Monthly Archives: June 2014

Tigers on the Tyne

By Carry van Lieshout

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

Boat on the Tyne

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

Fishing rubbish

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

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

Wood fished out of river

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

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

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

The tiger

Peter Coates and the tiger. Photo: Carry van Lieshout

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

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

Web links

Clean Tyne:

For the 10% figure in the last paragraph:

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

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

Read the report at

Dunston Staiths

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

One Eye on the Tyne -the Other on the Time!

By Leona Skelton

Having researched the development of drainage and sewage disposal systems (1500 to the present), for the last decade of my life, I felt enormously privileged to have been invited by Northumbrian Water to be shown around the facilities at their extensive Waste Water Treatment Works at Howdon, Newcastle on Tyne. The day I had been dreaming of (literally) since I can remember had arrived: Thursday 5th June 2014. By the time Team Power and the Water had assembled at our hotel’s reception for my stamp test, to confirm that everyone was wearing steel toe capped boots, I could hardly contain myself! Over the past few months, project members had dutifully visited various building trade stores around the country and, as I was relieved to see, they were all wearing appropriate – if amazingly diverse – footwear.

Disaster struck as we travelled to the site in the form of a big tunnel. Despite all of our combined academic degrees, we took the wrong turn down the ‘Tyne Tunnel Only’ road to South Tyneside! A snip at £3.20 return, per vehicle, and all very worthwhile for the team to see the Tyne Tunnel in all its glory first hand, but more to the point, it cost us fifteen precious minutes. My dream had been cut short and I was not happy. Speeding to the works as swiftly as we could, we discovered a fellow historian, who was joining us for the visit, looking very confused, stranded on a roundabout. Where is this place? Is it a national secret? Peter Coates duly rescued him and we arrived at reception to meet Andrew Moore, Northumbrian Water’s Director of Research, some twenty-five minutes late.

We were delighted to meet our tour guides, Tony and John, who gave us a fascinating presentation, explaining the history of the interceptor sewer, the catchment area which Howdon treatment works serves and an overview of the processes and systems carried out at the site. Hard hats and high visibility jackets were added to our steel toe capped boots and off we went, in two groups, to discover the wonders of Howdon.


Breaking in the Boots on the Site Tour. Photo: M. Dudley

First stop was the initial screening machines, which de-rag the waste and remove the grit washed down off the roads along with the rainwater, known as preliminary treatment. I looked through the windows at the complex arsenal of machinery designed to perform what many might be forgiven for assuming is a relatively simple function of physical separation. The waste from this process is sent directly to landfill while the residual waste is sent for primary treatment in large, covered settling tanks. The stress of being sucked down the Tyne Tunnel could not have been further from my mind. This is where the magic began…

The site was much larger than I had expected and I was mightily impressed by the complexity of the whole operation. It looks impressive above ground, let alone underground.

Underground waterworks

Team Power and the Water going Deeper Underground (not for the first time that morning!) Photo: M. Dudley

After the de-ragged waste has been allowed to settle, the sludge is removed from the liquid waste and, along with similar sludge brought by tankers from other treatment works, some of it is made into useful agricultural fertiliser while the rest is used to generate energy. The new anaerobic digestion technology, which came online in 2012, is really exciting. It allows Northumbrian Water to convert organic waste into biogas that can then be converted into electricity. Their AD (Anaerobic Digestion) technology is going a long way towards helping Northumbrian Water to achieve their goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions of 2008 by 35% by 2020. Walking up 23 feet of stairs to the top of one of the AD tanks rewarded us not only with a spectacle of the amazingly complex AD plant, but also with a very welcome bonus view of the Tyne, which lay immediately to the south, allowing project members to appreciate the scale of Tyneside’s mighty river.

Back to the liquid waste which, due to primary treatment, consequently possesses far less capacity to reduce dissolved oxygen in the river. The liquid undergoes secondary treatment in large, open, concrete tanks, where the bacteria feeds on the sewage in the presence of oxygen until the liquid’s demand for oxygen is minimal, thus rendering it significantly less harmful to the river. Minimal, remaining bacteria is then removed from the water using ultra violet light before the water is ready to be released into the River Tyne.

Radiant Blogger

The Radiant Blogger Underground at the Treatment Works. Photo: M. Dudley

We were given a fantastic insight into all stages of treatment and everyone was thrilled to have been given such an absorbing tour of Northumbrian Water’s essential work at a site whose vital function most people take for granted. We then had lunch and asked questions about the site, discussing potential areas of collaboration between our team and theirs. We all learnt a lot and what we saw gave us much to think about. Later, over dinner, Peter Coates sulked for a few minutes because he wasn’t allowed to feel the not so pungent ‘material’ that comes out of the plant between his fingers. But if that’s the only complaint, I think the trip can safely be termed a success.

Further developing of our relationship with project partner Northumbrian Water is integral to the aims of the Tyne element of the ‘Power and Water’ project and will also help advance the overall project’s wider aspirations in terms of impact and engagement. I’m delighted to have been invited to meet Northumbrian Water’s Customer Engagement Manager, Lucy Denham, on 26th June in Newcastle. I’m really looking forward to embracing the challenge of finding exciting and useful ways of deploying my research to inform, and hopefully to enhance, this increasingly important area of Northumbrian Water’s work.

is integral to the aims of the Tyne element of the ‘Power and Water’ project and will also help advance the overall project’s wider aspirations in terms of impact and engagement. I’m delighted to have been invited to meet Northumbrian Water’s Customer Engagement Manager, Lucy Denham, on 26th June in Newcastle. I’m really looking forward to embracing the challenge of finding exciting and useful ways of deploying my research to inform, and hopefully to enhance, this increasingly important area of Northumbrian Water’s work.

Mechanical Ballet: Shipping and the Port of Tyne

By Marianna Dudley

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


Cranes at Port of Tyne. Photo: Marianna Dudley

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Taking the wheel on the Tyne

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

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

Just don’t tell the lads they are ballerinas.



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