Monthly Archives: December 2013

Immersing in the cultural and natural heritage of the River Severn

By Alexander Portch

Much like the flow of a river as it follows a course from its headwaters to the sea, the past two and a half months, since registering as a postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol, have been characterised by change, movement and interactions with new people and new places. After almost two years in a variety of roles in British commercial archaeology, from geophysical surveys of medieval settlement in the English midlands to intrusive excavations of Bronze Age burial and ritual activity in Cornwall, the sudden shift in focus to the intensive study of a specific region, namely the River Severn and its estuary, and a specific subject area – efforts over the past century or more to find ways in which to harness its energy for electricity generation – has proved challenging but also surprisingly liberating. The range and variety of literature on the estuary, encapsulating its cultural and natural heritage, its physical geography and geology, its role as both an office and playground for countless generations, and its position at the heart of debates over the future of Britain’s supply of sustainable electricity, is vast and growing daily. However, within this material particular themes have begun to emerge, first and foremost being the element upon which the majority of interest in the power and energy of the estuary is dependent: the tide.

Severn estuary

The Severn Estuary looking down- river from Sharpness Docks to the Severn Bridge and the Second Severn Crossing. Photo: Alexander Portch

With the second highest tidal range in the world, the constant ebb and flow of the tide represents an element of temporal continuity which stands in stark contrast to the dynamism of the peoples who have settled the river’s banks and foreshore for the past 10 millennia and the physical environment upon which they have made their living: Mesolithic inhabitants of Goldcliff on the Welsh side of the estuary experienced the same tidal cycles that propelled Severn Trows upriver to Gloucester in the 19th century and could one day power the turbines of a barrage or tidal lagoon for the purpose of illuminating the homes of the river’s 21st century inhabitants. Perhaps the most conspicuous and well-known manifestation of this phenomenon is the Severn Bore, which thunders upriver twice monthly, varying in size and character with the passage of the Moon around the Earth and the Earth around the Sun. Whilst descriptions of the bore are numerous, and the results of a Google image search are seemingly endless, it was felt that only through first-hand experience could the power and significance of the bore be adequately understood and appreciated. To that end three members of the project team – PI Coates, PDRA Payne and myself – embarked on a field visit to witness the bore for ourselves. This comprised the third key event of the project thus far, being preceded by attendance at the annual forum of the Severn Estuary Partnership (SEP) in mid October and the first project team meeting in London at the beginning of November.

Severn Sun rise

Minsterworth in the early morning light. Photo: Alexander Portch.

On the morning of the 6th of December 2013, shortly after 10am, a 2 star bore was viewed surging past the church at Minsterworth, downstream of Gloucester on the western bank of the river. Whilst larger bores can attract massive crowds and a veritable clan of surfers, kayakers and high-speed watercraft, creating, no doubt, an almost electric atmosphere, we were accompanied only by a small group of local sight-seers and a lone swan who seemed remarkably unconcerned by the sudden appearance of a 4 foot wall of water approaching rapidly from the direction of Newnham. Despite its relatively inferior status in comparison to the 4 and 5 stars typical of spring tides around the spring and autumn equinoxes, this mere 2 star bore was still a memorable spectacle and a refreshing start to my exploration of the river and its history.

Awaiting the Bore

PI Peter Coates waits in anticipation as the Severn Bore approaches from the direction of Newnham. Photo: Alexander Portch

A brief, yet poignant insight into the past lives of so-called “Severnsiders” and the perils inherent in living and working within such a distinctive environment was later provided by a tombstone encountered close to the entrance of Newnham churchyard, located several miles downriver of Minsterworth and overlooking the horse-shoe bend of Arlingham and the estuary as it opens out towards Berkeley and Lydney to the southwest. Although apparently unremarkable when viewed from afar, upon closer inspection the memorial revealed the story of the loss of two young local mariners in a collision between their Newport-bound trow, the Argo, and a steamer, the Wye, as they plied their way along the Bristol Avon, a few miles from its confluence with the Severn Estuary. Both Daniel Merrett, 24, and Samuel Jones, 17, befell the fate of so many seafarers and travellers on the treacherous tidal waters of the Severn and its tributaries as they attempted to navigate their way through thick fog in the narrow channel on the night of the 29th of August 1848. The tides eventually deposited their bodies on the far side of the Severn, many miles from the constricted waters of the Avon where they met their end. It was thus the tides that delivered them to their friends and families for proper burial; a final show of gratitude perhaps by the river’s Goddess, Sabrina, for some of the last mariners to truly respect and work with the tide, but who nonetheless fell foul to a new non-natural technology, the steam engine, as it propelled ships up and down river against its flow.


Headstone in the churchyard of Newnham, Gloucestershire, depicting the fateful event which lead to the deaths of Daniel Merrett and Samuel Jones on the night of the 29th of August 1848. Photo: Alexander Portch

Whilst the next few months will be characterised by a more detailed study of the bigger issues afflicting the Severn and occupying the thoughts of individuals far from its shores, including the barrage and the two suspension bridges that have already been successfully constructed, alongside a consideration of existing tidal generating facilities in northern France and eastern Canada, the story of Daniel Merrett and Samuel Jones is an important reminder that, for many people, the estuary is far more than just a barrier to be traversed or a source of energy to be exploited. It is also a home, a place of work, and even perhaps a source of identity. The idea of “Severnsiders” as a people and the concept of an estuarine or tidal culture are themes that I also hope to explore as the New Year, 2014, progresses.

For a more detailed account of the collision between the Argo and the Wye see: Pultey, J. (1999) A Maritime Grave at Newnham. Glevensis, 32, 19 – 21.

Getting a feel for the landscape: the Peak District

By Carry van Lieshout

Peak District

Landscape of the Peak District.
Source: wikipedia

My first two months working on the project started off with several expeditions to the Peak District. These included a visit to the Mining Museum at Matlock Bath, where I stocked up on books and explored inside the Temple Mine; a talk on the geology and mineralisation of the Peak District at Buxton; and a visit to the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO Heritage site to see Richard Arkwright’s cotton mills, the first of which made use of the Cromford Sough. These fieldtrips also allowed me to visit the lovely Chatsworth estate, where I learned about water landscaping and enjoyed the autumn colours.

Arkwright Masson Mills

Richard Arkwright and Co, Masson Mills, Derbyshire. Source: Wikipedia

Getting a feel for the physical landscape and the sites I will be researching provided a good background to help me get stuck in the literature on soughs and the history of Derbyshire lead mining. Much of the work on soughs is written by geologists who surveyed the mines in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were still active as fluorspar mines. They collected a wealth of knowledge about the physical characteristics of the soughs, but no environmental history drawing out the connections between trades and people that these features represent. At same time, and still ongoing, I am reading about the social history of the Peak District, especially its mining industry and the mills and cotton legacy along the river Derwent.

On 12 November Georgina and I had the honour to meet Dr Jim Rieuwerts, who has been researching Derbyshire mines and soughs for 60 years and is still going strong. Jim imparted some of his encyclopedic knowledge on everything related to the history of Derbyshire lead mining to us, and proved great company to boot. He was very supportive of our project and suggested several cases of conflicts surrounding the soughs that we can use as case studies to look into the different stakeholders involved. In the afternoon we took Jim to the University of Nottingham’s Special Collections for him to see an early eighteenth-century document he hadn’t been able to access before, which made the trip useful for him as well. Jim was an absolute wealth of information and I am still following up on leads that came up during this meeting.

On 3 December Georgina and I visited the Peak District National Park Authority’s office in Bakewell, where we met Ken Smith and John Barnatt.  The PDNPA have agreed to collaborate on the sough-strand of the project (together with the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO heritage site). Together we identified which soughs would be useful for them to know more about. As there are current issues around the implications of soughs around the Lathkindale Site of Special Scientific Interest and how they affect the water level of the river they are keen to hear about its history and how changes in water levels affected local people. This site was on our list of conflicts from Jim so it will definitely become one of our case studies. Ken and John also showed us some of their collections. The PDNPA has conducted research into landscape changes over time in the Peak District, and has tons of information available which they were very happy to let us have access to. I did not realise that institutions like these did so much original research so this was a great discovery for the project!

The last week before Christmas will be spend on identifying appropriate archival sources for the soughs conflicts that we aim to focus on, and I am looking forward to get into the archives in January.

The Severn Bore, Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, 6 December 2013

Project strand 1 (Bristol) excursion: Peter Coates, Alexander Portch and Jill Payne

By Jill Payne

Severn Bore

Severn Bore near Over Bridge, Gloucestershire.
Source: Wikipedia

On 6 December, the Severn bore (the regular tidal surge that sweeps up the River Severn) made its way past Minsterworth as a relatively benign, if inexorable, swell of a few feet high. Without a crest, and moving at no more than a stately speed, its surge hauled upstream a procession of substantial logs and branches interspersed with a surprisingly limited amount of visible plastic.

As the Severn bore goes, this was unexceptional, the river acknowledging neither the previous night’s destructive storm and tidal surge to the east nor the passing of Nelson Mandela thousands of miles to the south.

It can be a capricious thing, the Severn bore. At times ‘heralded by a reverberating roar’, it has been described as a ‘huge foam-crested wave’ (The Times, 30 October, 1924) and a ‘great river monster’ (The Times, 12 April, 1927). In March 1934, spectators at Stone Bench were rewarded with a ‘wall of water…fully 12ft in height’ that flooded the river banks, but the even more noteworthy bore predicted for the following day failed to meet expectations (The Times, 19 March, 1934).

In the course of efforts to pin down the bore, it has been analysed, compared and predicted to within an inch of its life. Like bed and breakfasts, there is a rating system for bores. 6 December was predicted to be a medium or ‘two star’ affair. Next 2 February may, with the right conditions, bring a very large or ‘five star’ event. However, while science and twitter feeds do their best to provide advance knowledge, down on the river bank we are simply one more set of creatures watching to see what nature presents us with. Stand too far down the bank and we are liable to be swept off our feet to join the driftwood convoy. In September 1954, the poet and politician Lord Rufus Noel-Buxton, known for fording the Thames and the Humber, almost failed in his crossing of what he believed to be the Roman ford across the Severn between Alvington and Sheperdine when he missed his footing near the far bank just as the bore reached him (The Times, September 16, 1954).

While there is a degree of localised/specialised interest in the Severn bore, alongside a measure of media coverage, it has had a reasonably minor role in the construction of the identity of the regions that surround it. This in spite of the extent to which the Severn, estuary and river, has always been the watery jugular of the nearby parts of England and Wales; together with the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel, its influence is of course even more far-reaching.

Proponents of the much-disputed Severn Barrage envisage a further critical – but boreless – role for the Severn, harnessed and, arguably, producing as much tidal energy as several nuclear power plants.

Faced with the uncertainties of fracking, and further nuclear energy development just a few miles down the coast at Hinkley Point, we may have much to gain from making the Severn a more manageable and energy-productive creature – but (other environmental implications aside) will our farmed river compensate us for the flat-lining of yet another sliver of natural unpredictability?

Researching a river and other adventures

By Leona Skelton

So much has happened since the long awaited 01/10/13, the day on which I opened the “black box” of records on the management of the River Tyne over the centuries (crediting Sara Pritchard, Confluence (2011), for the “black box” metaphor, of course). I’ve immersed myself in an interesting, but somewhat frustratingly blinkered, world of many, many popular books written about the Tyne, from Queens of the Tyne: The River’s Great Liners, 1888-1973, to Tyne Waters: A River and its Salmon, to The River Tyne: From Sea to Source, to Waters of Tyne: A River Journey through History, which, though informative, focus on only one particular segment of the Tyne’s history. A notable exception is David Archer’s Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the Tyne, a collection of essays which together provide a comprehensive introduction to the river’s characteristics and history. What’s clearly missing is a Tyne equivalent of Pritchard’s Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhone, Cioc’s The Rhine: An Eco-Biography or Smout’s The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History. October consisted of an in-depth, exhaustive and informative, if rather neat and short, literature review completed. Job done.

After a thorough trawl through several online archive catalogues, I knew what my task was and broadly how I planned to fulfil it (with bells on). The next task was to retrace my steps from the particular passageways of the Tyne’s fluvial history and to zoom back out to a different, and perhaps more challenging, question: how will my research inform the overall project, ‘The Power and the Water’? Cue Project Team Meeting One, at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers), London. I read some interesting documents at the British Library the day before the meeting: accounts of the Tyne floods of 1771 and 1815, a list of bye-laws written in 1613 to protect the river from rubbish disposal and other damage and a letter written by a local man in 1852, advising the newly created Tyne Improvement Commission how best to improve the river. Then, I left the security of a neatly defined research project which I had focused on solely for five weeks and began discussing infinite possibilities for impact and ideas for future connectivity between my research and that of others, researching topics as diverse as Peak District soughs to the history of the National Grid. Initial discussions at our first meeting were promising, and gave us all a lot to think about. For example, could our research lead to: designing apps for gyms enabling people to ‘walk’ the Tyne or ‘row’ the Severn on a fitness machine; hosting an educational exhibition with a project partner; or using Geographic Information Systems to provide an interactive, visual representation of a changing river from decade to decade? The possibilities are endless. A very fruitful meeting.

Tyne River

The quayside at Newcastle upon Tyne – Source: Wikipedia

Next stop was a full week researching in Newcastle, at the Literary and Philosophical Society, Tyne and Wear Archives and Northumberland Archives. Staying at a hotel very close to the Millennium Bridge was a privilege and standing halfway across the walkway of the bridge, looking at the ferocious and wandering tidal meanders of the cold current passing beneath my feet as the sun went down, was the perfect way to debrief from the archival discoveries of each day. The highlights of the research were: the Northumbrian Anglers’ Association Handbook and Guide to North Country Angling (1960), in which they truly spear-headed the demand for more efficient action to reduce waste-disposal into the Tyne (a book that Peter, with his salmon obsession, got very excited about); a manuscript River Court Book, written in 1645, recording the weekly presentments and fines of those who damaged the river in any way; and a minute book of the Fishery Board for the Fishery District of the River Tyne, 1939-1940, discussing inefficient practices of sheep-dipping in the upper reaches of the river, which enabled dangerous liquid wastewater to leak into the Tyne. A highly productive week!

On the Thursday of my research week in Newcastle, Peter Coates flew up from Bristol for our meeting with Andrew Moore, the Director of Research at Northumbrian Water, at their Head Office in that enigmatically named place, Pity Me, on the outskirts of Durham. (Heading south from the airport on the A1, Peter caught his first-ever glimpse of the ‘Angel of the North’.) Andrew has kindly invited the project members on a tour of Howdon Water Treatment Works in mid-2014 and introduced us to his colleagues, Martin and Sue, chemical engineers who work on flood management and river water quality, respectively. The future relationship with Northumbrian Water looks promising and there are lots of opportunities to develop some of the ideas discussed, particularly in relation to customer engagement and education. Peter accompanied me on a short tour of the Lit and Phil, where the Tyne Improvement Commissioners used to study, which Peter described as ‘just like a Cambridge College’, the Union Rooms, where the Tyne Improvement Commissioners used to socialise, and the Crown Posada, an unspoilt Victorian-style pub near the waterfront, which plays vinyl, serves proper ales and provides a unique atmosphere in which to meditate and discuss ideas (and which Peter described as ‘worthy of Liverpool’).

On my return, I worked on building a relationship with the Clean Tyne Project, which was established in 1989 in an effort to combat the problem of debris and litter in and on the river. I have arranged an initial meeting with Jayne Calvert on 11/12/13 and will be discussing future involvement, including potentially taking the entire project out on the river on one of their debris collection vessels. I have also been ploughing through more printed minute books of the Tyne Improvement Commission, which I borrow from the Lit and Phil for three weeks, twelve at a time. I have taken thorough notes from all of the volumes between 1875 and 1899 and will collect another twelve tomorrow, on 11/12/13. I intend to read every volume until the dissolution of the commission, in 1968, so plenty work still to go on that front.

Panic struck on 04/12/13 as the Tyne burst its banks for the first time in three decades, and flooded substantial sections of the quayside. This event has promoted a lot of discussion online in relation to flood defences along the river and how local people perceive and interact with the Tyne, which will undoubtedly provide opportunities for future engagement. Thankfully the Crown Posada was unaffected and will still be there to welcome us all at the Project Team meeting in May or June 2014. Don’t worry, the whole meeting will not be taking place in this remarkable pub (if only…).

The very latest news is that I have been invited to deliver an MA seminar at York University with Prof David Moon on the subject of rivers in Feb 14. The students are particularly interested in our work with project partners. I’m very much looking forward to communicating my research findings and impact so far to several enthusiastic students!