Jul 05

 Setting Off – Barnard Castle

A couple of weeks ago we test-walked the routes in preparation for the ‘Artists Farmers and Philosophers’ symposium which I am helping to run in September here in County Durham (see http://www.ncl.ac.uk/mccordcentre/research/projects/afp_symposium.htm ).  Both the walks we are planning are based on the idea of ‘walk and talk’ methodologies that we have been using in the Hydro project and also are increasingly popular in landscape research.  In a recent issue of Landscape Research journal Hannah Macpherson provides a really useful review of such methodologies which she sees as neither a ‘benign nor neutral approach to researching landscape’ (p.431).  What interests me in particular is the way that walking methodologies are often particularly enjoyable for people, and of course this makes it an attractive research method and also a good way of encouraging people to both interact with and participate in landscape.  In the symposium we are having guided walks along the River Tees in and around Barnard Castle. 


The River Tees near Barnard Castle

Riverside walking is a focus of many people’s leisure trips.  But in the UK many of our greatest rivers still do not have good footpaths or rights of way running alongside them.  The Tees is no exception.  In places it is very difficult to get next to the river although there are many fantastic views across and along the river.  If you love river-valley walking this is definitely the place to be, even though they are not always right next to the water.  The paths around the Tees and its tributary rivers are fantastic at this time of year.  The River Greta, which runs into the Tees, is one of my favourite, winding its way through the farmsteads, riparian and ‘gill woods’.   Some of the field boundary walls are made of large river pebbles that have been rounded by the force of the water rubbing them together over many years, retrieved by ancient hands and piled into animal enclosures. 


Fallen Tree

On our test trip the river Tees was magical.  The swifts and swallows were dipping and wheeling overhead, the May blossom and wild garlic was in full ‘spate’.  Whole trees lying down the bank in mid-stream showed the force of the winter water of the river at the ‘meeting of the waters’ where the River Greta meets the Tees.  In other places we found trees ripped out of the soil and lying tumbled down the eroding banks.  The lime leaves of the surrounding woods were at their most brilliant lime-green and the going underfoot was mostly dry. 



At the Meeting of the Waters

The banks of this river are littered with cultural remains and evidence of people’s lives as well as the power of the river, which presently looks benign and beautiful.  We found a large midden on the bank and the diggings of either a fox or badger had unearthed treasures of broken shards, oyster and clam shells.  Rivers were often used (and still are) as natural rubbish-removal conduits.  Cities in this country until very recently turned their backs on rivers and many were stinking sewers.   Here by the Tees the oldest villages are medieval and these shellfish may have been carried many miles from another watery home to rest for several hundred years in this midden in County Durham.  In Rackham’s (1995) fascinating book on animal bones, the records of findings from the middens in and around Barnard Castle indicate the clear social structure evidenced by what people ate.  Here the remains show that a high number of deer bones (20%) were eaten – these were only available to richer people.  In addition the excavation of the 15th century kitchen drains at Barnard Castle indicate ‘the wide variety of food on the tables of the aristocracy, especially marine fish transported 60km or more, [which] would be difficult to match in our most expensive modern restaurants’ (Rackham, 1995 p.55). 


Found in the midden

Water born disease was an important consideration then as it is now in many countries.  The historic Tees Valley typhoid epidemic of 1890-91 is reported in the British Medical Journal of 1893 and then again discussed by Hart in 1895.  It is a fascinating account of the thinking about water-borne disease and pollution of the time which reveals issues that seem so obvious to us now, but not then.  Hart (1895) describes the photographs taken along the Tees as ‘revealing some of the ' stinking abominations' along the banks of this ' common sewer'.   He goes on to say how a report by a Dr Thorne talks of ‘some twenty villages and hamlets and of the town of Barnard Castle, draining to the river; of washings of highly manured lands, drainage of graveyards and farmhouses, of privies, urinals, waterclosets along the foreshore; of ' loads of stinking refuse,' ashes, midden refuse, gasworks refuse, and other accumulations of filth aiding the pollution of the river, especially in times of flood’ (p1446).  And this was also the local source of drinking water!


 Original caption to image taken from Thorne’s report of 1890-1: View showing back of houses abutting on foreshore of river Tees north o Barnard Castle Bridge, Bridge End, Startforth.  A= privy serving four houses; B privy serving one house; C,D,E,F yard and foundation drains; G windows through which excrement and ashes are discharged from houses unprovided with drains, privies or ashpits. 


Original caption to image taken from Thorne’s report of 1890-1:  View of foreshore of River Tees at the end of Kitchen’s Lane, Barnard Castle. A and B house drains; C privy; D,E,F,G yard drains; H privy; K drain from cowhouse; L slop drain; M tip composed of house and midden refuse.

Hart’s extracts of Dr Thorne’s report goes on: ‘Looking to the amount, character, and sources of the filth finding its way to the Tees, and also to the numerous opportunities which are known to have occurred for specific contamination of the river by the poison of enteric fever, it needed only times of flood, coincident with the periods of disease prevalence, to give reasonable explanation of the two outbursts, These floods actually took place, the epidemic periods being preceded, the one by a ',much flooded' condition of the river due to excessive rainfall, and the second by ' an 8-foot flood,' due to melting snow.  Seldom, if ever,' says Dr Thorne in concluding his introduction to the report, ' has a case of the fouling of water intended for human consumption, so grossly or persistently maintained, come within the cognisance of the Medical Department; and seldom, if ever, has the proof of the relation of the use of water so befouled to wholesale occurrence of enteric fever been more obvious and patent."' "Thus," he says, " regarding rivers as sources of drinking water, one of two positions ought, I submit, to be consistently aimed at - either that, being a necessary source of domestic water supply, the river shall be absolutely protected against pollution; or else that, being (in whatever degree) used as a sewer, it shall be classed as not fit to supply drinking water."

This, of course, is a long time ago now! The Tees Rivers Trust was established in 2009.  According to the Teesdale Mercury it has been involved in a scheme with the Environment Agency and farmers to focus on the water quality of the local becks that run into the Tees.  Runoff from cattle slurry and mud mixed with manure is a particular issue.  The proposals include the improvement of clean and dirty water separation by creating solar powered cattle drinkers.   Other work which has been carried out includes putting stones in gateways to prevent silt and water runoff down roads and the construction of new concrete cattle middens to prevent nitrogen pollution of water runoff.  This project aims to improve the river water standard so that Teesdale would be compliant with European legislation by 2027.  However perhaps by then we will be working towards a completely different regulatory framework for water!  The Tees is approximately 85 miles in length, has a catchment area of 1834km2 and flows generally eastwards to meet the North Sea between Hartlepool and Redcar (Northumbrian Water, 2016).  Its main tributaries are the Greta, the Lune, the Balder, the Leven the Skerne and Billingham Beck. While there are issues in the upper reaches of the river with the tea-like colour of the water caused by dissolved organic carbon (DOC) the river is surely beautiful around Barnard Castle.  It is still considered to be a river ‘in recovery’ as a result of a history of industrial pollution, and the barrage at Stockton has caused problems with the passage of fish and eels.  

It is worth considering however, what kind and type of legislation will the future bring in relation to river quality. We should perhaps reflect on whether, without present legislation would our rivers return to the filthy conditions of former times?Can we encourage further partnerships and improvement in the future?


References and Sources:

Canal and River Trust (2014) Ecology study of the River Tees extended. Website: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/news-and-views/news/ecology-study-of-the-river-tees-extended

Hart, Ernest (1895) ‘Waterborne Typhoid: a Historical Summary of Local Outbreaks in Great Britain and Ireland’.  A Report Prepared for the Parliamentary Bills Committee of the British Medical Association. The British Medical Journal, June 29 1895. pp.1444-1451

Macpherson, H. (2016) ‘Walking methods in landscape research: moving bodies, spaces of disclosure and rapport’, Landscape Research 41(4): 425-432. doi: 10.1080/01426397.2016.1156065

North Pennines AONB Building Design Guide Available at: http://www.northpennines.org.uk/Lists/DocumentLibrary/Attachments/154//Building.pdf

Northumbrian Water, the River Tees. Website: https://www.nwl.co.uk/your-home/environment/river-tees.aspx

Rackham, J. (1994) Animal Bones.  Berkley and Lost Angeles: University of California Press/British Museum. 

Teesdale Mercury (2016) Final call for funds to clean up Teesdale’s becks. Available at: http://www.teesdalemercury.co.uk/Articles/final-call-for-funds-to-clean-up-teesdale%E2%80%99s-becks#sthash.itknJYWS.dpbs


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