Tag Archives: River

New Book by Leona Skelton: Tyne after Tyne: An Environmental History of a River’s Battle for Protection 1529–2015

Book cove In March 2017 Leona’s Skelton’s book on the history of the River Tyne was published by White Horse Press.

Over the last five centuries, North-East England’s River Tyne went largely with the flow as it rode with us on a rollercoaster from technologically limited early modern oligarchy, to large-scale Victorian ‘improvement’, to twentieth-century deoxygenation and twenty-first-century efforts to expand biodiversity. Studying five centuries of Tyne conservatorship reveals that 1855 to 1972 was a blip on the graph of environmental concern, preceded and followed by more sustainable engagement and a fairer negotiation with the river’s forces and expressions as a whole and natural system, albeit driven by different motivations. Even during this blip, however, several organisations, tried to protect the river’s environmental health from harm.

This Tyne study offers a template for a future body of work on British rivers that dislodges the Thames as the river of choice in British environmental history. And it undermines traditional approaches to rivers as passive backdrops of human activities. Departing from narratives that equated change with improvement, or with loss and destruction, it moves away from morally loaded notions of better or worse, and even dead, rivers. The book fully situates the Tyne’s fluvial transformations within political, economic, cultural, social and intellectual contexts. With such a long view, we can objectify ourselves through our descendants’ eyes, reconnecting us not only to our past, but also to our future.

See more details and order the book on the White Horse Press Website.

Read also a blog by Leona on her new book on the publisher’s website.

Boosting Society’s Valuation of Water by Blending Environmental History with Social Science and Civil Engineering at the University of Sheffield

By Leona Skelton

After finishing  my  project, ‘Degeneration and Regeneration on the Tyne: River Pasts, Presents and Futures’, in November 2015, I embarked on a challenging but very worthwhile opportunity to work as a Research Assistant at the University of Sheffield within the Sheffield Water Centre’s (SWC) Pennine Water Group (as it came to a close). Since January 2016, I’ve been working within SWC’s new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded (EPSRC) five-year research project, ‘TWENTY65: Tailored Solutions for Positive Impact’.  The project was designed in response to  EPSRC’s Grand Challenge for Water. It aims to find innovative and interdisciplinary solutions to the serious challenges which threaten the UK water industry’s long-term sustainability up to 2065 and beyond, notably its ageing infrastructure, leakage and the low value water users place on water. Working closely with civil engineers, social scientists and industry partners has enabled me to deploy my environmental history expertise strategically and usefully. It has also sharpened my awareness of the practical uses and the unique value of environmental history research in the context of infrastructural, societal, attitudinal and governance challenges in the water industry.

Today, UK water users wash their cars and hose their lawns using water which meets a standard sufficiently high for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing of highly complex medicines. Yet many households are charged little more than £1 a day for the water-supply and sewerage services on which they rely very heavily for the basic processes of daily life. Until people experience an interruption of supply, few truly appreciate the complexity and exceptionally high ‘value for money’ in their water services. If consumers were asked to sort their utility bills into rank order according to: 1) value for money or 2) according to how much they would be prepared to pay for them, how many would place water at the top of either of these hierarchies? Where would broadband and energy fall in relation to water? TWENTY65 is developing disruptive technologies and more effective mobilisation initiatives to increase water users’ valuing of water, to reduce water usage and to give water users a stake in the infrastructure on which they rely so heavily.

As a historian, I’ve considered in depth the factors which have reduced people’s valuation of water over time. Increasingly centralised and efficient water services have facilitated an increasing physical distance between the consumer and the processes of using and disposing of water. In short, the engineers have done too good a job behind the scenes, enabling water users for the most part to take their water supply, waste water disposal and their water engineers for granted. TWENTY65 comprises eight themes, ranging from demand-based technologies for tailored treatment, to robotic autonomous systems for water infrastructure inspection, to integrated urban water management and reuse systems.

I have been working with a social scientist, Dr Liz Sharp, on theme six, ‘Enhancing Water Services through Mobilisation’, which seeks to demonstrate the potentially powerful non-technological ways in which people can be mobilised to change their behaviour as water users. We are arguing that consumers can be encouraged and supported to become more engaged with their water services, water infrastructure and the regulation of water use and abuse in their local communities, obviating at least exclusive reliance on complex and expensive robotic technologies.

Currently, several serious risks endanger water security: climate change, underinvestment in infrastructure, complex and counterproductive regulation of the water sector and water users’ low valuation of water (largely resulting from their poor understanding of its complex and expensive functions). Attitudinal changes brought about by increasing water citizenship initiatives would help to mitigate these risks by reducing water consumption, increasing the value placed on water (and potentially the amount people are prepared to pay for water) and widening water users’ perspectives to embrace the whole ecosystem and the water cycle which runs through it.

TWENTY65 Thought Leadership Clubs (TLCs) enable academics from several disciplines and a wide range of water industry partners to work together to develop potential solutions to the industry’s major challenges. At the last TLC, in Sheffield in July 2016, we discussed many issues, including why the UK government doesn’t have a Water Minister. This is a very good question. If we had a Water Minister, would they be able to catalyse attitudinal changes which could substantially increase the value society places on water? It might be worth a shot. In addition to the TLCs, we are writing eight white papers which will be disseminated across the water industry. They discuss how ‘Big Data’, ‘Water Citizenship’ and the ‘Storage and Recovery of Energy’ from sewerage systems could support the water industry’s long-term sustainability and resilience, drawing from a wide range of case studies from around the world.

The ‘Hydraulic State’, a political-ecologic paradigm coined by historian Karl Wittfogel, (Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957]) developed with five salient characteristics: 1) centralised governance frameworks; 2) technical engineering expertise; 3) investment in hard infrastructure; 4) centralised supply and disposal networks; and 5) disengaged water users. However, in seeking to explore what forms of distributed and user-organised services might replace the ‘Hydraulic State’, surprisingly little attention is given to highly relevant past experiences of water services which were locally distributed, did not rely on costly engineering expertise, were closely aligned with local environmental needs and were not environmentally or financially expensive.

As water managers currently explore whether and how to disassemble technocratic enterprises to make way for more participatory and democratic forms of decision making, past experiences of distributed or transitionary forms of water management may offer patterns of water practices or of institutional-public relations that can inspire the planning of alternative water futures. By looking back through time at the governance frameworks of water use which the Hydraulic State broke down gradually and eventually replaced, I have argued that we can find inspiration for new and different ways of re-engaging water users with the systems and processes which underpin their most vital, life-sustaining utility service.

This invaluable interdisciplinary experience will stand me in good stead as I return to a History Department (and to the Tyne!) in my new role as Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University in Newcastle. In July 2016, I handed in the manuscript of Tyne after Tyne to White Horse Press, and I felt overwhelmed by its 112,000 words. Writing a five-century history of one river’s dramatic story was challenging, to put it mildly, and I was quite proud of a fairly mammoth work, having analysed around 1.5 million words of archival and oral history transcriptions.

But last week, for the first time in months, I visited the river near Gateshead and as I watched the Tyne’s powerful flow charging down its channel towards the sea, my manuscript seemed comparatively pithy. No book, however lengthy, could ever do justice to such a mighty river, packed to the brim with such a multitude of deep and complex meanings in the minds of all of the different people who’ve interacted with it over five centuries. It’s a big river, and I’ve written a big book about it, but I haven’t written the river’s total history. I’ve merely taken a tour through the major milestones, highlighting some of the most insightful socio-environmental relationships it has forged with the humans who have used and abused it, and played with, loved and become frustrated with it, from one generation to the next.

Tyne at Dunston

Looking Upriver from Dunston (Photo: Leona Skelton)

As I looked up the steep river banks behind me towards Windmill Hills, I remembered very clearly sitting up there on a bench one dull, cold day with my primary school class at the age of ten (in 1994, before the new housing estates were built there). The teacher had given each of us a sheet of paper on a clipboard and some charcoal pencils and asked us to draw the riverscape below us. We all smudged the charcoal on the paper to give the impression of enormous clouds of smoke. Everyone’s hands, coats and clothes were marked with the charcoal. We all drew the bridges, the river and the buildings of Newcastle, but some of my classmates drew enormous smoky ships which weren’t there. Others drew very large fish and I drew a big old-fashioned sail ship like the ones I’d seen at the Tall Ships event in 1993. I remember the teacher’s disbelief as she looked at the various pictures. She made us start again. “Draw what you see”, she instructed. But even at ten years old, we were envisioning different rivers in our minds, unique visions of our local river produced from a combination of family anecdotes, memorable events such as the Garden Festival (1990) and the Tall Ships Race (1993), lessons at school about pollution and its impact on fish (always bright orange, smiling, cartoon fish) and our own visits to the river, the beginnings of our generation’s relationship with it, and, not least, of the river’s relationship with us. What would Tyneside’s ten year-olds draw today…? What would the ten year-olds of 1900 have drawn?



Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957)

TWENTY65: Tailored Solutions for Positive Impact http://twenty65.ac.uk/About.php




The Lost Workscape of Tyneside – a video

Note: This guest blog is by Hunter Charlton, a 2015 graduate of Bristol University’s History Department. Hunter, who grew up in Bellingham, Northumberland, wrote a final year undergraduate dissertation entitled ‘Landscape and Change: Shipbuilding and Identity on the Tyne’. (If interested, you can access his dissertation through this link:  http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/history/documents/dissertations/2015charlton.pdf)

When I heard that Hunter was planning to make a film based on his dissertation topic, I was keen for the ‘Power and Water’ project to be involved (especially since he’s surfed the Severn Bore on at least one occasion, and tells me that Bristol’s proximity to The Bore was one of the reasons he chose to study here). The project is delighted that it was able to cover the cost of including film clips from the North East Film Archive (NEFA). Hunter’s film is entitled ‘Scorched Earth’.

Peter Coates


Scorched Earth

Memory fastens on sight. I learnt this while speaking with Frank Duke, a shipwright who had worked the length of the River Tyne and spent his working life building super tankers. It was not simply the loss of his job, but the changing relationship with the industrial landscape of Tyneside that led him to feel alienated by his surroundings, the past and a deep loss of identity.

Scenes of demolished shipyards, redundant and vast open spaces, haunt the landscape along the Tyne from Hebburn to Tynemouth. As one resident of Wallsend told me, ‘the absence of ruin often demonstrates the ruin’. The last vestiges of the Tyne’s industrial prowess are now in their final stages of decay and a decade has elapsed since the last remaining shipyard on the river, Swan Hunter, closed shop.

The loss of industry’s visual record from the landscape is shocking for two reasons. Firstly, we live in a heritage culture which dismisses monuments of the working class, whether in the form of coal, steel, shipbuilding or engineering works. Secondly, in their transience, industrial ruins betray a sense of permanence granted by the materials out of which they are constructed: concrete, iron, steel and brick.

Every single shipyard I visited was an exhibition in decay. They felt haunted, quiet and beautiful in their contorted state of ruin. Even in the archive footage from the 1980s that I included in my film there seems to be an attempt to eulogise these monumental structures and venerate a dying industry.

Today, as we walk through regulated cities, the site of a ship launch or the view of decaying berths at Hawthorn Leslie are untrammelled in their unique oddness. For someone like myself, born in 1992, who never witnessed these industrial landscapes in their prime, I find the site of industry captivating in its bizarreness. In making a documentary about these themes I wanted to better understand how people adapt to deindustrialised spaces and how such alterations become internalised by communities which inhabit the boundary between “industrial wilderness” and modulated environments.

Hunter Charlton

The Oldest Geordie: Environmental History of the River Tyne

Rivers are at the heart of defining the identity and lifestyle of many cities around the world, and that is nowhere stronger than in Newcastle on Tyne in the Northeast of England on the banks of the River Tyne. The people who live on the banks of the Tyne are fiercely proud of their river. Once the river was an industrial powerhouse of the British Empire, and by the 1880s the Port of Tyne exported the most coal in the world, and the river was amongst the world’s largest shipbuilding and ship-repairing centres.

There has been much consideration of how the River Tyne has shaped Tyneside and Tynesiders, but very little appreciation of the enormous extent to which people have shaped the river. To bear out this invisible history of the river, historian Leona Skelton, a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the University of Bristol, has worked on a research project that challenges us to think from a river’s perspective and to include in our river histories the flow pathways which rivers ‘wanted’ to follow, regardless of the changes that humans have forged upon the river. On episode 69 of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast Leona challenges us to look at a river as an historical actor with its own agency.

Leona’s Research was part of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council funded environmental history initiative “The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures”, that focuses on environmental connectivities that have emerged in Britain since industrialisation.


Further reading and resources
Archer, D., Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the River Tyne (Ovingham: Daryan Press, 2003)

Chaplin, M., Tyne View: A Walk around the Port of Tyne (2012).

Charlton, B., Upper North Tynedale: A Northumbrian Valley and its People (Northumbrian Water, 1987).

Cioc, Mark, and ebrary Academic Complete. The Rhine: An Eco-biography, 1815-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

Levine, D., and Wrightson, K., The Making of an Industrial Society: Whickham, 1560-1765 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Mah, A., ‘Memory, Uncertainty and Industrial Ruination: Walker Riverside, Newcastle on Tyne’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 34, no. 2 (2010), pp. 398-413

Marshall, M., Tyne Waters: A river and its salmon (London: H F & G Witherby, 1992)

Rennison, R., Water to Tyneside: A History of the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company (Newcastle: Newcastle & Gateshead Water Company, 1979)

Blog of Leona Skelton


Music credits

So Cold” by @nop, available from ccMixter

Clash” by zorza, available from ccMixter

Healing” by Stefan Kartenberg, available from ccMixter

Exploring environmental History podcast


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

Video: Waters Meet, Warden, Northumberland

By Leona Skelton

About two miles from the Northumbrian market town of Hexham, close to the villages of Warden and Fourstones, is the spectacular confluence and the beginning of the main River Tyne, known locally as the Meeting of the Waters or Waters Meet. Here, the North Tyne (which flows south-east from Deadwater Fell near Kielder and the Anglo-Scottish border) meets the South Tyne (which makes its way north from near Alston high in the Pennines before turning sharply east towards Hexham) in a breath-taking natural compromise between the respective bodies of water, each possessing a different speed, colour and character of flow. As several of the oral history interviews which I conducted in January 2015 revealed, this is a favourite spot for many people living throughout the Tyne catchment (competing with equally popular sites such as the Collingwood Monument at Tynemouth and the regenerated Newcastle-Gateshead quayside) and it’s not hard to see why when you visit the site in person. Its relative isolation from roads, housing and other human distractions enables visitors to appreciate the soundscape of the waters’ communications as eddies crash together and the waters make their journey henceforth in unison to the North Sea. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen salmon leap out of the water and it’s great to see them heading up either the North Tyne or the South Tyne in a purposeful manner back to spawn and then die on the precise gravel beds where they once hatched. It’s a popular place for anglers, and private rods have been available only recently, from 2012, by the family which has owned the beats for four generations. Some forty miles from their respective sources and thirty miles from the sea, the Meeting of the Waters is a must-see site for anyone trying to understand the river, its character, its flow and its wildlife.





Video footage provided by Gordon Ball, gbmediaspecialists.com

Brief Encounters of the urban “Wild” Kind

By Alexander Portch

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


Otter (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyne talks exhibition

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

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

Who killed the Lathkill? (or, when is a river is no longer a river?)

By Peter Coates

In Alaska, environmentalists are currently fighting a proposed coal mine in the watershed of the Chuitna River, 45 miles southwest of Anchorage. This strip mine will not only destroy salmon spawning grounds. It will literally remove 11 miles of the Chuitna’s Middle Creek tributary by mining through and therefore dewatering it. If the project goes ahead, there will be no mystery about why Middle Creek disappeared.

In the former lead mining areas of Derbyshire’s Peak District, there’s a disappearing river too. But there’s also a sense of mystery about its strange behaviour. One of the Key Stage 2 activities that the Lathkill Education Service attached to the Lathkill Dale National Nature Reserve runs for local schools is ‘why the river disappears – solve the mystery of the disappearing River Lathkill through this investigation of the geology and wildlife of the area’ [1] (‘kill’, incidentally, means ‘creek’, ‘stream’ or ‘channel’ in old Middle Dutch, and was a name attached in the seventeenth century to creeks and streams across what became the northeastern United States – as in Kill Van Kull, Bronx Kill and Schuylkill River). Natural England, which manages the Lathkill Dale reserve – one of five reserves that make up the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve – also refers to the Lathkill’s ‘vanishing act’. As Natural England proceeds to explain, the upper river’s disappearance is part of the legacy of the two lead mines (established in 1740 and 1797 respectively) that operated in Lathkill Dale until the mid-nineteenth century: ‘the soughs are responsible for causing the river to dry out today’ [2]. ‘Where has the river gone? is also the question posed on the interpretative board that Natural England has erected at the bottom of the ladder that leads to the mine shaft under Bateman’s House (an engine house converted into a dwelling for the mine agent and his family, though empty since the 1840s).

signage Bateman’s House

‘Where has the river gone?, interpretative signage, Bateman’s House (photo: Peter Coates)

Who (or what) has been messing about with the Lathkill? Our project team meeting in Derbyshire in early October provided the opportunity to find out. Our schedule included a field trip to Lathkill Dale, one of the key sites for Carry’s and Georgina’s study of the area’s soughs – underground channels forged to drain water from the area’s lead mines. Our walk began down in the dale at a point where our guide, John Barnatt, an archaeologist with the Peak District National Park Authority, could stand with his back to the (at the time) water-less Lathkill River, whose peculiar annual lifecycle we now began to piece together.

Field trip

John Barnatt of the Peak District National Park Authority, with his colleague, Sarah Whitelaw (in red), and members of the project team, including (to Sarah’s immediate right) sough investigators Georgina Endfield and Carry van Lieshout (Photo: Peter Coates)

The Lathkill River is not exactly unique, though. It’s normal for streams running through limestone strata riddled with a network of natural caves to flow underground in summer or periods of drought when water levels are low. But this seasonal tendency is accentuated by the construction of soughs that lowered the water table and created a network of diversionary channels that can capture river water.

For some, the river’s seasonal disappearance is a problem to be resolved. (This interest group includes anglers: the Lathkill brown trout is a renowned quarry that merits inclusion in James Prosek’s definitive compendium, Trout of the World [2003], in which Prosek quotes the comment [1653] of a friend of Izaak Walton, James Cotton, that the Lathkill ‘breeds the reddest and the best Trouts in England’ [3].) Because of what Natural England refers to on its Bateman’s House signage as the ‘dramatic’ impact on the river and its wildlife, the managing agency is ‘currently exploring means of sealing the riverbed’ so that the water does not drain off into Magpie Sough. Whether this waterproofing remedy will be sufficient in itself to restore a perennial flow to the Lathkill is now increasingly debated, however. Since some of the river’s water travels through Magpie Sough, plans now focus on the establishment of some sort of blockage in the sough in addition to sealing the riverbed – and this blocking proposal is a major source of controversy (many thanks, Carry, for bringing this latest development to my attention).


A (fluvio-centric) view from under the bridge across to Bateman’s House (Photo: Peter Coates).

But has the river really disappeared? And what do those who want to ‘improve’ the sometimes dry river want to restore? A living river? An attractive recreational resource for anglers? Rather than dwell on the seasonal absence of water or the fortunes of fish (during dry spells, trout can be trapped by receding water levels and this entails relocation), we might want to think about attaching a new story to the Lathkill, a story that diverts attention to the seasonal presence of a riverbed carpeted lush vegetation, for example. For me – as an outsider visiting for the first time and someone who has no stake in the debate – the problem is not so much the seasonal disappearance of the river’s water, but our generic expectations of what a river should be. After all, though the Lathkill’s liquid content may vanish on a regular basis, its form and overall function remain the same. This replacement narrative tailored to this particular body of water might begin by reclassifying the Lathkill as an intermittent stream. This would elevate it to the respectable international company of a distinctive type of watercourse that includes the arroyo seco ([seasonally] dry stream) of southwestern North America. This would also underscore its status as a different river rather than a lesser one (compared, that is, to a ‘proper’ river). And if the privilege of re-naming the intermittent stream that flows through Lathkill Dale were mine, I would not hesitate to call it the Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill.

It is a shame that the cause of preservation is often reduced to a clash between the attributes of cultural heritage and those of natural heritage, with the respective interests of History and Nature being advanced by ‘the archaeologists’ and ‘the historians’ and the one hand and ‘the ecologists’ on the other. Environmental historians, it seems to me, are well positioned to reconcile these two often warring positions.

Lathkill River

The Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill, aka Lathkill River (Photo: Peter Coagtes).

linear pasture

The Lathkill, even when drained of its liquid content, is anything but dry. On the damp day of our visit, I got soaked from my boots to above my knees walking down its lush linear pasture (Photo: Peter Coates


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves

[2] Natural England, Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve (2010), p. 3.

[3] James Prosek, ‘Trout of the World’, Field and Stream, October 2003, p. 77.


Dunston Staiths: Industry as Art in the Landscape of the Tyne

By Jill Payne

As part of their Newcastle trip in June, the Power and Water team walked through Riverside Park to Dunston Staiths with Dr Angela Connelly from the Jetty Project and David Fraser, industrial heritage researcher.

Does energy infrastructure have to be redundant before it can be accepted as integral to the landscape?

Dunston Staiths is an iconic window into the age when coal was king on Tyneside. Built in the 1890s and finally closed in 1980, it’s a towering wooden structure that facilitated faster coal loading onto the ships that lined the Tyne at Gateshead before hurrying their cargoes to London and other industrialising centres hungry for fuel. In 2013, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded nearly £420,000 to the Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust as part of an ongoing restoration plan for the Staiths that includes improved public access and enhanced engagement with Newcastle’s coal heritage. The funding also envisions the ‘reconnection of the Staiths with the surrounding saltmarsh and wider natural heritage’.

Dunston Staiths at low tide. Photo: Jill Payne

Dunston Staiths at low tide. Photo: Jill Payne

The Staiths, of course, has been connected to the riverscape that it looms over ever since its construction; it’s us onlookers who need to be shown how to see it that way. On the whole, energy infrastructure tends to be too large-scale and, well, industrial, for many of us to view it as anything more than non-natural and detached from nature – and quite often, nowadays, detached from people and communities too.

Dunston Staiths, now a scheduled monument and Grade II-listed building, reminds us that today’s ‘eyesore’ energy infrastructure may be tomorrow’s cultural heritage site. Some 35 years after the Staiths’ working life ended, it’s not difficult to view it as a grand addition to the public art dotting Riverside Park as it spools out from the centre of Newcastle. Here, works like Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010) – giant rivets strewn alongside the path – anticipate the Staiths further upriver and remind us that people were working the riverbank long before we relaxed along it.

Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010). Photo: Jill Payne

Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010). Photo: Jill Payne

As energy production methods change, the redundant infrastructure of past technologies – so often super-sized and out of scale – builds up around us. The more structurally viable of these constructions can be reinterpreted to excellent effect: viz the stunning spaces of Tate Modern, formerly London’s oil-fired Bankside Power Station. Others are more challenging: the cooling towers of Richborough Power Station in Kent were demolished in 2012, although not without debate and commemoration.

As heritage technology, we can deal with energy infrastructure – celebrate it, even. If it must be demolished, there is likely to be at least some concern expressed for the loss of landmarks and historical markers. Over the years, layers of meaning can be attached to any physical presence; time and socio-cultural associations can help us to smooth over the disconnection between us and the energy structures that have sustained us. However, over and above the comfort engendered by familiarity, it seems that we may be more accepting of energy structures as integral to our communities and our landscapes once they are no longer fit for their original purpose. Are we better able to appreciate them once they are presented to us outside of their original, workaday context? What, then, does this say about our responses to the infrastructure that currently supports us – solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors – or, like fracking mechanism – may do so in the future?

More about Dr Angela Connelly’s Riverside Art Walk with the Power and Water team and David Fraser here.


Regenerating a river: how the future of the River Tyne could be its past

By Erin Gill

I’m not the first – or even the thousandth – person to feel that there is something genuinely thrilling about the view from Newcastle’s quayside across the River Tyne to the enormous, undulating Sage Gateshead. It’s a view that is supported, rather than undermined, by the much older architecture of St Mary’s church, which is immediately adjacent. The view is enhanced further by the way both buildings are framed by the glorious bulk of the Tyne Bridge and by the double curve of Gateshead Millennium cycle & footbridge.

Seeing it again recently with colleagues from the Power & the Water environmental history network, I felt a surge of gratitude toward the many individuals – none of whom I know – who made this ambitious plan for the Gateshead riverside a reality. My guess is that a good many of them were – or are – employees of Gateshead City Council or other organisations currently under pressure as England operates under the grip of public sector ‘austerity’.

The renewal of the Gateshead portion of the Tyne riverside isn’t something that was bound to happen. It takes a city – or two, perhaps a whole region? – filled with determined and rather ambitious people to turn an urban regeneration project of this scale into a lasting success. I have lost count of the number of times people I know from the North East have told me what a wonderful place the Baltic-Sage-Millennium Bridge-Newcastle Quayside area is. They usually add that when they were young (or when their parents were young – it depends on the age of the speaker) that the area was too rough for them.


‘You didn’t go down there.’

Their comments have made me wonder about the now-erased urban industrial waterfront. I particularly wonder about its decline. My friends’ comments suggest there might have been a time after the waterfront’s heyday as an industrial workspace, when it was in decline and when it became less a place of work and more one of malicious mischief, a place of danger after dark, and sometimes during the day. Is this accurate?


Newcastle and river Tyne

Newcastle castle keep across the Tyne to Gateshead, 1950s.
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Tyne Bridge

Sage Gateshead with Tyne Bridge in foreground. Photo by Christine Matthews, Geograph










I wonder also whether I have understood the regeneration story correctly. First was Gateshead Millennium Bridge, beautiful to look at, but even more exciting to use. Designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre, it opened in 2001. Next was Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, creating a new use for a derelict flour mill. Completed in 2002 it was first imagined by public sector body, Northern Arts, in the early 1990s. Then in 2004, the stunning Fosters & Partners-designed concert hall, Sage Gateshead, opened. Gazing at it initially from the Newcastle side, I was reminded that the North East is a region that has a history of ‘big’, ambitious structures – from the Tyne’s many bridges to Durham Cathedral to the now Grade II*-listed Byker housing estate, completed at the end of the 1970s.

Given the enormous scale of Sage Gateshead, it’s a good thing that Fosters’ design proved so successful. The Sage looks ‘made’ for its setting. By contrast, the architectural horror that is the Hilton Newcastle Gateshead and several of the identikit blocks of flats recently built on both sides of the Tyne in the vicinity of the Baltic do not inspire. Too much more of this type of mediocrity and the Tyne riverside running through Newcastle & Gateshead risks looking as awful as London upstream from Vauxhall Bridge.

Having created a cultural zone on the Gateshead side, complemented by the social zone of Newcastle quayside with busy nightlife and handsome Victorian municipal architecture, is there anything missing? I wonder if the time has come for the Tyne’s industrial heritage to be made more visible. Not with some twee quayside museum. That wouldn’t do, and surely has been considered and rejected already. I’m imagining something that says: “this was a big and mighty working river, a liquid highway. Today, it may be a river of leisure, but not long ago it was a river of graft.’

Dunston Staithes

Part of Dunstan Staiths, Gateshead. Photo: Erin Gill

The ideal opportunity is already there, on the riverside: Dunstan Staiths, that incredible wooden structure a bit upriver from the Sage, also on the Gateshead side. It was built as the final link in a network that allowed coal mined in the North East to be transported by rail and loaded onto ships. From Dunstan Staiths coal was carefully cascaded into waiting boats. Now standing mute, Dunstan Staiths is a testament to the North East’s history as the source – for a short time – of the world’s coal. There were dozens of these huge wooden structures along the river. Only Dunstan Staiths remains, and it only partially. Can it be revived and protected in some imaginative way? Now that the heart of Newcastle’s and Gateshead’s urban riverside has been re-cast as a cultural and social space, can’t the next project remind residents and visitors of the past? Of the machines, the pollution and the toil of working people.


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