M 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.
Mud. Commonplace, messy, mucky. It is something we squelch through on walks, wash off boots, and rinse away on hands. Have you ever stopped to ponder its historical significance? Its sensory delights? Its visual possibilities?
From 14 – 18 March at the University of Bristol, ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’ project invited the public to do just that, in a free exhibition of work by ceramic artist Tana West, who uses river mud to create beautiful – and thoughtful – objects that connect maker and place, process and product, material and environment.
In 2009’s ‘Subject for Change’ Tana walked the length of the River Severn, researching and digging for mud as she went. It was this artwork that captured my attention, as postdoctoral researcher investigating aspects of the Severn’s environmental history on ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’. Her rigorous research process, the importance she placed on experiencing the changing river environment, and the production of objects which held clues to the river’s history within them, connected with the research of the project on a number of levels.
When you work on the Severn, mud asserts itself, historically and physically. It is a river whose water is the colour of chocolate milk, dense with mud and silt particles kept suspended by surface run-off upstream and the tidal movements of the lower reaches. Environmental historian of the early modern Severn landscape, John Morgan, shared with me a source he’d found in the Bristol city archives, in which the river mud was held in high esteem. In a letter from Captain Charles Symes to Edward Southwell about building out near Sea Mills in 1694, Symes claimed of local river sand that ‘when tis Dry its Licke aney Rock and much stronger then aney Other Morter, (as well it may) Takeing up Such a Deal of Lymme’. This mud, much like the mud that Tana uses in her art, was valued for its malleable qualities, its strength and its usefulness.
In recent times, not everyone has valued mud in the Severn. John’s source contrasts with a modern source I’ve found, a 1966 article in The Western Daily Press. It discussed the possibility of a tidal barrage across the Severn which would have the effect, the author thought, of stopping the tidal movement and allowing the silt in the water to settle, turning the estuary from brown to a ‘more attractive’ blue. Until that point, I hadn’t considered the muddy ‘brown-ness’ of the river to be a problem, or something that people might not value. I am fascinated by the tides and the rich ecosystem supported by the mud and silt of the river. But to some others, mud is problematic. It is not a passive substance, but something that has shaped opinion, and identities. Between early-modern builders and twentieth century tidal power enthusiasts is a big space in which to think about mud. The idea for ‘Into the Mud’, and later ‘Land + Water,’ was born.
‘Into the Mud’ secured funding from the AHRC’s Connected Communities Summer Festival fund to hold an outdoor creative workshop on the banks of the river Severn in June 2015. Tana led the workshop, which brought together members of ‘The Power and Water’ and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ projects (which share research interests in water, rivers, and local understandings of place and identity); amateur potters; members of a local community group, Ideal Action; and passers-by. By creating a temporary manufacturing base down by the river, the workshop enabled informal, creative, environmentally-responsive expressions and discussions to take place. Two participants wrote about the experience here.
But we weren’t done with mud yet – there was more to say, and do. Tana visited the University of Bristol and I showed her around Royal Fort House, the home of the university’s research institutes. The ornate rococo detail on the ceilings, walls and cornices, Tana revealed, were made using some of the same techniques she’d shown us in the workshop. There were alcoves crying out for vases; plinths pleading for pottery!
We decided to hold an exhibition called ‘Land + Water’, that combined new pieces made by Tana in response to the venue; older pieces made from Severn mud; and the products of the riverside workshop. Two talks were also planned, with the help of the Institute for Advanced Studies (who also made available the beautiful Verdon-Smith Room and all manner of logistical support).
At the first public talk, Tana talked about her work and research, with comments by the project leads of ‘The Power and the Water’ (Prof. Peter Coates) and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ (Prof. Owain Jones), who both participated in the workshop. In the second, organized by IAS, a multidisciplinary collection of academics spoke on anything ‘mud’ related, for 5 minutes, to inspire conversations surrounded by Tana’s work. Throughout the week members of the public were welcomed to the exhibition, and left their comments in a Visitor Book. Among the works on display were ornate vases and ‘mass’ produced tea-cups (river mud turned delicate, beautiful and functional); ceramic installations ‘Into the Vernacular’ and ‘Under the Road, a River’ (that echo the utility of ceramics in building, sewerage, and water systems); and a print of diatoms, the microscopic inhabitants of mud that sustain the wildlife of the Severn estuary, made using Severn mud on paper.
Through ticket ‘sales’ for the (free) events, and visitor comments, we know that over one hundred people interacted with the exhibition, notwithstanding the challenge of finding it – the University of Bristol desperately needs a dedicated exhibition space. We also know that, for some, seeing Tana’s work, engaging with the discussions around it, and thinking deeper about mud, land and water, has changed the way they view the river’s place in city life and everyday experience.
Mary-Jane, Librarian: ‘I shall look more closely at the different types/colours of the Severn estuary mud in future’
Ben, postgraduate student: ‘ A superb reflective experience. Thank you for letting me in to your way of the seeing the world. A beautifully layered exhibition portraying such a dynamic place’
Kelvin, unemployed: ‘Love the way the work fits in the building – coming up the stairs and seeing this is a brilliant complement’
Robert, historian: Fabulous. I begin my mornings at Sea Mills on the river bank by the station – 3 minutes by train into Clifton Down. This is such a stimulating exhibition and way of bringing the river into the city (and into Royal Fort House)
Faye, ecologist: ‘An interesting study of the environment, history, and art. Thank you’.
(all comments from the ‘Land + Water’ visitor’s book)
When thinking about rivers – and trying to think like a river – I like to compare (with apologies to Arthur Miller) the (more detached) View From the Bridge with the (more involved) View From Under the Bridge. Last Thursday morning (29 October) there was a 4-star bore on the River Severn, which is not as big as a 5-star bore (the highest rating), but impressive enough. This was my third bore. But the previous two occasions had been mainly visual experiences (with a bit of an aural accompaniment thrown in as the onrushing waves scoured the sides), standing on the bank near St. Peter’s Church, Minsterworth and then at The Old Passage pub on the Arlingham horseshoe bend.
All aboard the rollercoaster. Photo: Leona Skelton
This time, though, with my colleague, Marianna Dudley, I got on and (somewhat) in the river, thanks to world record-holding Severn Bore surfer Steve King and master mariner Duncan Milne of Epney, whose 4-metre RiB (rigid inflatable boat) with an Evinrude outboard sometime glided across the smooth surface yet also bounced around on the bore in both directions. At times, unbidden, the water filled up the boat nearly to the gunwales; then, within seconds, the boat emptied of its own accord.
Duncan delivered us safely back to the bank where, though soaked, we were none the worse for our experience. Deliverance is the title American writer James Dickey chose for his first and best known novel (1970), about the adventures and misadventures of four middle-aged suburbanites from Atlanta who take a weekend canoe trip down a turbulent river in the Appalachian wilderness. Like John Boorman’s 1972 screen adaptation (starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voigt), the book has lost none of its power to thrill and shock (I bet they all wish they’d decided to play a few rounds of golf instead).
But Dickey was also a poet of the river. ‘Inside the River’ (1966) invites the reader to ‘follow your right foot nakedly in to another body’ and to ‘put on the river like a fleeing coat’ . After taking a tumble, Marianna put on a coat of the more conventional kind: a dry suit. Yet whether or not you were literally dunked in the Severn estuary’s big muddy waters, the ride injected a healthy dose of material meaning into that hackneyed phrase, immersive research.
The view downriver from Maisemore Bridge. Maisemore Weir and Lock are the upper limit of the tidal Severn. Photo: Leona Skelton
As we chased the Bore, tacking back and forth across the head of the tide, we got as thoroughly soaked to the skin as Dickey’s four friends who hurtled pell-mell down the fictional Cahulawassee River in northern Georgia. I hasten to add that the similarity between Gloucestershire and Georgia ends there (Epney is a far cry from Aintry). Well, almost. The river whose rapids the foursome decide to shoot is about to be impounded by a dam. I knew that a barrage across the Severn to harness its tidal power will kill off the Bore. But to hear it from the river’s mouth – the surfers who’ve been riding it for decades and of whom it’s said that their veins run with muddy water – drove this ominous prospect home with eloquent force. For the bore is a source of wonder as well as a site of exhilarating recreation.
In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Mark Twain recounted his pre-Civil War career as a steamboat pilot (the ultimate dream of every boy raised on the banks of the river T.S. Eliot called a ‘strong brown god’ in ‘The Dry Salvages’ ). Sipping tea in the café at Saul after we got off the river, listening to the likes of Duncan, Steve and the two Stuarts talk about the enigmatic tidal flows and infinite variety of subtle and unpredictable permutations and differences between stretches of water, referring to the data bank of fluvial knowledge stored in the head of every experienced bore surfer, I was reminded of the passages that left the strongest impression when I first read Twain’s reminiscences as a callow youth.
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day 
But then he speaks of his growing disenchantment and sadness as he gets to know the river better and becomes more accomplished. Mastering the ‘language of this water’, though a ‘valuable acquisition’, came at a heavy price.
I had lost something too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river…The romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat 
I was never convinced by that supposedly inverse relationship between enchantment and knowledge, between poetry and prose. And my recent experience on and off the Severn in the company of boatmen confirmed that knowledge and enchantment can happily co-exist on a mystic river, whether over there or over here .
 From Drowning with Others: Poems (Middlebury. Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1966), 91.
 Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Airmont Publishing, 1965), 57-58.
 The Mystic River is a short river in Massachusetts, whose Wampanoag name (muhs-uhtuq) translates as ‘big river with waters driven by waves’.
Location of the workshop at Severn Beach. Photo: Marianna Dudley
‘Into the Mud’ (21 June 2015) was an outdoor workshop organised by Marianna Dudley, from the University of Bristol’s Department of Historical Studies as part of a collaboration between ‘The Power and the Water’ and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ projects, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Summer Festival.
Artist Tana West ran the workshop which used clay extracted from the Severn riverbed at Aust. Tana is interested in exploring the intersections between nature and culture by using materials at hand.
The location, at Severn Beach, was ideal to work creatively with mud from the river and to make connections between object, processes, origin and materials, by creating a temporary manufacturing base on the riverbank.
Here, two workshop participants, Mireia Bes and Ana Miguel, reflect on why they attended the workshop and how it has changed their understanding of, and relationship with, rivers.
Mireia: I found out about this event at Festival of Nature and immediately decided to join. I’ve been doing pottery since I was a kid, but I rarely have the chance to do pottery with clay that comes directly from the landscape, it was always detached from my surroundings. There´s something quite primal about sourcing your own clay and doing pottery on the spot that really attracted me.
Ana: I found it fascinating as it brought together some of my passions: research, the environment and pottery. My experience with academia and the university has been through a formal approach of seminars and lectures. In this case, the location, format, material and topic were integrated in an innovative fashion. We engaged in a natural and relaxed way which allowed us to increase our creativity. Pottery is a recent discovery in my life. It allows me to connect with my creative side and disconnect from the daily life. I loved the idea to be outdoors with clay in my hands from the mud of the river.
Mireia: It was a luxury to be doing pottery at Severn Beach. The mix of the natural landscape left behind by the tide with the industrial buildings and the lack of people despite the sunny day, gave it a bit of a dystopian feel. For me the actual trip there, was as interesting as the final destination. Leaving the centre of Bristol and seeing a new landscape emerge and change until we got there. Sometimes we just jump into a train and get out at the final destination without even paying attention to the landscapes we see through the window. I had the chance to share the trip with Peter Coates who told me about the history of the area and that totally changed the experience, I felt I was more connected to that landscape.
Ana: The bank of the river Severn was the perfect location for this workshop. We were in the Severn Estuary which is one of the biggest estuaries in Europe. It was an impressive location: we could see the windmills and a really long bridge. The colour of the water is brown which created a real connection with the mud. We were surrounded by mud and different varieties of algae.
For me one of the most important aspects was the (de)contextualisation of the workshop. When I think about a pottery class, the image is of a room indoors. However, ‘Into the Mud’ was an outdoor workshop. We were surrounded by the origins of the clay, working with mud from the river and learning about the environment. Being in this new location generated an atmosphere, relationships and conversation completely different from a normal class.
Ana and Mireia working with clay. Photo: Marianna Dudley
Mireia: The clay actually came from Aust and it was there when we arrived, which was a relief as I didn´t have wellies! It was funny to work with that clay because it has a different texture. It was interesting to change this idea of the clay as something that comes in a bag for you ready to use to something that you can actually source from nature and work it to transform it into objects. We were also constructing something together, working as a group, which is not something that usually happens in a pottery studio.
Ana: Being so close to the clay’s origins connected me more with the environmental aspect of pottery. I have never thought before about the relevance of where the clay comes from and also that it was so easy to get clay from natural resources near me. We used the mud from the river to construct a waterpipe. We also used some objects around us to work with the clay such as algae or plastics. A key aspect in this process was that the researchers from the ‘Power and the Water’ project were explaining us the history of river Severn, the landscape and the connection with their projects.
We took some clay/mud to our pottery class, but all of a sudden it was decontextualized: it smelled and it felt wetter and stickier than when we used it on the beach. Our fellow potters didn’t really engage with the new material… but Mireia and I will use it anyway, we now have a special connection with this material.
Mireia: I really like cities that have rivers because I feel they create spaces for social interactions and connect you with other lands and people that the same water will touch. Obviously rivers are very important from an ecological point of view and for the societies that grow around them, but at a personal level I had never experienced a direct interaction where the river was actually providing me with something that then I could transform into an object that could have a function in my day to day life. It was a new way to look at rivers.
Ana: My main contact with rivers has always been from tourism and leisure. I have enjoyed the rivers with activities like canoeing or having a bathe. Another aspect of my relationship with rivers is from the point of view of the lack of water. Coming from a country [Spain] where we experience frequent droughts, I have experienced water cuts and the close monitoring of water levels in rivers and reservoirs in the weather forecast. This generates a completely different relationship with water than someone could have in England, for example, where there is a lot of rain, water and recent problems with floods. Since I have been living in England, for four years now, my relationship with water and rivers has been transformed.
As a result of the day we learnt things about pottery, history and landscape, and the relationships amongst those. But most of all it was a reminder on how important it is to create spaces to have proper conversations with people and how much you can learn from those. All of us had something to say about water and our relationship with it.
We really valued the opportunity to learn about the research that is taking place at the University through a workshop like that. Research is usually presented in a more formal way such as lectures or seminars and it is more difficult for the public to access. We also felt that the collaboration with other disciplines, an artist in this case, was key for us to engage with the research in a meaningful way through a practice that is relevant to our lives. It offered an opportunity to experiment, collaborate and learn in a relaxed way.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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
 Thanks to Mireia Bes at the Centre for Public Engagement for attendance numbers.
When (as is increasingly likely) the construction of Hinkley C nuclear power station goes ahead at Hinkley Point in Somerset, its two new reactors, the first civil nuclear construction in the UK in around two decades, will emerge beside the Bristol Channel alongside the two decommissioned reactors of Hinkley A station, and the two still operating at Hinkley B station.
The immediate ‘reality’ of the Hinkley site’s presence is, for many people, perhaps most entrenched in its looming figurative relevance; as a place of nuclear power production, the area has attracted headlines ever since the construction of Hinkley A began to be debated in the late 1950s. However, even without the Hinkley C units (which, from a distance, should appear as just less than the height of Hinkley B’s), the existing infrastructure makes for a substantial visual presence on the coastline.
Reactor pastoral? The decommissioned Hinkley A nuclear power station framed by surrounding farmland (photo: Adrian Flint).
Up close, the power station buildings are intimidatingly brutalist. From a distance, they are visible on most reasonably clear days from across the Somerset Levels to the east and out on the Channel to the west as blocky silhouettes on the horizon. However, as with all infrastructure, Hinkley is simply one aspect of the wider human-made landscape in which it is situated, plus, it is not the only large-scale engineered addition to the area.
New natural? Across the flats from Hinkley A and B power stations (on the horizon to the left), the tide retreats from the freshly-constructed Steart Marshes (photo: Jill Payne).
There is another substantial human-engineered change taking place just along from Hinkley, in the shape of the Steart Marshes. To some extent, it’s quid pro quo: the original construction of Hinkley involved land reclamation and stabilisation on the sea-side of the site, and the existing precinct is encased in concrete and tarmac; the Steart Marshes plan has involved the reconstruction of a swathe of the nearby peninsula as an intertidal zone of saltmarsh and freshwater wetland. Old flood defences have been breached, and an artificial watercourse has been bulldozed out of former farmland. Now, at high tide, the waters of the Parrett Estuary spill out over what are currently raw mudflats. In future, the rewilded marshes, also a more general counterbalance to the embankments of much of the surrounding coastline, will act as a natural buffer against rising sea levels. It’s also possible to highlight the potential role of the marshes in protecting Hinkley’s power transmission network; the viability of the pylon transmission route from Hinkley was one of the features of the original case made for a nuclear power station here.
Half a century after Hinkley began operations, the Hinkley compound remains resolutely distinct from its surroundings. The Steart Marshes will, however, become visibly naturalised. The tides and the seasons will do their work, and the current construction scars will be eroded by time and new plantlife.
What is interesting here is how natural-looking but nonetheless ‘engineered’ landscapes tend, especially in the longer term, to go less remarked upon. They come to be viewed, particularly as firsthand memories of original construction works fade, as rather different entities to their more overtly artificial counterparts. Do we chew over degrees, aspects and meanings of natural-ness here? Or do we take this as another reminder of the power of visual impact in shaping our responses to human-induced environmental change?
After a week of continuous conference sessions, some fresh air and open space was greatly needed. Thankfully, the UNESCO world heritage city of Guimaraes is situated amongst a truly spectacular landscape; one that could be easily enjoyed thanks to a cable car running direct from the urban centre to the summit of the nearby Montahna da Penha. Photo: Alexander Portch
And so the conference season continues. Whilst a new experience for me personally, the extensive programme of talks and panels circulated in advance of the 2nd World Congress of Environmental History at the University of Minho in Guimaraes, Portugal, which took place between the 8th and 12th of July, provided an insight into what to expect from the one of the year’s most prestigious gatherings of environmental historians, and the subsequent event didn’t disappoint. With presentations and discussions covering a multitude of subject areas, geographic locations and sub-disciplines – from marine cultural environments to the intersections between environmental histories and visual culture; encompassing the Americas, Australasia, India, Africa, and even the comparatively humble Tyne valley in northern England; and drawing upon the work of historians, geographers, zoologists and artists – WCEH 2014 demonstrated quite clearly just how far the practice of environmental history has advanced since the early days of the mid-late 20th century. Nonetheless, despite being daily immersed in a wealth of world-class scholarship disseminated by some remarkably knowledgeable, outgoing and enthusiastic individuals, I still could not help but be distracted by further developments back home in my own area of interest: the Severn Estuary.
Alongside the excitement of meeting and engaging with students, academics and scholars from around the world; listening attentively to discussions on topics as relevant to my interests as the remaking of North American rivers through the construction of hydroelectric dams and as fascinating as the emergence of Earth Art in the 1960s; sampling the many delights of Portugese café culture; and witnessing the tidal wave of destruction that was Germany’s assault on an unsuspecting Brazil in their 7-1 semi-final victory earlier in the week; the news that the Crown Estate have recently agreed seabed rights for a host of new wave and tidal energy demonstration zones, in addition to five new wave and tidal current sites, at various locations around the British coast, couldn’t fail to attract my attention. This includes three sites to be operated by Cornwall-based company WaveHub, encompassing wave testing zones in North Cornwall and South Pembrokeshire and a tidal stream array off the north coast of Devon near Lynmouth. The latter has been announced as the test site for Pulse Tidal’s Pulse-Stream system, which employs an alternative approach to harnessing the power of tidal stream currents to that employed by the majority of developers. Rather than creating the equivalent of an undersea wind turbine, as has been the case for MCT Siemens with their SeaGen design and Open Hydro with their Open Centre technology, the pulse-system exhibits a vertical up-and-down motion akin to the flaps on an aircraft which enables it to be deployed in relatively shallow water.
Equally distracting was the news that, despite the apparent finality of the UK government’s decision last year to reject proposals by Hafren Power for a tidal barrage along the Cardiff-Weston route (from Lavernock Point on the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary to Brean Down on the English side), the newly formed Severn Tidal Energy have recently succeeded in negotiating up to £200m of investment for a renewed attempt at securing support for an identical scheme. The investor, who is reported to be experienced in funding global infrastructure projects, has yet to be formally identified; however, it seems evident that STE are intent on pursuing a similar strategy to that of Hafren Power who made it clear that their project would be dependent on significant financial support from a private investor.
The “Cardiff-Weston Line” with Weston to the left and the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm marking the route to Lavernock Point on the Welsh coast near Cardiff. What will this view be like by the middle of the 21st Century? Very different if the newly-formed Severn Tidal Energy succeeds in its renewed attempt at securing permission for a Severn Estuary tidal barrage. Photo: Alexander Portch
As part of my work into the history of tidal energy and the exploitation and harnessing of the tides in the Severn Estuary and Inner Bristol Channel, it is my intention to employ the insights gained from my study of the past to enable the development of informed predictions and imaginings of future scenarios for such activity in the region. Could for example, the now derelict tide mill at Berkeley be resurrected as a small-scale hydro-electricity power station capable of servicing the local community? However, the activities of companies like WaveHub and organisations such as RegenSW serve as a reminder that such a future is already in the process of being envisioned. Perhaps, in place of older technologies such as tide mills or barrages, electricity will be generated through the widespread establishment of vast undersea tidal stream farms, supplemented in places by tidal lagoons such as that proposed for Swansea Bay. Alternatively, the recent establishment of Severn Tidal Energy and the renewed effort by its supporters to realise the potential for generating 5% of the UK’s electricity supply through construction of a single large-scale piece of infrastructure could still result in the designs from the past being made manifest in the future. Only time will tell, but whatever comes to pass, regardless of where I am in the world, at which conference I am presenting or which major sporting event is taking place, I will be sure to remain abreast of developments in the Severn Sea.
Sources/Relevant Website Links (all accessed on 14/07/14):
Planning consent for a ‘wavegarden’ in Bristol was big news in the city (See: Bristol Post). Perfectly placed between the beaches of Cornwall and Devon to the southwest, and Wales to the west, Bristol is home to a committed surfing community who regularly exodus the city at weekends in search of waves. The Wave: Bristol promises ‘perfect’ waves on their doorstep, breaking on demand in an artificial lake just outside the city. But already the idea has generated plenty of discussion that gets to the heart of what surfing is about and what it means to those who practice it.
Waves of the open ocean. Photo by Marianna Dudley
Does it matter that the wave is generated by machinery, not winds, tides and swells that cross oceans? Artificiality offers some benefits: regularity, predictability, repetition. Surfers are used to poring over swell forecasts and weather charts to anticipate where the best waves will be on any given day. This takes time, but it also breeds an understanding of meteorological information, and how it affects certain waves and beaches. As a result, experienced surfers demonstrate a nuanced knowledge of the geographies of their local breaks, and can transfer their ability to read conditions to new or unfamiliar places. But if there is no motion in the ocean then surfers are at a loss (friends of mine get noticeable twitchy if they haven’t been in the water for a while and spend a lot of time scanning the horizon for a line of swell that never comes). A wavegarden provides waves no matter the weather. This will appeal to many surfers, particularly during those flat spells when they are wave-starved.
I recently visited the Museum of British Surfing and chatted to its founder Peter Robinson about wavegardens. I was fascinated to see in the museum an illustration from the 1930s of a ‘wavepool’ in Wembley. The 1920s and 30s were the golden age of swimming, with outdoor pools, lidos and river swimming clubs providing many communities with opportunities for water-based recreation. A strong belief in the health benefits of swimming and being outdoors was prevalent at this time. Pete told me that these wave pools were not unusual, particularly in Germany, where swimming in ‘natural’ moving water was preferred. ‘Surf-riding’, what we now call body-boarding (catching waves lying down on short boards) was also popular on beaches across England at this time, and the museum has a great number of photographs, boards and even bathing costumes from this period. We don’t have evidence to show that people took their boards into wave pools at this time – but they may have. In any case, there are historical precedents to the modern wavegarden, and re-locating activities previously enjoyed in ‘natural’ environments such as rivers, lakes and the sea to a safer, more regulated environment of a pool was a feature of the modernization of recreation in the 1930s and 40s.
‘Surf-bathing in a London Suburb’, The Illustrated London News 1934. Photo by Marianna Dudley. Source: Museum of British Surfing
Swimming pools allowed swimming to develop from a recreation to a competitive sport. Regular pool sizes, rectangular shapes, lanes and diving boards all allowed swimmers to practice their technique and directly compete against each other. A wavegarden has this potential, as surf journalist Roger Sharp notes in his article for Carve magazine. The waves produced in the test facility in the Basque country are long enough for an experienced surfer to do up to 6 turns per wave. Wave after wave, all day long. By contrast, if you are surfing in the ocean, you catch a wave, surf it for as long as you can (in all likelihood, a few seconds), paddle back out, catch your breath; it all takes time. Meanwhile other surfers in the line up are competing for waves with you. Catching waves in the ocean depends on paddling and positioning. These skills are accrued over time – a lot of time – in the water. The better surfers catch more waves, and have more time on waves to improve their technique. Beginners have to find their place in the hierarchy and wait for waves. And once they are on one, all too often they fall off after a couple of seconds. It is a lot of effort for, often, little reward. Those without access to waves struggle to progress.
Wavegardens will level the playing field. In a controlled environment, beginners will be able to learn, and enjoy more time actually surfing, while experts and pros will take advantage of the opportunity for repetitive practice and video analysis to work on the technicality of their surfing. But, the ‘indoorisation of outdoor sports’ isn’t for everyone (*though wavegardens are not ‘inside’, they do create an artificial surfing environment). ‘Wild’ swimmers have rejected the chlorinated confines of the indoor pool to return to the open water, in increasing numbers. For them, it is swimming as part of a watery environment and living ecosystem that gives pleasure. Surfers already experience and value that connection with their environment. For many, the idea of surfing taking place any where other than the sea is an anathema.
Crowds watch a surf competition on a French beach (Hossegor). Photo by Marianna Dudley
So is the notion of paying to surf (though at least one exclusive surf resort exists, on Tavarua Island, Fiji). Waves have, traditionally, been viewed as a free product of environmental conditions and a strong surf-environmentalist identity exists and works to promote water and environmental protection: see Surf-Aid and, closer to home, Surfers Against Sewage. Will wavegardens normalize the concept of pay-per-surf? The commercialization of other recreational waterscapes has already taken place. The popularity of angling by the mid-19th century, and decreasing stocks of fish, allowed landowners to charge fees to access good fishing spots, and the government introduced rod licences to control numbers and receive revenue. Anglers now enjoy propriety rights to the riverbank, for which they pay handsome sums. And the perception that other users – canoeists and swimmers, for example – use the river for free contributes to the ongoing conflict that exists for recreation on British rivers. The controlled space of a wavegarden facilitates the commercialization of the sport. The public space of the beach and the sea resists this.
But Bristol already has a wave that is surfed: the Severn Bore. It is not in the sea – though it comes from the sea, as tidal waters push up the river and create the wave – and it is anything but perfect, but it is regular (timetables are published online), and, unlike the wavegarden, it is free. I am researching how a community of surfers has centred on the Bore and am interested to see if and how a wavegarden in Bristol will affect this vibrant branch of Bristol’s local water culture. Will Bore surfers welcome the wavegarden as a shorter and better-behaved cousin to their beloved ‘Sabrina’ (the Roman name for the Severn)? And will the wavegarden encourage more people to seek out the river bore, connecting the static environment of the wavegarden to the dynamic environment of the tidal river? The wavegarden promises long rides per wave, but the Bore can offer a wave that progresses for miles, not metres. But as with surfing elsewhere, the close community of the Bore recognizes the efforts its members go to in order to surf the occasional wave – again, studying conditions and tide timetables, waking in the dark on cold winter mornings, travelling to the destination, where finally, effort is rewarded with an exhilarating surfing experience – one closely tied to place.
Bristol has a thriving water culture, with a lido and an outdoor swimming club at Henleaze (both are membership-based, but with provision for guest access), a triathlon training lake at Bristol Open Water, numerous indoor pools, and the Bore surfing community. It makes sense that a wavegarden should succeed here, and planning consent has been met with interest and excitement. Examples from the past show that innovations like the creation of pools and facilities can alter sports and the cultures that they generate. Wavegardens certainly offer a potential new space in which to contest surfing. But something tells me surfing will never lose its spiritual connection with the ocean. Ocean waves may be temperamental, sporadic and frustrating, but they are also dynamic, challenging and endlessly forming. The experience of sitting in the ocean patiently waiting for the gift of a wave is not one that can be re-created. It is where effort meets patience and energy meets calm. The moment an ocean wave takes you with it is flow incarnate, a gift from nature that draws people to the ocean. Wavegardens are interesting, and will make money, and provide a leisure service. But they can’t match the great Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans – or even the muddy river Severn.
 Maarten van Bottenburg and Lotte Salome, ‘The indoorisation of outdoor sports: an exploration of the rise of lifestyle sports in artificial settings’, Leisure Studies 29:2 (2010), 143-160
The sun is shining, the grass is green, blossom adorns the cherry and the hawthorn, and the mornings are filled with a cacophony of birdsong: the conference season has clearly arrived. Whilst the much anticipated 2nd World Congress of Environmental History in Guimaraes, Portugal, is still several weeks away, the interdisciplinary nature of my research into tidal power in the Severn Estuary is such that it seemed appropriate to attend the 6th session of the Bristol Tidal Forum on 24 April at the University of Bristol, before packing my bags and embarking on a more extended expedition to the farthest reaches of the British Isles to join the 2ndEnvironmental Impact of Marine Renewables (EIMR) Conference in Stornoway.
The soaring peaks of the Scottish Highlands near Ullapool fade into the distance as the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry MV Isle of Lewis departs for Stornoway (Photo: Alexander Portch).
Whilst my research mainly adopts an historical perspective to study the various ways in which people have harnessed the power of the tidal cycle in the past, it is also my intention to consider how that practice may continue into the future, particularly if a barrage is never constructed. With the UK still faced with the need to massively reduce its reliance on fossil fuels by the end of the decade, thereby meeting targets imposed by the EU, and the likelihood that without further investment in new facilities for electricity generation the population, even in developed areas, could suffer from energy shortages, interest in the potential offered by wave and tidal power remains high.
This is particularly so in some of the more remote parts of the British Isles, where strong tidal currents and energetic wave environments are commonplace, such as the Orkney Islands and the Outer Hebrides. In the latter’s case, the scattered villages and isolated crofts are subject to the highest levels of fuel poverty in the UK and, being so far removed from the coal-fired power stations and nuclear power plants that provide the greater part of the mainland’s power, are in a precarious position with regards to their present and future electricity supply. In more recent times, small arrays of wind turbines have been built across much of Lewis; but wind is widely known for its fickle and unreliable nature, even in one of the most windswept places in Europe. It is in response, therefore, to the increasing demand for alternative sources of renewable and reliable energy in places like the northern and western isles of Scotland, and their possession of an unparalleled wave and tidal resource, that an embryonic industry has sprung up in the region and is rapidly increasing in scale and sophistication. In the southwest, too, the combination of a high tidal range in the Severn estuary, powerful tidal currents around the north Devon coast and Cornish peninsula and the high energy waves rolling in from the Atlantic, in addition to the strong winds that drive them, has been recognised through the creation of the South West Marine Energy Park. This is an initiative which seeks to foster collaboration and engagement amongst a variety of companies and organisations, including consultancies, think-tanks and tidal turbine developers.
All such developments have implications for the future of the Severn estuary. Will a barrage be constructed after all? Or will the estuary be divided up into a series of tidal lagoons, as may already be taking place with the recent plans for a lagoon in Swansea Bay? Alternatively, will the estuary be left unmodified to facilitate the widespread exploitation of the waves, winds and tidal currents further out to sea in the Bristol Channel? These are all options to be considered, particularly as each has significant implications for both humans and the non-human environment. With these thoughts and questions in mind, I took my first tentative steps into this year’s conference season.
The Bristol Tidal Forum is a relatively small-scale affair. Taking place over the course of a single day, the event was composed of a linear sequence of talks given by key individuals involved in the south west’s burgeoning tidal energy industry. As quickly became clear, these were mostly people working in the development and financing aspects of the sector, including the directors of engineering firms responsible for designing and building the devices themselves, representatives of organisations tasked with providing the financial support necessary to make such technology economically viable, and policymakers whose remit it is to ensure that the industry continues to develop in line with relevant guidance and government priorities. The environmental aspects of the technology were thus rarely touched upon, whilst the barrage was evidently far from most people’s minds. In fact, one speaker even went as far as to express frustration with the obstacles that have arisen in response to the deployment by their company of turbines in Puget Sound, in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, resulting from the need to monitor the resident orca (killer whale) populations. In many respects, the tone was set from the very beginning by Andrew Garrad of DNV-GL. In his opening address he laid the blame for any delays and difficulties in developing the industry on a combination of political and economic factors, rather than environmental concerns. Perhaps there is some truth in this assertion, and it is something I will be testing through my own historical study of the Severn barrage.
In marked contrast to the Bristol Tidal Forum, the EIMR 2014 conference, as the title implies, was very much focussed on the real and predicted impacts that tidal and wave energy generation may exert on “the environment”. With delegates arriving from as far afield as Oregon, Washington state, France and Spain, and bringing with them expertise in disciplines as diverse as social science, underwater noise propagation, monitoring of marine mammals and diving seabirds, maritime archaeology – and, in my case, environmental history – the resulting presentations, posters and coffee-break discussions proved to be enjoyably eclectic and adopted an open-minded perception of “the environment” as encapsulating human and non-human elements, as well as sentient and inanimate agents. Of particular interest were talks on community engagement as part of the development of tidal power in Nova Scotia, an area now favoured for tidal stream turbines, but also recognised for possessing one of the few operational tidal barrages in the world; a monitoring project centred on salmon around the coasts of Scotland which employed a combination of contemporary and historical tagging data, including some dating back to the mid-19th century; an overview by representatives of Historic Scotland of recently published historic environment guidance for wave and tidal energy developers[i]; and a poster which sought to demonstrate that construction of barrages around the UK, including one in the Bristol Channel, would significantly alter the tidal range as far afield as the Bay of Fundy and the coast of Maine.
What was perhaps most apparent, however, was just how substantial the impact of these new wave and tidal energy devices is likely to be for the marine and coastal environments; for both people and the rest of nature. Despite their relatively modest size in comparison to more substantial structures such as tidal barrages and lagoons, they may still pose a threat to marine mammals such as seals, basking sharks and whales, and seabirds, in addition to modifying tidal range and tidal current velocity, whilst also affecting rates of sedimentation and wave propagation. They could also pose a hazard for shipping, influence the size and frequency of waves currently enjoyed by surfers and other water users (although a talk on this subject with regards to the north Cornish coast suggested that the modifications imposed by the new WaveHub testing site near St Ives are unlikely to be particularly noticeable), and function as an eyesore for tourists and local inhabitants of coastal areas. What is also clear, however, is just how much people care about such issues and how enthusiastic they are about finding ways through which to overcome any problems inherent in the technology in order to facilitate the successful deployment of what could prove to be one of the “cleanest” and most “sustainable” forms of electric energy generation.
Delegates at the EIMR 2014 Conference in Stornoway pose for the final end-of-conference. Reused with kind permission of the organisers of EIMR 2014.
The excitement that currently surrounds the wave and tidal energy industry was perhaps most clearly demonstrated towards the end of my travels in the Outer Hebrides during a journey around western Lewis organised as part of the conference. In addition to visits to the Callanish Stones (Calanais in gaelic) – the Stonehenge of the north, according to some – the Gearrannan Blackhouse Museum and the Dun Carloway (or Dùn Chàrlabhaigh) Broch (thus satisfying my passion for all things archaeological and ancient), the trip took in the proposed site for the Siadar wave energy testing facility located on the north-west coast of Lewis. Developed by Aquamarine Power and employing their Oyster wave energy machines, this is set to become the largest single array of wave energy devices in the world, providing approx. 40 MW of energy to communities on the island. Whilst the devices will be mostly submerged beneath the water, they will nonetheless become visible at the surface during operation. Concern also surrounded the potential risks they pose for marine mammals, the important seabird population of Lewis, the area’s archaeological and historic environment resource, and any vessels that may pass nearby. Additionally, the visual aesthetics of the region were in danger of being compromised by the large number of metal objects scattered across an extensive swathe of coastline.
Looking south west along the windswept Atlantic-facing coast of Lewis towards the site of Aquamarine’s proposed Siader wave energy farm. The project was awarded full consent by the Scottish government in May 2013, but as can be seen here development has yet to begin. The photograph was also taken on a particularly calm and flat day but the Isle of Lewis is nonetheless renowned for its frequent high-energy waves (photo: Alexander Portch).
In contrast to many energy generation proposals, however, the Siadar site seems to be remarkable for overcoming all such potential obstacles. Seabird and mammal surveys have indicated that the area is largely devoid of any significant populations, and certainly isn’t used as a breeding ground or for feeding; archaeological remains are few and far between; shipping tends to be located further out at sea, away from such an exposed and rocky coast; whilst the decision to paint the devices in battleship grey with only a small amount of luminous yellow facing out to sea will keep their visual impact to a minimum. Local people are largely in support of the project, which will also make use of nearby insular harbour facilities and fabrication centres, and will benefit directly from the electricity produced at the site.
Breakers pound the beach at Dalmore, a short distance to the south west of the Siader wave site. This demonstrates that even on a calm day the waves on the west coast of Lewis can be sizable. Many a-surfer in the south west of England would no doubt be envious! (Photo: Alexander Portch)
Indeed, as I flew back to Bristol from Inverness at the end of what had been a most enlightening and enjoyable venture, and gazed down upon the miles of offshore wind turbines sprouting contentiously from the seabed off the Lancashire coast, I couldn’t help but wish that all energy developments could be so straightforward and acceptable. On the other hand, if that were so, my doctoral research would be much less interesting! In reality even the Siadar wave site is a long way from completion, and it will undoubtedly encounter further challenges along the way. But the lessons learned from that development could prove instrumental for subsequent projects elsewhere in Britain, and further afield; including, perhaps, the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary. Thus, as I delve deeper into the libraries and archives, I will be sure to keep at least one finger on the pulse of the wave and tidal power industries of the 21st century.
[i]Firth, A. Historic Environment Guidance for Wave and Tidal Energy. English Heritage, 2013.
“This year came a great naval armament over hither south from the Lidwiccians… They went then west about, till they entered the mouth of the Severn; and plundered in North-Wales everywhere by the sea, where it then suited them… but the men of Hertford met them; and of Glocester, and of the nighest towns; and fought with them, and put them to flight… And they drove them into a park; and beset them there without, until they gave them hostages, that they would depart from the realm of King Edward. And the King had contrived that a guard should be set against them on the south side of Severnmouth… Nevertheless, they eluded them at night, by stealing up twice; at one time to the east of Watchet, and at another time at Porlock. There was great slaughter each time; so that few of them came away, except those only who swam out to the ships. Then sat they outward on an island, called the Flat-Holms…”
Extract from the The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year AD 918 (source:britannia.com)
And so, like the Viking raiders of more than a millennium before, three Bristol-based members of The Power and the Water Project Team set forth from the English mainland, and thence across the expanse of the Bristol Channel in search of the sanctuary and isolation of the island of Flat Holm. Situated approximately five miles out to sea from Cardiff and Barry on the south-eastern coast of Wales, Flat Holm is one of two small islands located along a line between the pronounced headland of Brean Down, near Weston-super-Mare, and Lavernock Point, a short distance along the coast from Cardiff. With the discovery in 1988 of a Bronze Age Axe, dating to c. 900 – 700 BC, indicating the presence of humans on the island more than 2000 years ago; records of regular visits during the late 6th century by the Welsh saint Cadoc; and physical and documentary evidence for continuous occupation throughout the past 800 years; this small (approx.. 500m across) expanse of land in the midst of the Severn Sea is of great historic interest. Combined with its important geological features and rich natural heritage, recognised through its status as a SSSI, Local Nature Reserve, and Geological Conservation Review Site (GCR), the island is more than worthy of a visit by anyone with even a passing interest in the Severn Estuary, wildlife, history or archaeology.
The islands of Flat Holm (in the foreground) and Steep Holm (beyond) line up as the cross-estuary ferry “Westward Ho” passes by to the north. Photo: Alexander Portch.
The fact, however, that it also lies along the line of the frequently postulated Cardiff-Weston route for a Severn Barrage, makes it especially significant for this writer. When viewed from afar Flat Holm, with its renowned population of Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus) (approx.. 4000 pairs), a stronghold of the Wild Leek, and historic value as the place where, in May 1897, Guglielmo Marconi first successfully transmitted a message across the open water using his wireless telegraphy system, would appear to be particularly vulnerable to the potential negative impacts associated with the erection nearby of a vast wall of rock, steel and concrete, complete with shipping locks and potentially even a road, railway and series of wind turbines. Despite the obvious presence of humans throughout much of the past 2500 years, demonstrated most tangibly by the remains of defensive fortifications dating to the mid-19th century, further military structures from the Second World war, the ruins of a farmhouse, and a lighthouse; the island still seems, even upon close inspection, like a wild and windswept place, where humans are an invasive species – disturbers of the peace enjoyed by the gulls, rabbits, lizards and sheep. From such a perspective, opposition to a barrage could be seen as wholly understandable and indeed a worthy cause.
Flat Holm lighthouse, located at the southern end of the island. The light is now fully automated and has been powered by solar panels since 1997. Photo: Alexander Portch.
It was, perhaps, with such views in mind that on Wednesday April 16th 2014 project members Peter Coates, Jill Payne Payne and I arrived on “Coal Beach,” at the north-eastern end of the island having traversed the full width of the Channel between Weston-Super-Mare and Cardiff aboard the bow-loading, Island Class Passenger Vessel “Westward Ho”; a rather small yet accommodating ferry which operates between Cardiff, Weston and Flat Holm throughout much of the Spring and Summer months (http://mwmarine.org/index.php/notable-vessels). This included a brief stop-over in Cardiff Bay; an area of water impounded behind a fixed barrier which, since its construction in 1999, has completely transformed the industrial maritime landscape of disused dockside facilities and intertidal mudflats into the social, cultural and recreational hub of modern Cardiff, replete with an opera house, shopping centre and the iconic copper-plated structure of the Senedd, which houses the National Assembly of Wales (see http://cardiffbay.co.uk/index.php/history). When first postulated the Cardiff Bay Barrage, much like its bigger estuarine cousin, met with fierce objection, including from those who feared the loss of important wetland habitats for birds, flora and other coastal wildlife. In many respects their concerns were well-founded, as such resources have indeed been lost; however, it is difficult to overlook the vibrant atmosphere of the area today, nor the smart-looking yachts and well-tended blocks of flats; their balconies overlooking the comings and goings of vessels navigating their way through the three locks which connect the Bay with the wider tidal estuary. For me at least, the experience of being conveyed through a large shipping lock was a first, and one which proved to be an unexpected, yet most welcome, highlight of the expedition. Whilst the locks that would be incorporated into a Cardiff-Weston barrage would be significantly larger, it was still possible to gain a sense of what entering the Severn Estuary Lake from the tidal Bristol Channel might be like for incoming container ships if a Severn Barrage were ever to be built.
Peter Coates watches with interest as one of the three locks connecting the freshwater lagoon of Cardiff Bay with the tidal waters of the Bristol Channel begins to fill with water. Photo: Alexander Portch.
Much as the tide is the key factor motivating the proposals for building a barrage, it is also a conspicuous force influencing the ways in which people, both now and in the past, interact with the island of Flat Holm. Arrival and departure times are wholly subject to the operation of the tides, with boats arriving on the pebble-strewn beaches at high tide, disembarking their cargoes of goods and passengers, then either leaving straight away on the falling tide or, as in the case of our own mode of transport, being left high and dry for up to six hours until the water level once again reaches a height sufficient to float the vessel free. It was perhaps such a characteristic of the two “holms” (a Scandinavian term for a river island) that attracted religious communities during the middle centuries of the 1st millennium AD. On the nearby Steep Holm the ruins of a medieval chapel attest to their presence, whilst on Flat Holm little physical evidence remains for the existence of such a community, with the exception of a cross-inscribed slab found incorporated into the base of the garden wall of the island’s farmhouse. Medieval burials and a curving enclosure ditch, excavated in 1979, may also hint at the whereabouts of some of the island’s earliest structures. With access to the island being governed by the movement of the Channel’s waters and facilitating landings only with great skill and much danger, particularly during inclement weather, the early Christian inhabitants must have found it the ideal place to pray, meditate and practice their distinctive eremitic lifestyle. The workings of the tide may also have played a key role in the island’s infamous history as a haunt for smugglers throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries. In full view of the local authorities in Cardiff, smugglers were known to convey goods to caves in the cliffs on the eastern side of the island in broad daylight, with little apparent concern about the risk of being caught. Such activity was greatly aided by the fact that the authorities lacked a suitable vessel with which to pursue the smugglers; however, even if such a craft had been within their means, their passage out from the mainland would still have been dependent on the timing of the flood and subsequent ebb tides, with any delay providing the perfect opportunity for those engaged in illicit activities to slip away to safety.
The bow-loading Island Class Passenger Vessel “Westward Ho” sitting high and dry as it awaits the incoming tide to free it from its berth on the pebbly shores of Flat Holm Island. From this point it took little more than 15 – 20 minutes before it was ready to depart – a clear demonstration of the speed with which the tide ebbs and flows around the coastline of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary. Photo: Alexander Portch.
It is apparent, therefore, that for as long as humans have interacted with the islands of the Bristol Channel they have, in so doing, interacted with non-human nature. Through knowledge of the tidal cycle people have gained access to Flat Holm, and through exploitation of its mineral resources and agricultural potential they have derived wealth and sustenance. In many respects Flat Holm is an excellent example of how closely human activity can be integrated with the functioning of the “natural” world, as the characteristics that presently justify the island’s status as a SSSI, almost without exception, are the product of anthropogenic influence. The Wild Leeks, for example, are believed to have originally been brought over by the monks who cultivated them on neighbouring Steep Holm, whilst the rabbits were intentionally introduced in the 12th Century. The present plant communities that dominate much of the island’s open landscape, including various grasses, nettles and ground ivy are most likely the result of the rich soils that have built up in response to years of pastoral activity, including manuring by cows, sheep and goats. The Wild Peony was also introduced from Steep Holm, although at a later date, during the Second World War; whilst the thousands of Lesser Black-backed Gulls that call the island their home, and in turn create such a feeling of wildness despite the obvious human presence, only arrived during the 1950s as a result of the abandonment of the military facilities by the 350 soldiers who had been stationed there.
This close ties between human and natural history of the island was further propounded, much to the shock of the project team members, upon conversing with the knowledgeable and welcoming wardens and volunteers of the Flat Holm Project, who have managed and operated the island since 1982 (http://www.flatholmisland.com/). It was initially felt that somehow the gulls of Flat Holm gave the appearance of being somewhat healthier and more “natural” in such a wild and rural setting than their comparatively unkempt urban relatives in towns and cities like Bristol. To be informed, therefore, that the principal food supply for the Flat Holm population comprises the nearby Cardiff City landfill came as quite a surprise. It was also explained that the numerous small bones found scattered across the island were not in fact the remains of predated rabbits, but were predominantly chicken bones; the leftovers from the seagull equivalent of a trip to the local Chinese takeaway. Similarly, pieces of plastic, fragments of children’s toys and plastic balls were also found to represent the colourful trinkets picked up by the birds in their enthusiasm as they scour the dump in search of a chicken drumstick or juicy spare rib. As such, the great majority of litter scattered about the island isn’t the direct result of human carelessness, but is the work of supposedly wild creatures exploiting the products of our own throwaway culture. The fault could thus still be perceived as ours; if perhaps an unexpected and unintentional consequence of our actions. It is also clear, however, that the remarkable number of Black-backed Gulls on Flat Holm are almost wholly reliant on the waste products of human society for their survival and it is believed that their initial arrival and subsequent explosion in numbers could be directly attributable to such a rich and easy source of sustenance. The current population is in fact almost half that which existed earlier in the 20th century, a product of a careful programme of management intended to conserve a maritime grassland habitat across the northern end of the island: yet another example of human involvement in the development and proliferation of nature on this small outcrop of limestone cast adrift in the middle of the Severn Sea.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus) perched on the cliffs at the southern end of Flat Holm. With approximately 4000 pairs, it is very much their island! Photo: Alexander Portch.
If humans have been so pivotal in the development of wildness on Flat Holm, therefore, could it not be argued that further human involvement in the region, even in the form of a barrage, is a continuation of that activity? A central concept in the discipline of environmental history is the idea that throughout much of their existence humans have exerted a profound influence upon non-human nature and, in turn, non-human nature has been a key factor in shaping human history. Indeed for many scholars, humans and nature are indivisible: humans are a part of nature and thus their activities are wholly natural. It is almost certain that a barrage would lead to significant change on Flat Holm, and could result in the loss of many of the species and habitats for which it is presently renowned. But filling the void left by their demise would be a host of new plants and animals that would greatly benefit from the altered tidal regime, the modified air currents (particularly if wind turbines were also constructed) and the varying levels of pollution, both during and after construction Nonetheless, even if the natural world is seen to benefit, there is no escaping the fact that the visual aesthetics of the estuarine landscape, and the feeling of remoteness which so vividly evokes the isolation that must have been appreciated by the early Christian inhabitants, will be irrevocably transformed and perhaps even lost entirely.
Farewell to Flat Holm. Silhouetted against the clear blue sky can be seen a wind turbine, and the foghorn which remained in operation until 1988. In addition to wind power, the island benefits from solar panel arrays and a biomass boiler. Alongside a large Victorian aquifer for storing collected rainwater, it can boast a remarkably high level of self-sufficiency. Photo: Alexander Portch.
Nonetheless, as the ferry departed Flat Holm, Ynys Echni in Welsh, leaving behind the ghosts of Bronze Age explorers, early Medieval monks, Viking raiders and the scores of mariners shipwrecked around its treacherous shores, it wasn’t the inter-connectedness of humans and their environment, or the comparative benefits of barrages and tidal stream turbines that were foremost in my thoughts. Instead, as the first time I had viewed what had always seemed a familiar land/seascape from such a different perspective, I could do little but gaze upon the holms in wonderment at their beauty as they faded in the half light of the setting sun.