River systems and connected bio-physical, energetic, commercial and cultural flows

Strand leader: Peter Coates

Rivers offer a striking opportunity to demonstrate what can be achieved when an environmental history perspective is fully applied. With the exception of T.C. Smout’s recent work ( [with M. Stewart], The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History, 2012) – the most innovative historical studies of rivers have all been produced abroad, including R. White’s The Organic Machine (1995) and S. Pritchard’s Confluence (2011). Taking our cue from these examples of best practice, our case studies depart from the previously dominant narratives of environmental change – the progressive and the declensionist. The Tyne and Severn studies will refocus on the production of new and different rivers, rather than improved or destroyed rivers.

One of the most important insights derived from studies such as White’s and Pritchard’s is that a river is also an energy system. It has agency and the capacity to perform work; and it has the power to thwart our ambitions as well as nurture our economic, social and cultural lives. These sorts of connections between human and non-human sources of power and energy have been little studied in British environmental history.


Project 1: Degeneration and Regeneration on the Tyne: River Pasts, Presents and Futures (Leona Skelton)

Map river Tyne

The Tyne river system.
Source: W.L. Palmer, The Tyne and its tributaries (London: George Bell & Son, 1882), p. 110.

This project will be pursued in conjunction with a long-standing Project Partner, Northumbrian Water. Part 1 examines the often neglected pre-modern river. The early modern era saw efforts to harness its power (not least by medieval lead miners to run drainage pumps) and to regulate its flow, as well exploiting it as a waste disposal unit and for resources (eg. fisheries). Part 2’s main focus is on the environmental impacts of coal and other industries as well as urban growth; 19th-century navigational ‘improvements’; and, more recently, the construction of Kielder Water on the North Tyne (1982) to meet Teesside industry’s water needs. The river’s improving post-industrial fortunes constitutes the next major theme, with particular emphasis on regeneration initiatives pre- and post-privatization of the water companies, the re-turn toward the river of the cities of Newcastle and Gateshead, and the salmon’s return. The project’s third and final part assesses the implications for the Tyne of current and impending changes in the regulatory structure for the UK water industry; biosecurity considerations; climate change trends; regional variability in rainfall: and discussions about a national water grid, effluent recycling, water metering and water footprint accounting.


Project 2: Fluvial Power Flows: Barraging the River Severn (Alexander Portch)

Plan for Severn Barrage

Thomas Fulljames’ watercolour of his plan for the Severn Barrage, 1849.
Source: Wikipedia

This study explores an infrastructure project comparable in scale to Kielder, where hydro-power generation was a subsidiary concern to providing water. By contrast, in August 2012, the coalition government declared itself open to consideration of proposals for constructing a Severn barrage (SB).Supporters tout the SB as a massive source of cheap and carbon-free ‘green’ energy (the world’s biggest tidal power scheme), but this proposal is hardly new. Since the 1920s, it has been regularly revived, leading to major reports in 1933, 1945, 1948, 1953, 1971, 1975, 1977, 1984, 1989 and 2007 –  studies that, taken together, address the full spectrum of economic, environmental and other considerations. That SB remains on the drawing board, permits full engagement with the highlight call’s futures aspect, specifically regarding how different constituencies react to proposed and anticipated changes as distinct from responding to actual changes. How do we project imagined impacts into the future, based on values invested in the current (and past) environmental status and experience?

Within a particular geographical/environmental and time-specific context, this project also grapples with the production, articulation and circulation of different kinds of environmental knowledge. Who is a relevant expert, and how should we rank expertise: that of the economist who compiles the economic feasibility study, the hydraulic engineer who overcomes construction challenges, and the biologist who warns of wildlife and habitat losses. In addition, the Severn project directly addresses our emphasis on competing narratives of environmental change, the complexity of environmental values and ideologies, and notions of artificial nature/engineered environments. Though this is not always appreciated by environmentalists (as distinct from environmental historians), environmental change usually involves winners and losers (and is not always irrevocable).


Project 3: Questions of Access, Visual Amenity and Recreation in Watery Environments and Energy Sites and Landscapes (Marianna Dudley)

This project spans the entire project and knits together the three strands by addressing Questions of Access, Visual Amenity and Recreation in Watery Environments and Energy Sites and Landscapes. This overarching task examines the growing popularity of our water and energy environments (the latter actual and envisaged) as destinations for recreational pursuits and other non-resource extraction purposes and the intensifying pressure for wider public access. It will draw on case studies related to the other projects to provide a comparative dimension, such as tensions between fishermen and canoeists on the Severn, the argument that the impoundment behind the Barrage will be a more leisure-friendly environment, and the role of the Peak District’s soughs as a recreational asset.

This project joins the perspective of historical studies with work by geographers on protected spaces and access to the countryside that stresses contestation and authority (‘moral geographies’), how certain ‘cultures of landscape’  legitimate and produce  particular types of user and practices – and the friction between landscapes of labour and landscapes of leisure. It will also engage with the more contemporary-focused literature of tourism and leisure studies to examine topics such as efforts to classify, evaluate and protect fluid entities such as waves (the Severn Barrage will eliminate  the renowned Severn Bore), and managers’ research on public ‘willingness to pay’ for nature-based tourism. The project is based on a mixture of research among written records  (eg. of the National Trust and Environment Agency) and interviews with managers and recreationists.