this inspiring walk during our forthcoming project team meeting in early June 2014. A local model-railway enthusiast called David, who possesses a wealth of knowledge on the Staiths in their original format before they suffered fire damage during dereliction, will also be joining us for the walk and we look forward to meeting him too.

All in all, a mutually beneficial and productive meeting. Making connections with other relevant arts and humanities research projects is certainly to be encouraged.

Oh, go on then, you can see the Garden Festival photo…

Leona at Dunston

Me, visiting the Garden Festival at Dunston Staiths, aged five. Photo: Leona Skelton

The Tyne’s Dramatic Story Played out on a Stage

By Leona Skelton

As I exited the last of the ridiculous number of roundabouts that dot the road into South Shields, and drove onto the Mill Dam, on Saturday afternoon, 1st March 2014, the vast expanse of water laid out before me promptly grabbed and then monopolised my attention, almost sending me together with my beloved 1.6 Astra sxi directly into a lamppost! Reluctantly, I parked up before resuming my appreciation of the incredible view down onto the riverside. The Customs House is situated in a perfect geographical setting in which to engage, educate and entertain audiences with the Tyne’s phenomenal story. Indoors, The Customs House provides an intimate, down to earth and aptly modest venue for a locally themed theatre performance. However, the building has inherited a slightly sinister history; built in 1848 near the now demolished South Shields River Police building, it was used by the river police officers as a morgue for the many bodies found in the river – the Tyne’s unfortunate victims.

Custom House Theatre

The Custom House Theatre, South Shields.
Source: Wikipedia

Meandering among the swollen and chattering crowds in the foyer, I wondered how many of these locals’ working, and by extension social, lives had been dominated by this mighty river. I also experienced a tinge of sadness, wondering if any of the older members of the audience had worked shoulder to shoulder with my own grandfather, who was a fitter and turner at the Swan Hunter shipyard in Wallsend. I resisted the immense temptation to start asking random strangers what the Tyne meant and means to them, and tried to pretend that I was just there to see a show.

A deliberately smoky and industrial-smelling atmosphere greeted me as I located my seat, which was directly next to the audio-visual technician (wow!). How would I stop myself from regressing 20 years in age and reaching over to fiddle with one of the plethora of switches, dials and buttons, all flashing on the deck beside me like a rather enticing fairground ride? Little did I know how successfully and completely the show was about to divert my mind from any trivial thoughts of the tech guy’s equipment…!

The Geordie accents of the cast members were strong, the stories and place names were intimately familiar and the music was quintessentially of the Tyneside variety. But I was not prepared for how effectively and poignantly the cast conveyed the depth of meaning which Tynesiders have attributed affectionately to their river over the centuries. The Tyne, the production argues, provided a focal point for the whole region and, of course, was appreciated greatly as the prerequisite of the enormous development of industry and trade which provided livelihoods for so many. The storyline, of a recently bereaved brother and sister who read the bequeathed life story of their late father in an attempt to understand his working life around the river, before sending his ashes down the Tyne to the sea in a plastic boat-shaped container, conceptualises Tynesiders as ‘sons and daughters’ of the Tyne, who is respected as a mother, a provider of life and a powerful, regional, unifying force. In the production, the river is referred to frequently as ‘she’ and as the story progresses through the ages, the majority of the details and anecdotes taken from the twentieth century, it successfully develops a profoundly positive, and extensively personified character of ‘Tyne’, which is the name of the production.

Tyne ferry landing

Tyne Ferry Landing, South Shields. Photo by George Robinson, from Geograph UK

As well as having underpinned and facilitated much of the industry which employed Tynesiders, the river shores also offered spiritual, and even sacred, locations for deep contemplation, after work, particularly at times of crisis or stress. Although it was undeniably filthy, black and full of pollutants, an element of the Tyne’s history for which the production doesn’t express any remorse, the river provided for local people a sense of connection to the sea and to the domestic and foreign ports from which the vast numbers of ships docking in the Tyne had travelled. The production argues, quite persuasively, that Tynesiders were explicitly aware of how much they owed to the Tyne and of the large extent to which their lives, livelihoods and physical environment had been shaped by this powerful river. There were some interesting musings on the wonder of the movement of the water itself from upstream locations down to the estuary, and of a continuous life cycle and flow from upriver to the sea, which some Tynesiders, it is claimed, conceptualised as a reflection of their own life cycle. The storyline purposely highlights the large extent to which the river also provides strong intergenerational connections for many families.

The production excelled in its provision of a deeply insightful appreciation and celebration of the river’s relatively recent past, providing true anecdotes from people such as women who painted ships during World War Two, working men who ice-skated on the river from Newcastle up to Ryton, as well as those  river police officers who collected dead bodies from the estuary. I could see the tangible results of this story-telling in the form of heartfelt tears rolling down the cheeks of several of the audience members sitting near to me – a clear sign of the large extent to which local people have invested deep emotions and significant meanings in the river as it wove itself inextricably into the lives and livelihoods of those, past and present, who were proud to make its banks their home.

So, back to the project and back to an environmental historian’s perspective. How can this play contribute to my current task? The answer is, I think, largely in terms of the fourth chronological element of my project: the Tyne’s future. Born out of Michael Chaplin’s book, Tyne View: A Walk around the Port of Tyne, first published in 2013 as an amalgamation of the stories and memories collected by an artist, a photographer, a writer and a poet as they walked up and down the entire Tyne estuary in 2012, the play ‘Tyne’ is an important expression of current meanings which this new and different, clean and post-industrial river, has for local people. The ‘Tyne’ play puts the spotlight on the departure of young Tynesiders’ attitudes and values, in relation to a clean river in need of their protection from harm, compared to those of older generations, who recall their memories of the industrial Tyne with affection and who somewhat lament the river’s deindustrialisation, which brought severe employment challenges, and the consolation prize of regeneration with its tourist river cruises, art galleries and music halls. Initiatives such as the Clean Tyne Project’s educational programmes, which are rolled out in primary schools across the region, and the familiar, visual impact of the quaysides and river itself as bustling and popular tourist locations, are currently shaping the next generation’s relationship with the river as they prepare to step forward and shape the Tyne’s future themselves. Conservation and careful management of the river’s eco-system are central to this new direction, firmly planted in the hearts and minds of the riverbanks’ youngest residents.

The production did not tell the Tyne’s story from an environmental perspective, though perhaps that was never its creators’ intention. It neglected to tell the stories of how humans have manipulated, undermined and fundamentally damaged the natural functions and characteristics of the river and its resources over the centuries. It also left out  the stories of how desires to protect the river from ‘harm’ have been expressed and developed over time, from their roots in the form of the weekly River Court in seventeenth-century Newcastle to the complex, protective arsenal of legislation which grew from the nineteenth century onwards. The play is a profound, but primarily social history, which seeks to reconnect local people with their industrial heritage as the generations who were directly involved in it pass on. The play uses the river as a focal point and provides some fine insights into the meanings associated with it. On the other hand it tells a one-sided story which arguably cheats the river of the right to express the extent to which it was abused at the hands of industrial development, from which it is currently recovering, and would need to continue to recover for at least several more centuries in order to regain a full bill of health. Good play, though, an afternoon very well spent, and, thankfully, the Astra is still in one piece!

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

Recent Entries »