By Peter Coates

Feeling at home in landscape

Stuffed into a rented Alfa Guilietta driven by Tim, a bunch of workshop participants from Bristol and Leiden cruised north from Newcastle airport to Kielder via Hadrian’s Wall. Looking across the wall toward the northeast, we could see the outer edges of a thick carpet of forest. The dense mass of undifferentiated blackness brooded under the bright afternoon sun. I felt as if it was inching closer and closer – like Great Birnam Wood in Macbeth, quipped Jill – and could not shake off a sense of foreboding, a sense of foreboding intensified by the gathering, slate-coloured rain clouds hanging low above the forest. Kielder Forest didn’t exactly present a menacing persona, but I was uncomfortable at the prospect of getting closer. And deliberately seeking it out struck me as almost perverse.

Lakeside trail at Kielder

Sweeping views of Kielder Lake (Photo: Erin Gill)

An hour or so later, we abruptly left one world and entered another. As the car turned a corner, we passed out of the thoroughly northern English milieu of the Pennines (a far cry from the soft, picturesque Quantock Hills) and suddenly entered Oregon or British Columbia. A North American-sized lake opened up in front of us and a forest of equally North American proportions and connotations flanked the sides of the broad, just as characteristically North American parkway-style road. On the Quantocks, where, as our driver had informed us, a skyline drive proposal was fought off, you take your chances on narrow lanes – hoping and praying that you won’t have to reverse hundreds of metres until a passing space opens up, or that you won’t get stuck behind a tractor or squeezed into the hedge by a van hurtling in the opposite direction. By contrast, approaching Leaplish Waterside Park, you can relax into the drive and enjoy the sweeping views of the lake or the sensation of cutting a swathe through the forest like a lawnmower.

What I felt during those first hours at Kielder early Friday evening was that same sense of dislocation and unease experienced the first time I visited the Sennybridge military training estate, near Brecon, Wales – a since much-visited place that now feels, slightly worryingly, more or less normal. That feeling of being a stranger in a strange land was accentuated by still-fresh Quantock memories. Smallness and intimacy of scale were essential ingredients of  Quantock charm and appeal. Size seems to matter enormously at Kielder too, if for the opposite reason. We knew before setting out that it’s reputedly the biggest planted forest in northern Europe and largest man-made lake in northern Europe (serious question: what’s the southern boundary of northern Europe?). After all, those were among the reasons David chose the site for his workshop. Yet I wasn’t prepared for the heavy emphasis on The Big in the promotional literature available in our conference packs. The virtues of size and Kielder’s peerless status are also spelled out loud and clear on a board at the Tower Knowe Visitor Centre at the lake’s western end:

‘BIG FACTS’ include not just:



The BIG FACTS also extend to:



There seems to be some dispute about whether Kielder’s the largest lake in northern or western Europe and whether the largest forest boast is restricted to England. Never mind. Don’t let mere facts get in the way of the awesome. Northumbrian Water and the Forestry Commission also welcome you to ‘Your Great Outdoors’ in three senses: not just big and wonderful but also incomparable. In subscribing to the ideology of the biggest is the best, Kielder, arguably, is also profoundly North American.

By Sunday afternoon, though, I was feeling much more acclimatized. After all, I am an Americanist and my tastes in landscape and environment have been powerfully shaped by long spells in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. (I must confess, however, that I felt even more comfortable when we peeled off the A696 early Sunday evening on the way back to the airport for a lightning tour of the Otterburn ranges on the public road.)


Red Alert (Save Our Squirrels)

Not that everything bigger is better at Kielder. It used to be that only something small could be described as cute (and cuddly). And few creatures are more readily characterized as cute and cuddly than the red squirrel; it’s a hard heart that cannot be melted into mush by the perky, charismatic Squirrel Nutkin that stars in the video presentation at Tower Knowe. As we know from Chris’ Smout’s nature notes prepared for Kielder, the red squirrel has retreated to Britain’s coniferous fringes in the face of the advance of its larger (and far less cute and cuddly) American grey cousin. As workshop participants know only too well, I’m something of a squirrel bore, who grew up with the non-native Corsican pine-loving reds in my backyard on the Lancashire coast at Formby, where the National Trust squirrel reserve is one of seventeen sanctuaries designated in northern England. Yet another badge of distinction for Kielder, as the BIG FACTS brag at the Visitor Centre, is that it has more red squirrels than anywhere else in England.

A population of 9,000 in that neck of the woods is not quite large enough to merit that glorious American phrase ‘more than you can shake a stick at’. Nevertheless, it’s a critical mass sufficient to engender a sense of disappointment that we didn’t see a single specimen. (Immediately adjacent to Kielder is the red squirrelly domain of the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Redesdale, founder of the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership, whose mission is elegantly simple – to kill grey squirrels, and who advocates the equally elegant and simple policy of ‘eat a grey to save a red’. The vainglorious crusade of Redesdale and his sidekick, the Newcastle-based pest control agent, Paul Parker, to keep the American invader bay, was the subject of a riveting Channel 4 documentary, ‘Squirrel Wars: Red vs Grey’, 9 July 2009.)


The Aesthetic of the Mossy Tree Stump

Reflection of conifers in lake

Sitka spruce reflections in a glassy lake (Photo: Peter Coates)

So, naturally, I set off in search of native squirrels before breakfast on a grey and misty Saturday morning. (Tim’s post-Quantocks post mulled over the role of colour in, well, colouring our perceptions of alien species. Intriguingly, the grey squirrel is clad in more muted tones than its British relative.) Not a squirrel in sight. But what I found instead – in addition to the No Swimming signs – was an attraction I’d forgotten about. The captivating visual tableau of close ranks of trees reflected on the glassy, dead-calm surface of a ripple-less lake. Visually arresting, yes, yet a rather inert and lifeless scene that bolstered my overall sense of  Kielder as artifice on a grand scale. The  feature that really caught my eye as I picked my way along the shoreline was the tree stump – not freshly cut stumps, mind you, but well aged stumps, topped with a lush covering of brilliant green moss.

At this point, the problem of too much green raises its ugly head. In his aforementioned piece submitted on the eve of our departures to Northumberland, Tim drew our attention to how interwar guidebooks to the Quantocks emphasized their attractiveness as a ‘landscape of colour’ composed (not all at the same season) of hues of blue, purple, gold, orange brown and ‘gentle green’. For others, restrained hues of colour remain aesthetically superior. At Kielder, initially, the colours seemed anything but subtle. Harsh green conifers and a gray lake and sky. Too much monotone green and grey on display. No danger here, I thought, of Libby’s ‘pitiless’ blue, Australian-style skies bleaching the landscape of subtlety.

Freya’s Cabin

13. Freya’s Cabin (Studio Weave, 2009). An installation in Kielder’s ‘open-air gallery’ (Photo: Peter Coates)

The crude colours of Kielder didn’t bother me for long. As David pointed out in the podcast conducted a week before, there was a big difference, in terms of how we featured artistic creations, between workshops one and two on the one hand, and this final one. At Wicken and the Quantocks respectively, landscape artists Carrie and Jenny spoke to us and, showing examples of their work, explained how the places we were studying had influenced them. At Kielder, instead of representations of place and landscape and their creators there were installations in the landscape, introduced by the Kielder Partnership’s art and architecture curator, Peter Sharpe. I saw some of these artworks on my pre-breakfast Saturday walk, looping back at Freya’s Cabin. And the reason I stopped looking for understated colours and elements of harmony was that the manufactured nature of the entire environment, lake and forest, seems to provide a creative latitude unavailable at Wicken and the Quantocks, where, surely, objections to installations would be more vigorous. How would Friends of Quantock react to a proposal to site a fantastically carved wooden cabin that seemed to have leaped straight out of the pages of Brothers Grimm in a visually exposed spot on the hills they watch over?

From the Bonnie Banks of the North Tyne River to the Stumpy Shores of Kielder Water

‘If you are against a dam, you are for a river’ (David Brower)

At Kielder, notwithstanding Christine’s remarks, we didn’t really confront the full controversial potential of dams, before and after construction. The Kielder proposal – also big in terms of being the largest single contract ever awarded to the UK water industry – met with some protest, but was pushed through without too much resistance. (I wonder if the earthen mound nature of the Kielder dam and its naturalistic, grassy downside slope might have something to do with its acceptability. In terms of visual intrusiveness, the dam struck me as no more jarring than that other designated Economic Key Point, Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Not quite the epitome of the Transnational High Modernist Technological Sublime.)

The Thirlmere scheme in the Lake District, as Chris Pearson reminded us, had met with stiffer opposition back in the late nineteenth century – not least because of its location in a hallowed national landscape that had benefitted from a vigorous injection of added cultural value, thanks to Wordsworth. Other Victorian hydro-engineering schemes in north and mid-Wales (to supply Birmingham and Liverpool with drinking water) also engendered local and regional protest. (A couple of years ago, on Welsh soil, I casually mentioned to a Welsh artist who’d produced work commemorating the lost valleys and displaced communities of north Wales that I’d been raised on ‘stolen’ Welsh water…)

Still, within a larger context provided by the landmark Hetch-Hetchy controversy  in early twentieth-century California’s flagship Yosemite National Park and Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado in the 1960s, British dam controversies do seem like storms in a teacup. ‘In the view of conservationists’, remarked the American journalist John McPhee, in a Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), a book about David Brower, the charismatic, long-serving executive director of the Sierra Club, who had recently founded Friends of the Earth,  ‘there is something special about dams, something – as conservation problems go – that is disproportionately and metaphysically sinister. The outermost circle of the Devil’s world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT. Next to it is a moat of burning gasoline – and so on past…bicuspid chain saws into the absolute epicentre of Hell on earth, where stands a dam. Conservationists who can hold themselves in reasonable check before new oil spills [this was after the Santa Barbara spill but long before the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, let alone the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico]…mysteriously go insane at even the thought of a dam’.

Kielder Dam

The North Tyne River emerges from Kielder Dam into the stilling basin (Photo: Peter Coates)

The river impounded to create Kielder Water barely came up in conservation at Kielder. We saw it bursting out of a pipe into the stilling basin, in exuberant, liberated mode, before tumbling south toward Watersmeet, near Hexham, where it converges with the South Tyne and forms the Tyne proper. Ironically (or fittingly) for a river that rises on Deadwater Fells, the river was decidedly lifeless, motionless and silent where we walked across its upper end, on the old railway viaduct, with Graham, at the start of our Art Installation Walk, late Saturday afternoon. At this point in its course, just outside Kielder village (the most remote village in England?), the river is about to enter the equally dead-looking waters of the upper Bakethin reservoir. The destination of our walk did not involve the head of the river; the timber artwork nicknamed ‘The Head’ (Silvas Capitalis, SIMPARCH, 2009), denotes the head of the forest.

We reached the Valve Tower in the reservoir by walking along a surreal dry river tunnel, a Northumbrian arroyo secco that had replaced the North Tyne. During conversation at the tower’s panoramic upper floor, where it thrusts its head up through the water like a submarine periscope, it transpired that the father of our guide, Jonty, lives at Deadwater Farm, just north of the inundated area, near the Scottish border. I inquired about this name, and learned that it refers to Deadwater Burn, whose name, in turn, is derived from the flatness of its gradient on the Deadwater Fells; the flow here is barely perceptible, so the burn looks dead for all intents and purposes.

Dead water is a term routinely applied in a thoroughly pejorative sense to the water captured behind a dam (though the deadest liquid at Kielder was probably the Caffrey’s beer – piss-water incarnate – on tap at Leaplish bar). The conviction that dams and other urban-industrial transformations kill rivers as well as their biotic life is captured in the titles of books such as Silenced Rivers, A River No More, and A River Lost. Two additional recent books on heavily altered rivers are sub-titled A Natural and Unnatural History. In some respects, the water in Kielder reservoir is dead water. But I think we workshop participants agreed that what we experienced at Kielder is a new nature, a different nature, rather than a lost or dead nature. Receptive to notions of hybridity and fusion, we’re more sympathetic to the notion of the ‘organic machine’ encapsulated in the title of Richard White’s little gem of a book (1996) on the re-shaping of the Columbia River. Though merrily stocked with brown and rainbow trout, and a favourite destination for the freshwater anglers of northeast England, the reservoir is not particularly rich in fish species. On the other hand, it hosts ospreys and various waterfowl, as well as otters. So it’s palpably not dead.

The Tyne reminds me of White’s Columbia. Despite the inauspicious beginning of its north branch, the river whose fog was immortalized in the 1970s by the Newcastle-based folk-rock group, Lindisfarne, is currently the finest salmon river in England. This marks a dramatic rehabilitation since 1959, when the river recorded not a single rod and line caught salmon or sea trout. Fishermen today land salmon (on a catch and release basis) as high up as the confluence of the North Tyne and the Rede (40 kilometres from the source), just below Bellingham, past which most of us drove on our way up to Kielder. Granted, the North Tyne lost its salmon long before Kielder, but, as the Environment Agency’s River Tyne Salmon Action Plan Review (2008) explains, the scheme resulted in the wholesale loss of the river’s spawning, hatching and rearing area, which amounted to circa 8% of the Tyne catchment’s salmon breeding potential. In short, while salmon are returning to the Tyne itself and spawning up other tributaries, there’s no prospect of them reoccupying the upper North Tyne’s  highest reaches so long as the fish remain cut off by the intervening dam and impoundment. The hatchery at Kielder Salmon Centre (which, unfortunately for us, did not open until 1 April) was established as part of the legal mitigation arrangement for this substantial loss of salmon territory. According to the agreement, annual restocking will be carried out for as long as Kielder Water remains in place (in other words, in perpetuity), with Northumbrian Water footing the bill. The hatchery (why am I surprised?) is another Kielder ‘first’: the largest conservation hatchery in England and Wales.


From Woodland to Forest

Logging at Kielder

Logging operations at Kielder (Photo: Petra van Dam)

For reasons I cannot explain, I’m going to end with trees rather than water, fish or squirrels. By one of those strange quirks of fate, back on the 1st of March, a carload of workshop attendees rejoined the main A39 road between Bridgewater and Minehead, heading for Kilve Beach, after a short detour to drive past the Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey. At that moment, a lorry loaded with logs rumbled past, heading for the M5: a perfectly timed foretaste (premonition?) of Kielder. The truck was evidently coming from a Forestry Commission logging sites on one of the conifer plantations within or close to the AONB. We all agreed at Kielder that approaching any outdoor environment in terms of the natural and the artificial is as unproductive as a discussion that is straitjacketed by the polarities of nature and culture. As Greg pointed out at the Quantocks workshop, nature always retains a measure of autonomy and an ineradicable self-willed quality: we can plant a tree, but we cannot force it to grow.

Afforestation of Quantock open hillside with non-native conifers such as Sitka was a highly controversial issue in the late 1940s and 1950s, as Alan and Denys of Friends of Quantock emphasized in their talks at Halsway Manor. But we didn’t spend much time discussing trees. (David: where’s that ‘Ode to a Sitka Spruce’ that you promised to write for us? And did you know that Sitka was the Russian colonial capital of Alaska?) Those trees that Tim Russell directed our gaze toward were the sessile oaks in the ancient (semi-natural?) woodlands that occupy the combes climbing up the western slopes. I wonder if the forest on the Quantocks, as distinct from the native, broad-leafed woodland, would have occupied a more central position in our minds if we’d gone walking instead through ‘Great Wood’: not great by Kielder’s dizzily high standards yet, as Alan pointed out, the largest forestry plantation in southwest England. Perhaps we couldn’t see the forest for the woods.


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  1. Peter Coates says:

    As a form of pre-emptive strike, I feel obliged to acknowledge, before anyone else (like Jill or Tim) points this out, that the phrase ‘Mild West’ is taken from Bristol’s Most Famous Son (Banksy, that is, not Cary Grant). ‘The Mild Mild West’ is one of Banksy’s best known and best loved murals, located in Stoke’s Croft, Bristol’s alternative ‘cultural quarter’, which tries hard to emulate Berlin. Since the mural features riot police with shields, I guess the reference point is the ‘lawless’ nature of the Wild West rather than the West’s non-human wildness and wildlife. Mind you, the bear is about to hurl a Molotov cocktail at the armoured bobbies.