Making a Splash: Rethinking Water in Environmental History

Alex Hibberts shares his experiences at the European Society for Environmental History Summer School, 10-13th July 2022.

‘In less than thirty years, all this will be underwater’ lamented Owain Jones, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University, and our expert guide to the diverse landscapes of the River Severn estuary. Standing atop a steep rise aptly named Uphill, our group of PhD candidates, early career researchers, and established academics stared out across the Somerset Levels towards the crane crowded site of Hinkley Point C, the UK’s newest nuclear power plant. Between us and Hinkley, settlement was seawards looking and densely concentrated on a narrow coastal strip, leaving low-lying ground behind. Crisscrossed by a complex of drainage ditches flowing into the River Axe, this former marshland is threatened by rising sea levels predicated by climate change.

Figure 1 – The view from Uphill towards Hinkley Point, visible in the middle distance.

Following the Severn upstream, we encountered some of the immense transport infrastructure that binds together the west and east banks of the river, providing a vital link between south-west England and Wales. Standing underneath the Prince of Wales Bridge, opened in 1966, we listened to cavernous roar of traffic passing overhead – an estimated 39,000 westbound crossings are made daily.[1] The outing concluded with a sojourn to Sharpness, where mud encrusted wooden piers marked the entrance to one of England’s most inland ports. In 1946, my grandfather trained on the TS Vindicatrix, a demasted sailing ship moored at Sharpness between 1939-1966, before embarking on a career with the Merchant Navy.

This day-long field trip set the talking points for the more conventional conference style set-up of the remainder of the summer school hosted at Bristol University. Each morning began with a series of keynotes by academics working on water history. On Monday, Cristina Brito, Associate Professor of History at NOVA FCSH (Lisbon), explained her use of proxy data (including art, documentary sources, and animal remains) to chart numbers of Manatees (or sea cows) over time. Trained as a marine biologist, Brito has spoken to the United Nations about the importance of the Humanities, especially historical research, in providing data to tackle climate change. On Tuesday, John Morgan, a lecturer in Bristol’s Geography Department, led us on a journey through water management, drainage, and legal disputes along the Severn estuary in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries. We discovered past societies were remarkably resilient, developing their own nomenclature, social structures, and taking advantage of new land created by the ever shifting banks of the Severn.

Figure 5 – The Organising Committee assembled for the roundtable discussion.

On Tuesday afternoon, the summer school organisers, including Adrian Howkins (Bristol),  Nina Vieira (Lisbon), Aditya Ramesh (Manchester), Andrea Kiss (Vienna), and Melina Antonia Buns (Stockholm) gathered for a roundtable discussion on the future of environmental history – the need to work collaboratively and across disciplines to access new data was stressed repeatedly. Interspersed amongst these exciting talks and conversations, each attendee presented a five-minute summary of a paper they had submitted for reading in advance. The other attendees and organisers then responded with thirty-minutes of critically constructive feedback. Although a little daunting at times, this was highly beneficial for both presenters and reviewers.

Figure 6 – One of the little daunting, but beneficial, feedback sessions.

I am grateful to St John’s College Opportunities Fund for covering travel costs to and from Bristol. The summer school was an enriching experience, awash with new compelling ideas. In particular, it encouraged me to think bigger and bolder about environmental history, especially its capacity to transform perspectives on our past, present, and future relationships with water in our warming world.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-50630091

Images

Figure 5 – courtesy of Melina Antonia Buns.

Figure 6 – courtesy of Cristina Brito.

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