So much has happened since the long awaited 01/10/13, the day on which I opened the “black box” of records on the management of the River Tyne over the centuries (crediting Sara Pritchard, Confluence(2011), for the “black box” metaphor, of course). I’ve immersed myself in an interesting, but somewhat frustratingly blinkered, world of many, many popular books written about the Tyne, from Queens of the Tyne: The River’s Great Liners, 1888-1973, to Tyne Waters: A River and its Salmon, to The River Tyne: From Sea to Source, to Waters of Tyne: A River Journey through History, which, though informative, focus on only one particular segment of the Tyne’s history. A notable exception is David Archer’s Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the Tyne, a collection of essays which together provide a comprehensive introduction to the river’s characteristics and history. What’s clearly missing is a Tyne equivalent of Pritchard’s Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhone, Cioc’s The Rhine: An Eco-Biography or Smout’s The Firth of Forth: An Environmental History. October consisted of producing an in-depth, exhaustive and informative, if rather neat and short, literature review. Job done.
After a thorough trawl through several online archive catalogues, I knew what my task was and broadly how I planned to fulfil it (with bells on). The next task was to retrace my steps from the particular passageways of the Tyne’s fluvial history and to zoom back out to a different, and perhaps more challenging, question: how will my research inform the overall project, ‘The Power and the Water’? Cue Project Team Meeting One, at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers), London. I read some interesting documents at the British Library the day before the meeting: accounts of the Tyne floods of 1771 and 1815, a list of bye-laws written in 1613 to protect the river from rubbish disposal and other damage and a letter written by a local man in 1852, advising the newly created Tyne Improvement Commission how best to improve the river. Then, I left the security of a neatly defined research project which I had focused on solely for five weeks and began discussing infinite possibilities for impact and ideas for future connectivity between my research and that of others, researching topics as diverse as Peak District soughs to the history of the National Grid. Initial discussions at our first meeting were promising, and gave us all a lot to think about. For example, could our research lead to: designing apps for gyms enabling people to ‘walk’ the Tyne or ‘row’ the Severn on a fitness machine; hosting an educational exhibition with a project partner; or using Geographic Information Systems to provide an interactive, visual representation of a changing river from decade to decade? The possibilities are endless. A very fruitful meeting.
The quayside at Newcastle upon Tyne – Source:Wikipedia
Next stop was a full week researching in Newcastle, at the Literary and Philosophical Society, Tyne and Wear Archives and Northumberland Archives. Staying at a hotel very close to the Millennium Bridge was a privilege and standing halfway across the walkway of the bridge, looking at the ferocious and wandering tidal meanders of the cold current passing beneath my feet as the sun went down, was the perfect way to debrief from the archival discoveries of each day. The highlights of the research were: the Northumbrian Anglers’ Association Handbook and Guide to North Country Angling (1960), in which they truly spear-headed the demand for more efficient action to reduce waste-disposal into the Tyne (a book that Peter, with his salmon obsession, got very excited about); a manuscript River Court Book, written in 1645, recording the weekly presentments and fines of those who damaged the river in any way; and a minute book of the Fishery Board for the Fishery District of the River Tyne, 1939-1940, discussing inefficient practices of sheep-dipping in the upper reaches of the river, which enabled dangerous liquid wastewater to leak into the Tyne. A highly productive week!
On the Thursday of my research week in Newcastle, Peter Coates flew up from Bristol for our meeting with Andrew Moore, the Director of Research at Northumbrian Water, at their Head Office in that enigmatically named place, Pity Me, on the outskirts of Durham. (Heading south from the airport on the A1, Peter caught his first-ever glimpse of the ‘Angel of the North’.) Andrew has kindly invited the project members on a tour of Howdon Water Treatment Works in mid-2014 and introduced us to his colleagues, Martin and Sue, chemical engineers who work on flood management and river water quality, respectively. The future relationship with Northumbrian Water looks promising and there are lots of opportunities to develop some of the ideas discussed, particularly in relation to customer engagement and education. Peter accompanied me on a short tour of the Lit and Phil, where the Tyne Improvement Commissioners used to study, which Peter described as ‘just like a Cambridge College’, the Union Rooms, where the Tyne Improvement Commissioners used to socialise, and the Crown Posada, an unspoilt Victorian-style pub near the waterfront, which plays vinyl, serves proper ales and provides a unique atmosphere in which to meditate and discuss ideas (and which Peter described as ‘worthy of Liverpool’).
On my return, I worked on building a relationship with the Clean Tyne Project, which was established in 1989 in an effort to combat the problem of debris and litter in and on the river. I have arranged an initial meeting with Jayne Calvert on 11/12/13 and will be discussing future involvement, including potentially taking the entire project out on the river on one of their debris collection vessels. I have also been ploughing through more printed minute books of the Tyne Improvement Commission, which I borrow from the Lit and Phil for three weeks, twelve at a time. I have taken thorough notes from all of the volumes between 1875 and 1899 and will collect another twelve tomorrow, on 11/12/13. I intend to read every volume until the dissolution of the commission, in 1968, so plenty work still to go on that front.
Panic struck on 04/12/13 as the Tyne burst its banks for the first time in three decades, and flooded substantial sections of the quayside. This event has promoted a lot of discussion online in relation to flood defences along the river and how local people perceive and interact with the Tyne, which will undoubtedly provide opportunities for future engagement. Thankfully the Crown Posada was unaffected and will still be there to welcome us all at the Project Team meeting in May or June 2014. Don’t worry, the whole meeting will not be taking place in this remarkable pub (if only…).
The very latest news is that I have been invited to deliver an MA seminar at York University with Prof David Moon on the subject of rivers in Feb 14. The students are particularly interested in our work with project partners. I’m very much looking forward to communicating my research findings and impact so far to several enthusiastic students!
“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”