Monthly Archives: August 2014

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

By Marianna Dudley

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

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

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

Northumberland’s ‘Hardest’ Geordie forces us to think about Landscape Art and the Definition of a Beautiful Landscape

By Leona Skelton

During my summer holiday in Northumberland, I visited the relatively new land sculpture, Northumberlandia, near Cramlington. Northumberlandia could certainly handle herself in Newcastle on Tyne’s drinking and clubbing centre, the Bigg Market, containing 1.5 million tonnes of rock, soil and clay, towering 100 feet high and measuring a quarter of a mile long. Changing with the seasons, and designed to mature over generations, she reflects the local people’s relationship with the environment, providing a welcome sanctuary for dog walkers, tourists and hill walkers, notably to the exclusion of cyclists. This ‘Lady’, covering a 46-acre, free access, community park, and containing over four miles of footpaths, is certainly worth a visit. As can be seen in the photos, she is perhaps best appreciated from the air, but the majority of her visitors don’t own private choppers, so they wander the ground – under her nostrils, along her fingers, over her brow and down her legs. It certainly makes for an unusual (and completely free) day out.

Northumberlandia’s Face

Northumberlandia’s Face (Photo: Leona Skelton)

The landowner, the Blagdon Estate, with the Banks Group, a Durham-based land development and mining company, funded the £3 million project privately to sugar the pill of restoring the neighbouring Shotton surface coal mine, which is now back in operation, feeding the UK energy industry. The site is now maintained by the Land Trust, with the support of Northumberland Wildlife Trust. Inspired by the adjacent Cheviot Hills, which are renowned for their gentle curves and majestic presence as they watch over the county, Northumberlandia was designed by her creator, the American born architect Charles Jencks, to celebrate the female form. Jencks describes the site as a ‘cosmic setting’, explaining that through his work, he attempts to find relationships between ‘the big and the small, science and spirituality and the universe and the landscape’ – quite an ambitious brief!

Northumberlandia’s Right Hand

Northumberlandia’s Right Hand (Photo: Leona Skelton)

The tourist attraction, which presents a very tangible and graphic example of a human impact on the landscape, inspired me to think about: landscape protection and damage; the definition and definitions of a beautiful landscape; nature, sculpture and art; and how we have forged, continue to forge and, indeed, to express our ever-changing relationship with the environment. In December 2013, shocking statistics were aired in the media, confirming that UK golf courses took up more land than UK homes. To take golf courses as an example, does constructing them damage or enhance the environment? It’s a hugely controversial and ultimately subjective question. Many golfers would argue that a well-tended and pristine golf course is a form of landscape beauty in itself, as they genuinely appreciate, admire and enjoy the environment of manicured fairways and greens, artificial lakes and ponds and sculpted bunkers filled with clean and soft sand, the hallmarks of an impressive golf course, for which a substantial number of golfers are prepared to pay large sums of money. How many golfers, however, object to the extensive use of pesticides, weed killers and machinery to obliterate nature and effectively sculpt the landscape in order for them to play their apparently land greedy game? Can both a golf course and wild flower, moorland wilderness be beautiful, admired and cherished? The answer is yes, but the respective groups of admirers, I guess, would be almost mutually exclusive.

Northumberlandia reminded me of the land art which appeared across the beautiful, albeit agricultural, landscape of the Yorkshire Dales during Le Tour de France in July 2014. The project, Fields of Vision, produced twelve pieces of artwork, which were created on the hillsides visible from the cycle route, with the intention of entertaining the cyclists and spectators, as well as showcasing Yorkshire proudly to the world in no uncertain terms. Co-ordinated by Pennine Prospects, a rural regeneration company for the South Pennines, the artworks were produced by artists, young farmers, scientists, cyclists, communities and landowners. The giant images included a flat-capped farmer, one man and his dog, a poem and the image of a bike, literally worn into the hillside by a plethora of cyclists following a designated track in the shape of a bike.

Transforming the landscape into art is not a new concept, having been an expression of human relationships with the environment since ancient times. The giant man engraved into a chalk hill above Cerne Abbas in Dorset is believed to date back to the Iron Age. If we are to develop our understanding of human relationships with the environment, perhaps these very obvious expressions of human culture, installed into the landscape to communicate a particular and enduring message, using the land itself as a medium for communication, might be a good place to start.

Finally, as I can’t possibly write a blog without referring to my current Tyne project, the Jetty Project’s ‘Cone’ sculpture, recently erected on Dunston Staiths, is also well worth a visit. It dominates the Tyne riverscape in a powerful and deeply symbolic way, I’m sure you’ll agree.



Aerial View of Northumberlandia:

BBC Magazine: ‘How much of the UK is covered in golf course?’ [24/12/2013]

BBC News, England: ‘Aerial artworks for Tour de France in Yorkshire’ [09/06/2014]

Dunston Staiths: Industry as Art in the Landscape of the Tyne

By Jill Payne

As part of their Newcastle trip in June, the Power and Water team walked through Riverside Park to Dunston Staiths with Dr Angela Connelly from the Jetty Project and David Fraser, industrial heritage researcher.

Does energy infrastructure have to be redundant before it can be accepted as integral to the landscape?

Dunston Staiths is an iconic window into the age when coal was king on Tyneside. Built in the 1890s and finally closed in 1980, it’s a towering wooden structure that facilitated faster coal loading onto the ships that lined the Tyne at Gateshead before hurrying their cargoes to London and other industrialising centres hungry for fuel. In 2013, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded nearly £420,000 to the Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust as part of an ongoing restoration plan for the Staiths that includes improved public access and enhanced engagement with Newcastle’s coal heritage. The funding also envisions the ‘reconnection of the Staiths with the surrounding saltmarsh and wider natural heritage’.

Dunston Staiths at low tide. Photo: Jill Payne

Dunston Staiths at low tide. Photo: Jill Payne

The Staiths, of course, has been connected to the riverscape that it looms over ever since its construction; it’s us onlookers who need to be shown how to see it that way. On the whole, energy infrastructure tends to be too large-scale and, well, industrial, for many of us to view it as anything more than non-natural and detached from nature – and quite often, nowadays, detached from people and communities too.

Dunston Staiths, now a scheduled monument and Grade II-listed building, reminds us that today’s ‘eyesore’ energy infrastructure may be tomorrow’s cultural heritage site. Some 35 years after the Staiths’ working life ended, it’s not difficult to view it as a grand addition to the public art dotting Riverside Park as it spools out from the centre of Newcastle. Here, works like Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010) – giant rivets strewn alongside the path – anticipate the Staiths further upriver and remind us that people were working the riverbank long before we relaxed along it.

Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010). Photo: Jill Payne

Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010). Photo: Jill Payne

As energy production methods change, the redundant infrastructure of past technologies – so often super-sized and out of scale – builds up around us. The more structurally viable of these constructions can be reinterpreted to excellent effect: viz the stunning spaces of Tate Modern, formerly London’s oil-fired Bankside Power Station. Others are more challenging: the cooling towers of Richborough Power Station in Kent were demolished in 2012, although not without debate and commemoration.

As heritage technology, we can deal with energy infrastructure – celebrate it, even. If it must be demolished, there is likely to be at least some concern expressed for the loss of landmarks and historical markers. Over the years, layers of meaning can be attached to any physical presence; time and socio-cultural associations can help us to smooth over the disconnection between us and the energy structures that have sustained us. However, over and above the comfort engendered by familiarity, it seems that we may be more accepting of energy structures as integral to our communities and our landscapes once they are no longer fit for their original purpose. Are we better able to appreciate them once they are presented to us outside of their original, workaday context? What, then, does this say about our responses to the infrastructure that currently supports us – solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors – or, like fracking mechanism – may do so in the future?

More about Dr Angela Connelly’s Riverside Art Walk with the Power and Water team and David Fraser here.


Regenerating a river: how the future of the River Tyne could be its past

By Erin Gill

I’m not the first – or even the thousandth – person to feel that there is something genuinely thrilling about the view from Newcastle’s quayside across the River Tyne to the enormous, undulating Sage Gateshead. It’s a view that is supported, rather than undermined, by the much older architecture of St Mary’s church, which is immediately adjacent. The view is enhanced further by the way both buildings are framed by the glorious bulk of the Tyne Bridge and by the double curve of Gateshead Millennium cycle & footbridge.

Seeing it again recently with colleagues from the Power & the Water environmental history network, I felt a surge of gratitude toward the many individuals – none of whom I know – who made this ambitious plan for the Gateshead riverside a reality. My guess is that a good many of them were – or are – employees of Gateshead City Council or other organisations currently under pressure as England operates under the grip of public sector ‘austerity’.

The renewal of the Gateshead portion of the Tyne riverside isn’t something that was bound to happen. It takes a city – or two, perhaps a whole region? – filled with determined and rather ambitious people to turn an urban regeneration project of this scale into a lasting success. I have lost count of the number of times people I know from the North East have told me what a wonderful place the Baltic-Sage-Millennium Bridge-Newcastle Quayside area is. They usually add that when they were young (or when their parents were young – it depends on the age of the speaker) that the area was too rough for them.


‘You didn’t go down there.’

Their comments have made me wonder about the now-erased urban industrial waterfront. I particularly wonder about its decline. My friends’ comments suggest there might have been a time after the waterfront’s heyday as an industrial workspace, when it was in decline and when it became less a place of work and more one of malicious mischief, a place of danger after dark, and sometimes during the day. Is this accurate?


Newcastle and river Tyne

Newcastle castle keep across the Tyne to Gateshead, 1950s.
Source: Wikimedia Commons


Tyne Bridge

Sage Gateshead with Tyne Bridge in foreground. Photo by Christine Matthews, Geograph










I wonder also whether I have understood the regeneration story correctly. First was Gateshead Millennium Bridge, beautiful to look at, but even more exciting to use. Designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre, it opened in 2001. Next was Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, creating a new use for a derelict flour mill. Completed in 2002 it was first imagined by public sector body, Northern Arts, in the early 1990s. Then in 2004, the stunning Fosters & Partners-designed concert hall, Sage Gateshead, opened. Gazing at it initially from the Newcastle side, I was reminded that the North East is a region that has a history of ‘big’, ambitious structures – from the Tyne’s many bridges to Durham Cathedral to the now Grade II*-listed Byker housing estate, completed at the end of the 1970s.

Given the enormous scale of Sage Gateshead, it’s a good thing that Fosters’ design proved so successful. The Sage looks ‘made’ for its setting. By contrast, the architectural horror that is the Hilton Newcastle Gateshead and several of the identikit blocks of flats recently built on both sides of the Tyne in the vicinity of the Baltic do not inspire. Too much more of this type of mediocrity and the Tyne riverside running through Newcastle & Gateshead risks looking as awful as London upstream from Vauxhall Bridge.

Having created a cultural zone on the Gateshead side, complemented by the social zone of Newcastle quayside with busy nightlife and handsome Victorian municipal architecture, is there anything missing? I wonder if the time has come for the Tyne’s industrial heritage to be made more visible. Not with some twee quayside museum. That wouldn’t do, and surely has been considered and rejected already. I’m imagining something that says: “this was a big and mighty working river, a liquid highway. Today, it may be a river of leisure, but not long ago it was a river of graft.’

Dunston Staithes

Part of Dunstan Staiths, Gateshead. Photo: Erin Gill

The ideal opportunity is already there, on the riverside: Dunstan Staiths, that incredible wooden structure a bit upriver from the Sage, also on the Gateshead side. It was built as the final link in a network that allowed coal mined in the North East to be transported by rail and loaded onto ships. From Dunstan Staiths coal was carefully cascaded into waiting boats. Now standing mute, Dunstan Staiths is a testament to the North East’s history as the source – for a short time – of the world’s coal. There were dozens of these huge wooden structures along the river. Only Dunstan Staiths remains, and it only partially. Can it be revived and protected in some imaginative way? Now that the heart of Newcastle’s and Gateshead’s urban riverside has been re-cast as a cultural and social space, can’t the next project remind residents and visitors of the past? Of the machines, the pollution and the toil of working people.


Seeing is Believing?: Nina Canell’s ‘Near Here’ and Unearthing the Flows of Connectivity

By Peter Coates

Baltic Centre

Baltic Centre for Contemporary art, Gateshead. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the many river-related places we visited during our team meeting in Newcastle in early June 2014 was the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (est. 2002), which lies at the foot of the Millennium Bridge on the river’s Gateshead (south) bank. Our visit was rather rushed. The art had to be squeezed in between returning from our cruise downriver on the Clean Tyne Project’s vessel and a hasty pie and pint back on the north bank at The Red House, before heading out of town for a walk along the south branch of the Tyne.

Fortunately, my own lightning and hopelessly incomplete tour did encompass a Level 2 Gallery exhibit by Swedish artist Nina Canell. ‘Near Here’ (18 April to 20 July 2014) was a collaboration with Camden Arts Centre, where it was developed and had featured earlier this year. Camden’s ‘Family Guide’ to Canell’s installation explained that she’s ‘fascinated by forces that affect us every day but that we can’t see with our eyes – things like electricity and air. If we can’t see them, how do we know they exist?’ The Baltic’s website introduces the exhibit in more traditional ‘artspeak’: ‘Transforming electrical currents [and] atmospheric elements into sculptural components, her assemblages fuse matter, radiance and sound to create delicate and ephemeral testing grounds’.

What was uppermost in my mind during what were literally a couple of minutes spent with her work was (naturally) the idea of connectivity. Environmental connectivities reside at the heart of our project and supply the ties that bind together our three strands. We are constantly on the lookout for these ties (and glue), which usually reside underground or beneath the surface, like the infrastructure of sewage pipes, water pipes and broadband Internet cables, not to mention the electrical wiring and plumbing within the walls and under the floorboards of where we live. Where the analogy breaks down, though, is that in our research materials, not all of these connections between point of supply and point of consumption are in fact connected or ‘live’.

‘Near Here’ takes materials like cables, steel, water, concrete and voltage to create sculptural materials that blend matter, light and sound. The Baltic’s press release (17 February 2014) explained that her work gives ‘substance to the intangible and lightness to the physical’. What it also does is render the invisible visible, and brings the apparently far away closer to us (near here?). The piece entitled ‘Overcoming the Current Resistance’ (2012) – making its first European appearance, having premiered at the Cockatoo Island power plant during the 2012 Biennale of Sydney – comprises a curtain of neon tubes composed of circa 200 elements suspended in a copper frame. The work’s gaseous components create what the release refers to as an ‘ever shifting, pulsing electromagnetic energy field’.

The installation that I found most striking, though, was a water-filled tank raised on a frame like a display case (‘Forgetfulness (Dense)’). The exhibit it contained was a suspended length of underwater telecommunications cable that bore an uncanny resemblance to a fat liquorice all-sort with a particularly colourful filling. I was drawn to the combination of power and water, especially to how the heavy object carried its weight lightly within the supporting liquid, which rippled and flashed when it caught the sun. The severed nature of the weighty-looking cable also appealed to me: the power supply had been cut off, literally, from its source, at both ends, and the environing water was destructive rather than life-restoring. And in this project, we’re in the business of re-establishing severed connections.

Reading up on Canell after my visit, I was relieved to find that I hadn’t been too reductive in embracing her installations as richly suggestive material for our project (nor in thinking that if we’d commissioned her to make artworks for the project, then this is more or less what we’d have got). I quickly found a reviewer who completely understood its relevance to our project. Through objects such as ‘amputated’ cables, she explained that Canell ‘puts industrial, mundane objects that connect the sources of energy of our modern world into the viewer’s consciousness’.[i]

And then I found a video interview in which Canell explained that her aim in ‘Near Here’ is to ask questions such as what is nearness; to use her art to examine notions of proximity and distance; to explore how sound frequencies that do not register on the scale of human hearing can be made noticeable; and to examine and expose the nature of linear forms of connectedness. The electric cable is a highly productive medium for Canell to get to grips with ideas of movement and fluidity. And the severed cable is particularly useful. She wants to find out what happens when you interrupt a connective form – in this case, by chopping up into sections an underwater telecommunications cable. Apart from bringing to mind something edible – a sushi roll bursting at the seams, or a tortilla wrap stuffed with multi-coloured strands – bigger thoughts bubble up: where can art take environmental historians? Can works such as those in ‘Near Here’ deliver a deeper understanding of the flows of water and energy? My closing question, though, is a little wackier, raising questions concerning the sentience, intelligence and hard drive memory storage capacity of supposedly inanimate objects (in this instance, the cables concealed in the walls of classrooms and bedrooms). It’s taken from Camden Arts Centre’s ‘Teachers’ Guide’ to ‘Near Here’. One of the suggested starting points for teachers preparing to visit with a class is this question: ‘Do you think these cables can remember any of the messages they carry when they are switched off?’


[i] Katherine Morais, ‘Nina Canell: New exhibition explores connections that make up our environment’, Artlyst, 29 January 2014, at


The UK National Grid: Environmental Impacts, Consequences and Connectivity

A poster presented at the 2nd World Congress of Environmental History, Guimarães, Portugal,  July 2014


By Kayt Button

The national Grid in the UK is essentially the transmission system for electricity in the UK. It was built between 1926 and 1933 to scale up the electricity supply of the United Kingdom from small local suppliers providing different frequency and voltage power for a few customers, to an integrated, unified system for all. In order to address the environmental impacts of the national grid both then and now, we need to address the extraction of the fuel, electricity generation, transmission and the usage by the consumer.

Initially 98% of the electricity generation was from the coal which had to be mined leaving scars on the landscape. Additional impacts were felt over the UK on landscape which accommodates the vast number of pylons and miles of overhead cables. Other effects were on the rivers, water from which was used to cool the power generating stations. This resulted in heating the water courses changing habitats for the flora and fauna within them. Air quality was also affected, dirt particles, carbon dioxide, sulphurous gasses, water vapours and heat all being pumped into the atmosphere. Over time as the grid has developed, new fuels have been used and the electricity industry has gone through nationalisation, privatisation and numerous parliamentary acts and regulatory bodies, and environmental issues have been addressed in different ways with varying levels of success.

Whilst the grid was designed to join everything together giving access to cheap electricity for everyone as the benefits of “economy of scale” were to be realised. The grid is so integrated and accepted that it has almost become invisible. Few people know what fuel is used to create their electricity, or where it comes from, so the environmental impacts of this seem abstract despite using electricity every day. The questions this raises are whether we are actually less connected to our energy supply despite the integrated infrastructure and how this affects our relationship to energy, infrastructure and environment.