Monthly Archives: October 2014

‘Saturday Night at the Movies’: An Acoustic Performance in a Dark Corner of Kielder Forest

By Leona Skelton

If someone had told me a week ago that I’d be spending the following Saturday evening sitting still and silently in a cold corner of Kielder Forest in the dark with one hundred others, appreciating the sounds of dancing tree trunks creaking and the wind brushing earnestly against the leaves while pre-recorded raven calls were played from hidden loudspeakers, I would have been surprised. However, that’s exactly what I did on the evening of Saturday 25th October, and it was a worthwhile, deeply relaxing and hugely inspiring experience.

The event was commissioned by Jerwood Open Forest, which is a partnership between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and the Forestry Commission England, and it’s supported by the University of Surrey, the Arts Council England, Forest Artwork and Kielder Water and Forest Park. Entitled ‘Hrfan: Conversations with Odin’, it was created by Chris Watson and Iain Pate and the Jerwood Open Forest team, and delivered with the help of a group of marshals, of whom I was one. We were led on a mile-long walk through the forest from Stonehaugh as we were told interesting stories about raven lore and the history of Kielder Forest. A small bridge marked the official entrance to the site, and the point after which human words were banned and the sounds of ravens, as heard by Odin in the halls of Valhalla, took precedence. With immense anticipation, we settled down on the forest floor of a Norway Spruce plantation to enjoy a unique acoustic production. The sounds were conveyed effectively, sheltered by Wark Burn to the south, and a steep slope to the north of the site. The production was contributed to by the ‘live’ sounds of resident robins, crossbill, chaffinch, mistle thrush and blackbirds. Apart from the unscheduled cacophony of the Air Ambulance helicopter at its mid-point, the event was a resounding success. These things happen, apparently, when your cinema is situated in an open forest, beneath the stars.

As we left the venue, in complete darkness, I could appreciate Kielder’s dark sky, and the crystal clear stars piercing through it. Kielder Water and Forest Park is now marketed as a single destination for tourists by the Kielder Development Trust; and its isolation, situated south-east of the Anglo-Scottish border in Northumberland, is being marketed successfully through the construction of an observatory in the forest and the recent award in December 2013 from the International Dark Skies Association of Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status. This award is well deserved, in my opinion. They have recently opened a circular, timber stargazing construction complete with seating in Stonehaugh Village, which, I found, also works well as a picnic area at lunchtime.

Stonehaugh is an area of Kielder Forest which I had never visited previously. It was established by the Forestry Commission in the 1950s, to house forestry workers involved in logging, sawing and generally preparing the timber for transportation. There are 35 houses in the village, but around 150 houses had been planned originally, before mechanisation kicked in and reduced the number of forestry workers needed. The planners reacted by reducing the programme of house building substantially, by around 80%. Surprisingly, it’s a lot further south than Kielder Water and Leaplish Waterside Park, taking approximately one hour to drive from Stonehaugh to Kielder Village, yet both lie within Kielder Forest. This demonstrates the scale of Kielder Forest explicitly. On my way there, I discovered new roads, and new panoramic views of the immense plantations, as the southern boundary of Kielder Forest stretched out before me, edge to edge. Quite eerily, I spotted a very large, abandoned piece of rusty, heavy machinery on the open moorland quite close to the forest boundary. I think its purpose, before abandonment, was to dig trenches in the forest, but I can’t be sure; it might well have been a piece of general agricultural machinery.

Abandoned Heavy Machinery

Abandoned Heavy Machinery, immediately south of Kielder Forest near Stonehaugh (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Above all, attending the event inspired me to think more about the senses in the environment beyond the visual, which tends to take prime position in human appreciation of landscape and environment. Recently, I’ve been reading quite a lot about the sub-discipline of acoustic ecology. These ecologists are breaking new ground in developing narratives and theories in

Squirrel alert poster

Poster on the Stonehaugh Picnic Area Noticeboard (Photo: Leona Skelton)

relation to how the sounds of the landscape have changed as a result of industrialisation, the development of transport and energy supply infrastructure. I’m trying to tune into sounds I have previously ignored in the present landscape and also when I’m reading documentary sources in the archives, with some success. The sounds, and indeed smells too, of the historic Tyne have been written about in many different documents and they are there to find, if your mind is alert to them.

As a final thought, I had hoped to spot a couple of red squirrels in return for my 7-hour round trip from Yorkshire, but unfortunately I had no such luck. I did spot a poster, however, reminding us of their vulnerability.




Relevant links

Hinkley Nuclear Power Station and the Steart Marshes: when do human-made landscapes become ‘natural’?

By Jill Payne

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.

Hinkley A Reactor

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.


Steart Marshes

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?