‘Artificiality’ at Kielder?


By David Moon

I planned the workshop at Kielder Water and Forest Park to emphasize the ‘artificiality’ – itself a construct  – of the location. Key elements of the landscape have been constructed over less than a century. But, I was well aware that no landscapes in Britain have escaped human influence. The weekend’s programme emphasized: the dam, opened – or rather closed – in 1982, which created a large reservoir as the waters of the North Tyne were held back; the forest, planted mostly with introduced sitka spruce and other conifers, since the 1920s, which now covers an enormous acreage; and the original works of art and architectural that in recent years have been constructed around the park to encourage reflection on the works themselves and the environments in which they are situated.

I also planned the workshop so that we could consider the changing purposes of the location: from a plantation of trees to provide timber for construction and a reservoir to provide water for the industries of North-East England, to a destination for recreation, leisure, and viewing the art works, and perhaps most paradoxically, a habitat for endangered species and site for nature protection.

Even the road to Kielder, for those coming up from Newcastle, served my purpose: we drove from post-industrial Tyneside, through ‘Hadrian’s Wall country’, along part of the route of the old Roman road, Dere Street (now the A68), past the farmland and parks of Wallington Hall and other great estates, across rougher grazing land, and then round a corner, suddenly the dam, the vista of the lake surrounded by the coniferous forest, and then a carefully designed, and much faster, road to Leaplish Waterside Park, our venue for the weekend.

Kielder forest & Reservoir

The landscape at Kielder: Leisure, forest and reservoir (Photo: Peter Coates)

At first sight, the park seemed not just artificial, but also un-British to some members of the network who had not been before. As we admired the views, lit by the soft sun of the early spring, across the stillness of Kielder Water and the plantations of conifers, some compared it with Canada or Oregon or Norway. Some tried, sadly without success, to catch a glimpse of a mammal they had not seen before in the ‘wild’ – the red squirrel – which would have added to the exoticism of the location, in spite or perhaps because of the fact that red squirrels are a native species, albeit in an ‘artificial’ environment at Kielder.

We stayed in Scandinavian-style timber cabins, which contrasted with the buildings made from local stone we had passed on the way to Kielder. And we enjoyed the hospitality of the staff at Leaplish, which was in keeping with the reputation of the people of North-East England for welcoming visitors and making them feel at home, even in an ‘artificial’ environment.

It was also my intention for the notion of ‘artificiality’ to unravel as the weekend progressed. It did so rather sooner than I had expected when, in his presentation on the first evening, Peter Sharpe, the art and architecture curator, showed us a wide-angle image of a view from the upland above Kielder village to the north of the reservoir in which the grandeur of the topography of the larger landscape – I almost wrote ‘timeless’ – put the reservoir and forest in its wider perspective. Suddenly they seemed not so dominant as they did when we drove in.

The corporate documentary about the dam, made in the early 1980s, which we watched on the first evening celebrated the construction of the dam and, in manner unthinkable today, the commentary spoke about ‘nature’s plans and man’s plans becoming one’.  We visited the dam the following morning. Our expert guide and local resident, Jonty Hall of Northumbrian Water, gave us a better sense of proportion. The dam is indeed an impressive feat of engineering, all the more apparent when we were inside it and climbed up the valve tower to see more views of the lake, and gain a better understanding of the engineering.

The dam was planned and built at a time when fewer people than today questioned whether it was appropriate radically to alter ‘environments’ to harness ‘natural’ resources for the benefits of society and the economy. Chris Pearson saw the decision to build the dam at Kielder as part of the ‘high modernist ideology’ of state-sponsored ‘progress’ identified by James C. Scott. Christine McCulloch made a connection with the rather larger Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, straddling the Arizona-Nevada state line, which Donald Worster described as the ‘domination of capitalism’ over local interests. Chris Pearson also gave us the ‘perspective of the dispossessed’, of those people whose lives are affected by such decisions as building dams to drown valleys, reminding us of the villagers who were displaced and relocated to new homes after the Kielder dam was built.

In the case of Kielder, a public inquiry concluded that the impact on some local inhabitants was outweighed by the advantages to the region. The dam was built for the benefit of the industries of North-East England, which was projected to experience a shortage of water long before the end of the twentieth century. A hydro-electric power station was added to the dam to harness the power of the water to generate electricity.

Even before it was completed and the valley flooded, opponents labelled the reservoir a ‘white elephant’. The future of the region’s traditional heavy industries was in doubt, and the potential users of the water in decline. Projections for climate change over the coming  decades, however, suggest that the decision to built the dam and store such a large body of water that could be transported further than the original route to Teesside may indeed have been remarkably prescient, if fortuitous. Back in the 1980s, however, the decline in the original purpose of the dam led to the role of the reservoir as a leisure resource becoming more prominent.

David Hall, the Head of Corporate Affairs at Northumbrian Water, explained the marketing strategy for Kielder as a visitor destination. This is actively promoted by the Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust – a partnership of various stakeholders in the area – which has targeted certain segments of the market to take activity holidays, short breaks, and family holidays at Kielder. The marketing strategy for the destination has an impact on how the land is managed, in ways we discovered over the weekend.

We also learned, thanks to the expertise of Christine McCulloch, that from the outset, the dam and reservoir (and the road) had been carefully designed by the architect and landscape designer Sir Frederick Gibberd for aesthetic reasons. Thus, a second dam was built further up the former river valley at Bakethin to ensure that the top end of the reservoir did not recede, exposing unsightly mud flats, when water was drawn down. Water has rarely been drawn down, however, but the Bakethin dam ensures that the top end of reservoir maintains its levels and more closely mimics a ‘natural’ lake, thereby providing a better habitat for wildlife. A  bird hide has been constructed at Bakethin, the better to view the birdlife that has benefitted from this design feature.

Jill Payne asked us how we would react to the Bakethin reservoir if we did not know it was artificial? More provocatively perhaps, she compared Kielder with the more famous English Lake District. She reminded us that the landscape beloved of Wordsworth and romantically inclined visitors was also manufactured, albeit over a longer period of time than Kielder.

In comparison with the dam, which was inaugurated a few weeks before I graduated from Newcastle University, the forest has a longer history, and in its current incarnation it can be traced back to the shortage of timber in a largely deforested Britain in the aftermath of the First World War. The immediate strategic need for timber in the interwar period and years immediately after the Second World War – when the island of Britain was once again blockaded and relying on imported timber risky – was met by planting rows of fast growing and high-yielding sitka spruce that thrived in the ‘environment’ of the uplands of northern Britain.

Conifer forest

A "sea" of conifers (Photo: Peter Coates)

In the decades that followed, as Forest Manager Graham Gill explained to us on a tour of the forest, the need for home-grown timber became less pressing and other considerations became more prominent in managing the forest. The forest is still important as a source of timber, and we saw the timber harvesting – with computerized harvesters – in process. As the importance of the location as a destination for visitors increased, however, the forest was carefully redesigned for aesthetic reasons. The monoculture of sitka spruce has been broken up by other species. The edges of planting zones are no longer straight lines, but conform to the topography of the land. The result of these changes, indeed the aim, was to create a more ‘natural’ appearance.

An even more ‘natural’ appearance could be created by planting more ‘native’ species of broad-leaved trees. To do so, however, would be to invite in the grey squirrels and threaten one of the last bastions of the native red squirrels in Britain. This is one of the paradoxes of the location: to plant more native species of trees would create a habitat for an invasive introduced species at the expense of a native species. Unlike the grey squirrels, the native reds can live in an ‘artificial’ forest of imported conifers, although their ‘natural’ habitat is the lowland mixed forests from which the greys have displaced them.

Future forest map

Landscape map of the future situation: forest subdivided in small patches of trees of the same age, diversity created in the landscape; the current situation is all trees of same age, rather monotonous landscape. (Photo: Petra van Dam)

One of reasons for choice of Kielder as a location for the dam was that the area had already been drastically altered by forestry planting. In such an ‘artificial’ environment, is there a role for ‘nature protection’? In a more extreme moment, I even wondered if the environment at Kielder needed to be protected from nature. Peter asked me if the coniferous woodland at Kielder resembled the great boreal forest that cloaks the northern part of Russia – the part of the world which is my main area of expertise. The trees in the northern forest of Russia are taller, because many are older, there is a greater variety of types of trees, but the squirrels are also red (although they seem larger in Russia). The superficial difference that struck me most was that along roads and railway lines running through the Russian taiga are pioneer species of trees, especially the ubiquitous birch, which were noticeable at least to me by their absence at Kielder.

And yet there is a very important role for nature protection and conservation at Kielder, as Duncan Hutt of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust explained to us. Again, we encounter a paradox: protecting red squirrels, and also voles, entails conserving their habitats in the relatively new, and non-native, environment of the coniferous forest. The Forestry Commission’s planting policy is influenced by the desire to protect the red squirrels’ habitat and prevent the incursion of greys.

Duncan (and Graham Gill) both went back to the end of the last ice age, ten thousand years ago, to introduce the environmental history of the region. The retreat of the glacier left behind a ‘blank canvas’ on which nature could construct a new environment. Hollows in the land filled with water and peatland developed. Trees grew and the original Kielder forest covered parts of the landscape. Climate change altered the extent of tree cover several thousand years ago. At first people were small players in the environment, but the increase in the human population and their grazing livestock helped shape the landscape. Analysis of fossil pollen has shown a decline in tree pollen and an increase in grass pollen as human activity contributed to the changing vegetation cover around the time of the Romans. As we approach more modern times, the land was used for sheep grazing and grouse hunting in the century or so before the start of the more recent alterations to the landscape that began after 1918.

Is there any ‘natural environment’ left to conserve? The answer is a resounding yes. Duncan explained how areas of peatland have survived. The Kielder Mires, with Sphagnum dominated plant communities, have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. (http://www.english-nature.org.uk/citation/citation_photo/2000076.pdf.) Since the location of the mires was enclosed for forestry in the 1940s, most have not been affected by burning or grazing, and the Forestry Commission has stopped planting trees on them. Further, the forest was never a monoculture of introduced species. There are Scots Pine, a native species, on Kielder Head that could be relics of ancient woodland.

Over the weekend, Chris and Anne Marie Smout kept a count of the wildlife they saw, and on Sunday morning reported a respectable twenty-nine species of birds and one mammal (a rabbit). Chris noted that the forest, planted as a result of strategic decisions taken after the First World War, had created a habitat for some birds which had come into the area, augmenting the existing bird life. More recently, the osprey has been deliberately reintroduced to Kielder.

Paul reminded us of our historical perspectives of landscapes over time. His emphasis on temporality, however, mirrored that of nature conservationists. Duncan commented that in the much longer term history of the wildlife on the uplands of the North East of England, going back to the retreat of the glacier at end of the last ice age, the reservoir and forest are fairly minor. His emphasis on the long term, over ten thousand years, offered a parallel to Peter Sharpe’s wide-angle image of Kielder from the upland to the north, in which the artificial lake and forest were also diminished in a wider perspective. Our initial impression of ‘artificiality’ as we turned the corner and encountered the view of the dam and the conifers changed over the weekend. We came to see the new additions to the landscape over the last few decades in the much longer and broader perspectives of the histories of environmental change and the role of human activity in bringing about such change.


Tags: , ,



  1. chris smout says:

    Interestingly, Bakethin does not work as well for wildlife as it would have done if it had been left as part of the main reservoir and mud had been exposed when water was drawn off. The exposed flats and shallow waters are the best features of most reservoirs for wildlife, giving feeding for ducks and waders which they cannot access so readily on a steep-sided or unvarying pool. It is clear that Gibbert had no ecological aims in mind, and this contrasts interestingly with Rutland Water, just as big but designed with the help and close collaboration of the local wildlife trust. Here large lagoons were constructed, overseen with hides, so that when the water was drawn down mud would appear. Whether the water level can be controlled within these lagoons I cannot recall, but Rob would know. It works a treat, and Rutland Water, with these shallow waters, reed beds and drying mud, has become the site of an annual birdwatching fair that contributes a good deal to the local economy. In the next round of reservoir enlargement down there even more and larger lagoons will be made ‘just for the birds’ at one level, but to draw visitors in as part of a tourism attraction at another.

  2. As Landscape Architect for Northumberland County Council I was responsible for suggesting a secondary dam at Bakethin, this and the removal of tree stumps was primarily concerned with aesthetics and aimed to provide a stable lake to contrast with the extreme drawdown that was being predicted for the main reservoir. In fact due to the industrial decline on Tees-side drawdown has up to now not been a problem. There was close collaboration with the Northumberland Wildlife Trust but it was difficult to justify and obtain modifications for recreation and wildlife to the engineers who saw it primarily as a water storage development!