Maybe it’s that new year thing when you start out with good intentions – bold ideas, long-term plans, fresh start or whatever, but I guess every new thing has to start somewhere, at sometime. It seems that the winter months are when I look ahead to the coming year and finally get to start working on new projects. There’s still some gaps in the overall view of the year, but from what’s already there I’m getting a feel for the overarching themes. While last year was more about textures and moments, this year looks like being one of spaces and voids. Strange how things find their own threads.
Last year I really got to know some of the river where I live. I spent large chunks of time watching it, filming it, photographing it, editing the results and creating the major piece of the year – ‘Waterfall‘. I’ll probably do a more in-depth post about that at some point, but for those new to the game, ‘Waterfall’ saw three white-washed field barns wrapped in slow-motion film footage of the three main waterfalls of the River Tees. Each barn became a visual cube of slow moving water in the night sky. It was big and awesome and probably the best thing I’d done in a long long time.
Since that piece I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with the river. I used to go down there almost every day, but the daily photographing and research has probably made me over familiar now and some of its magic is somehow lost. I kind of know how it does all its tricks now.
So I needed to find a way to re-engage with the river. There are new things I need to discover. I need to find another story in it.
Then last week I caught up with Andy Carters ‘270’ project on his Calling All Station YouTube channel. Over the next 52 weeks Andy is aiming to visit all 270 stations on the London Underground. To make it more interesting he has to pass through the ticket barriers at least once at every station – either coming or going through them, not just passing through on a train. It’s this slowing down of the travel that makes you stop, look, think and examine the familiar. About 40 stations in (starting with the boring bits of the Jubilee Line) and I’m already hooked. Each station is documented on his blog as he goes along too, creating a comprehensive gazetteer of architectural gems and subterranean secrets beneath the capital.
Inspired by his journey, I’ve decided on mine – to visit and cross* every crossing of the River Tees from source to sea.
Bridges are fascinating things. I’ve had my own experiences in constructing them. Essentially they are practical engineering – a way of traversing in this case water. Yet as purely man made structures in what is on this route, mostly open countryside, they have a very distinctive presence within the landscape to manage.
Today I made a start. The purist in me wanted to start at the source and work progressively downstream. However, it’s still very much winter and as the Tees starts just below the summit of Cross Fell – the highest peak on the Pennines – and very much buried under snow for the next few weeks I’ve decided to scrap that and not be precious about the order in which I visit the bridges.
My first crossing then wasn’t even a bridge. It was also one of the biggest structures on the river – the dam wall at Cow Green Reservoir.
Between 1969 and 1971, a section of the Upper Tees was flooded to create the 2-mile long Cow Green Reservoir as a part of of a series of interventions to regulate the flow of water down the river for abstraction purposes. The 1/4 mile long concrete reinforced embankment holds back 40,000,000,000 litres of water (count those zeros!) while the entire river flow is regulated by sluices on the southern bank. So technically the River Tees flows beneath it, so the dam wall is a crossing.
The reservoir sits in a natural basin of pasture land high in the North Pennines. The landscape here is a unique blend of very specific geology and rare botanical habitat. Widdybank Fell which sits along the Durham side of the water is home to the rare Blue Gentian and the only place in the UK where alpine plants have survived since the last great ice age. The land here is fertile and remains of bronze age summer farms lie beneath the reservoir – themselves an indicator of how climate changes over time. Back then temperatures in these upper fells were around three degrees warmer. It might not sound much but the weather here is now too cold for most wading birds to breed on the reservoir. On a fairly bright day like today it felt relatively mild a few miles downstream, yet up here the shaded bays on the water are still iced over and pockets of snow lie in the heather.
Today the reservoir sits in the Moorhouse National Nature Reserve – the largest nature reserve in the UK taking in the highest fells in the Pennine chain and the upper catchments of the River Tees.
The wall is an immense brutal slab of industrial infrastructure. Its scale and construction means it’s never going to blend in (whatever that means) and makes a bold statement within the landscape. Yet, the sparsity and relative bleakness of this part of the dale tolerates its monolithic brutality. The scale of the landscape seems to just swallow it up. As the river rushes quickly away from the wall thinly over bedrock, there is a greyness and roughness, that is almost alien in spirit and the concrete meets the bedrock as an ancient ancestor and the family resemblance is still there.
Within yards of the wall, the river passes beneath Birkdale Footbridge. This is the first of the bridges in County Durham and is still a border crossing between Durham and Cumbria. Built in 1966 – and just predating the dam wall – it’s made from a concrete span sitting on two reinforced stone pillars in the river. Like the dam, it’s a very utilitarian structure and supports a private access road and the Pennine way.
Downstream of the bridge the river disappears down a series of dramatic cataracts between basaltic columns of winsill. At a total of over 200ft, Cauldron Snout is one of the main waterfalls of the River Tees and shows how fast the water develops its wild character from the man-made sluices of the reservoir.
So this is where my journey this year begins. I’ll back track when it’s warmer to find the source of the river and the only bridge beyond the reservoir, but I’m looking forward to discovering the journey of the water from the sluices as it cuts its way through the landscape towards the sea, and how people have built ways of traversing it.
It’s a long a winding story and I’m looking forward to discovering the stories and narratives of those crossing places. it’s a rich history and along the way I’m going to find Romans and Saxons, and JMW Turner and Lewis Carroll and railways and steel and plutonium. Lots of landscape and lots of engineering. And lots of walking.
*ok. so I won’t walk over the railway bridges,or motorway one and will probably give the pipe bridges a miss too