Monthly Archives: May 2013

Announcement: Tales from the Tweed

We are absolutely delighted to announce a new project, partly funded by The Scottish Government’s Talking Science grant scheme.

Tales from the Tweed will take place in September 2013. We will walk from one end of the River Tweed to the other, putting on storytelling events in communities along the way. Each event will involve a range of academic experts – including historians, geologists, ecologists, geographers and more – as well as other professionals who work on the Tweed or in the Tweed valley.

Audience members will also share their own stories of life along the Tweed. This will be a great opportunity for different groups to get together and hear each other’s stories. It’s an experiment in landscape-based public engagement and dialogue. God bless the Scottish Government for their exemplary vision and foresight in partly funding it:-).

This project is a partnership between Bright Club Scotland, the Edinburgh Beltane Public Engagement Network and the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

More information will be online in the next few days. If you would like to be involved (as a participant, talking about your work, as a venue, hosting an event, or as a sponsor) then please get in touch.

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Rivulet 4: We’re now trying to change rivers back to how they were (as much as possible)

Rivulet 4. Fourth in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

In yesterday’s post I talked a bit about how much humans have altered UK rivers. By doing this we’ve given ourselves a load of headaches. In places we’ve made flooding more likely (as there’s now less ‘give’ in the system). We’ve messed up the ecology, reduced the fish populations (and therefore the predators like herons or otters who feed on them). We’ve given ourselves river furniture (like locks and weirs) that needs maintaining and freeing from silt. We’ve reduced the natural fertilising of farmland by silt-heavy floodwaters. We’ve built unsuitable houses on floodplains.

There are now a bunch of people working on rivers for the Environment Agency whose job is to try to put rivers back to how they were before we messed with them. A lot of time, effort and money is going into returning rivers to their ‘natural’ state. Which casts quite an ironic light on what we mean by ‘natural’, when you think about it…

But of course it’s not really possible to go back in time (we can’t knock down whole areas of housing for a start), so they have to make choices about what aspect they improve. Is it the ecology? The flood resilience? The leisure access?

Often these are in tension. A river full of debris like shopping trolleys doesn’t look that nice, but it’s a happy playground for fish, with plenty of places for small fish to hang out without getting eaten. You can say the fish are what’s important, and dismiss aesthetics. But if it looks rubbish, then people don’t use the river. And if people aren’t using the river for leisure – dog walking, boating, angling – then no-one cares about the river. And if no-one cares about the river, then who thinks EA funding is important enough to protect? And without funding, how can they improve the rivers?

The tensions are even more subtle than leisure vs ecology. For example, which leisure use do we promote? The anglers don’t like canoeists, because they disturb the fish. The dog walkers don’t like the anglers because they have to watch out for them casting their lines. Things you do to improve the river for one set of leisure users don’t necessarily suit another set of leisure users.

We hadn’t realised organisations dealing with rivers had so many interests to balance. I guess most people don’t. Most of us just get on with our lives and concerns, don’t we? Even if we going walking by rivers, we think of them as just being there.

Walking from one end of a river and finding out all this stuff has made me want to tell people about rivers a lot. And that it’s all a bit more complicated than they think. It’s made me worry about the Water Framework Directive. And it’s made me wonder how many other things I know nothing about are actually completely fascinating.

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Rivulet 3: People have changed rivers

Rivulet 3. Third in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

When you’re starting off with a project like this, in a totally new area, you spend a lot of time banging your head against a brick wall. Or I seem to anyway. You don’t know who to talk to, so you keep approaching organisations but getting stuck at the switchboard. You spend half a day carefully composing a sprightly and engaging email, which gets totally ignored by the recipient.

In my view, things like organisational diagrams are works of fiction. People vary so much in what they think their job entails. There are some people who seem to get everything done in organisations, and know everyone in the field. They are the ones you want to get hold of.

Julie Wozniczka from the Central Rivers Initiative was one of those people. She knows everyone to do with the Trent. Julie clearly cares very much about her job, and about the river. She got straight away what we were trying to do, and how it furthered their aims. Once I’d found her, everything really took off.

Julie was a mine of useful information. I spoke to her several times on the phone, and every time my pen couldn’t keep up taking notes. She told me that 85% of all river courses in the UK have been changed by humans.

That doesn’t mean, 85% of rivers have had a bit of them changed, somewhere. It means that if you took all the lengths of river in the UK and laid them end to end, humans have altered 85% of that total length. Only 15% is in a natural state.

People have dredged rivers to make them deeper for bigger boats to travel down. We’ve put in artificial banks or walls to stop them flooding, or for ease of loading and unloading freight. We’ve put in locks and weirs, for a variety of reasons of our own convenience.

Most rivers in their original states would have been wider, shallower, messier, with numerous channels and little islands in amongst them. Often surrounded by marshes. Think of the Thames through London – it looks almost like a giant canal. Originally it would have been nothing like that. It would have been a sprawling, marshy, river/land mashup. There’d have been many shallower channels, with islands dotted about.

Most of us in the UK have no idea what the natural state of rivers is.

To a great extent we can blame the Victorians for this. Boo for the Victorians! They liked to make things neat and efficient.

But it began much earlier. 2000 years ago the Romans were dredging rivers and digging artificial channels, so that they could transport goods by water where they wanted to. I always think of the Romans as the spiritual brethren of the Victorians – so uptight and busy inventing things and conquering places.

The Romans probably built the first canal in Britain – the Foss Dyke, in 120 AD – so they could transport fleeces and wool to Lincoln, from the River Trent. We stopped at Torksey Lock, where the Foss Dyke begins and spoke to the lock-keeper and he told us all about it.

He said it’s always assumed the Romans built the Foss Dyke (and he thinks they most probably did), but strangely there are no known records of it from the time. Given what bureaucrats the Romans were, that seems surprising. But maybe it suggests that altering water courses was so commonplace it wasn’t worth commenting on…

And thus began two thousand years of messing around with rivers, which has had all sorts of consequences. Tomorrow I’ll tell you a bit about how we’re messing with rivers today.

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Rivulet 2: Bargees, barges and boatmen

Rivulet 2. Second in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

Part of the disappearing way of life on the waterways, that I talked about yesterday, was its terminology, which we started to learn.

Bargees were the men who drove narrowboats along canals. (It’s narrowboats on canals because they have to be narrow.)

Barges were the bigger boats that went along the wider rivers. But the men who who drove barges were called boatmen.

You mustn’t call boatmen bargees, they get offended.

All clear?

Boatman or bargee, it was often a hard life. One old guy in a pub in Stoke told us about his Granddad the bargee. As a kid, the guy used to go on a Saturday to help his Granddad. He’d ride the horses to the farrier to be shod. The horses walked so far they needed new horseshoes every week.

The Granddad transported loads of paper up the Trent and Mersey canal. At one point there was a tunnel over a mile long. There was no towpath through the tunnel, for the horses to walk along, so his Grandma would walk them around, while his Granddad ‘legged’ the barge through the tunnel. This meant lying on his back on top of the boat, pushing it along with his legs against the roof of the tunnel. For a mile.

We mentioned this story to Les Reid of Newark Heritage Barge (Les is an absolute mine of information about the history of shipping on the Trent) and he laughed a dismissive laugh. Pushing a narrowboat for a mile was nothing, he implied.

He told us about one apprentice boatman whose master used to make him pull a barge all the way down the Foss Dyke from Torksey to Lincoln. That’s trudging along the towpath with a rope around his middle, pulling a barge single-handed for 11 miles. Most people would have a horse do that, but this guy saved money by getting the lad to do it.

A photograph of an old black and white photo from an information board. Picture shows a rather fierce-looking couple, between them stands a horse, the man is holding it's bridle. Beside the woman, sitting on the ground, is a dog. Behind them is a narrowboat. The caption below it reads, 'A boatman and his family on the Trent and Mersey Canal at Rugeley, c1890-1900. Horses were used to draw the narrowboats, and couldtransport up to one hundred times more weight on water than on land. Image courtesy of Staffordhsire Arts and Museum Service.

This photo is from a canal-side info panel and shows a bargee, his wife and their narrowboat. The writer obviously didn’t talk to Les Reid about terminology…

The boatmen would live aboard the barge, with their whole family. The wife and the kids would all have jobs to do, and they’d all live and sleep in the small cabin at the end of the boat. It could get pretty crowded, so the older kids might get farmed off on other boatmen who didn’t have families, as apprentices. Sometimes they’d be treated kindly and like part of the family. Sometimes, as with the lad who was made to push a barge from Torksey to Lincoln, they were treated pretty harshly.

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What do you learn by walking from one end of a river to the other? – Rivulet 1

Last September, me and my boyfriend walked from one end of the River Trent to the other. As you do. It’s 185 miles long, in case you’re wondering.

I know it’s pretty unimpressive in world terms. The Nile is over 4,000 miles long. The Amazon and the Yangtse not much shorter. But the Trent is the third longest river in Britain. This is only a little island, you can’t go far without hitting the sea.

In fact, the Trent goes to a lot of trouble to get as long as it does in the small span available. It starts in Staffordshire, and then goes down a bit, along a bit, then up again, in a great big ‘U’ shape, before joining the Humber Estuary north of Scunthorpe.

A simple map of the course of the Trent, showing the major towns it passes though: Stoke-on-Trent, Burton-on-Trent, Nottingham, Newark, Gainsborough, and passing near Scunthorpe

All I can say is, much as I’d like to do the Nile one day, it took us three weeks to walk the Trent. It seemed long enough to us.

We got blisters, and sore feet. We had adventures. We had arguments on towpaths. I burst into tears on more than one occasion. We learned a lot about working together. We got stung by nettles. We had so much fun I’m now 7½ months pregnant…

(I like to think Tales from the River was a good training ground for parenthood. You’ve got to give yourself little obstacle courses in life, haven’t you, to make sure you’ll be able to cope when the big stuff comes along?)

We did all this because… well, because it seemed like a romantic idea and we wanted to be modern-day troubadours. We put on shows along the way – storytelling and playing music everywhere from the back rooms of pubs to a university conference centre. It was partly a mythical adventure, and partly a great big experiment in new ways of doing public engagement. Our shows were all about the Trent – its history, its geology and our journey along it.

We learned loads about rivers, and the River Trent particularly. My personal prime directive is that real public engagement is a two-way process, where you have to be willing to change too.

This journey changed our view of rivers and the Trent in all sorts of ways. Not least because the Trent now feels a bit like someone we know – we followed it from being a tiny trickle, to being a half-mile-wide river. You get attached. But I’ll leave the emotional journey for future posts…

I started writing, trying to answer the question, what do two people who knew almost nothing about rivers and about the Trent learn from making a journey like this? And the post started getting too long. So I’m chopping it up into bits and will post them one by one.

Think of them as rivulets. So here is rivulet the first:-

“Towns have turned their backs on the river”

I can’t remember who said this to us now. But walking North out of Newark, along the river, past crumbling warehouse that would once have been a bustling waterfront, I knew what they meant. It was similar all along the Trent. There’s the odd strip of regenerated bars and cafes. But most of the time when you’re walking through towns along the river it’s all cracked concrete, broken windows and buddleias growing out of guttering.

On old, clearly abandoned, warehouse with broken windows and bushes growing out of it, by the water

A canal-side warehouse in Stoke on Trent

Parts of towns and cities which used to be central hives of activity are now unimportant, forgotten, somewhere you wouldn’t walk on your own. The thoroughfares of commerce have moved elsewhere. The river’s still there, the town’s still there, but… the town has turned its back on the river.

Towns like Newark and Gainsborough used to be significant inland ports. I’d never even heard the term ‘inland port’ before we walked down the Trent. Raw materials like tobacco, cotton, food stuffs would come from overseas, often from the empire, down the Humber, down the Trent, to Gainsborough or Newark. There they could be transferred into smaller vessels and sent – via river and canal – on to industrial centres like Nottingham, where they’d be processed or manufactured into finished goods – cigarettes, clothing, etc.

There was a whole way of life based around the freight on the river, which has now almost disappeared. Since WW1, river and canal freight has been in decline, as roads and rail became cheaper and more convenient.

In Newark, we met a man called Les Reid. He’s been fascinated by the river since childhood. He used to bunk off school as a boy, and get lifts on barges going up the river. His Mum would come looking for him at Newark wharf and be told he was probably in Scunthorpe, but not to worry, ‘cos one of the captains would bring him back later.

Les Reid, is a man in his late 60s who somehow looks exactly like you expect a captain to look. Weatherbeaten face, wearing a checked shirt and a fisherman's cap and has a grey beard and a half-smile. He's standing on the deck of his barge, you can just see part of the river behind and he's holding some bits of wood in his hands.

Les Reid, on the deck of his barge

He spent his working life on freight barges on the Trent. He can identify any barge that worked the Trent, just by hearing its whistle. He knows all the stories and the families. He’s spending his retirement re-fitting one of the old barges and creating Newark Heritage Barge, to celebrate and record this disappearing history.

Les is bitter that the local council don’t support the work he’s doing, but would rather put their heritage money into a Civil War Visitors Centre,

“The Civil War was – what? – three years of the town’s history. But they don’t care about something that was part of the real life of the town for a hundred years or more!”

Les really deserves his own feature article. If you ever want to know anything about shipping on the Trent, he’s your man.

Newark wasn’t the only place you caught glimpses of a disappearing way of life. It was just the only place we came across someone trying to preserve it. As our journey went on we became a magnet for people’s stories about this disappearing world.

We’d be having a cup of tea in a pub, someone would point at our backpacks and ask where we were headed, and when they heard, some old guy would come over and tell us about his Granddad the boatman. I feel kind of responsible now for carrying those stories along with me and making some sense of them. That was something we never expected when we set off on our adventure.


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