Kielder Water and Forest Park: city in the country


By: Christine McCulloch

When the  American landscape historian, Donald Worster, described the impact of the Hoover Dam as ‘domination’ he referred not only to humanity’s mastery over nature but to the domination of people.

Conifer plantation

A Sea of conifers at Kielder (Photo: David Moon)

The same feelings of fearful wonder are evoked by the Kielder dam, reservoir and commercial forest :  dominance over both nature and people, spurred on by hopes of economic gain, even in a remote Pennine valley. Forestry Commission plantations of regimentally-aligned rows of Sitka Spruce and a vast volume of water trapped behind the Kielder dam have obliterated earlier landscapes and societies.

The wonder is tinged with a sadness of futility with the realisation that neither the forest products nor the abundant water have fulfilled their anticipated role.  The mass of water was intended to flow through a vast tunnel bored through kilometres of rock to link the river Tyne with the river Tees to support growth of a hoped-for major new iron and steel complex and expansion of heavy petrochemical works on the coast at Teesside. The forest was intended to supply pit props for the underground coal mines once so vital to Britain’s economy. Capitalism has demanded a sacrifice but dreams of reward have not been realised .  The pace of economic change has outstripped both the rate of growth of young trees to maturity and the ability of hydraulic engineering to respond to changes in demand. By the time the first trees were harvested in the 1980s, the coal mines had been closed and the failure of Teesside’s heavy manufacturing to survive foreign competition had removed the main market for the water even before the reservoir was opened in 1982.

The landscape remains one of domination by state forestry and water supply. Families have been displaced from their homes, rights of way obliterated, human artefacts covered with forest or submerged. Farming communities with close social, cultural and kinship ties have been replaced by more capitalist relationships. The intrusion of the Forestry Commission came first in 1932 when 2000 hectares of land were purchased from the aristocratic land owner, who was seeking to pay death duties and other taxation demanded by the state. Workers were brought in and eventually housed in tied cottages in Kielder village. Half of the Forest was planted before the Second World War and half in the period 1941 to 1960.

By the time, in the 1960s, when water engineers were seeking sites for new reservoirs in the Pennines to supply the industrial lowlands, the valley of the North Tyne appeared attractive not only because of the high rainfall and the engineering potential for a dam but also because opposition to such development was thought to be diminished because much of the sparsely settled land was already owned by the state. Introduction of mechanisation had made many of the forestry workers redundant and any alternative employment would be welcomed.  Little opposition was expected from ecologists because the monoculture of coniferous trees and the resulting  acidification of the natural drainage had already damaged the land which would form the reservoir site. Despite these hopes for an easy victory for the dam builders, local resistance proved hard to overcome.  Eventual success in gaining permission in 1973 was followed by almost a decade of vigorous but problematic tunnel drilling and moulding of the land to form the Kielder dam, opened by the Queen in 1982.

A masculine environment of engineered efficiency has been created.  Decisions about the landscape have been taken by outside professionals rather than by people living in the landscape. The state Forestry Commission’s policy for concentration on productivity had been set nationally in 1919 and continued despite many battles with conservationists heartbroken at the replacement of diverse flora and fauna by a monoculture and by aesthetes unable to enjoy walks in the dark forbidding forests and viewing with disdain the blocks of forest transforming previously varied landscapes. Outside professionals also designed and built the Kielder Water Scheme and landscaped the reservoir.

Interior Dam

The Interior of Kielder Dam

The interior of the Kielder dam presents an epitome of man’s domination over nature. The sparkling, gurgling North Tyne once full of life, fish, flies and mussels and carrying pebbles and mud has been confined in dark iron pipes and led below the dam from an inlet tower within the reservoir.  A vestige of the former river remains in the curved track of the large concrete-lined tunnel built to allow passage of construction vehicles through the dam, below the reservoir and so to the inlet tower. The only subversive elements in the new order are puddles from small irrepressible leaks and evidence of rust corrosion in pipes now being replaced by new after a quarter of century of use. Unlike nature, the works of man need constant maintenance to be sustained.

The water of the former river now spurts from the reservoir outlet after using part of the energy, gained by raising it high in the reservoir, to spin turbines to make a small amount of electricity ( 1.5 to 6 MW). The freed water is stilled in a basin before continuing its journey to the sea as a changed , regulated North Tyne. Starting again means slow adjustment of the water temperature and chemistry from that acquired in the reservoir, attempts to regain its sediment and to attract biota once more. Now the quantity of water discharged is controlled by engineers and the changes wrought by the reservoir persist in the river for many miles downstream. Regulated flow to avoid floods and droughts has caused changes in the channel form and artificial help is needed to restore salmon by introducing young fish from a salmon hatchery on the far side of the reservoir.

Kielder Water took only 18 months to fill and because its level is rarely drastically drawn down it has many of the attributes of a natural lake. Yet its shape differs from lakes in the nearby Lake District: rather than the streamlined shores of lakes gouged out by moving ice during the Pleistocene, this young, man-made reservoir raised high above the natural river level has a very indented shoreline following contours formed mainly by pre-glacial, sub- aerial erosion because here the ice sheets moved less speedily and deposited drift rather than excavating hollows for lakes.  Such a landscape of water and complex inlets was envisioned, and its use for recreation planned, before the great submergence by an outside expert, Sir Frederick Gibberd.

Gibberd gave telling testimony to the Public Inquiry considering the case for creation of Kielder Water in 1972-73.  His claims were persuasive.  He explained how his work in shaping the dam, planning vistas, designing a new road and other artefacts would produce a landscape of beauty. The Planning Inspector welcomed such persuasion to add to his report on the engineering case for the dam which he knew would place in an uncomfortable position the arbitrating Minister, the Right Honourable Geoffrey Rippon, who was also the Conservative Member of Parliament for nearby Hexham. By a curious twist of fate, the opposition to the dam included not only the simple people’s testimony to the harm they would suffer by displacement from their homes but was magnified by the backing of the former Conservative MP for Hexham, Sir Rupert Spier.  When economic pressures on the Minister to accede to the Kielder Water Scheme prevailed, his reluctance to sacrifice a valley in his own constituency was reflected in his calling for an alternative valley, the Irthing, to be considered before the North Tyne was finally selected following a second Public Inquiry. Fear of political damage led to investment in the palliatives offered by Gibberd who gained an unusually large budget to transform the engineered dam and reservoir into an object of pride and recreational value.

For once, Gibberd was allowed to dominate over the engineers in particulars of the design.  On previous occasions, when engaged on dam schemes such as Treweryn (check) , Derwent or Cow Green, it was difficult to detect any difference he had introduced.  But, at Kielder, significant expenditure was authorised to prevent unsightly mud flats being exposed when the water was drawn down an expected 15 metres for long periods. The danger of such exposure was greatest in the shallow upper reaches of the reservoir. To avoid lowering of the water level in this area, permission was granted to build a second, minor dam to restrain the water at the same level all year.  Construction of this Bakethin dam purely for amenity and wildlife habitats was a rare concession.

Other features introduced by Gibberd included the double curvature of the main dam to emulate natural slopes, stipulation that natural local grasses were used wherever possible and local ( and very expensive)  masonry rather than concrete used for walls and buildings  associated with the dam. Gibberd asked for the dam wall not to be mown but this instruction has not been followed because of the need for the engineers to be able to detect any land slippage or water leaks.  Access was also needed to the many instruments recording water movements within the dam wall.

Gibberd was fastidious, not to say snobbish.  He told the Public Inquiry that he would “ avoid like the plague anything redolent of a municipal park”. A road was planned around the south shore of the reservoir to replace the submerged road linking Falstone with the Forestry Commission’s cottages in Kielder village but it was decided to leave the north shore inaccessible to the public.  Cuttings in the forest allowed vistas over the reservoir at intervals and discrete visitor centres and lodges were planned. The aim was for quiet enjoyment of the reservoir and forest.

Since Gibberd’s time, memory of his exclusive ambition for restrained public access has faded. From domination of his ideas, there has been a transition to a liberation of city dwellers allowed access to the area. The versatility of capitalism in a post-industrial society has precipitated a change from extracting natural resources from Kielder towards attracting tourists to Kielder. The Forestry Commission and the now privatised Northumbrian Water have combined resources to develop tourism and have invested £5.4m since 2007. Plans are being laid for great expansion in the future.

Forestry itself has changed from single- purpose productivity to embracing recently-acknowledged ecological imperatives to diversify the coniferous forest by introducing deciduous trees along the streams and by working towards a mosaic of forest zones of felling  and planting. New markets have been found in saw mills, chipboard manufacturing and even use as biofuel in power stations. Whether or not forestry remains a good investment once subsidies and tax breaks are removed is a matter for future Government policy, currently under consideration. The remote Kielder village upstream of the reservoir has survived despite the school having, at one time, only two pupils, with the aid of Gibberd’s planned new road built along with the reservoir. The tenants and homeowners work now for Northumbrian Water as well as for the Forestry Commission. This planned settlement for foresters and their families was built to a higher standard than those tied cottages without bathrooms and only outside toilets built by the notoriously mean Forestry Commission elsewhere during the 1930s.  Today, the regularity of this settlement and the uniformity of the houses painted in white or pastel colours gives an outward appearance of attractive harmony.


Kielder Astronomic Observatory (Photo: Peter Coates)

Despite Gibberd’s aims, Kielder Water and Forest Park has indeed become akin to a municipal park on a grand scale; a playground for people from all social groups. The meeting and movement which Williams thought distinguished the city from the country are experienced here.  Bus services bring people from Newcastle and Gateshead thus introducing Labour supporters into a traditionally Conservative heartland. Dogs are welcome.  £2.5 million has been invested in a cycleway, the Lakeside Way, around the northern perimeter of the reservoir to make a 26 mile circuit suitable for marathons and cycle races.  Wildlife has been converted into a spectacle by feeding birds and red squirrels, bird hides (constructed from wood imported from Scandinavia!) have been added,  predator birds have been imprisoned for display in a commercial aviary and  play zones equipped for children. The reservoir is regularly stocked with favoured species of fish for sale of fishing permits.  Even the night sky has been commodified with the building of an observatory. Modern works of art, designed by outside artists with little reference to the local, have been placed around the reservoir to act as points of interest for walkers. Recently, the Park has made a profit for the first time.

Sculpture in forest

Silvas Capitalis ('The Head', SIMPARCH, 2009). One of the main attractions in Kielder's 'open-air gallery' (Photo: Peter Coates)

Kielder Water and Forest Park is city parkland on a grand scale, despite its remoteness and low permanent population. In one respect, however, there is a difference.  An urban park would often have statues of prominent historic figures to encourage gratitude and respect.  Kielder Water and Forest Park lacks such links with the past. There is no plaque to commemorate Gibberd’s work nor any personal tribute to the engineers and labourers who created the dams and planted the forest, nor any reference to local folk culture nor the more distant past. The question arises: should the area’s history be re-created for recreation? Would the titillation of visitors by selected history bring commercial returns or should the Park remain wholly modern, glorying in modernity? Ignoring the complexity of past conflicts and contests over the land and water may well be integral to the enjoyment of the modern present. Modifying minds to appreciate the artificial may be more lucrative than mourning the past.

Capitalism has brought a new, subtle form of domination. The privatised consortium running the Park seeks to tempt visitors to spend more money. From recognition of incomers as citizens exercising their rights of access to the reservoir perimeter, now they are regarded as consumers.  The visitor market has been segmented by classifying various ‘stereotypes’ based on their spending potential. Little or no spend visitors are called “functionals” whereas higher spending and more demanding consumers are called “cosmopolitans” or “discoverers”.

Kielder Water and Forest Park is essentially ‘city’ even though inserted into a remote countryside.  Rather than a palimpsest in which the inscription of earlier landscapes can be read, the past has been erased from the Park.  The commercial forest and the recreational reservoir testify to modernity with a landscape and society dominated by global capitalism.  Domination is not complete: the Park liberates visitors from the noise and pollution of city streets and allows them vigorous exercise amongst controlled nature, which has been produced as a spectacle, simplified and only sustainable by continuing intervention by man.


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  1. David Moon says:

    Christine’s reference to the work of Donald Worster and the notion of ‘domination’ brought to my mind the work of another American scholar: Paul Josephson, _Industrialized Nature: Brute Force Technology and the Transformation of the Natural World_ (Island Press: Washington, 2002).
    Josephson starts his book with dams, continues with the exploitation of (natural) forests, the impact of roads, and deep sea fishing. His focus is on the Soviet Union, the USA, Brazil, Norway and other countries around the globe. His tale stresses the irresponsibility and destructive consequences of large scale projects. His canvas is global, not local, and his examples are extreme. He ends – predictably – with a call for decentralized, small scale technologies and renewable energy sources.

    Christine’s interpretation of Kielder would seem at first sight to fit Josephson’s interpretation, or does the changing strategy for managing the park to attain new aims, including an explicit to nature conservation, suggest a middle way – adapting a constructed environment to new purposes – between Josephson’s condemnation of brute force technologies and call for the opposite in the future? Can we compare the developments at Kielder with the reclamation of former industrial land in urban environments, such as those the dam and forest were originally built and planted to serve?

  2. rob sunley says:

    Kielder was a pure Political decision ,the needs of Teesside had long vanished for extra water well before the start . Mrs Thatcher ,not foreign, competition, reduced ICI ,to being non competitive,when she sanctioned Mossmorran by Esso, to get back at Harvey Jones, a social democrat, who critised her anti business policies and also she failed to give him a peerage as the most well known Chairman of ICI, when previous Chairmen had been honoured. Also GOV’t run British steel had been literally run into the ground by the policies of Government and the leaders appointed to look after the Industry. Having been built against all common sense, Kielder does a pretty good job of giving the people something for their money, maybe there is something more to come?