Tag Archives: Leona Skelton

New Book by Leona Skelton: Tyne after Tyne: An Environmental History of a River’s Battle for Protection 1529–2015

Book cove In March 2017 Leona’s Skelton’s book on the history of the River Tyne was published by White Horse Press.

Over the last five centuries, North-East England’s River Tyne went largely with the flow as it rode with us on a rollercoaster from technologically limited early modern oligarchy, to large-scale Victorian ‘improvement’, to twentieth-century deoxygenation and twenty-first-century efforts to expand biodiversity. Studying five centuries of Tyne conservatorship reveals that 1855 to 1972 was a blip on the graph of environmental concern, preceded and followed by more sustainable engagement and a fairer negotiation with the river’s forces and expressions as a whole and natural system, albeit driven by different motivations. Even during this blip, however, several organisations, tried to protect the river’s environmental health from harm.

This Tyne study offers a template for a future body of work on British rivers that dislodges the Thames as the river of choice in British environmental history. And it undermines traditional approaches to rivers as passive backdrops of human activities. Departing from narratives that equated change with improvement, or with loss and destruction, it moves away from morally loaded notions of better or worse, and even dead, rivers. The book fully situates the Tyne’s fluvial transformations within political, economic, cultural, social and intellectual contexts. With such a long view, we can objectify ourselves through our descendants’ eyes, reconnecting us not only to our past, but also to our future.

See more details and order the book on the White Horse Press Website.

Read also a blog by Leona on her new book on the publisher’s website.

Steps in Tyne: Walking to know the Flow

By Leona Skelton

High Level Bridge

Sunset Bridges (Photo: Leona Skelton)

People have been enjoying north-east England’s River Tyne for centuries. Thomas Bewick, the renowned eighteenth-century engraver and author of A History of British Birds (1797), was raised on the south bank of the Tyne at Cherryburn near Stocksfield. As a child in the 1760s, Thomas ‘persuaded his friends to crowd on to a huge piece of ice, which they steered downstream opposite the Parsonage garden, enjoying the sight of the Revd Gregson raising his hands in despair’.[1] He spent most of his adult years living and working in Newcastle, near his workshop on The Side, but he walked back upriver to his original family home many times. While Bewick’s art was universal in its appeal, his biographer, Jenny Uglow, has highlighted that it is also ‘rooted in Northumberland and in the valley of the Tyne’, elaborating that ‘all his life he walked the banks of the river and he knew it in all its moods, sleepy under early morning mist, driving on in flood, ruffled by wind’.[2] Many of Bewick’s skillfully woodcut vignettes feature people crossing and working alongside the river. He knew his river intimately, and it undoubtedly shaped his life’s work.

Fog on River Tyne

Fog on the Tyne at Low Tide (Photo: Leona Skelton)

In 1859, a librarian of the Royal Society, Walter White, embarked on an extensive tour of Northumberland, including a walk from Alston along the South Tyne and then along the main Tyne to Tynemouth. After having ‘to cross a few acres of turnips to get to the point where the South and North Tyne meet together in one broad stream’, he described Warden Rock (also known as Waters Meet) as ‘a wild spot’.[3] White left us a highly detailed account of the Tyne riverscape, having studied the river’s changing character intently, stopping at many places en route. At Alston, he described the South Tyne as ‘a shallow mountain river, in a bed filled with big stones’.[4] Walking from Haydon Bridge towards Hexham, White described the main Tyne as ‘a smiling vale beautified by cultivation and foliage … rippling cheerfully in reply to the salutations of the leaves’.[5] He was explicitly aware of entering a new and different zone of the river in the estuary, which he called the ‘smoky region’. On reaching the outskirts of Newcastle, at Newburn, he discerned ‘a route that revealed to me a disagreeable variety of dirt and disorder … the great army of industry’.[6]

Dunston Staithes

Dunston Staithes from the South Bank (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Both Bewick’s woodcuts and White’s descriptions of the Tyne resulted from innumerable observations during riverside walks, the former’s of one relatively small section repeatedly over the course of his life and the latter’s during one linear walk from source to sea. Many of the people I interviewed over the course of researching my forthcoming book, Tyne after Tyne, shared their own surprisingly deep and intimate experiences of walking along the river, seemingly repetitive journeys along quite small sections as often as twice a day to walk pet dogs or to commute to work. In the course of analysing these oral history transcriptions, I realised that the walks were far from repetitive because each day, and often every hour, created a necessarily unique riverscape, as the water interacted with widely different weather conditions, different wildlife and different human activities. While reflecting on my interviewees’ stories, I realised that, while I had spent two years researching the river’s archives, grown up near the river and knew the catchment fairly well overall, I was nonetheless unable to talk about even one section in anywhere near the depths achieved by so many of the interviewees. In his influential The Making of the English Landscape (1955), William Hoskins likens landscape to a ‘symphony, which it is possible to enjoy as an architectural mass of sound, beautiful or impressive as the case may be, without being able to analyse it in detail or to see the logical development of its structure’.[7] I wanted to understand just one section of the Tyne in depth, perceiving, as Hoskins advised, ‘the manifold subtle variations on a single theme, however disguised it may be’, so that ‘the total effect is immeasurably enhanced’.[8]

Tyne Bridge by night

Still River (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Since starting my new role as Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University in September 2016, I have been able to commute to work each day (a six-mile round trip), walking most of the distance along a riverside footpath between Dunston Staiths and the Swing Bridge. Some people have asked me, “don’t you get bored walking along the same small stretch day after day?” Each walk is unique and it teaches me something, however small, every day. Even over the course of the last seven weeks, I have seen the river in innumerable moods. I’ve seen it contrasted starkly against and blended smoothly with a wide range of different coloured skies and clouds and I’ve gazed at this powerful, seaward force interacting with the flora and fauna which calls its banks, water and infrastructural installations home. One morning I saw a silvery curved flash jump out of the water and dive straight back into it and realised I’d witnessed a salmon leaping right beside me. Another evening, crossing the river, I looked down at every minute detail of the Tyne Bridge laid out beneath me, as it was reflected on the still, glassy sheet of dark water. That night, I stretched out over the bridge railings and saw my own face reflected in it too. On a bracing afternoon, I saw and heard animated waves crashing down towards the sea as I struggled to keep my eyes open against the strong

Tyne by night

Night Tyne (Photo: Leona Skelton)

wind. I could easily write a book about the Tyne’s natural beauty, about its engagement with the climate and its flora and fauna, but, as my environmental history research revealed, the river’s true story is not that simple. The Tyne is not a natural river, but neither is it entirely a human creation. Inextricably entangled with the river’s so-called ‘natural’ aspects, I have witnessed paddle boarders, speed boaters and anglers interacting with its flow. Nobody can ignore the colossal, multi-layered infrastructural monuments which pull us back to its industrial era of smoke, factory hooters and a hubbub of ships. This infrastructure, too, is merely a compromise between human aspirations and the river’s natural forces and expressions.

Tyne Bridge

The Tyne Bridge (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Appreciation and deep understanding of a micro-scale environment is only possible when one communes with it very regularly, year after year and even decade after decade, usually facilitated by someone living very close to it. For example, Nan Shepherd’s A Living Mountain leaves the reader in no doubt that she visited the Cairngorms a great number of times over the course of her life.[9] Similarly, John Lewis-Stempel’s The Private Life of an English Field: Meadowland, which describes the micro-scale processes and interactions between a farmer, his family and the flora and fauna in one meadow in Herefordshire over the course of one year, confirms the author’s exceptionally intimate relationship with a very small-scale environment.[10] A relatively early and important example of one particularly intimate relationship with the flora and fauna of a local area, Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), was based on an incredible 43 years of nature and weather diaries detailing fastidiously the minutiae of the area around his parsonage in Hampshire.[11] As a historian, I am trained to search for discontinuities, marked and important changes over time which I can explain using documentary evidence. Walking along the same section of the river for over two hours each day has taught me that this formidable river is forever changing, in obvious but also in subtle, complex and unfathomable ways. It is quite literally ‘wonder’-ful. Even focusing on a two-mile stretch of the river, it would be impossible to explain its true complexity in a book. Writing the Tyne’s environmental story over five centuries was a worthwhile and productive task. But it provides a framework which can and should be rendered more complex than words can express by getting out to walk its many sections, time and time again. I’m still hooked on my first two-mile section, and plan to walk with and against its flow for at least another two or three years until I, perhaps, begin to ‘know’ it.

Metro Bridge

Dusky Tyne (Photo: Leona Skelton)


[1] J. Uglow, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 15.

[2] Uglow, Nature’s Engraver, pp. 402–403.

[3] W. White, Northumberland and the Border (London, 1859), p. 41 (ch. 6).

[4] White, Northumberland and the Border, p. 26 (chapter 4).

[5] White, Northumberland and the Border, p. 40 (chapter 6).

[6] Ibid., p. 51 (chapter 6).

[7] W. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1955), p. 3.

[8] Hoskins, Making of the English Landscape, p. 3.

[9] N. Shepherd, The Living Mountain, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2011).

[10] J. Lewis-Stempel, The Private Life of an English Field: Meadowland (London: Black Swan, 2014).

[11] G. White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789).


This blog was originally published on the website of the White Horse Press. Leona’s book, Tyne after Tyne will be published by The White Horse Press in March 2017. 

Boosting Society’s Valuation of Water by Blending Environmental History with Social Science and Civil Engineering at the University of Sheffield

By Leona Skelton

After finishing  my  project, ‘Degeneration and Regeneration on the Tyne: River Pasts, Presents and Futures’, in November 2015, I embarked on a challenging but very worthwhile opportunity to work as a Research Assistant at the University of Sheffield within the Sheffield Water Centre’s (SWC) Pennine Water Group (as it came to a close). Since January 2016, I’ve been working within SWC’s new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council-funded (EPSRC) five-year research project, ‘TWENTY65: Tailored Solutions for Positive Impact’.  The project was designed in response to  EPSRC’s Grand Challenge for Water. It aims to find innovative and interdisciplinary solutions to the serious challenges which threaten the UK water industry’s long-term sustainability up to 2065 and beyond, notably its ageing infrastructure, leakage and the low value water users place on water. Working closely with civil engineers, social scientists and industry partners has enabled me to deploy my environmental history expertise strategically and usefully. It has also sharpened my awareness of the practical uses and the unique value of environmental history research in the context of infrastructural, societal, attitudinal and governance challenges in the water industry.

Today, UK water users wash their cars and hose their lawns using water which meets a standard sufficiently high for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing of highly complex medicines. Yet many households are charged little more than £1 a day for the water-supply and sewerage services on which they rely very heavily for the basic processes of daily life. Until people experience an interruption of supply, few truly appreciate the complexity and exceptionally high ‘value for money’ in their water services. If consumers were asked to sort their utility bills into rank order according to: 1) value for money or 2) according to how much they would be prepared to pay for them, how many would place water at the top of either of these hierarchies? Where would broadband and energy fall in relation to water? TWENTY65 is developing disruptive technologies and more effective mobilisation initiatives to increase water users’ valuing of water, to reduce water usage and to give water users a stake in the infrastructure on which they rely so heavily.

As a historian, I’ve considered in depth the factors which have reduced people’s valuation of water over time. Increasingly centralised and efficient water services have facilitated an increasing physical distance between the consumer and the processes of using and disposing of water. In short, the engineers have done too good a job behind the scenes, enabling water users for the most part to take their water supply, waste water disposal and their water engineers for granted. TWENTY65 comprises eight themes, ranging from demand-based technologies for tailored treatment, to robotic autonomous systems for water infrastructure inspection, to integrated urban water management and reuse systems.

I have been working with a social scientist, Dr Liz Sharp, on theme six, ‘Enhancing Water Services through Mobilisation’, which seeks to demonstrate the potentially powerful non-technological ways in which people can be mobilised to change their behaviour as water users. We are arguing that consumers can be encouraged and supported to become more engaged with their water services, water infrastructure and the regulation of water use and abuse in their local communities, obviating at least exclusive reliance on complex and expensive robotic technologies.

Currently, several serious risks endanger water security: climate change, underinvestment in infrastructure, complex and counterproductive regulation of the water sector and water users’ low valuation of water (largely resulting from their poor understanding of its complex and expensive functions). Attitudinal changes brought about by increasing water citizenship initiatives would help to mitigate these risks by reducing water consumption, increasing the value placed on water (and potentially the amount people are prepared to pay for water) and widening water users’ perspectives to embrace the whole ecosystem and the water cycle which runs through it.

TWENTY65 Thought Leadership Clubs (TLCs) enable academics from several disciplines and a wide range of water industry partners to work together to develop potential solutions to the industry’s major challenges. At the last TLC, in Sheffield in July 2016, we discussed many issues, including why the UK government doesn’t have a Water Minister. This is a very good question. If we had a Water Minister, would they be able to catalyse attitudinal changes which could substantially increase the value society places on water? It might be worth a shot. In addition to the TLCs, we are writing eight white papers which will be disseminated across the water industry. They discuss how ‘Big Data’, ‘Water Citizenship’ and the ‘Storage and Recovery of Energy’ from sewerage systems could support the water industry’s long-term sustainability and resilience, drawing from a wide range of case studies from around the world.

The ‘Hydraulic State’, a political-ecologic paradigm coined by historian Karl Wittfogel, (Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957]) developed with five salient characteristics: 1) centralised governance frameworks; 2) technical engineering expertise; 3) investment in hard infrastructure; 4) centralised supply and disposal networks; and 5) disengaged water users. However, in seeking to explore what forms of distributed and user-organised services might replace the ‘Hydraulic State’, surprisingly little attention is given to highly relevant past experiences of water services which were locally distributed, did not rely on costly engineering expertise, were closely aligned with local environmental needs and were not environmentally or financially expensive.

As water managers currently explore whether and how to disassemble technocratic enterprises to make way for more participatory and democratic forms of decision making, past experiences of distributed or transitionary forms of water management may offer patterns of water practices or of institutional-public relations that can inspire the planning of alternative water futures. By looking back through time at the governance frameworks of water use which the Hydraulic State broke down gradually and eventually replaced, I have argued that we can find inspiration for new and different ways of re-engaging water users with the systems and processes which underpin their most vital, life-sustaining utility service.

This invaluable interdisciplinary experience will stand me in good stead as I return to a History Department (and to the Tyne!) in my new role as Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University in Newcastle. In July 2016, I handed in the manuscript of Tyne after Tyne to White Horse Press, and I felt overwhelmed by its 112,000 words. Writing a five-century history of one river’s dramatic story was challenging, to put it mildly, and I was quite proud of a fairly mammoth work, having analysed around 1.5 million words of archival and oral history transcriptions.

But last week, for the first time in months, I visited the river near Gateshead and as I watched the Tyne’s powerful flow charging down its channel towards the sea, my manuscript seemed comparatively pithy. No book, however lengthy, could ever do justice to such a mighty river, packed to the brim with such a multitude of deep and complex meanings in the minds of all of the different people who’ve interacted with it over five centuries. It’s a big river, and I’ve written a big book about it, but I haven’t written the river’s total history. I’ve merely taken a tour through the major milestones, highlighting some of the most insightful socio-environmental relationships it has forged with the humans who have used and abused it, and played with, loved and become frustrated with it, from one generation to the next.

Tyne at Dunston

Looking Upriver from Dunston (Photo: Leona Skelton)

As I looked up the steep river banks behind me towards Windmill Hills, I remembered very clearly sitting up there on a bench one dull, cold day with my primary school class at the age of ten (in 1994, before the new housing estates were built there). The teacher had given each of us a sheet of paper on a clipboard and some charcoal pencils and asked us to draw the riverscape below us. We all smudged the charcoal on the paper to give the impression of enormous clouds of smoke. Everyone’s hands, coats and clothes were marked with the charcoal. We all drew the bridges, the river and the buildings of Newcastle, but some of my classmates drew enormous smoky ships which weren’t there. Others drew very large fish and I drew a big old-fashioned sail ship like the ones I’d seen at the Tall Ships event in 1993. I remember the teacher’s disbelief as she looked at the various pictures. She made us start again. “Draw what you see”, she instructed. But even at ten years old, we were envisioning different rivers in our minds, unique visions of our local river produced from a combination of family anecdotes, memorable events such as the Garden Festival (1990) and the Tall Ships Race (1993), lessons at school about pollution and its impact on fish (always bright orange, smiling, cartoon fish) and our own visits to the river, the beginnings of our generation’s relationship with it, and, not least, of the river’s relationship with us. What would Tyneside’s ten year-olds draw today…? What would the ten year-olds of 1900 have drawn?



Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957)

TWENTY65: Tailored Solutions for Positive Impact http://twenty65.ac.uk/About.php




The Oldest Geordie: Environmental History of the River Tyne

Rivers are at the heart of defining the identity and lifestyle of many cities around the world, and that is nowhere stronger than in Newcastle on Tyne in the Northeast of England on the banks of the River Tyne. The people who live on the banks of the Tyne are fiercely proud of their river. Once the river was an industrial powerhouse of the British Empire, and by the 1880s the Port of Tyne exported the most coal in the world, and the river was amongst the world’s largest shipbuilding and ship-repairing centres.

There has been much consideration of how the River Tyne has shaped Tyneside and Tynesiders, but very little appreciation of the enormous extent to which people have shaped the river. To bear out this invisible history of the river, historian Leona Skelton, a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at the University of Bristol, has worked on a research project that challenges us to think from a river’s perspective and to include in our river histories the flow pathways which rivers ‘wanted’ to follow, regardless of the changes that humans have forged upon the river. On episode 69 of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast Leona challenges us to look at a river as an historical actor with its own agency.

Leona’s Research was part of the British Arts and Humanities Research Council funded environmental history initiative “The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures”, that focuses on environmental connectivities that have emerged in Britain since industrialisation.


Further reading and resources
Archer, D., Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the River Tyne (Ovingham: Daryan Press, 2003)

Chaplin, M., Tyne View: A Walk around the Port of Tyne (2012).

Charlton, B., Upper North Tynedale: A Northumbrian Valley and its People (Northumbrian Water, 1987).

Cioc, Mark, and ebrary Academic Complete. The Rhine: An Eco-biography, 1815-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

Levine, D., and Wrightson, K., The Making of an Industrial Society: Whickham, 1560-1765 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Mah, A., ‘Memory, Uncertainty and Industrial Ruination: Walker Riverside, Newcastle on Tyne’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 34, no. 2 (2010), pp. 398-413

Marshall, M., Tyne Waters: A river and its salmon (London: H F & G Witherby, 1992)

Rennison, R., Water to Tyneside: A History of the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company (Newcastle: Newcastle & Gateshead Water Company, 1979)

Blog of Leona Skelton


Music credits

So Cold” by @nop, available from ccMixter

Clash” by zorza, available from ccMixter

Healing” by Stefan Kartenberg, available from ccMixter

Exploring environmental History podcast


This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

Video: Waters Meet, Warden, Northumberland

By Leona Skelton

About two miles from the Northumbrian market town of Hexham, close to the villages of Warden and Fourstones, is the spectacular confluence and the beginning of the main River Tyne, known locally as the Meeting of the Waters or Waters Meet. Here, the North Tyne (which flows south-east from Deadwater Fell near Kielder and the Anglo-Scottish border) meets the South Tyne (which makes its way north from near Alston high in the Pennines before turning sharply east towards Hexham) in a breath-taking natural compromise between the respective bodies of water, each possessing a different speed, colour and character of flow. As several of the oral history interviews which I conducted in January 2015 revealed, this is a favourite spot for many people living throughout the Tyne catchment (competing with equally popular sites such as the Collingwood Monument at Tynemouth and the regenerated Newcastle-Gateshead quayside) and it’s not hard to see why when you visit the site in person. Its relative isolation from roads, housing and other human distractions enables visitors to appreciate the soundscape of the waters’ communications as eddies crash together and the waters make their journey henceforth in unison to the North Sea. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen salmon leap out of the water and it’s great to see them heading up either the North Tyne or the South Tyne in a purposeful manner back to spawn and then die on the precise gravel beds where they once hatched. It’s a popular place for anglers, and private rods have been available only recently, from 2012, by the family which has owned the beats for four generations. Some forty miles from their respective sources and thirty miles from the sea, the Meeting of the Waters is a must-see site for anyone trying to understand the river, its character, its flow and its wildlife.





Video footage provided by Gordon Ball, gbmediaspecialists.com

Speed vs History: HS2 and the World’s First Nature Reserve at Waterton Park

By Leona Skelton

One of the things I’ve noticed since moving from Newcastle on Tyne to Wakefield five years ago is how relatively fewer famous people have originated from this county town of West Yorkshire which I now call home. In Geordieland, I was positively swimming in famous names, blue plaques, game-changing careers and local inventions, from Thomas Bewick, George Stephenson and William Armstrong, to the footballers Gazza and Alan Shearer, among many, many others. My observations around Wakefield over the last half a decade have yielded: an eighteenth-century novel’s protagonist, The Vicar of Wakefield, created by Oliver Goldsmith; the twentieth-century artist and sculptor, Barbara Hepworth; and the 70s and 80s pop group, Black Lace, which created “Agadoo” (unfortunately!). I don’t envisage Wakefield’s Tourist Information Centre commissioning tea towels and mugs covered in the names of famous Wakefielders any time soon!

Walton Plaque

Blue plaque in the village of Walton, terming Charles Waterton an ‘Originator of Nature Sanctuaries’. Photo: L. Skelton

The person I’ve omitted from this esteemed list, of course, is Charles Waterton (1782-1865), a pioneering conservationist who as early as 1820 turned his birthplace at Walton Hall (near Wakefield), to which he returned after travelling around South America, into the WORLD’S first wildfowl and nature reserve. He built a nine-foot high wall around his Waterton estate, populated it with the very first bird nesting boxes and carried out various ground-breaking and important experiments by swapping eggs and observing the birds’ behaviour in minute detail. He also fought a lengthy court battle throughout the 1840s against a nearby soap works which he believed was poisoning his trees and lakes and eventually had it removed by court order. This Wakefield man was arguably an environmentalist and his estate is a testimony to his foresight and environmental attitudes. I have walked around his estate innumerable times, and many local people deeply appreciate having the world’s first nature reserve on their doorstep. As I am a passionate advocate of looking back into the medieval and early modern, as well as the post-industrial, epochs in any attempt to understand the origins and development of modern environmental attitudes and values, I was naturally drawn towards Charles Waterton’s story. His intriguing projects ranged from paying locals 6d for hedgehogs which he then released into his park to constructing a sandbank for sand martins and a stone tower featuring twenty nesting holes.

Walton Hall

The ancestral home of Charles Waterton, Walton Hall (built in 1767 on an island within a 26-acre lake). Photo: L. Skelton

Stop HS2

A ‘Stop HS2’ sign on the road between the Wakefield villages of Cold Hiendley and Ryhill. Photo: L. Skelton

You can probably imagine my horror when I discovered that the modern speed machine that is HS2 is proposed to blast straight through Waterton Estate, ruining Waterton’s vision and the very long-established and indeed globally important site of his progressive nature reserve. Of course, there is a local campaign to persuade the government to spare Waterton Park in their planned route for HS2, and even Sir David Attenborough has joined Wakefield Council in this noble, heavily politicised and increasingly urgent fight. UNESCO is seriously considering awarding the estate World Heritage Status, which would certainly protect it under law, but right now plans are still in place to blast the railway directly through Walton’s beloved trees. Just as Waterton protected the lake and the trees from the soap works, and from the onslaught of industrialisation more generally, we now surely must follow in his footsteps and protect his legacy from the invasive intrusion of HS2. We ignore, and destroy the legacies of, early (pre-1850) environmentalists and their relationships with environmental resources, systems and processes to our detriment, and to the detriment of environmental history as a whole.

We don’t have to look very hard at all to find examples of technological innovation and its direct impact on the environment in the early modern period. One example of a man who realised quite literally the power of the water was Rowland Vaughan. He was born in 1559 in Herefordshire, fought in the Irish Tudor Wars and then returned home to marry his cousin, Elizabeth Parry, in 1585. Elizabeth owned a manor and a water mill on the River Dore, a tributary of the Wye, and Rowland inspected the manor on a regular basis. During one inspection in March 1587, he noticed a small spring caused by a molehill and that the grass was a richer green underneath the flowing water and he devoted the next twenty years of his life developing a water meadow irrigation system, which he published in his Most Approved and Long Experienced Water-Workes (1610). Rowland created a complex of channels and trenches, dams and sluices, including a three-mile diversion off the main river which he called Trench-Royal. It was a truly original innovation achieved through a great deal of manual labour (albeit mostly that of his employees), a lot of patience and simple trial and error. Ironically, however inspiring the mole had been in the formation of his initial idea, Rowland hunted moles from his irrigation system, calling their undermining of his earthworks ‘burglary’. Though he died in 1628, his water works were still being used successfully in the late nineteenth century and his story demonstrates the enormous power of early modern ideas and technology as well as the power of the water itself.

Within many environmental history topics, I think that important but often hidden linkages connect how particular aspects of the environment were utilised, experienced and managed in the early modern period (1500-1850) and the ways in which those same aspects of the environment came to be exploited, controlled, abused, enjoyed, regulated and protected from 1850 right up to the present day and into the future. These deep foundations are crucial to understanding the precise manner and characteristics of current environmental issues and challenges. In short, the further back in time we can trace the very precise pathways which have been taken in relation to the use and abuse, the protection and damage, of natural resources, systems, landscapes and environments, the sharper our recent past, present and future in relation to the environment will become. As Robert MacFarlane explained in Mountains of the Mind (2003), a history of attitudes towards mountains, ‘each of us is in fact heir to a complex and largely invisible dynasty of feelings: we see through the eyes of innumerable and anonymous predecessors’. This, too, can be applied to attitudes towards the environment, conservation and sustainability, misconceived by many as an exclusively modern invention. Characters such as Rowland Vaughan and Charles Waterton prove that modern environmentalism developed gradually over centuries, not decades, but their delicate and vulnerable legacies can be swept away worryingly quickly unless firm and urgent action is taken to protect them so that future generations can share their vision, their ingenuity and, perhaps most importantly, their insight into and genuine love of nature and the environment.


Further Reading:

Edginton, B., Charles Waterton: A Biography (Cambridge, 199

MacFarlane, R., Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003)

Uglow, J., Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (2007)

‘Sir David Attenborough backs Campaign to have HS2 Threat Estate designated as Heritage Site’, Yorkshire Post, 17/04/2015: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/main-topics/politics/sir-david-attenborough-backs-campaign-to-have-hs2-threat-estate-designated-at-heritage-site-1-7216101


Tyne talks exhibition

Team member Leona Skelton has developed an exhibition for the Old Low Light Heritage Centre at North Shields about the history of the Tyne River and the people living on its banks. Placing the river itself at its heart, this exhibition enables us to hear the Tyne’s own story, of the enormous changes it underwent as it wove itself literally and metaphorically through Tyneside’s story and Tynesiders’ lives from 1530 to the present.

The exhibition opens on 11 June and will run until 25 June. More info on the Old Low Light Heritage Centre website.

Harvesting Oral Histories: Life, Work and Fog on the Tyne

By Leona Skelton

Researching the environmental history of just one natural system, the River Tyne in North East England, enables me to conduct very deep archival research into a plethora of organisations’ records, but most of the extant archives are heavily engendered by the objectives of the employees who produced them. Moreover, they tend to focus on noteworthy, official events and major changes rather than more prosaic, everyday life experiences and personal, yet deep and important, relationships between Tynesiders and their beloved Tyne. Some records were written by seventeenth-century scribes working for the oligarchic Newcastle Corporation; others were written by the successive secretaries of the profit-driven Tyne Improvement Commission (1850-1968) or by those working for the national government’s Standing Committee on River Pollution which was appointed to test the river water in the 1920s and 30s. The minutes of the Tyne Salmon Conservancy (1866-1950), based upriver in Hexham, provides yet another very different perspective, transporting the researcher to a world of tweed-wearing anglers who worked hard to install fish passes, to protect the Tyne’s fish from pollutants and to restock rivers to ensure the continuance of their sport. But in all of these important records there is something missing: the gritty, the mundane, the real life experiences which demonstrate how the river’s meaning has changed as it wove its way through the lives and livelihoods of individuals, communities and the whole Tyneside region, from day to day, year to year and decade to decade, as the river underwent unprecedented and dramatic change both environmentally and in terms of how it looked, sounded and smelled to the people who sensed and experienced it directly.

Unfortunately, there is no scratch and sniff on the pages of seventeenth-century manuscripts or Victorian committee minute books, but you can sit down and talk to someone who worked on the Tyne in the 1950s and ask them to describe their sensory experiences of the river, how it made them feel and when, how and why that changed over the course of their lives. Cue the Dictaphone and an enormous pack of AA batteries! I don’t need to argue the case for the enormous benefits of oral history, but I believe that its unique benefits to environmental historians are yet to be fully appreciated. Environmental history pushes historians, perhaps more so than those working in any other sub-categories of our discipline, to incorporate into our research absolutely every aspect of a particular environment, landscape or natural system, which leads us necessarily to consider all of the senses, including sound, smell, taste and touch as well as sight. Although it is limited to living memory, oral history has an enormous potential to reconstruct past environments, to answer questions which simply cannot be answered as a result of a long stint in the archives. Even a personal diary is limited by the parameters of what has already been committed to paper; it is a finite resource. Whereas in an oral history interview, the researcher designs and then asks the questions and can chase up answers to those questions with further specific and penetrating questions in a responsive, exciting and fluid conversation, responding to the interviewees’ body language, tone and emphasis. It’s not quite creating history, but it certainly allows the researcher to harvest the particular information they need in order to answer particular research questions.

Intimate anecdotes revealed in oral history interviews have illuminated the official histories I have tracked and they have imparted colour into the detailed framework which I have carefully constructed from river legislation, the coming and going of local and national governmental bodies and other organisations, world wars and major engineering projects. In short, they bring the river’s history to life and provide insightful meaning to the environmental development of the river. How else could I have learnt about the ‘chiming’ of hollow ‘ice baubles’ which hung one morning on the overturned tips of grass blades as they swung gently over the water on the river banks between Fourstones and Haydon Bridge on the South Tyne? And how else could I have heard tales of children living in Hebburn on the south bank of the Tyne estuary in the 1950s who called the river their ‘playground’ and spent entire days building rafts, sailing down the river and shooting at the ubiquitous rats with air rifles? Or the woman who moved from Dundee to North Shields specifically because the Tyne’s riverscape reminded her of the Firth of Tay and her native home. I could list a thousand stories from only twenty-six interviews lasting between twenty and thirty minutes. Some are poignant, some make me laugh and some even make me cry, but they’re all part of the Tyne’s history and I couldn’t have completed this project without them. The experiences of Tynesiders like my Grandad, who clocked on and off throughout their lives, worked innumerable shifts around the river, who literally contributed to the enormous volumes of domestic and industrial waste which poured into the estuary via over 270 sewers and who now use the much cleaner river for leisure, sport and for therapeutic reasons at the most difficult times of their lives, are central to understanding what we have done to the river and what the river has done to us.

Of course, oral history itself is a form of public engagement in its own right and the interviewees are as interested in my research as I am in their experiences of the Tyne. It has been a wonderfully symbiotic process and very worthwhile in terms of the admittedly large amount of time spent on locating interviewees, organising interviews, finding appropriate locations in which to conduct them and then transcribing and analysing the recordings. The environmental historian cannot travel back in time to experience past landscapes and environments themselves, but they can talk to the people who did experience them and to people who witnessed gradual and dramatic changes day by day over decades. If the right questions are asked, the interviewee can take the environmental historian to the heart of highly complex issues such as change over time, conflict and meaning as they perceived it. Previously, I conducted an oral history research project in Kielder in Northumberland, between 2012 and 2013, as part of another AHRC-funded project, ‘The Places that Speak to us and the Publics we Talk with’. This also took me to the heart of how the successive and dramatic changes in Kielder’s twentieth-century environment, from sheep farming to commercial forestry to the flooding of the valley which is now Kielder Reservoir, have impacted on social, cultural and economic lives in the local area [see Oral History Journal, vol. 42 (2014), pp. 81-93] . Although other insightful projects have been conducted, notably Ruth Tittensor’s work on Whitelee Forest near Glasgow, An Oral History of Whitelee Forest (2009) and Peter Friererici’s oral history project in the American South West, What has Passed and What Remains: Oral Histories of Northern Arizona’s Changing Landscapes (2010), I am surprised by how little environmental historians have used this exceptionally useful method of understanding environmental change, experience and meaning. I think there is substantial scope for environmental historians to utilise oral history to a far greater extent, perhaps eventually working towards the formation of an environmental oral history society…? Where do I sign up?!


Further reading

Ecological Oral Histories, Navigating the Green Road: A Guide to Northern Arizona University’s Environmental Resources [webpage]. Accessed online at www.greenguide.nau.edu/oral_history.html.

‘Special issue: talking green: oral history and environmental history’, Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, vol 33, (2013).

David Todd and David Weisman, The Texas Legacy Project: Stories of Courage and Conservation, College Station: Texas A and M University Press, (2010); Texas Legacy Project, www.texaslegacy.org.

Wasting Millions… of Stories, Insights and Experiences? An Inspiring Workshop on Academia, Environments and Engaging with the Public(s)

By Leona Skelton

David Matless, a Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Nottingham, highlighted an important story from the history of academic public engagement in his presentation at the University of East Anglia’s ‘Environment(s) in Public(s)?’ workshop on 3rd November 2014. It was a story from 1911, the year in which the renowned Arthur Tansley, a Botanist and pioneer in the science of Ecology and a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, embarked on an in-depth study of river valleys and species in the Norfolk Broads. He and his academic team purposely ignored a group which they referred to pejoratively as ‘local workers’ in their quest to understand this particular environment. This led them to exclude most of the members of the local naturalist societies and clubs, who, of course, understood their local environment very intimately indeed. The story ended happily, however, as the academics did a U-turn, eventually including the ‘local workers’ in their project, after admitting that their knowledge was both valuable and useful to their study.

This historic story is hugely relevant in the light of recent academic research funding objectives, encouraging academics to beat their own imaginative, successful and above all useful ‘pathways to impact’, ensuring that their research has a real use and benefit for wider society, and rightly so. Environmental historians are approaching this objective not as a one-way process, but as an opportunity for symbiosis. Following the albeit redrafted example of Tansley, to inform their research, many are successfully utilising the often very deep knowledge, experience and understanding of those who live, and have long lived, in particular environments, who face particular local environmental challenges as part of their daily lives. They are conducting oral history interviews and attending meetings of local history groups, wildlife charities and local sporting and outdoor pursuit clubs and societies, as well as ensuring that such research delivers benefits on the ground in the environments under their study by contributing to future policies or leaving beneficial educational or recreational legacies behind. Ruth Tittensor’s From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, its Construction and Landscape (2009) is a good example of an environmental history which has been enriched by direct engagement and participation of experienced local people in its creation.

The two concepts of 1) locals contributing to academics’ publications and 2) academics providing pathways to beneficial impact in local communities are not mutually exclusive. Very often, the process of involving the public in academic research can produce benefits in their own right. Creating a volume of oral history interviews, which provide a snapshot of local life, the environment and locals’ projections for their future provides a legacy, which benefits the community at large as well as facilitating increased academic understanding through publication.

The purpose of the workshop held at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and hosted jointly by 3S: Science, Society and Sustainability (which is a research group at UEA), Science in Public and the Broads Authority, was to interrogate the question of whether or not academics should tailor their approach to public engagement more specifically to multiple and separate publics with which they aim to engage rather than simply to the whole public. For example, should busy farmers, a canoeing club and a Parish Council be amalgamated into one homogenous group called ‘the public’, which incorporates all non-academics, or rather given special consideration as respective publics with different needs, different capabilities for contribution and potentially different sensitivities? The argument is further complicated by the issue of different environments; even within one country, a sheep farmer living in an upland location might require a different approach to an arable farmer in East Anglia, for example. The general consensus was that more detailed consideration should be given to the particular needs and expectations of the groups we approach for public engagement through our academic studies and that it is indeed useful to imagine ‘publics’ rather than the ‘public’.

The issue of scale was also raised, in relation to climate change, highlighting the propensity for people to force change at local, regional and even national scales, compared to the general disinclination of the majority to invest in forcing global change. Globally, the goal is too big, and, as Angela Cassidy pointed out in her paper on ‘Animals, People and Places: Connecting Public Debates about how we Live in a Changing World’, using the image of a polar bear, which is remote to the majority of the world’s population, is probably far less effective than using more immediately relevant images of a flooded village or a family and their pets in distress. The workshop was grounded within quite a small scale by its focus on the environment surrounding the University of East Anglia, the city of Norwich, the rivers, farms, broads and coast of the East of England, but the questions which the workshop raised could be applied to many other different environments on a far wider scale, and they are relevant to all academics working with environments, including environmental geographers, environmental historians, ecologists, artists and environmental scientists.

Ultimately, academics can think imaginatively, not in desperation as salesmen and women under the pressure of punitive targets, and not from above as benefactors who kindly impart their infinitely superior knowledge, but rather as inspiring positive forces in local communities, who approach the publics with whom they intend to engage as equals, offering to give as much as or even more than they take. Working with practitioners, businesses, museums, engineers, councillors and charities can speed up the process of public engagement for academics, but such collaborations can also enhance such professionals’ own work by introducing exciting, interesting and beneficial elements from our academic research to their projects and schemes which would otherwise have not occurred to them. Alexandra Johnson, Curator at the London Science Museum, explained how she worked with artists to create an exhibition called ‘The Rubbish Collection’, which showcased to the public in a creative and visually attractive style all of the items of rubbish which were disposed of by the museum over a period of thirty days. Despite the widely held perception among some of the public that waste-disposal and recycling is a boring and overkilled topic, they were inspired by the exhibition because of the imaginative and visually stimulating manner in which the issue was conveyed. Environmental historians, too, can design imaginative, innovative and ultimately useful ways in which to introduce the benefit of hindsight – the mistakes, successes, issues and debates of the past – to contribute to present-day challenges.

Our own project, ‘The Power and the Water: Reconnecting Pasts with Futures’, aims to reconnect severed, but important, links between historic and present problems in the development of the UK’s energy and water infrastructure. In my own project, I have learnt as much, and in some cases even more, from attending the Clean Tyne Project’s Steering Committee or riding downriver on their debris-collection vessel, from talking to local volunteers working at the Low Light Heritage Centre, or to the volunteers of the Tyne Rivers Trust’s Riverwatch at their 10th Anniversary celebrations, or by taking a tour of Howdon wastewater treatment works with Northumbrian Water, a tour of the Port of Tyne facilities or an art walk to the Dunston Staiths. All of these experiences have provided insights into the problems faced throughout the Tyne catchment today, which inform and enrich my archival research into the problems of the Tyne’s past, which in turn can and will (very soon) inform and enrich those present day institutions’, charities’ and authorities’ approaches to improving future Tyne policies.

Rubbish from Tyne

Power & Water project leader, Peter Coates, rejuvenated after observing the work of the Clean Tyne Project aboard their debris-collection vessel, the ‘Clearwater’ (Photo: M. Dudley)

The workshop at UEA was a success precisely because of the diversity of its attendees. A journalist, a museum curator, an ecologist, the director of the Norfolk Broads Authority, environmental historians, scientists and geographers, chemists and members of the public. We achieved a great deal in one day through face-to-face and direct communication. It certainly boosted my own conception and attitudes towards public engagement. Academics are doing really well in their efforts to include publics in and to improve the experiences of publics through their research, but they can and should always try to do better. For every ten stories, insights and first-hand experiences we incorporate into our research, there are millions more which we have not heard and will not incorporate, and which are arguably being wasted. Perhaps technology will provide an even larger opportunity to capture and analyse this important source of information in the future, in the way that citizen science projects have been developed recently on scales which were unthinkable fifteen years ago. Until then, we are wasting millions… millions of stories, millions of insights and millions of experiences.











‘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.




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