Tag Archives: Peter Coates

Inside the Mystic River: Riding the Severn Bore

By Peter Coates

When thinking about rivers – and trying to think like a river – I like to compare (with apologies to Arthur Miller) the (more detached) View From the Bridge with the (more involved) View From Under the Bridge. Last Thursday morning (29 October) there was a 4-star bore on the River Severn, which is not as big as a 5-star bore (the highest rating), but impressive enough. This was my third bore. But the previous two occasions had been mainly visual experiences (with a bit of an aural accompaniment thrown in as the onrushing waves scoured the sides), standing on the bank near St. Peter’s Church, Minsterworth and then at The Old Passage pub on the Arlingham horseshoe bend.


All aboard the rollercoaster. Photo: Leona Skelton

This time, though, with my colleague, Marianna Dudley, I got on and (somewhat) in the river, thanks to world record-holding Severn Bore surfer Steve King and master mariner Duncan Milne of Epney, whose 4-metre RiB (rigid inflatable boat) with an Evinrude outboard sometime glided across the smooth surface yet also bounced around on the bore in both directions. At times, unbidden, the water filled up the boat nearly to the gunwales; then, within seconds, the boat emptied of its own accord.

Duncan delivered us safely back to the bank where, though soaked, we were none the worse for our experience. Deliverance is the title American writer James Dickey chose for his first and best known novel (1970), about the adventures and misadventures of four middle-aged suburbanites from Atlanta who take a weekend canoe trip down a turbulent river in the Appalachian wilderness. Like John Boorman’s 1972 screen adaptation (starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voigt), the book has lost none of its power to thrill and shock (I bet they all wish they’d decided to play a few rounds of golf instead).

But Dickey was also a poet of the river. ‘Inside the River’ (1966) invites the reader to ‘follow your right foot nakedly in to another body’ and to ‘put on the river like a fleeing coat’ [1]. After taking a tumble, Marianna put on a coat of the more conventional kind: a dry suit. Yet whether or not you were literally dunked in the Severn estuary’s big muddy waters, the ride injected a healthy dose of material meaning into that hackneyed phrase, immersive research.

Upper limit Severn

The view downriver from Maisemore Bridge. Maisemore Weir and Lock are the upper limit of the tidal Severn. Photo: Leona Skelton

As we chased the Bore, tacking back and forth across the head of the tide, we got as thoroughly soaked to the skin as Dickey’s four friends who hurtled pell-mell down the fictional Cahulawassee River in northern Georgia. I hasten to add that the similarity between Gloucestershire and Georgia ends there (Epney is a far cry from Aintry). Well, almost. The river whose rapids the foursome decide to shoot is about to be impounded by a dam. I knew that a barrage across the Severn to harness its tidal power will kill off the Bore. But to hear it from the river’s mouth – the surfers who’ve been riding it for decades and of whom it’s said that their veins run with muddy water – drove this ominous prospect home with eloquent force. For the bore is a source of wonder as well as a site of exhilarating recreation.

In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Mark Twain recounted his pre-Civil War career as a steamboat pilot (the ultimate dream of every boy raised on the banks of the river T.S. Eliot called a ‘strong brown god’ in ‘The Dry Salvages’ [1941]). Sipping tea in the café at Saul after we got off the river, listening to the likes of Duncan, Steve and the two Stuarts talk about the enigmatic tidal flows and infinite variety of subtle and unpredictable permutations and differences between stretches of water, referring to the data bank of fluvial knowledge stored in the head of every experienced bore surfer, I was reminded of the passages that left the strongest impression when I first read Twain’s reminiscences as a callow youth.

The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day [2]

But then he speaks of his growing disenchantment and sadness as he gets to know the river better and becomes more accomplished. Mastering the ‘language of this water’, though a ‘valuable acquisition’, came at a heavy price.

I had lost something too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river…The romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat [3]

I was never convinced by that supposedly inverse relationship between enchantment and knowledge, between poetry and prose. And my recent experience on and off the Severn in the company of boatmen confirmed that knowledge and enchantment can happily co-exist on a mystic river, whether over there or over here [4].



[1] From Drowning with Others: Poems (Middlebury. Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1966), 91.

[2] Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Airmont Publishing, 1965), 57-58.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Mystic River is a short river in Massachusetts, whose Wampanoag name (muhs-uhtuq) translates as ‘big river with waters driven by waves’.

Tyne Talks and River Walks (or, environmental history – not a load of ‘waffly bollocks’)

By Peter Coates

Hot on the heels of our Project Workshop in Bristol, I was aboard an evening flight to Newcastle. Heading up the northwest coast to Solway Firth before turning eastward, it seemed that the descending sun was frozen on the western horizon: there was as much daylight on landing in Newcastle as there’d been when we took off 50 minutes earlier.

Confluence Tyne

Confluence, looking east: Peter at Waters Meet, where the Tyne’s two branches converge (Photo: Leona Skelton)

The brisk schedule Leona had prepared for my 36-hour visit reminded me of how much we’d packed into our 72-hour team meeting on Tyneside precisely a year ago. Back in the Premier Inn Quayside (this time, though, in a room fully exposed to the incessant cries of the downtown-loving kittiwakes whose nests stud the sides of the Tyne Bridge this time of year) and after another slap-up Weatherspoons breakfast al fresco on the quayside, near the magnificent old Fish Market (now some grotty night club), we drove out west to the confluence of the river’s North and South branches near Hexham, where we were transfixed by the meeting of the waters (and duly noted the privatized, angling club section of river stretching to the west). From the bucolic Waters Meet, we doubled back, headed for the coast, passing through the Walker Riverside area that features in Alice Mah’s book, Industrial Ruination, Community, and Place: Landscapes and Legacies of Urban Decline (2012) and her article, ‘Memory, uncertainty and industrial ruination: Walker Riverside, Newcastle on Tyne’ (International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2010), en route to the Low Light Heritage Centre on Fish Quay, North Shields.

The launch of Leona’s ‘Tyne Talks’ exhibition at Low Light (12-25 June) provided the opportunity for me to meet Ceri Gibson, River Watch Manager at Tyne Rivers Trust, beneficiary of Leona’s recent sponsored solo hike the length of the Pennine Way (and in the nick of time: she’s about to move on to a job in the Lake District). I also met Jayne Calvert of the Clean Tyne Project (breakfasting back on the quayside Friday morning, our old friend ‘The Clearwater’ chugged upriver, though minus the ‘Tyger of the Tyne’, I’m afraid, which has been removed on health and safety grounds). The Low Light’s curator, Pearl Saddington, told me she did not encounter environmental history while studying history at Newcastle University, but, on the strength of Leona’s display, granted that it involved far less ‘waffly bollocks’ than some of the history served up these days. The Low Light, built in 1727 to help guide shipping into the treacherous mouth of the river in the days before the piers were built, was the perfect venue for ‘Tyne Talks’ [1] Leona’s environmental history was pieced together from materials such as seventeenth-century disputes over the river adjudicated at the Tyne River Court and a photo of the God of the Tyne. But pride of place was given to striking quotations from her recent interviews with Tynesiders about their views, experiences and memories of the river. [2]

Before clean up

‘Tyne Talks’: Reflections on the Tyne, before clean-up (Photo: Peter Coates). Click Image to enlarge.

‘The Spirit of the Tyne’ is the name of one of the two ferries that ply between North and South Shields – and the one we rode on. Yet it’s clear that there’s no singular spirit of the river. The other ferry is called ‘The Pride of the Tyne’, and it’s just as clear that the source of that pride varies considerably. Leona divided her oral histories between ‘Before the Clean Up (pre-1980)’ and ‘After the Clean Up (post-1980)’ and her selections underscored the lack of agreement over what constitutes a busy river and a living river. Before 1980, the Tyne was ‘a busy, busy river’. Another interviewee recalled that ‘the noise from the river was fantastic, it was just incessant’, and ‘big, vast and exciting’ was a further description. At the same times, others Leona had interviewed referred to ‘a dirty old Tyne’ and how it had been ‘in a pretty sorry state’.

After clean up

‘Tyne Talks’: Reflections on the Tyne, after clean-up (Photo: Peter Coates). Click Image to enlarge.

After 1980, though, with a cleaner river, the quality of bigness, for some, had shifted to the river’s signature fish that was back in town: ‘big salmon jumping under a bridge’. And the river was busy again, ‘absolutely teeming with life’ – though life of a different kind to human activity. The reborn Tyne was even characterized as ‘a happy river’. But for others, it has been stripped of vitality and meaning: ‘now it’s silent’; ‘the river’s dead’; ‘it’s a wasted resource at the moment’; and (what I think is Leona’s favourite) ‘I really do think that the river should be working for a living’. Providing the biotic conditions to nurture salmon, otters and human swimmers and anglers did not constitute work according to this scenario.

Environmental historian at work

Caution: environmental historian at work. Deep in concentration, Peter cuts Velcro into strips. In 1995, Richard White published an essay – inspired by a popular bumper sticker in a logging town in Oregon during the spotted owl controversy – entitled ‘”Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?”’: Work and nature’ (see William Cronon (ed), Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature). There’s no need to pose this question about environmental historians. (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Tyne Mouth

Looking out to sea. ‘The Spirit of the Tyne’ crossing from North to South Shields, for a pint of Pacifica ale at The Steamboat. (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Regardless of whether the river is putting in a decent day’s labour or loafing around, Leona certainly put me to work. In fact, she gave me a decidedly dangerous task, informing the guests that I would speak for a few minutes about why the Tyne is nearly as important as the Mersey. Having rigorously and systematically compared the two rivers and their twin river cities’ commercial, architectural, sporting and musical accomplishments, the score with five minutes left was something like Liverpool 8, Newcastle 2. (On the ferry across the Mersey, they still play ‘Ferry ‘cross the Mersey’, but on the ferry ‘cross the Tyne, of course, they don’t have an equivalent song to play, though you’d think they could at least manage Lindisfarne’s ‘Fog on the Tyne’ or Jimmy Nail’s ‘Big River’.) And when we start talking pubs, well, the Crown Posada sure is a swell place, but where’s Newcastle’s answer to The Philharmonic?

Newcastle Quayside

Next stop, Copacabana: Newcastle Quayside Seaside’s potted palms swaying in the gentle, early morning Summertyne breeze. (Photo: Peter Coates)

In one respect, though, and this is perhaps the all-important consideration, I had to agree with the brag on the Tyne Rivers Trust pop-up banner that the Tyne is ‘England’s greatest river’: it’s incontrovertibly England’s greatest salmon river, historically and once again. That evened up the score (as did our foray across the river to The Steamboat in South Shields, once again Camra’s Pub of the Year). But those of us gathered at the Low Light could at least all agree that big northern rivers, whose august company includes the Clyde and Tees, knock the spots off that puny, over-exposed southern stream that passes itself off as the national river. Final score: Big Northern Rivers 19, London’s River 1.

Heading south to Bristol the next day on the Friday afternoon flight, the plane passed over the mouth of the Tyne. From my window seat, I could see, directly beneath us, snug in its berth at North Shields, the DFDS Seaways ferry to Amsterdam that leaves daily at 17.00. (The previous evening, pouring the wine and opening the crisp packets in preparation for the exhibition launch, I glanced out of the eastward facing window just in time to catch the grand spectacle of the ship exiting the river.) Forty minutes later, on its final descent, the plane crossed the mouth of the Avon at pretty much the same point where our boat turned and headed back into Bristol during our project workshop field trip down the river to Avonmouth. The start of the week met the end of the week; the Avon flowed into the Tyne and the Tyne flowed back into the Avon. Just don’t call it connectivity.



[1] Tony Henderson, ‘New North Shields Heritage Centre opens its doors at the historic Fish Quay’, The Journal, 28 October 2014, at http://www.thejournal.co.uk/north-east-analysis/analysis-news/new-north-shields-heritage-centre-8010993

[2] Tony Henderson, ‘River Tyne’s story revealed in study by environmental historian’, The Journal, 14 January 2015, at http://www.thejournal.co.uk/north-east-analysis/analysis-news/study-environmental-historian-investigates-500-8456443



Thirteen Million Plastic Bottles: Venice Awash

By Peter Coates

Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti

Image 1: Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti, home of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, overlooking the Grand Canal, next to Ponte dell’Accademia, location of Waterscapes conference. (Photo: Peter Coates)

While Marianna was engaged in watery pursuits and contemplating plastic encased water in Bali, I was in Venice, the ultimate European water city, at a conference on Waterscapes as Cultural Heritage (Georgina Endfield and Carry Van Lieshout also participated with a talk on their Derbyshire sough research). The day I gave a paper about the restoration of the Tyne’s salmonscape an article entitled ‘The Death of Venice’ appeared in the Independent.

The article focused on the impact on the ever-dwindling numbers of Venetians of remorselessly increasing tourist numbers, rising rental and property prices and local politicians dipping into the cookie jar of cash earmarked for improvement of the city’s defences against the rising waters that, according to some experts, will completely submerge the city by the end of this century. [1]

Cruise ships

Image 2: Poster on Strada Nova depicts protestors who took to the waters of the Grand Canal in September 2013 to register their opposition to cruise ships. Over the past fifteen years, the number of cruise ships visiting Venice has increased five-fold (Photo: Peter Coates)

Tourism in Venice these days is a far cry from the gentility of the Grand Tour that brought the likes of Thomas Mann’s protagonist in Death in Venice (1912), Gustav von Aschenbach. Overwhelmed Venice currently receives 20 million visitors a year. The aforementioned article did not address the environmental problems associated with such staggering quantities of visitors. The erosive backwash – Venetians call this phenomenon moto ondoso (the motion of the waves) – of the staggering quantity of motorized boats, supersized, large and small, plying the city’s waters are just one of these problems. [2] (The aesthetic horror of the gargantuan cruise ships that block out the sky and obliterate the views is another matter.)

Bottles on beach

Image 3: Bottles on the beach near San Pietro di Castello waterbus stop (Photo: Peter Coates)

The most visible environmental problem, though, is that the 20 million visitors leave behind 13 million empty plastic bottles [3]. These bottles bob up and down in almost every canal and, wherever there are stretches of inaccessible pebbly shores rather than quayside facing the lagoon, fetch up and accumulate in small hills.

Rubbish bins, where they are provided, overflow with plastic bottles and even those properly disposed of on terra firma create an enormous and enormously expensive waste disposal headache for the local municipality – a problem of Balinese proportions.

Dog and fountain

Image 4: Dog refreshment (Photo: Peter Coates)

And yet, there is plenty of water on tap in Venice – and it’s free. Back in 2008, the local authorities launched a campaign to encourage the use of the public water fountains dotted around the city. [4] The water is in fact potable (unlike in Bali), but the fountains are dilapidated and there are no signs to reassure passers-by that the water is not only safe but good to drink. The only use of fountain water that I observed during my recent visit was made by a local dog owner to cool off a thick-coated Labrador during the mini-heat wave that had struck the city. In fact, local inhabitants are not much better than tourists in this regard: Italians consume more bottled water than any other Europeans, and are second in the world after Mexico. [5]

Venice’s Biennale International Art Exhibition opened for its 56th show a few days before my visit. This year’s show has drawn fire from art critics for its highly politicized content (‘There an awful lot of fretting about the state of the world’; ‘art for the planet’s sake’). [6] But for

UK art

Image 5: ‘Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf’ (Photo: Peter Coates)

me, this urgency was an attraction. A collateral event by the New Art Exchange (East Midlands, UK, supported by Nottingham and Nottingham Trent universities), featured a bright green Astroturf mini-version of the United Kingdom bobbing up and down in the insalubrious bankside waters of a canal near the former naval shipyard, the Arsenale. This is one of the nine ‘holes’ of a fully playable mini golf course (‘Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf’), each of which has been designed by a different artist. And you try to hit the red ball onto the dry land of the UK. The artist responsible for this final hole, Ellie Harrison, aims to inject a serious message about climate change and environmental refugees into this crazy activity. She speculates that ‘the UK as an island state is likely to remain temperate as global temperatures continue to rise and many parts of the world become uninhabitable. The indirect impact of this on the UK could be a massive influx of “climate refugees”, making the current backlash and animosity towards immigrants we are currently witnessing in Europe seem trivial’. [7] Landing safely on UK territory clearly wasn’t that easy. When I was there, most of the balls were bobbing around in the water, and, eventually, one of the staff went over to fish them out with a net.

It’s a pity that nobody in Venice is employed to fish out the plastic bottles. I closed my eyes, and it wasn’t hard to imagine this cut-out model of the UK – or Venice itself – drowning under the groaning weight of plastic water bottles.



[1] Winston Ross, ‘The Death of Venice: Corrupt officials, mass tourism and soaring property prices have stifled life in the city’, The Independent, 14 May 2015.

[2] Chris Catanese, et al., Floating around Venice: Developing Mobility Management Tools and Methodologies in Venice (Worcester, MA.: Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 21 October 2008), 5.

[3] ‘Venice sinking under weight of 13 million plastic bottles’, 4 October 2010, https://italexpat.wordpress.com/2010/10/04/join-the-venice-time-for-tap-campaign/

[4] John Hooper, ‘Venice urges tourists to drink from water fountains’, The Guardian, 4 June 2008.

[5] http://www.acquaparadiso.it/en/italians-number-one-in-europe-for-the-consumption-of-mineral-water/. On our fixation with bottled water, see Andy Opel, ‘Constructing purity: Bottled water and the commodification of nature’, Journal of American Culture 22/4 (Winter 1999): 67-75; Catherine Ferrier, ‘Bottled water: Understanding a social phenomenon’, Ambio, 30/2 (March 2001): 118-19; Peter Gelick, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind our Obsession with Bottled Water (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2010).

[6] Laura Cumming, ‘56th Venice Biennale review – more of a glum trudge than an exhilarating adventure’, The Observer, 10 May 2015; Roberta Smith, ‘Review: Art for the planet’s sake at the Venice Biennale’, The New York Times, 15 May 2015.

[7] http://www.nae.org.uk/exhibition/em15-venice—doug-fishbones-leisure/79

From One Big River to Another: Local Musicians Muse on Life, Death and Rebirth (?) on the Tees and Tyne

By Peter Coates

I’ve just revisited an e-mail that Jill Payne sent the project team a few days before we met up in Newcastle earlier this year. She reminded us that Chris Rea’s song ‘Steel River’ echoes the sentiments of Jimmy Nail’s lament to the working Tyne, ‘Big River’. (I remember seeing Rea in concert in Newcastle City Hall circa. 1974, when he was the support act for Lindisfarne at one of their famous Christmas concerts.) In fact, Rea anticipated Nail’s emotional mood by a decade: whereas ‘Big River’ was released in 1995, ‘Steel River was the opening track on the 1985 album, ‘Shamrock Diaries’ (though its best-known track is arguably the second, ‘Stainsby Girls’).

Rea hails from Middlesbrough and his river is the Tees, but the scenario and message are identical – a stark and painful contrast between the thriving industry on its banks in the 1960s, when Rea was growing up there, and the late 1980s, when a post-industrial river was clean enough for salmon to return but meaningless to those who once worked in the steel mills (the industrial and chemical sector whose thirst for water lay behind the decision to dam the North branch of the Tyne in 1974, but which was largely moribund by the time Kielder reservoir and dam were opened by the Queen in 1982). Here’s the third and final verse of ‘Steel River’ that Jill pasted into her e-mail.

They say that salmon swim in steel river
They say it’s good to see them back again
I know it hurts to see what really happened
I know one salmon ain’t no good to them
They were born and raised to serve their steel mother
It was all they taught and all they ever knew
And they believed that she would keep their children
Even though not a single word was true
Say goodbye steel river.

‘Pure magic’, reads one of the comments that accompanies the version of ‘Steel River’ posted on YouTube, ‘makes me proud to come from Teesside…listening to this takes me back to the days when we were a thriving industry, the world needed Middlesbrough’s steel to exist’. ‘This song says it all’, comments another viewer (62,136 views to date): ‘it tears my heart out’. ‘It is physically impossible for anyone born in these environs not to cry when local boy Chris Rea’s paean to this lost world…strikes up on the jukebox or radio’, reflects Daniel Gray (Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters: Travels Through England’s Football Provinces [Bloomsbury,2013, 18).

Most of the other comments strike more or less the same note. But there’s one that’s a bit different, a bit less lachrymose, and a bit more hopeful: ‘This [song] is an inspiration for every Briton who can recall that the country was once great. Let’s get back to making lots of stuff out of steel – but perhaps we can clean it up just a tad better than before. Salmon is still compatible with steel-making’.

River Tees

River Tees looking towards Middlesbrough. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Who killed the Lathkill? (or, when is a river is no longer a river?)

By Peter Coates

In Alaska, environmentalists are currently fighting a proposed coal mine in the watershed of the Chuitna River, 45 miles southwest of Anchorage. This strip mine will not only destroy salmon spawning grounds. It will literally remove 11 miles of the Chuitna’s Middle Creek tributary by mining through and therefore dewatering it. If the project goes ahead, there will be no mystery about why Middle Creek disappeared.

In the former lead mining areas of Derbyshire’s Peak District, there’s a disappearing river too. But there’s also a sense of mystery about its strange behaviour. One of the Key Stage 2 activities that the Lathkill Education Service attached to the Lathkill Dale National Nature Reserve runs for local schools is ‘why the river disappears – solve the mystery of the disappearing River Lathkill through this investigation of the geology and wildlife of the area’ [1] (‘kill’, incidentally, means ‘creek’, ‘stream’ or ‘channel’ in old Middle Dutch, and was a name attached in the seventeenth century to creeks and streams across what became the northeastern United States – as in Kill Van Kull, Bronx Kill and Schuylkill River). Natural England, which manages the Lathkill Dale reserve – one of five reserves that make up the Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve – also refers to the Lathkill’s ‘vanishing act’. As Natural England proceeds to explain, the upper river’s disappearance is part of the legacy of the two lead mines (established in 1740 and 1797 respectively) that operated in Lathkill Dale until the mid-nineteenth century: ‘the soughs are responsible for causing the river to dry out today’ [2]. ‘Where has the river gone? is also the question posed on the interpretative board that Natural England has erected at the bottom of the ladder that leads to the mine shaft under Bateman’s House (an engine house converted into a dwelling for the mine agent and his family, though empty since the 1840s).

signage Bateman’s House

‘Where has the river gone?, interpretative signage, Bateman’s House (photo: Peter Coates)

Who (or what) has been messing about with the Lathkill? Our project team meeting in Derbyshire in early October provided the opportunity to find out. Our schedule included a field trip to Lathkill Dale, one of the key sites for Carry’s and Georgina’s study of the area’s soughs – underground channels forged to drain water from the area’s lead mines. Our walk began down in the dale at a point where our guide, John Barnatt, an archaeologist with the Peak District National Park Authority, could stand with his back to the (at the time) water-less Lathkill River, whose peculiar annual lifecycle we now began to piece together.

Field trip

John Barnatt of the Peak District National Park Authority, with his colleague, Sarah Whitelaw (in red), and members of the project team, including (to Sarah’s immediate right) sough investigators Georgina Endfield and Carry van Lieshout (Photo: Peter Coates)

The Lathkill River is not exactly unique, though. It’s normal for streams running through limestone strata riddled with a network of natural caves to flow underground in summer or periods of drought when water levels are low. But this seasonal tendency is accentuated by the construction of soughs that lowered the water table and created a network of diversionary channels that can capture river water.

For some, the river’s seasonal disappearance is a problem to be resolved. (This interest group includes anglers: the Lathkill brown trout is a renowned quarry that merits inclusion in James Prosek’s definitive compendium, Trout of the World [2003], in which Prosek quotes the comment [1653] of a friend of Izaak Walton, James Cotton, that the Lathkill ‘breeds the reddest and the best Trouts in England’ [3].) Because of what Natural England refers to on its Bateman’s House signage as the ‘dramatic’ impact on the river and its wildlife, the managing agency is ‘currently exploring means of sealing the riverbed’ so that the water does not drain off into Magpie Sough. Whether this waterproofing remedy will be sufficient in itself to restore a perennial flow to the Lathkill is now increasingly debated, however. Since some of the river’s water travels through Magpie Sough, plans now focus on the establishment of some sort of blockage in the sough in addition to sealing the riverbed – and this blocking proposal is a major source of controversy (many thanks, Carry, for bringing this latest development to my attention).


A (fluvio-centric) view from under the bridge across to Bateman’s House (Photo: Peter Coates).

But has the river really disappeared? And what do those who want to ‘improve’ the sometimes dry river want to restore? A living river? An attractive recreational resource for anglers? Rather than dwell on the seasonal absence of water or the fortunes of fish (during dry spells, trout can be trapped by receding water levels and this entails relocation), we might want to think about attaching a new story to the Lathkill, a story that diverts attention to the seasonal presence of a riverbed carpeted lush vegetation, for example. For me – as an outsider visiting for the first time and someone who has no stake in the debate – the problem is not so much the seasonal disappearance of the river’s water, but our generic expectations of what a river should be. After all, though the Lathkill’s liquid content may vanish on a regular basis, its form and overall function remain the same. This replacement narrative tailored to this particular body of water might begin by reclassifying the Lathkill as an intermittent stream. This would elevate it to the respectable international company of a distinctive type of watercourse that includes the arroyo seco ([seasonally] dry stream) of southwestern North America. This would also underscore its status as a different river rather than a lesser one (compared, that is, to a ‘proper’ river). And if the privilege of re-naming the intermittent stream that flows through Lathkill Dale were mine, I would not hesitate to call it the Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill.

It is a shame that the cause of preservation is often reduced to a clash between the attributes of cultural heritage and those of natural heritage, with the respective interests of History and Nature being advanced by ‘the archaeologists’ and ‘the historians’ and the one hand and ‘the ecologists’ on the other. Environmental historians, it seems to me, are well positioned to reconcile these two often warring positions.

Lathkill River

The Mossy Cobbled Bottom Kill, aka Lathkill River (Photo: Peter Coagtes).

linear pasture

The Lathkill, even when drained of its liquid content, is anything but dry. On the damp day of our visit, I got soaked from my boots to above my knees walking down its lush linear pasture (Photo: Peter Coates


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves/derbyshires-national-nature-reserves

[2] Natural England, Derbyshire Dales National Nature Reserve (2010), p. 3.

[3] James Prosek, ‘Trout of the World’, Field and Stream, October 2003, p. 77.


Here’s looking at you, Wills Neck: The rare prospect from within Hinkley B

By Peter Coates

If you ascend the intimate, thickly wooded coombes that notch the northern slopes of the Quantock Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), you eventually enter an open moorland plateau which affords panoramic views that are one of the Quantocks’ best known features: nine counties, reputedly, are visible on a clear day. To the north, the view includes Hinkley Point nuclear power station, on the foreshore of the Bristol Channel. This particular prospect is dominated by the squat, twin reactor towers of Hinkley A (on which construction began in 1957, and which is currently undergoing decommissioning) and the more singular hulk of Hinkley B – the first Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor to contribute electricity to the National Grid (on which construction began in 1967). In A Portrait of Somerset (1969), local author Bryan Little hailed the original twin towers of Hinkley as ‘for all the world like the twin keep of some great Norman castle’ (p. 189).

Others regard Hinkley Point (where work preparing the ground for a third reactor, HInkley C, began in 2012) as a blemish on the local landscape. According to Natural England’s National Character Area Profile for the Quantock Hills (2013), the power station represents ‘an incongruous element of a scene otherwise ancient in character’ (p. 32), compromising the Quantocks’ viewshed, whose protection is no less important than looking after the attractions within the AONB.

Hinkley Point power station

View from the heights of the Quantocks towards the Hinkley Point power station (Photo credit: Peter Coates, September 2012)

There is also, of course – though it’s rarely considered – a view southward from Hinkley to the Quantocks. I was able to consider this view on 12 September, when I visited the plant as part of a group that included five members of the ‘Power and Water’ team, as well as various others from another AHRC project I’m involved in (‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’, http://www.hydrocitizenship.com/) (thanks, Jill, for organizing this trip). Probably the most unusual of these views is from a window in a corridor within Hinkley B. EDF’s tour guide encouraged us to gaze southward at the Quantock Hills through a window framed in a mock, gilt-edged picture frame. Though it was misty, the highest point on the Hills, Wills Neck (1,2612 feet; 384 metres) was readily detectable. Our guide even joked that we should have been walking around the lovely Quantocks instead of visiting a nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, as visitors’ electronic devices are prohibited at the Hinkley site, I was unable to capture this premium view. The view through an identical window immediately opposite on the northern side of the corridor is of the Bristol Channel, and in the far left-hand corner the plant’s cooling water intake facility can be glimpsed if you ram your hard hat hard up against the picture frame. This view reminded me of Celia, the Atlantic grey seal who was trapped in Hinkley B’s water intake chamber for five days in June 2011, though not unhappily, reported an EDF spokesperson: ‘Celia seemed in no hurry to leave as there were plenty of fish for her to eat’.[i]

Hinkley B Nuclear Power Station

Hinkley Point B viewed at low tide from the east at Stolford on Bridgwater Bay (photo: Peter Coates)


[i] ‘Seal rescued from Hinkley Point B power station water intake’, BBC News Somerset, 19 June 2011; ‘Grey seal rescued from nuclear power station’, The Guardian, 19 June 2011.

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 http://www.artlyst.com/events/nina-canell-near-here-camden-arts-centre


Reports on ‘cultural ecosystem services’

Project team members Peter Coates and Marianna Dudley have been involved in the preparation of two reports on ‘cultural ecosystem services’ that were published as part of the findings of the 2-year UK National Ecosystem Assessment Follow-On exercise (NEAFO)  that was launched in London on 26 June 2014.
The first report, ‘Arts and Humanities Perspectives on Cultural Ecosystem Services’, for which Peter was lead author, is the output of an AHRC-funded working party representing the broad spectrum of arts and humanities disciplines that Peter convened with the assistance of the AHRC’s Gail Lambourne. The other report, a ‘Keywords Manual’ on cultural ecosystem services, was prepared by Marianna with Peter’s assistance, and funded by Defra and various UK research councils through the Cambridge-based World Conservation Monitoring Centre (part of UNEP).
Download the reports below:

Barrage Boosting

By Peter Coates

Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous 1922 novel about George F. Babbitt, the peppiest realtor in the burgeoning Midwestern US city of Zenith, is often credited with popularizing the term ‘booster’. On their lapels, he and zealous fellow members of the Zenith branch of the Boosters’ Club wear buttons that read ‘Boosters – Pep’. Whether you’re mixing a cocktail or pursuing a business opportunity, it’s all about putting some pep into it.

In a large lecture theatre in Bristol University’s Department of Engineering, one recent evening (18 February 2014), Professor Roger Falconer certainly put plenty of pep into a well-attended talk on the Severn barrage. Professor of Water Management and the Director of Hydro-environmental Research Centre at Cardiff University, Falconer is a leading expert on Severn tidal power and prominent advocate of a Severn Barrage – the subject of project student Alexander Portch’s research –  the most recent proposal for which (Hafren Power) was turned down in June 2013 by the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee.

Falconer’s lecture (‘Recent Considerations for a Severn Barrage’) was eagerly anticipated by Bristol-based project team members (three of us had just returned from an outing related to Jill Payne’s project on Somerset’s energy landscapes, which included a visit to the showroom in Bridgwater of EDF Energy, the company building two new reactors at Hinkley Point). We were not disappointed, and those seeking a lively and accessible introduction to the barrage controversy could not have asked for more.

Severn Barrage

Artist’s impression of the Severn Barrage
Source: Wikimedia Commons/David Kerr

Falconer firmly believes that the Severn estuary offers the ideal UK site for the large scale harnessing of tidal energy. His support for a two-way power generation proposal (as distinct from ebb tide generation only) was broadly contextualized within remorselessly rising global energy demand, the imperative to ditch dependence on fossil fuel, and with reference to ambitious EU targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (by 80% by 2050) . He then ran through alternative options for harvesting the Severn’s prodigious tidal power, such as a series of tidal lagoons, all of which he found wanting (alternative estuarine sites, such as the Mersey and Humber, also fall well short in his view). Not least, as a Welshman speaking in Bristol, he spoke to how a barrage would act as a magnet for regional economic growth, encouraging a westward shift of population from the overcrowded, water-stressed southeast.

Without mentioning salmon by name, Falconer admitted that the impact of a barrage on fish, especially migratory species, remained a major unresolved problem. And he quashed hopes that barrage construction would provide a magic bullet to keep at bay future inundation of the nearby Somerset Levels. Toward the end of his lecture, he conceded that he may not see a barrage built in his lifetime (he’s in his early sixties). But he feels that the time and energy he has devoted to boosting the project (most recently as a member of Hafren Power’s regional board and expert panel) will all have been worthwhile if he has managed to bring the project a bit closer to reality.

Severn Barrage with windmills

Artist’s impression of a Severn barrage (2008). Courtesy of Ecotricity

Falconer wrapped up his presentation with some footage of a bit of barrage promotion by the prominent environmentalist and writer, Jonathon Porritt. The former chair of the UK Ecology Party (forerunner of today’s Green Party) and former director of Friends of the Earth UK is a staunch booster of renewable energy development. Perched on a rock at what looked like the northern, Welsh terminus (Lavernock Point, south of Cardiff) of many recent barrage proposals, Porritt argues that, in a world of climate change that must rapidly decarbonize its energy supply, the benefits of a barrage outweigh its costs. (I’ve not been able to establish the exact source of the footage, but it could have been taken from a 30-minute programme Porritt presented on proposals to barrage the Severn that aired on BBC Wales’ ‘Week In, Week Out’ programme in October 2008, a time when he was chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, a government advisory body.) Porritt’s support for a barrage also meshes with his criticism of nuclear power: one of the statistics Falconer cited was that a barrage could generate power equivalent to the output of four nuclear power stations.

As you can imagine, a forest of hands went up at the start of the question and answer session. Project team member Marianna Dudley got hers up early and asked about the fate of the charismatic Severn Bore. Falconer readily concurred that the Bore would effectively disappear if a barrage was built. I got mine up a bit too late and just missed out on being called on to pose the final question. What I had wanted to ask about was how, precisely, the barrage would create the fresh recreational and tourist opportunities he’d touted. What was going to compensate for the loss of the recreational and tourist resource represented by the Bore and the sport fisheries of the Severn and its tributaries, the Usk and Wye? Luxury hotels on the banks of a placid, pellucid, lake-like inner estuary?

Though he opened his lecture by stressing that the beauty of tidal energy from an engineering standpoint was its complete and utter predictability, one area of barrage debate that Falconer’s lecture did not address was aesthetics. Babbitt opens with a paean to the ‘towers of Zenith’, which ‘aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings’. The breath-taking ‘high modernist’ aesthetic of dams, visible in places such as the Elan Valley of mid-Wales, Kielder in Northumberland and Hoover Dam  on the border between Arizona and Nevada, can also be detected in artists’ impressions of the barrage. Whether an appeal to the technological sublime in future barrage advocacy will win over sceptical hearts and minds remains to be seen.