Tag Archives: recreation

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

By Marianna Dudley

This August, I flew to Edmonton, Canada, to participate in a workshop organized by Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper at the University of Alberta. ‘Environmentalism from Below: appraising the efficacy of small-scale and subaltern environmentalist organizations’ brought twenty scholars from diverse scholarly backgrounds together to discuss each other’s work. Papers of 7,000 words had been pre-circulated, and we will continue to work on them for submission to an edited volume in the new year. The workshop was funded in part by the Rachel Carson Center, and I was invited to blog about it for them here: http://seeingthewoods.org/2014/08/26/environmentalism-from-below/

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

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

Making waves: will ‘wavegardens’ change surfing? Exploring artificiality and commercialisation in water-based recreation

By Marianna Dudley

Planning consent for a ‘wavegarden’ in Bristol was big news in the city (See: Bristol Post). Perfectly placed between the beaches of Cornwall and Devon to the southwest, and Wales to the west, Bristol is home to a committed surfing community who regularly exodus the city at weekends in search of waves. The Wave: Bristol promises ‘perfect’ waves on their doorstep, breaking on demand in an artificial lake just outside the city. But already the idea has generated plenty of discussion that gets to the heart of what surfing is about and what it means to those who practice it.


Waves of the open ocean. Photo by Marianna Dudley

Does it matter that the wave is generated by machinery, not winds, tides and swells that cross oceans? Artificiality offers some benefits: regularity, predictability, repetition. Surfers are used to poring over swell forecasts and weather charts to anticipate where the best waves will be on any given day. This takes time, but it also breeds an understanding of meteorological information, and how it affects certain waves and beaches. As a result, experienced surfers demonstrate a nuanced knowledge of the geographies of their local breaks, and can transfer their ability to read conditions to new or unfamiliar places. But if there is no motion in the ocean then surfers are at a loss (friends of mine get noticeable twitchy if they haven’t been in the water for a while and spend a lot of time scanning the horizon for a line of swell that never comes). A wavegarden provides waves no matter the weather.   This will appeal to many surfers, particularly during those flat spells when they are wave-starved.

I recently visited the Museum of British Surfing and chatted to its founder Peter Robinson about wavegardens. I was fascinated to see in the museum an illustration from the 1930s of a ‘wavepool’ in Wembley. The 1920s and 30s were the golden age of swimming, with outdoor pools, lidos and river swimming clubs providing many communities with opportunities for water-based recreation. A strong belief in the health benefits of swimming and being outdoors was prevalent at this time. Pete told me that these wave pools were not unusual, particularly in Germany, where swimming in ‘natural’ moving water was preferred. ‘Surf-riding’, what we now call body-boarding (catching waves lying down on short boards) was also popular on beaches across England at this time, and the museum has a great number of photographs, boards and even bathing costumes from this period. We don’t have evidence to show that people took their boards into wave pools at this time – but they may have. In any case, there are historical precedents to the modern wavegarden, and re-locating activities previously enjoyed in ‘natural’ environments such as rivers, lakes and the sea to a safer, more regulated environment of a pool was a feature of the modernization of recreation in the 1930s and 40s.

Surf bath London 1930s

‘Surf-bathing in a London Suburb’, The Illustrated London News 1934. Photo by Marianna Dudley. Source: Museum of British Surfing

Swimming pools allowed swimming to develop from a recreation to a competitive sport. Regular pool sizes, rectangular shapes, lanes and diving boards all allowed swimmers to practice their technique and directly compete against each other. A wavegarden has this potential, as surf journalist Roger Sharp notes in his article for Carve magazine. The waves produced in the test facility in the Basque country are long enough for an experienced surfer to do up to 6 turns per wave. Wave after wave, all day long. By contrast, if you are surfing in the ocean, you catch a wave, surf it for as long as you can (in all likelihood, a few seconds), paddle back out, catch your breath; it all takes time. Meanwhile other surfers in the line up are competing for waves with you. Catching waves in the ocean depends on paddling and positioning. These skills are accrued over time – a lot of time – in the water. The better surfers catch more waves, and have more time on waves to improve their technique. Beginners have to find their place in the hierarchy and wait for waves. And once they are on one, all too often they fall off after a couple of seconds. It is a lot of effort for, often, little reward. Those without access to waves struggle to progress.

The Wavegarden of Eden from CARVE Magazine on Vimeo.

Wavegardens will level the playing field. In a controlled environment, beginners will be able to learn, and enjoy more time actually surfing, while experts and pros will take advantage of the opportunity for repetitive practice and video analysis to work on the technicality of their surfing. But, the ‘indoorisation of outdoor sports’[1] isn’t for everyone (*though wavegardens are not ‘inside’, they do create an artificial surfing environment). ‘Wild’ swimmers have rejected the chlorinated confines of the indoor pool to return to the open water, in increasing numbers. For them, it is swimming as part of a watery environment and living ecosystem that gives pleasure. Surfers already experience and value that connection with their environment. For many, the idea of surfing taking place any where other than the sea is an anathema.

Surf competition

Crowds watch a surf competition on a French beach (Hossegor). Photo by Marianna Dudley

So is the notion of paying to surf (though at least one exclusive surf resort exists, on Tavarua Island, Fiji). Waves have, traditionally, been viewed as a free product of environmental conditions and a strong surf-environmentalist identity exists and works to promote water and environmental protection: see Surf-Aid and, closer to home, Surfers Against Sewage. Will wavegardens normalize the concept of pay-per-surf? The commercialization of other recreational waterscapes has already taken place. The popularity of angling by the mid-19th century, and decreasing stocks of fish, allowed landowners to charge fees to access good fishing spots, and the government introduced rod licences to control numbers and receive revenue. Anglers now enjoy propriety rights to the riverbank, for which they pay handsome sums. And the perception that other users – canoeists and swimmers, for example – use the river for free contributes to the ongoing conflict that exists for recreation on British rivers. The controlled space of a wavegarden facilitates the commercialization of the sport. The public space of the beach and the sea resists this.

But Bristol already has a wave that is surfed: the Severn Bore. It is not in the sea – though it comes from the sea, as tidal waters push up the river and create the wave – and it is anything but perfect, but it is regular (timetables are published online), and, unlike the wavegarden, it is free. I am researching how a community of surfers has centred on the Bore and am interested to see if and how a wavegarden in Bristol will affect this vibrant branch of Bristol’s local water culture. Will Bore surfers welcome the wavegarden as a shorter and better-behaved cousin to their beloved ‘Sabrina’ (the Roman name for the Severn)? And will the wavegarden encourage more people to seek out the river bore, connecting the static environment of the wavegarden to the dynamic environment of the tidal river? The wavegarden promises long rides per wave, but the Bore can offer a wave that progresses for miles, not metres. But as with surfing elsewhere, the close community of the Bore recognizes the efforts its members go to in order to surf the occasional wave – again, studying conditions and tide timetables, waking in the dark on cold winter mornings, travelling to the destination, where finally, effort is rewarded with an exhilarating surfing experience – one closely tied to place.

Bristol has a thriving water culture, with a lido and an outdoor swimming club at Henleaze (both are membership-based, but with provision for guest access), a triathlon training lake at Bristol Open Water, numerous indoor pools, and the Bore surfing community. It makes sense that a wavegarden should succeed here, and planning consent has been met with interest and excitement. Examples from the past show that innovations like the creation of pools and facilities can alter sports and the cultures that they generate. Wavegardens certainly offer a potential new space in which to contest surfing. But something tells me surfing will never lose its spiritual connection with the ocean. Ocean waves may be temperamental, sporadic and frustrating, but they are also dynamic, challenging and endlessly forming. The experience of sitting in the ocean patiently waiting for the gift of a wave is not one that can be re-created. It is where effort meets patience and energy meets calm. The moment an ocean wave takes you with it is flow incarnate, a gift from nature that draws people to the ocean. Wavegardens are interesting, and will make money, and provide a leisure service. But they can’t match the great Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans – or even the muddy river Severn.



[1] Maarten van Bottenburg and Lotte Salome, ‘The indoorisation of outdoor sports: an exploration of the rise of lifestyle sports in artificial settings’, Leisure Studies 29:2 (2010), 143-160



The Severn Bore – anything but

By Marianna Dudley

I had done my Bore homework (checking the timetables, watching YouTube videos, even logging in to Bore surfers’ forums to get the latest gossip of where to watch and surf the river wave).  But, by the time the crest of water surged into view from our riverbank viewing point at Arlingham, all prior knowledge fell away during what was a much more exhilarating, raw and absorbing experience than I had prepared for.  A moving wall of water, surging against the downstream flow of the river at a conjuncture of time and tide, channeled by the land either side until, with nowhere to go, the energy behind the surge forms into a wave?  This truly was a natural spectacle.

Preparations for the Bore

Carpark preparations at Arlingham. Photo: Marianna Dudley

This was the second Team Power and Water trip to watch the bore, and my first.  Over the next two years I am investigating our seemingly insatiable and imaginative need to turn to water for recreation, and the hardy river surfers of the Severn are a group that I want to connect with, talk to, and understand in a historical context.   I grew up in Cornwall and have surfed for years; I know the unique rewards of climbing into wetsuits and braving cold seas through winter. But, stood, shivering, on the riverbank watching men dressed head-to-toe in

Walking to the river

Getting down the riverbank is tricky. Photo: Marianna Dudley

rubber sliding, inelegantly but necessarily, on their bottoms down the muddy bank and entering the brown river water, I admit that I wondered why they did it.  (Note: I counted forty surfers in the water at Arlingham.  Some drifted over from the village of Newnham on the opposite bank; but all those who left from Arlingham were men.  There was a level of ‘blokey’ camaraderie, and plenty of back-slapping and greeting of (old?) friends.  I’ll be looking into the dynamics of the river surfers’ relationships with each other as well as the water; the ‘who’, as well as the ‘why’ and ‘where’.)

Severs enter the water

Surfers make their way out to the water. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The men sat on their longboards in waist-deep water, and we spectators chatted amongst ourselves. I’d estimate that there were at least as many of us watching as there were in the water.  Over the river at Newnham, there was a visibly larger crowd. Cameras and phones were poised to capture the last 5* Bore of the year (there is in fact another one in September, but it happens at night).  It was 08.19 in the morning, and we’d brought packed breakfasts and flasks of tea.  Some people had binoculars, and someone else was filming with a camera set on a tripod (the latter was positively identified, enventually, by Alexander – though we didn’t want to interrupt him – as Antony Lyons, an environmental artist who is currently a Leverhulme Trust artist in residence at the University of Gloucestershire’s Countryside and Community Research Institute, where he’s working on a project entitled ‘Sabrina Dreaming (Severn Estuary Tidelands)’). There was a sense of occasion befitting a sporting event.  Then someone remarked ‘There it is!’, and all focus turned to the water.

 Bore begins to pick up surfers

The Bore begins to pick up the waiting surfers. Photo: Marianna Dudley

It moved fast. It picked up the surfers and propelled them upriver at a speed that almost shocked me.  It was noisy, a wall of sound as well as water. It churned and changed form, the wave forming clean faces in some sections where it passed over sandbanks, crumbling at other places into a broiling brown-white mess of water.  The surfers were carried by this liquid energy, arms waving as they tried to keep their balance.

Line of surfers

The surfers line up as they pass Newnham church. Photo: Marianna Dudley

At one point, they lined up beautifully just as they passed us, gliding in harmony. Shortly after, most of them were off their boards and beginning the most difficult stage of their journey: that from river to shore, paddling against the surge rather than riding with it.  One man we chatted to said that his personal record was surfing a 3-mile stretch. The pitfall of success when surfing the Severn Bore is that the farther you surf, the further you have to trudge back to your car in a cold and clammy wetsuit.

After the wave itself passed, the spectacle wasn’t over.  Water rushed across the riverbed and filled it.  It was also a very high tide; the riverbank couldn’t contain the water, and it eked over to fill the grassland before coming to a stop at a man-made embankment (there to protect the farmland and houses behind).  Eyes tuned to watch the water now picked out floating logs, debris and seabirds moving, for a change, upriver.

Aftermath of the bore

Aftermath: the river floods the embankment. Note the submerged bench in the middle ground. Photo: Marianna Dudley

The experience of the Severn Bore was a sensory display of the power of water, and of the human determination to harness some of that energy for pure joy. It occupies a place in the local calendar (timetables are published yearly), but the regularity of its occurrence hasn’t diminished the excitement of experiencing it.  People travel to see (and surf it), and those who don’t are still able to view it.  This year, a Sky News helicopter filmed aerial footage of the bore – by 4pm two days after the event, it had received 374,829 views on YouTube. I enjoyed the commentator’s observation that it was a bit like the Grand National, cheering on the surfers and willing them not to fall. This bore is a phenomenon in many ways, nature being just one.

Returning surfers

The surfers return to their cars, and waiting friends and families. Photo: Marianna Dudley