Tag Archives: rivers

Publication – Reflections on Water: Knowing a River

Cover RCC PerspectivesM Dudley, ‘Reflections on Water: Knowing a River’ in RCC Perspectives, 2016:4, 47-54, Environmental Knowledge, Environmental Politics: Case Studies from Canada and Western Europe, Edited by Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper.

Project Member Marianna Dudley has contributed an article to an issue of RCC Perspectives on environmental Knowledge and politics. Her contribution explores how we see, understand and (think) we know a river. It is a place that has multiple meanings and uses and therefore knowing means different things to different people.

To read more on “knowing a river” download the RCC Perspectives from the Environment and Society Portal.

Engineering a “natural” river: Finding parallels in the Pacific Northwest

Impressions from an ASEH 2016 field trip

By Alexander Porch

More than four years ago a remarkable thing happened along the course of the Elwha, a river on the northern edge of the Olympic National Park in Washington State, USA. In a nation renowned for the number of watercourses that have been heavily modified by the construction of dams – for irrigation, hydroelectricity and water supply – a complex operation began to remove the obstructions that had controlled and exploited the river’s flow since the early decades of the 20th century.[i] As the title of a recent publication by the Seattle Times journalist Lynda V. Mapes attests, the Elwha has now become “a river reborn;” although for better or worse is still the subject of some debate.[ii] For the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose claim to the river, its fisheries and surrounding lands, extends back thousands of years, the return to their ownership of sections of the river and the reappearance of the fish that had for so long been prevented from migrating to their natural spawning grounds is undoubtedly a reason to rejoice. Likewise, local recreational fishermen (and women), kayakers, and those appreciative of an apparently unspoilt, pristine riverscape are equally positive about the outcome. But for users of the former reservoir and visitors to camping grounds recently washed out by flooding, the benefits are perhaps less obvious.[iii]

site Elwha Dam

The site of the Elwha Dam following its removal. The embankment in the middle distance is all that remains of the original structure. Photo: Alexander Portch.

I first became aware of the Elwha and its rich and complex history through the discovery of Mapes’ book while researching possible comparative studies to consider alongside the saga of the Severn Barrage. Although the dams may not have made use of the tides as their source of energy, I found the subject fascinating as an example of what can happen to a river when a dam is built and, more interesting still, what the implications are of its subsequent removal many years later. The question arose: if a Severn Barrage were to have been built, would there have ever come a time when a case would be made for its removal and, if successful, what would the outcome be of the river’s “rebirth?

To then have the opportunity to visit the Elwha and the site of one of its former dams (there were originally two – the Glines Canyon Dam in its upper reaches, and the Elwha Dam closer to its mouth) as part of the 2016 American Society for Environmental Historians (ASEH) conference in Seattle was an unexpected, but very welcome, pleasure. The conference – at which I presented a poster on my research – was an enjoyable, productive and intellectually stimulating event, with panels ranging from the application of GIS to the study of industrial London and its overseas trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, to “twentieth-century energy frontiers” and the challenges of doing premodern environmental history. However, the visit to the Olympic Peninsula, the Elwha, and particularly the point at which the river meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca within the bounds of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s reservation, was especially memorable.

The view of the Seattle skyline from the ferry crossing Puget Sound on the return journey from the Olympic National Park. Just visible in the far distance is Mount Rainier, an active volcano. Photo: Alexander Portch.

The view of the Seattle skyline from the ferry crossing Puget Sound on the return journey from the Olympic National Park. Just visible in the far distance is Mount Rainier, an active volcano. Photo: Alexander Portch.

Since the removal of the dams a vast quantity of sediment, previously trapped many miles up-river, has been allowed to flow unobstructed to the sea, being deposited at its mouth. Local tribal members can now walk hundreds of metres out along this accumulated material; with Bald-Headed Eagles gliding majestically overhead, drawn by the return of salmon and other marine species. For me this sight was particularly striking as the Severn is also a river characterised by high volumes of sediment which, it has been suggested, would be trapped behind a barrage, potential blocking and damaging the turbines and requiring regular dredging to keep in check. I wonder what would happen following the removal of a barrage, and the release of all that aggregate?

Newly formed beach

The newly formed beach at the mouth of the Elwha River within the bounds of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribal reservation. Most of this material has been deposited within the past couple of years. Photo: Alexander Portch.

Equally interesting were the insights provided during a stop at the Elwha Dam removal site by one of the archaeologists from the National Park Service who was closely involved in the restoration project. As part of that process archaeological surveys were required, including excavations of prehistoric sites encountered in the vicinity of the dams themselves, and features that were revealed as the lake waters fell and the river resumed a more natural course. Alongside the remnants of early human activity, the dams too were recognised for their historical and archaeological significance. Having been constructed at such an early point in the development of hydroelectricity, and still retaining much of their original machinery, they had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, necessitating detailed historic building surveys prior to their removal. A Severn Barrage has frequently been cited as having an expected lifespan of up to 120 years. After that period had elapsed would it too be considered as an important part of the nation’s heritage; something requiring thorough recording and analysis before finally being retired from service? Or, conversely, would it be preserved as a monument and museum to 21st century innovation and ingenuity? One thing is for sure, at 18 kilometres (11 miles) in length it would keep archaeologists and historic building surveyors busy for a very long time!

N.B. Attendance at the ASEH conference was made possible by a travel grant from the University of Bristol’s Alumni Foundation.

Bald eagle

Bald-headed eagles wait patiently at the mouth of the Elwha, perhaps for salmon returning to their spawning grounds in the now-accessible upper reaches. Photo: Alexander Portch.

[i] https://www.nps.gov/olym/learn/nature/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm

[ii] L.V. Mapes, Elwha: A River Reborn (Seattle, 2013); see also http://projects.seattletimes.com/2016/elwha/

[iii] http://www.seattletimes.com/life/travel/elwha-valley-access-limited-after-undammed-river-wrecks-campgrounds-road/

Stories of Consumption, Waste and Community in Bristol – European Green Capital 2015

By Jill Payne

‘The Power and The Water’ Project’s focus (read Marianna Dudley’s recent blog on this) at the Bristol Festival of Nature, 12-14 June, currently the largest free event of its kind in the UK, highlights the power of place as a platform for historical and political environmental debate. At our stand, the general Festival theme of all things ‘nature’ had a Bristol slant: hidden histories of Bristol’s rivers. Festival-goers interested in Bristol (mainly local, but also from up and down the country) came to talk to us about Bristol issues, and to compare these with issues elsewhere.

Aspects of local history depicted on our posters brought visitors over to share folk memories and childhood reminiscences with us: the River Avon as a busy shipping route; the whale that washed up on the banks of the River Severn in 1885; the traditional traps or ‘putchers’ used in the Severnside salmon-fishing industry. These opened the way for more contemporary topics: water quality and riverine/marine litter, especially non-biodegradable plastics waste, and possible solutions to this problem, about which there is considerable community feeling. Many people, it seems, regularly undertake their own private litter-picks along the river banks and other green spaces where they like to walk – and also feel strongly that the issue is as much one of plastics ubiquity as it is about responsible waste disposal.

Of course, many aspects of local waste management and water quality have improved significantly since the days when, as our posters showed, the River Frome became so polluted on its way through Bristol that the nineteenth-century solution was to culvert it. However, we can also look back to the era when Bristol water was an industry in itself, rather than a conduit for industrial and domestic waste. In the eighteenth century, bottled water from Hotwells on the banks of the Avon, then just downstream of the city and a famous spa destination, was exported as an elixir of health[1] – with the consequent rise in demand for glass bottles providing impetus for the Bristol glass industry.[2] Those eighteenth-century glass bottles can be seen as part of a cycle of bottled-water consumption extending forward to today’s plastic riverbank detritus, and, hopefully, towards future strategies for dealing with this and other products of the petrochemical age.

Team members at Avon

‘The Power & The Water’ Project team members and associates on the River Avon tidal floodplain at Sea Mills with plastics waste for the Festival of Nature stand, May 2015. Photo: J Payne.

The power of place in stimulating environmental debate also underpins the European Commission’s Green Capital initiative, which supports and encourages European urban authorities in their environmental commitments and achievements. Next week, Bristol will be halfway through its year as European Green Capital. Before it hands over the title to Slovenia’s Ljubljana in 2016, Bristol’s environmental provisioning will be given a global showcasing at the UN’s 2015 Paris Climate Conference in December.

Bristol’s presentation at the Paris Conference must necessarily focus on the future; viable strategizing for the environmental scenarios that may lie ahead will, however, be enhanced by further understanding of past as well as current and future issues, and the relationships that bind them.

 


[1] See for example ‘The Bills of Lading of Noblet Ruddock & Co, 1720’ in WE Minchinton, ed, The Trade of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century (Bristol Record Society, 1957), pp. 78; 80.

[2] William Matthews, The New History, Survey and Description of the City and Suburbs of Bristol (W Matthews, 1794), p. 40.

Historians at the Festival of Nature, 12-14 June 2015

By Marianna Dudley

In second week of June, ‘The Power and the Water’ project ran its first ever stand at the Festival of Nature, Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. It was a first not only for the project but for the School of Humanities too, as it was the first time a non-science subject had been included in the University of Bristol tent.

What?

FoN team

The Power and the Water Team, and 2nd Year Biology Student Volunteers, ready to engage with the public! Photo: Milica Prokic.

‘Hidden River Histories’ took the research that the Bristol-based team members are doing (Power and Water is a three-strand project with researchers at Nottingham and Cambridge Universities too) to create an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience. We knew that the Festival is a popular event for all ages and backgrounds. Established in 2003, it is the UK’s biggest free celebration of the natural world with two days of free interactive activities and live entertainment across Bristol’s Harbourside. We wanted to introduce the field of environmental history to Festival-goers, and specifically some key themes in our project: how the natural world is intertwined with the human; how past water and energy uses might inform current and future environmental values; and how local issues fit with global environmental change.

Public engagement

Talking about river waters and history with members of the public. Photo: Peter Coates.

Our stand could not be boring: we were representing History and the Humanities among a sea of Science stands! For the kids we knew would visit (Day 1 of FoN is Schools Day), we had to provide something interactive – something they could get their hands on. Luckily, in environmental history, we have no shortage of fascinating natural, and unnatural, items to work with. River waters from four ‘Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the often-forgotten Malago (Bedminster) bottled in clear glass took an idea that was originally inspired by a Canadian artwork[1] to become an interactive way of thinking about tides, water quality, rivers-as-ecologies, and a quick way of testing people’s knowledge about their local rivers. Kids shook up the river waters and urgh-ed at the murky Severn and Avon. But they were fascinated to see old photos of salmon fishing and a beached whale in the estuary (in 1885), and we were able to talk about how ‘brown’ is not always ‘bad’, and how, from a salmon’s perspective, a nicely tidal, turbid (unbarraged!) River Severn is exactly where you’d want to be. The ‘pure’ Frome, on the other hand, was the river that was so dirty in the 19th century that the city chose to bury it.

Bottle water

Bottled water from the Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the Malago. Photo: Milica Prokic.

The bottled rivers were a way-in to talking about Bristol’s watery past, but we also wanted to discuss Bristol’s water future, particularly with an issue that we’d observed on field trips down to the riverbank at Sea Mills (a suburb of Bristol). On the intertidal zone there, plastics are a huge problem, brought in on the tides. The issue of marine litter connects local environmentalism with a global plastics issue – the river banks of Sea Mills with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic trash

One item of plastic trash from the banks of the Severn. Photo: Milica Prokic

We collected a huge array of discarded plastic items one morning in May. Guided through Health and Safety requirements by the Centre for Public Engagement, we decided to bag the plastic items (in yes, more plastic – the irony was not lost) and create a Trash Table, in which the rubbish was laid bare for the public to see, pick up, question and discuss. It had something of a forensics scene about it, compounded by the presence of numerous, enigmatic, lost shoes. We’ve been discussing ‘future archaeology’ as an interesting methodology, and it provided us with our key question: what stories would future historians and archaeologists tell about us now, based on these non-degrading plastics? In addition to confronting the environmental impacts of consumer culture, visitors to the stand could engage in some informal, but not inconsequential, narrative building.

Eloise Govier

Artist Eloise Govier and her hi-vis installation, made from polystyrene found by the Avon. Photo: Milica Prokic.

Though an exercise in public engagement in itself, we were able to highlight other public engagement and knowledge-exchange initiatives we’ve been working on. Artist Eloise Govier has been collaborating with researcher Jill Payne on installations that encourage people to think about energy. Her high-vis block of polystyrene – sourced on our forage along the Avon – was a great talking point, likened to cheese, Spongebob Squarepants, fatbergs and a meteorite! Artists from the Bristol Folk House also contributed works, based on an outdoor workshop we ran at the Ship’s Graveyard on the River Severn at Purton. We made them into free postcards that included our project website and contact info, encouraging future communication. The watercolours updated our visual record of the river and helped us to think about how people see and value the River Severn today, and how this connects with – or departs from – traditions of viewing land- and waterscapes in Britain.

Why?

A 3-day presence at the Festival of Nature was the culmination of months of planning by me and Jill (Payne, researcher on Power and Water). We had our first meeting before Christmas, and plenty since! Was it worth the effort? Unreservedly, yes. In terms of disseminating our project research, FoN allowed us to communicate our work – and raise awareness of the vitality of environmental history at Bristol – to a huge number of interested citizens. We await attendance figures for this year but last year, over 4, 385 people attended the UoB tent. In 2013 it was 6, 284. This year the weather was good and there were queues to enter the UoB tent, so we are confident that attendance was a strong as ever.[2]

Drewitt at Stand

Naturalist and broadcaster Ed Drewitt drops by to say hello. Ed provided a wildlife commentary for our project boat trip down the Avon

But public engagement of this kind goes way beyond sheer numbers. The process of planning the stand has been productive, helping us identify the themes in our work that hold interest (and are therefore useful for telling histories, in and beyond academia). The photo of the 69ft whale beached at Littleton-on-Severn was a side-story to my research, but people were fascinated by why and how this creature came to Bristol. A trip to Bristol City Museum to track down the bones is being arranged, and the animal inhabitants of the river will be more visible in my work as a result.

Moreover, good public engagement goes beyond disseminating research. They may be buzzwords in funded research, but ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘co-production of knowledge’ are very real benefits of engaging with groups and individuals beyond the academy. For a project like ours, which is interested in public environmental discourses and people’s relationships with place, talking with the public is a key source of information, and a way in which we can build research questions, identify key issues, and meet people who can aid our research. We learnt of more hidden rivers in Bristol, community action groups, and old records of the Severn Bore. We were also asked why we were not being more active on the issue of plastic waste, prompting us to reflect on the aims of the project, and the role of academics in communities where sometimes, actions speak louder than words. It was useful to recognize our strengths and limitations, as perceived publicly, and to articulate our key aim of providing sound research from which people can become informed, and motivated. Getting involved in an event such as Festival of Nature is a useful reminder that rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are the public too, offering a particular set of knowledge and skills but equally willing to learn from others.

As researchers funded by the public purse (through the UK Research Councils) the expectation that we take our work beyond the university is entirely reasonable. Public engagement is now built into funding applications, and the impact it can produce is a measurable output of research. Meaningful public engagement, based on principles of knowledge exchange and co-production, is a pathway to tangible impact, rather than a one-sided conversation. If we hope to achieve impact, that is, through our research change the way a group thinks or acts with regards to a particular issue or topic, then we must engage with the ‘group’; talk to them, identify key concerns, think about how our research can address issues and contribute to understanding and practice. The language of ‘impact’, public engagement and knowledge exchange, serves to reinforce the academic/public divide. The practice of such ideas, through events such as Festival of Nature, helps to overcome such distinctions. It’s also (whisper it) fun


The Power and the Water project would like to thank the Centre for Public Engagement (University of Bristol) for all their logistical and design support; the 2nd Year Biology volunteers that helped man the stand with enthusiasm; Eloise Govier, for the loan of her artwork and for helping on School Day; and Milica Prokic and Vesna Lukic, for filming, photographing, and mucking in over the FoN weekend.

 

 

[1] Emily Rose Michaud, ‘Taste the source (while supplies last) (2006-present)’ in Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis (eds), Thinking with water (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013), 133-38

[2] Thanks to Mireia Bes at the Centre for Public Engagement for attendance numbers.

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

 

 

From One Big River to Another: Local Musicians Muse on Life, Death and Rebirth (?) on the Tees and Tyne

By Peter Coates

I’ve just revisited an e-mail that Jill Payne sent the project team a few days before we met up in Newcastle earlier this year. She reminded us that Chris Rea’s song ‘Steel River’ echoes the sentiments of Jimmy Nail’s lament to the working Tyne, ‘Big River’. (I remember seeing Rea in concert in Newcastle City Hall circa. 1974, when he was the support act for Lindisfarne at one of their famous Christmas concerts.) In fact, Rea anticipated Nail’s emotional mood by a decade: whereas ‘Big River’ was released in 1995, ‘Steel River was the opening track on the 1985 album, ‘Shamrock Diaries’ (though its best-known track is arguably the second, ‘Stainsby Girls’).

Rea hails from Middlesbrough and his river is the Tees, but the scenario and message are identical – a stark and painful contrast between the thriving industry on its banks in the 1960s, when Rea was growing up there, and the late 1980s, when a post-industrial river was clean enough for salmon to return but meaningless to those who once worked in the steel mills (the industrial and chemical sector whose thirst for water lay behind the decision to dam the North branch of the Tyne in 1974, but which was largely moribund by the time Kielder reservoir and dam were opened by the Queen in 1982). Here’s the third and final verse of ‘Steel River’ that Jill pasted into her e-mail.

They say that salmon swim in steel river
They say it’s good to see them back again
I know it hurts to see what really happened
I know one salmon ain’t no good to them
They were born and raised to serve their steel mother
It was all they taught and all they ever knew
And they believed that she would keep their children
Even though not a single word was true
Say goodbye steel river.

‘Pure magic’, reads one of the comments that accompanies the version of ‘Steel River’ posted on YouTube, ‘makes me proud to come from Teesside…listening to this takes me back to the days when we were a thriving industry, the world needed Middlesbrough’s steel to exist’. ‘This song says it all’, comments another viewer (62,136 views to date): ‘it tears my heart out’. ‘It is physically impossible for anyone born in these environs not to cry when local boy Chris Rea’s paean to this lost world…strikes up on the jukebox or radio’, reflects Daniel Gray (Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels Through England’s Football Provinces [Bloomsbury,2013, 18).

Most of the other comments strike more or less the same note. But there’s one that’s a bit different, a bit less lachrymose, and a bit more hopeful: ‘This [song] is an inspiration for every Briton who can recall that the country was once great. Let’s get back to making lots of stuff out of steel – but perhaps we can clean it up just a tad better than before. Salmon is still compatible with steel-making’.

River Tees

River Tees looking towards Middlesbrough. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Environmentalism from Below – A guest blog for the Rachel Carson Center

By Marianna Dudley

This August, I flew to Edmonton, Canada, to participate in a workshop organized by Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper at the University of Alberta. ‘Environmentalism from Below: appraising the efficacy of small-scale and subaltern environmentalist organizations’ brought twenty scholars from diverse scholarly backgrounds together to discuss each other’s work. Papers of 7,000 words had been pre-circulated, and we will continue to work on them for submission to an edited volume in the new year. The workshop was funded in part by the Rachel Carson Center, and I was invited to blog about it for them here: http://seeingthewoods.org/2014/08/26/environmentalism-from-below/

The workshop (and paper) was an excellent opportunity for me to think through the research I began with this project, looking at our use of water for recreation. Through my work I have identified a contestation of rivers by different recreational user groups, in particular anglers and paddlers/canoeists. My paper ‘Clear water, muddy rights: accessing British rivers for recreation’ suggests that historical notions of right use, insider/outsider identification, and contrasting philosophies of water as place and resource contribute to this ‘conflict’. To me, the campaign group Rivers Access for All (http://www.riveraccessforall.co.uk) can be seen as an environmentalist organization, though they identify themselves first and foremost as a recreational interest group. However, by working to assert a public right of navigation on Britain’s waterways and challenge current legal definitions of water-use, they are campaigning for a reconfiguration of how we use, protect and define water that recognizes those in and on the water, in addition to those who own or pay to use the riverbank. In effect, they are working towards a more holistic and all-encompassing definition of water than currently exists in British law, in which rights of property are privileged, and where the riparian owners also own the riverbed and water flowing over it. It is a complex issue, and I have been grateful for the help of my colleagues Chris Wilmore and Antonia Layard in the Law Department (University of Bristol) for helping me navigate the legal complexities of the subject.

The Rivers Access to All campaign, the contestation of water and the history of the dynamics between anglers, swimmers and canoeists have become a major focus of my research on the Power and Water project and I am very thankful to Jonathan and Liza for giving me the opportunity to present my research in an early stage. I will continue to work on these issues as the project evolves, so if you have any thoughts on recreational use of British rivers, legal definitions of water access and use, or any personal experiences of angling, swimming or paddling on rivers, do get in touch via the comments or twitter (@DudleyMarianna).

Tigers on the Tyne

By Carry van Lieshout

Trees, plastic bottles, tyres, scrap metal, and a plush blue tiger – these are just a few items fished out of the River Tyne as part of the Clean Tyne project. On 5 June 2014 Team Power and Water had the privilege of hitching a ride on the Clearwater, the project’s main debris-removal and monitoring vessel. While we didn’t clear any litter out of the river ourselves (although several team members had a go at steering the boat!), we learned a lot about working life on the Tyne as skippers Steve and Dave told us about their fascinating roles in making the Tyne into the cleanest river it has been for many years.

Boat on the Tyne

The Cleanwater on the river Tyne. Photo: M. Dudley.

Fishing rubbish

Fishing rubbish out of the Tyne. Photo: M. Dudley

The Clean Tyne project started off in 1989 as a result of the partnership between the Port of Tyne and the riverside councils of Gateshead, Newcastle and North and South Tyneside. It covers the entire tidal area of the Tyne: from its mouth to the boundary stone at Wylam, a distance of 19 miles. The project combines cleaning the river by the Clearwater with regular River Bank Raids, which are clean up events at the banks. In addition, it runs an awareness programme through education at schools in order to prevent further littering of the river. A monitoring system and the identification of hotspots where debris gathers helps to keep track of the cleanliness of the river.

Wood fished out of river

Wood fished out of the River Tyne. Photo: M. Dudley

The majority of debris found on the river is natural wood. The most recent monitoring report shows that 70% of debris fished from the Tyne are large or small pieces of wood that have been washed away from higher up the river system – the majority of which can be found after storms or heavy rainfall events. Another quarter of debris consists of man-made rubbish: plastic bags, food packaging and bottles being the major culprits. Scrap metal and tyres are other types of debris that regularly wash up on the Tyne’s shores.

While much of the plastics ends up on a landfill, in recent years every effort is made to recycle the debris found in the Tyne. Much

The tiger

Peter Coates and the tiger. Photo: Carry van Lieshout

of the timber is used for building projects or can be converted to wood chips to act as firewood. Scrap metal is made into art works and tyres can be used as playground soft coverings. Figures show that from 2009 onwards, less than 10% of the debris collected was send to a landfill – meaning that the majority of flotsam on the Tyne goes on to have a second life back on dry land.

The plush tiger wound up as the mascot of the Clearwater vessel – making it instantly recognisable anywhere on the Tyne.

Web links

Clean Tyne: http://www.gateshead.gov.uk/CleanTyne/Home.aspx

For the 10% figure in the last paragraph: http://www.gateshead.gov.uk/CleanTyne/Disposal.aspx

Art, Sustainability and Heritage: A Walking Tour with Power and the Water

A field report of the Water and the Power team’s visit to the Dunston Staiths is available on the website of the Jetty Project. The piece recounts how the team members were dragged along for some exercise, art and industrial heritage during their busy team meeting in early June. They were shown the restoration efforts of the Dunston Staiths, the largest wood structure in Western Europe, and the former industrial banks of the River Tyne.

Read the report at http://jetty-project.info/field-notes-4th-june-2014/

Dunston Staiths

The Dunston Staiths. Used to load coal in ships until the 1980s. Photo: M. Dudley

Mechanical Ballet: Shipping and the Port of Tyne

By Marianna Dudley

There was a term for the precise movements of the cranes and containers we saw during our tour of the Port of Tyne, though I didn’t know it at the time: ‘mechanical ballet’. Cranes lifted shipping containers from the boat guided by the accuracy of the human eye in the crane – the driver who sits alone, and without a toilet, for twelve-hour stretches in the cab high above – and dependent on the strength of machinery to place them on the truck beds below. A delicate, powerful, and hypnotic dance, with the port and river as the stage. Is it the humans, or the machines, who are the protagonists?

Cranes

Cranes at Port of Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

This question is explored in Terminal (2009), a short film by Jörn Wagner. Without narrative, it captures the movements of a busy port, a never-ending choreography of loading and unloading. It is described as ‘depicting a human-created world void of humanity’ as ‘machines seem to move of their own volition’. It is a beautiful visualization of the enormous scale of operations at ports such as the Tyne.

However, the lack of humans in the ‘ballet’ doesn’t chime with my own observations of port life (made during a Power and the Water project visit to the Port of Tyne, Thursday 5 June 2014). People give the machines scale, and, often, movement. Without them, a port resembles an ordered Lego set, everything brightly and primary coloured. To ignore the humans that drive the machines does a disservice to the long history of the docks, organized labour, and working class port culture. My grandfather was a docker in Liverpool, and his stories – unloading the first crates of bananas post-WWII; accidents with the menacing hooks that dockers wielded like an extension of their limbs – were in my mind as I watched the crane make its manoeuvres.

The advance of technology has almost – but not completely – mechanized the port. The crane drivers do an immensely skilled job. They are the prima ballerinas of the dance, with lorry drivers and engineers on the ground making up the corps de ballet. People are still needed, but they must work in sync with – and reliant on – the power of the machines, unlike real ballet dancers, who rely solely on their steely, strong bodies and each other to glide and jump across the stage. A parallel could be drawn here, however. The port has mechanized in modern times due to technology. Ballet in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first has developed a taste for leanness and strength that pushes dancer’s bodies to breaking point, and which has come under recent scrutiny in the Channel 4 documentary Big Ballet. Among other things, modernism rejected history and ornament, and believed that design and technology could transform societies. The modern working port, and the modern dancer’s body, are (post) modern models of strength, efficiency, and (arguably) beauty.

To many inhabitants of the city of Newcastle, there is also tragedy in the port’s history. In 1881, the Tyne was second only to the Mersey in the quantity of goods exported from Britain, and was responsible for 1/9 of the total of UK port exports. In 1923, 22 million tonnes of coal were shipped from the Port of Tyne. Today, the Port of Tyne does not feature in the top ten busiest UK Ports. The idiom ‘like carrying coals to Newcastle’ may still be in common use but in reality, mounds of coal imported from Russia line the dockside, bound for the domestic market.

However, the Port isn’t dead. In 2011 (the last available figures from the Port of Tyne website), 450 men brought 5.3 million tonnes of goods through the port in 2011. The dynamic of the human-river-machine network here has fundamentally changed, but, crucially, it remains.

Shipyard

Ship repairs yard, Port of Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The Port of Tyne is responsible for navigation on the tidal river (from Wylam to the sea) and publishes a shipping history of every ship loading and unloading in the port. Name, origin, destination, agent and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) numbers – the unique seven-digit number assigned to ships under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) – are all detailed. SOLAS was first passed in 1914 after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, to ensure standardized provision of lifeboats and other safety equipment on board ships. IMO numbers have been operational since 1987 as a prevention against marine fraud, and are the maritime equivalent of a car number plate.

The Port of Tyne shipping list is more than a schedule. It is a functional choreography of the mechanical ballet that unfolds 24/7 on the docks. To take one example, the Hydra, sailing under the Dutch flag, arrived from Anchorage in Alaska on 7 June, 2014. The ship paused at the dock, was unloaded by men and machines, and sailed on 10 June for Peterhead, Scotland. This is one scene from an act of thousands, all unfolding in the Port of Tyne and dispersing around the globe. From the Bahamas, Stavangar, Panama and Gibraltar, the ships docking at Port of Tyne maintain a connection between the northeast and the international endeavor of maritime trade, as they have for centuries of trade on the river.

Taking the wheel on the Tyne

Project member Jill Payne taking the wheel on the River Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

These connections have shaped the city and its people. Steve and Dave, captain and first mate of the Clearwater Clean Tyne vesselwhich clears the river of debris, first went to sea in the merchant navy. As they took us on a trip downriver, they reminisced about tours of eastern Africa and Brazil, while gamely letting Jill, Carry and I take the ship’s wheel. The Port of Tyne is a mechanical ballet with performances and protagonists that are local and global. What holds it all together is not just the complex computer systems registering cargo, or the network of trains and trucks dispersing commodities across Britain, but the river, and the people of the port.

Just don’t tell the lads they are ballerinas.

 

Notes

(i) Thanks to James Wright, Environmental Officer for Port of Tyne Authority, for his presentation and guided tour of the port facilities.
(ii) Stephen Moss,‘Tamara Rojo: Ballet Dancers don’t enjoy the pain. We’re not masochists’, The Guardian 13 June 2011; Big Ballet, first broadcast 6 February 2014, Channel 4 (UK)
(iii) See, for example, The V&A’s guide to modernism: http://www.vam.ac.uk/page/m/ modernism/
(iv) Proceedings of the RiverTyne Improvement Commissioners’ (1881)
(v) Stafford Linsey, ‘The Port of Tyne’, in David Archer (ed.), Tyne and Tide: a celebration of the River Tyne (2003), 172-189.
(vi) Department for Transport, ‘UK Port Freight Statistics: 2011 Statistical Release’ (September 2012)
(vii) httkp://www.portoftyne.co.uk/business-divisions/marine-and-environmental- services/shipping-movements/shipping-history/ 

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