The Kielder Oral History Project


By: Leona Skelton

The Kielder Oral History Project, which took place between 15th and 19th October 2012, was a great success. The researcher, Leona Skelton, is an environmental historian working on behalf of the universities of Durham (where she has recently completed a Ph.D.) and York (where David Moon, Co-investigator on the larger project, now works).

Leona recorded 36 interviews with a diverse and representative cross-section of long- and short-term residents, employees of Northumbrian Water, the Forestry Commission, the Calvert Trust, and other smaller employers in the area. She also interviewed several individuals who live away from Kielder, but whose lives have been shaped by visiting Kielder Water and forest for recreational purposes. The interviews are being processed and transcribed, with a view to publishing some of the insights.

The main objective is to learn more about how the dramatic changes which have taken place in the landscape and environment around Kielder have impacted on employment opportunities, collective memory, social lives and community cohesion. Few residents recall the time before the start of the forestry plantation in the 1920s, but a few older members of the community have been able to shed light on the expansion of the forest after World War Two. Others have provided us with some valuable insights into attitudes towards the building of the dam, the creation of the reservoir and the transformation of the area into a major centre for tourism and recreation. We also learned a great deal about the enormous changes in the Forestry Commission’s working practicies as technological advances have enabled greater levels of mechanisation in harvesting operations. The recording of the interviews has created a valuable source of information about people’s experiences of living and working in a remote rural area that has gone through immense changes in its living memory.

The Kielder Oral History Project is part of a wider, national project on the theme of environmental change funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) involving also researchers from the universities of Bristol and East Anglia. A report on the findings of the Kielder project will be published on the Histories of Environmental Change project website and in a book currently in preparation.

Leona and David are very grateful to Northumbrian Water, in partcular to Andrew Moore and Tonia Reeve, and also to the Forestry Commission, the Calvert Trust, and the residents of the Kielder area for their assistance in the success of the project.

Leona asked a range of questions during the interviews, including questions regarding perceptions of the changing environment, social and community life, recreation and the use of Kielder water and forest as a leisure facility, the use of village facilities, interest in local wildlife, perception of the landscape, memories of employment, the construction of the dam, the expansion of the forest, changes in agricultural and forestry working practices and attitudes towards the increases in tourism and efforts to regenerate the local community with the establishment of Kielder Ltd, which has facilitated the creation of some small workshops, the building of some affordable homes and the renovation of the petrol station, campsite and youth hostel in Kielder village.

Once all of the interviews have been transcribed, they will be categorised and analysed according to several criteria. The first impressions from initial analysis of the recordings and from the first few transcriptions that have been completed is that the answers to the questions were divided more so by the length of time that the interviewees have lived in the area, their age, their gender and their current place of residence, than by their current or previous employers or place of birth, as might have been expected. Much more subtle and complex nuances will undoubtedly be revealed after the interviews have been transcribed in full and analysed in more depth.

At this initial stage, we can confirm that the interviews contain a great deal of insight and information from a diverse and representative range of people who have lived in, worked in and experienced Kielder’s environment, landscape, recreational facilities and Kielder village over the course of their lives. Together, these interviews form an important base of raw information which will be used to deepen academic and wider understandings of how the dramatic changes which have occurred in and around Kielder over the course of the twentieth century, and which are still occurring into the twenty-first century too, have shaped so many people’s lives, some for the better, some unfortunately for the worse. The interviews contain insights which no other source of information could provide.

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  1. David Moon says:

    Leona did all the work for the oral history project, but I went up to Kielder for a day during the interviews. I met a few of the interviewees and sat in on some of the interviews. I was very struck by the different perspectives on Kielder, and not just the changes in the environment, related by different people with different experiences. The interviews have added new dimensions to our understanding of the location and the local community. I would recommend the use of oral history in environmental history.

    In preparing the project, we consulted a book on a longer-term oral history of another Forestry Commission plantation – Whitelee forest south of Glasgow – which I would recommend:

    Ruth Tittensor, From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, its Community and Landscape. (Chichester: Packard, 2009)