Monthly Archives: March 2014

Co-production of knowledge: shaping the research framework of the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage Site

By Carry van Lieshout and Georgina Endfield

The Silk Mill Museum

The Silk Mill Museum. Source: Wikipedia


The Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage site stretches along the river Derwent in Derbyshire, and incorporates the early industrial mills of this area. These include the Silk Mill in Derby, were John Lombe introduced water-powered silk spinning, as well as Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford, considered the birthplace of the factory system that allowed water-powered continuous production. Arkwright’s technology as well as his model of worker’s settlements were copied along the course of the river and beyond, as the mechanisation of cotton production spread out over the world. Because of the central role many of these mills played in the Industrial Revolution, a 15 mile stretch of the Derwent Valley was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. The site is managed by the Derwent Valley Mills Partnership, which also produces books and educational material about the mills and the valley’s wider significance.

The Derwent Valley Mills Partnership is currently planning its new research framework, funded by English Heritage, and has organised 4 workshops to develop research objectives on a series of broad themes. The author’s of this blog post, Georgina and Carry attended the first one of these workshops on March 17. While preliminary meetings had identified a range of topics or questions that have either received little attention or could benefit from more analysis, these topics needed to be brought together into narratives in order to form a coherent research strategy. This strategy will essentially be a synthesis of current views of research priorities and will be useful for future projects or funding applications. While most of the broad themes were not specifically sough related, our input is allowing us to shape their research strategy by contributing cutting edge views from the field of environmental history and by offering power and water as potential narratives to study this area.

The workshop was held at the Silk Mill in Derby. This mill had originally been constructed by George Sorocold and became the first mill in England to use water power to mass-produce silk. The Silk Mill is currently being reinvented as a venue for co-production, creativity and knowledge exchange, based on the principles of the Enlightenment, and its combination of large open spaces, river views and interesting nooks and crannies make it an inspiring venue for a meeting.  Fuelled by regular biscuit breaks and a lunch trip to a very pleasant local deli, we participated in a broad ranging set of discussions with our focus group.

Flip chart

Our focus group at work. Photo: Carry van Lieshout

The group was a mix of academics from a variety of universities and disciplines, local historians, representatives of diverse museums, conservation societies and researchers from the other mills. We split into groups to tackle the 3 themes of the day: Changing Interpretations of the Derwent Valley, Industry and Trade before the Factory System, and the Enlightenment. The format was that each group would come up with 3 Research Objectives for each theme, each of which would combine several of the research topics. The projected outcome at the end of the series of workshops will be a Research Agenda and Strategy for the Derwent Valley Mills Heritage Site in book and web form. An earlier example of such a research strategy document for East Midlands Heritage, which this process was based on, has been successful in identifying viable projects and guiding funding applications. The wealth of untapped resources and narratives that could be studied in the context of the Derwent makes us hopeful that this series of workshop will do the same!

The Tyne’s Dramatic Story Played out on a Stage

By Leona Skelton

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

Custom House Theatre

The Custom House Theatre, South Shields.
Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

Tyne ferry landing

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiring the next generation of Environmental Historians at the University of York

By Leona Skelton

Having spent a large proportion of my time analysing the volumes of the Tyne Improvement Commission (up to 1939, so only 3 decades to go!), and one week in late January at the National Archives in London, I emerged last Tuesday, 18th Feb, from a quiet, focused and highly productive world of research to discuss my Tyne project with several environmental history MA students at the University of York. Thankfully, I hadn’t forgotten how to teach, or indeed, how to talk at all. I delivered the seminar alongside the course leader, Professor David Moon, an environmental historian who has worked extensively with us on our previous AHRC-funded projects, ‘Local Places, Global Processes: Histories of Environmental Change’ and its follow-on, ‘The Places that Speak to Us and the Publics We Talk With’.

Preparing for the seminar provided an opportunity to take a few steps back and organise the copious amount of archival material I have thus far amassed. I prepared some power point slides, and divided the Tyne’s story chronologically into four sections: The Pre-Modern River, 1500-1800; The Industrial River, 1800-1975; The Kielder Scheme and Regeneration, 1975-present; and the Tyne’s Future. I also presented a few slides on the existing literature, emphasising how different and exciting forms of media are currently enabling a diverse range of people to engage with the Tyne’s history.

  • Tyne View: a walk around the Port of Tyne, was published in 2012 to tell the story of an epic walk along the Tyne’s tidal section, from South Shields to Tynemouth via Wylam Bridge, by four locals (a photographer, a writer, an artist and a poet). The successful book contains an exciting mixture of social history, photography, illustrations, interviews with locals and poetry.
  • Tyne View’s author, Michael Chaplin, has written a theatre production called ‘Tyne’, which celebrates the history of Tyneside’s great river using dramatization and a combination of music, images and stories written by several local writers. I am delighted to have a ticket to see the production at the Customs House, South Shields, on Saturday 1st March (watch this space for my critique!).
  • Sting’s recent album, ‘The Last Ship’, released in late 2013, provides a deep insight into the river’s industrial past, with clever lyrics describing intimate details from working lives, providing a direct line to the industrial Tyne. My favourite song is ‘Skyhooks and Tartan Paint’ – listen to it online and I guarantee that it will make you smile. If you need any Geordie to English translations, you know where I am!

I was delighted to meet such an enthusiastic group of students, who had prepared exceptionally well for a consequently fruitful and mutually beneficial seminar discussion. They were particularly interested in how my research findings could be used to inform and shape future Tyne policies as a result of working hard during the research project to build relationships with relevant governmental bodies, local charities and water companies. We discussed my invitation to join the Clean Tyne Project’s Steering Committee to plan their 25 year anniversary celebrations, which will take place in summer 2014, and their kind offer to demonstrate their important debris collection work on the river to all ‘Power and  Water’ team members at our Team Project Meeting in Newcastle in early June 2014.

We also discussed the Dunston Staiths Restoration project, which is going to use recycled wood, collected from the river and provided free of charge by the Clean Tyne Project, to restore the UK’s largest timber structure. Dunston Staiths were built originally in 1893 to facilitate the discharge of coal from the railway to keel boats. Once completed, the restored staiths, which will be open to the public, will form an important part of future generations’ education and heritage, as well as making an important contribution to tourism.

We discussed the complex relationship between the Tyne and human activity, in terms of what we have done to the river and what the river has done to us as a two-way, symbiotic process. The subject of unintentional, positive impacts of human activity on rivers was raised, and we discussed the example, highlighted by T. C. Smout and Mairi Stewart in their The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History (2012), of ducks having flourished by eating the worms which fed on sewage and the organic discharges from breweries and distilleries and then subsequently plunging into rapid decline when the sewage was redirected from the Forth to treatment works to improve water quality (pp. 166-167). We also discussed Smout and Stewart’s example of how the removal of the mills upriver changed the Forth’s flow, which reduced the numbers of dragonflies and frogs (p. 174). I am going to keep my eyes open for similar processes in the Tyne’s history.

The students asked if the River Tyne has accumulated any nicknames. This is something which I have not considered thus far; if people have used affectionate or derisory nicknames when referring to the river, this could provide a useful route to understanding how the meaning of the river changed from generation to generation. The archives are full of derisory descriptions of the river, such as ‘cursed horse pond’, ‘simply a creek’ and ‘open sewer’, but an actual personifying ‘name’ for the river is a different concept entirely. I will look into this matter further.

The seminar was a great idea, suggested by David Moon, and proved to be a roaring success. I hope that the students took as much from the seminar as I did. I would like to thank the University of York, Prof. Moon and his MA students for the warm welcome I received last week and on behalf of the Power and the Water team, I wish them the best of luck with the rest of their environmental history course.


Read David Moon’s response to Leona’s reflections on inspiring environmental history students

The Severn Bore – anything but

By Marianna Dudley

I had done my Bore homework (checking the timetables, watching YouTube videos, even logging in to Bore surfers’ forums to get the latest gossip of where to watch and surf the river wave).  But, by the time the crest of water surged into view from our riverbank viewing point at Arlingham, all prior knowledge fell away during what was a much more exhilarating, raw and absorbing experience than I had prepared for.  A moving wall of water, surging against the downstream flow of the river at a conjuncture of time and tide, channeled by the land either side until, with nowhere to go, the energy behind the surge forms into a wave?  This truly was a natural spectacle.

Preparations for the Bore

Carpark preparations at Arlingham. Photo: Marianna Dudley

This was the second Team Power and Water trip to watch the bore, and my first.  Over the next two years I am investigating our seemingly insatiable and imaginative need to turn to water for recreation, and the hardy river surfers of the Severn are a group that I want to connect with, talk to, and understand in a historical context.   I grew up in Cornwall and have surfed for years; I know the unique rewards of climbing into wetsuits and braving cold seas through winter. But, stood, shivering, on the riverbank watching men dressed head-to-toe in

Walking to the river

Getting down the riverbank is tricky. Photo: Marianna Dudley

rubber sliding, inelegantly but necessarily, on their bottoms down the muddy bank and entering the brown river water, I admit that I wondered why they did it.  (Note: I counted forty surfers in the water at Arlingham.  Some drifted over from the village of Newnham on the opposite bank; but all those who left from Arlingham were men.  There was a level of ‘blokey’ camaraderie, and plenty of back-slapping and greeting of (old?) friends.  I’ll be looking into the dynamics of the river surfers’ relationships with each other as well as the water; the ‘who’, as well as the ‘why’ and ‘where’.)

Severs enter the water

Surfers make their way out to the water. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The men sat on their longboards in waist-deep water, and we spectators chatted amongst ourselves. I’d estimate that there were at least as many of us watching as there were in the water.  Over the river at Newnham, there was a visibly larger crowd. Cameras and phones were poised to capture the last 5* Bore of the year (there is in fact another one in September, but it happens at night).  It was 08.19 in the morning, and we’d brought packed breakfasts and flasks of tea.  Some people had binoculars, and someone else was filming with a camera set on a tripod (the latter was positively identified, enventually, by Alexander – though we didn’t want to interrupt him – as Antony Lyons, an environmental artist who is currently a Leverhulme Trust artist in residence at the University of Gloucestershire’s Countryside and Community Research Institute, where he’s working on a project entitled ‘Sabrina Dreaming (Severn Estuary Tidelands)’). There was a sense of occasion befitting a sporting event.  Then someone remarked ‘There it is!’, and all focus turned to the water.

 Bore begins to pick up surfers

The Bore begins to pick up the waiting surfers. Photo: Marianna Dudley

It moved fast. It picked up the surfers and propelled them upriver at a speed that almost shocked me.  It was noisy, a wall of sound as well as water. It churned and changed form, the wave forming clean faces in some sections where it passed over sandbanks, crumbling at other places into a broiling brown-white mess of water.  The surfers were carried by this liquid energy, arms waving as they tried to keep their balance.

Line of surfers

The surfers line up as they pass Newnham church. Photo: Marianna Dudley

At one point, they lined up beautifully just as they passed us, gliding in harmony. Shortly after, most of them were off their boards and beginning the most difficult stage of their journey: that from river to shore, paddling against the surge rather than riding with it.  One man we chatted to said that his personal record was surfing a 3-mile stretch. The pitfall of success when surfing the Severn Bore is that the farther you surf, the further you have to trudge back to your car in a cold and clammy wetsuit.

After the wave itself passed, the spectacle wasn’t over.  Water rushed across the riverbed and filled it.  It was also a very high tide; the riverbank couldn’t contain the water, and it eked over to fill the grassland before coming to a stop at a man-made embankment (there to protect the farmland and houses behind).  Eyes tuned to watch the water now picked out floating logs, debris and seabirds moving, for a change, upriver.

Aftermath of the bore

Aftermath: the river floods the embankment. Note the submerged bench in the middle ground. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The experience of the Severn Bore was a sensory display of the power of water, and of the human determination to harness some of that energy for pure joy. It occupies a place in the local calendar (timetables are published yearly), but the regularity of its occurrence hasn’t diminished the excitement of experiencing it.  People travel to see (and surf it), and those who don’t are still able to view it.  This year, a Sky News helicopter filmed aerial footage of the bore – by 4pm two days after the event, it had received 374,829 views on YouTube. I enjoyed the commentator’s observation that it was a bit like the Grand National, cheering on the surfers and willing them not to fall. This bore is a phenomenon in many ways, nature being just one.

Returning surfers

The surfers return to their cars, and waiting friends and families. Photo: Marianna Dudley