Community heritage in the Derwent Valley: remembering the past, imagining the future

Philippa Carter is a third year PhD student in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. Here she tells us about her recent community project in Chopwell village.

My PhD research at Newcastle University explores landscape and intergenerational memory in the context of the Land of Oak & Iron Heritage Project, which focuses on the Derwent Valley, North East England. I recently secured funding from the Challenge Labs scheme, which is run by Newcastle’s Humanities and Social Science Faculty’s three Research Institutes (Humanities, Social Science, Creative Arts Practice) and is designed to support interdisciplinary approaches to particular research ‘challenges’. As part of the application process I was introduced to Carole McCourt, an MA student in Fine Art, and we collaborated on our projects, both of which focus on the importance of place. Carole’s project is based at Cheeseburn in Northumberland and the collaboration was a real bonus for the project as it widened the scope of my thinking. We worked collaboratively to develop and evaluate our projects and having a ‘critical friend’ to question ingrained ways of thinking was invaluable.

The village of Chopwell is one of my research case studies. The Land of Oak & Iron project focuses on a 177 km2 area encompassing parts of Gateshead, County Durham and Northumberland. The former pit village of Chopwell was built at the turn of the twentieth century to provide coal for Consett Iron Company and is located at the centre of the project area adjacent to a large ancient woodland. ‘Oak and iron’ are, therefore, integral to its history and character. I have thoroughly enjoyed working in Chopwell and villagers have been extremely helpful, providing me with a huge amount of material from interviews and walks and welcoming me at community meetings and events. It has been absolutely fascinating to discover the history of the village and I developed a Challenge Labs project which aimed to celebrate this history and to ask ‘how can memories of Chopwell’s past provide a vision of the future?’ My project focused on the social life of the village and therefore I was mainly thinking about how people have shaped place. Carole’s work involved researching the physical and geological features of her site and she has gone on to create artwork which captures physical traces of these elements. I was able to learn from the way Carole approached her research from the perspective of another discipline, which led me to think more about how the natural environment impacted on the development of the village.

Joe Bates, photo kindly donated by this daughter Pat. Joe’s parents Tom and Hannah Skeen opened a fish and chip shop in Derwent Street around 1920.

I created a small exhibition on the history of the village, with a focus on local social life. I did this through archive research and the creation of a Facebook page which allowed me to interact with local people and collect their memories of places like pubs, fish and chip shops and cinemas. Chopwell was once a bustling local hub and I hoped to go some way to capturing the essence of the social interactions hosted in these places whilst enabling people to connect with each other in the present. I then organised an event at Chopwell Community Centre which was based around an interactive map (a large printed copy of the 1940 Ordnance Survey map with labels and pins) on which I asked people to mark their home and a place which held special memories for them. This process opened up a wide ranging (and very entertaining!) conversation, with people staying to chat for long periods of time and connecting or re-connecting with others from the village. In some cases people who had been classmates in school had their first conversations in 50 or 60 years. What really struck me about this was how time seemed to fall away as people chatted and the memories that they shared brought them together and enabled easy conversation between virtual strangers.

Map activity using map of Chopwell in 1940 (OS data © Crown copyright (1940)

Responses to this activity suggest that heritage can be used as a positive means of imagining and shaping the future in a very practical ‘bottom up’ sense. Much of the detail of the discussion could be described as tinged with nostalgia, as people reminisced about their childhoods and lost features of the village. However, it became clear that talking about the past was making a tangible difference for some. One group of older men had come along as they had reconnected with one another at a different heritage event held locally. Some still lived in the village, others had moved slightly further away, but after bumping into each other they began to meet on a regular basis and were starting a ukulele group. One of the men wrote a Facebook post which showed it meant a huge amount to him to reconnect with his friends and to find new ways of socialising and making connections in the community. What to others could seem like a group of people meeting to reminisce in a maudlin way was actually creating new opportunities for all of those involved and using the past as a way of taking their lives forward and improving their everyday lived experience. This kind of memory work feels much more organic than more traditional consultation-style events where people are asked ‘what do you want to change?’ Instead, the events were empowering individuals to make change in their own lives through remembering.

Many people talked about nights out like this one in the Chopwell Hotel, which is now closed. Photo kindly donated by Helen Neasham

My research explores nostalgia as a creative force, challenging the negative connotations it so often brings. Instead of viewing nostalgia as inherently conservative or backward looking, I would suggest that the real challenge is finding ways to ensure there are positive outlets and opportunities for people to capitalise on these processes of memory, keeping the imaginative process moving forward. This is something I continue to explore as my thesis develops.

The exhibition I created, ‘A Good Night Out in Chopwell’, can be seen at The Lodge Heritage Centre, Blackhill & Consett Park throughout February. You can follow Carole McCourt’s ongoing work at Cheesburn on Twitter @CheeseburnArt

Celebrating Social Science

Next week, from the 2nd to the 9th November, is the ESRC Festival of Social Science, an annual celebration of the social science research across the UK. As part of the festival Newcastle social scientists have put on a series of workshops, talks and events across the North East showcasing the breadth and depth of their projects and ideas. All events are free to attend with more details below. Please see the North-East pages on the ESRC webpage for other events happening across the region too.

The Unblinking Eye: 55 Years of Space Operations at RAF Fylingdales

This exhibition at Whitby Museum by artist and Newcastle PhD graduand Michael Mulvihill will run from August, with the last day scheduled for Sunday 3rd November. The exhibition showcases work produced in response to the activities of RAF Fylingdales, a Royal Air Force Station situated in the North York Moors.

The station serves as a nuclear ballistic missile early warning station; and a space monitoring station responsible for tracking over 1,300 operation satellites, the International Space Station, and c.47,000 pieces of space junk circling above the earth.The artworks explore ideas around science, technology, the political economics of space exploration and technologies for nuclear deterrence.

Location: Whitby Museum, on until 3rd November. For further information contact:

Dairy Dilemmas

Livestock diseases are a burden on agricultural systems both in the UK and worldwide. Sick animals contribute more greenhouse gas emissions, require the use of more antibiotics, and have poorer welfare than their healthy counterparts, all of which impacts upon the on-going sustainability of agriculture. Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) is a commonly occurring endemic disease of beef and dairy cattle. At this event, we will use an innovative tablet-based game developed by the research team to engage with farmers and learn from their experiences to gain a better understanding of how these individuals manage BVD and what influences their management choices. 

We will be heading to two auction marts to talk to farmers, and other visitors, about Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD), a commonly occurring endemic disease of beef and dairy cattle. We will have with us a tablet-based game developed by the research team which looks to explore how farmers make decisions surrounding disease.

Through the game, will learn how farmers experiences shape their responses to disease management to gain a better understanding of how BVD is managed, Including which factors are important for shaping different practices. Game players will have the opportunity to talk through wider considerations of disease management including the mechanisms of support they would find most useful.

The event is part of the larger FIELD project – a four-year interdisciplinary project funded by the Wellcome Trust (2018-2022). It brings a team of social scientists, historians, economists and epidemiologists together to research how livestock disease is influenced by nature and culture, science and society, and the actions of humans and livestock. The team works closely with industry representatives and policy makers to make sure the research responds to real-world needs.

We are looking specifically at endemic diseases, defined as those which are continually present in particular regions or populations. We focus on two common examples in Britain: Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) in cows, and lameness in sheep and cattle. These conditions cannot be caught by humans, but they do have an impact on animal health and production. We will consider their past, present and likely future impacts, asking if they could be managed better, and if so, how?

For more information about the project visit Location: Hexham Auction Mart – Monday 4th November (9am – 1pm) Location: York Auction Mart – Tuesday 5th November (9am – 1pm)

Intercultural communication – for all, for good

This seminar and discussion event will showcase recent work by Newcastle university academics in the field of intercultural communication. The Applied Linguistics and Communication Section in the School of Education, Communication and Language sciences have an international reputation for excellence in this emerging field of interest in the social sciences, and we want to share it with a wider public. Our work addresses questions that are at the forefront of current concerns about who we are and how we can get along with each other in a changing world. We ask things like:

  • What is culture, and cultural difference? How can these important but complex ideas be approached, understood and researched?
  • How does culture affect how people talk to each other in different contexts – like work, study, or health care?
  • What is intercultural communication? How can it be made better? How does understanding and improving it relate to questions about who we are and where we belong?

This event will inform you about what we’ve been up to and how it is making a difference. We’ll showcase a wide range of our activities, many of which have been supported by the Economic and Social Research Council and other top national and international funders. We hope you’ll come along with your own questions and ideas to get conversations going! Please register here

Thursday, November 7th 2019, 17.00 – 19.00
Location: Armstrong Building, Room 3.38, Newcastle University

Forces/Fields: Three works on conflict, militarism and their legacies

Wakeful, Anne Robinson, 2018

The Struggle Part II: Opening Up, Rachel Garfield, 2015

Thursday War, Margareta Kern, 2019

The event will comprise a screening of these three works, followed by a discussion with Rachel Garfield, Margareta Kern and Anne Robinson in conversation with Professor Rachel Woodward (Newcastle University) about the three films and their common and divergent themes.

Examining the persistent and pervasive presence of war in all of our lives, each artist engages with the complexities of militarism and conflict: Robinson ‘listening to the past’ through fragmented intergenerational memory, Garfield asking questions about 20th century certainties through subjective experiences in military outposts and Kern interrogating the presence of ships and war games too close to home.

Location: Star & Shadow Cinema, Warwick St, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE2 1BB
Date: 7 November 2019
Time: 19.30 – 21.30 – Book via Eventbrite

The menopause at work: whose embarrassment is it anyway?

The menopause is typically considered through the lens of ‘hard’ science with talk of oestrogen, follicles and vasomotors. When the social aspects of the menopause are discussed it is often in terms of deterioration, loss and embarrassment. As part of the Festival of Social Science, this session will take a sideways glance at such talk. Please come along and join in! Book via Eventbrite

The session is FREE and open to all. 

Location: Newcastle upon Tyne
Date: 7 November 2019
Time: 17:30 – 19:30

Working Together for Educational Change

Change in education is very hard; research, history and our own experience often confirms this but a general rule of thumb is that involving stakeholders in planning and enacting any change is likely to increase the chances of success. This event will offer social scientists and the wider public the opportunity to develop research and practice relationships relating to education and change in the widest sense.  Specifically, we will enable teachers, students, school leaders, educational practitioners, academics and policy makers a chance to present and discuss recent research activities and outcomes. Presentations and workshops by members of the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CfLaT) and their partners will be complemented by opportunities for networking. At the centre of the evening there will be a debate considering how we can work together most effectively for educational change. Contacts: Lucy Tiplady and Pam Woolner

Location: Newcastle University, King George VI Building, Newcastle upon Tyne Date: 7 November 2019
Time: 15:30 – 19:30

Picturing Gertrude Bell

How do you translate images and stories to open them up to new audiences without losing their meaning? Early Career Researchers Lydia Wysocki and Sana Al-Naimi talk with Dr Eve Forrest about their recent work on an ESRC IAA project translating the archive-based comics ‘Gertrude Bell: Archaeologist, Writer, Explorer’

EF: Can you tell me a bit more about the original research project?

LW: The research began as an educational project aimed to support younger historians access the digitised Gertrude Bell archive (recognised by UNESCO as of global significance, and with a strong contemporary resonance). This new approach to archives, education and webcomics was achieved by our interdisciplinary team including cartoonist John Miers, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology Mark Jackson, and web designer Brittany Coxon, who worked with us and the Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC) to develop a series of seven online comics that tell episodes in the life of Gertrude Bell. The images and words in the comics were developed from primary source material in Special Collections.

Excerpt from Gertrude Bell comic online (all © John Miers and the Gertrude Bell comics project)

EF: How did the impact project begin?

LW: After we had done the first part of the research project and published the comics online, we saw that YAC members found the website intuitive to use and clicked through to digitised archive photographs, but tended not to click on links to transcribed text. When the archive was digitised 20 years ago it was aimed at academic researchers, so it’s not surprising that it’s less appealing to general interest readers.  Looking at web analytics we also saw that quite a bit of web traffic to the site was coming from Turkey and from Arabic speaking countries.  We realised that we had a great base with the comics but could do more to enable more young people in the UK and internationally to become interested in history and primary archival material through the comics, particularly given the complex issues that these comics begin to address.

SA-N: I joined the project at this stage of translating from English to Arabic, working with Saziye Tasdemir who was translating from English to Turkish. It was great to read the comics as accessible snapshots of complex material that I was already familiar with from working with the Bell archive for my PhD thesis about Gertrude Bell’s influence on architecture and urbanism in twentieth century Iraq. I knew it was a rich source of visual and verbal primary sources with potential to be more widely used, but also knew that there would be particular cultural sensitivities to address as part of this translation process. As an archaeologist and academic lead for the Bell archive Mark had already highlighted sources that are real treasures of the archive, and I was able to add to this with a focus on the architecture and culture of Iraq.

Gertrude Bell webpage (all © John Miers and the Gertrude Bell comics project)

EF: Certain things can often be ‘lost in translation’ did you find the same thing with the comics?

SA-N: Translating will always be a challenge, particularly around areas of cultural sensitivity. Gertrude Bell was an extraordinary but also contentious figure. She was unusual as a woman of power in the Middle East, she was fluent in Arabic and worked for the preservation of antiquities, however this was still within the framework of colonialism and the British Empire. When we were translating the comics for this new audience we had to keep that in mind.  There was also more practical changes to make. For example each comic had to be flipped to read right to left in Arabic rather than left to right in English:  but as an architect, I knew it was essential that iconic buildings were still drawn accurately not as mirror images.

LW: Working with the original cartoonist John Miers and with Sara Qaed as the Arabic-speaking cartoonist relettering the comics has been a positive process. These comics are complex texts in their own right with speech bubbles, thought bubbles, diary extracts, letters, and narrative voiceovers – so working with John and Sara as experienced comics creators to ensure that the reading order within the comics still makes sense is just as important as the innovation of using hyperlinks to show the original archive content in context.

Excerpts from the Gertrude Bell comics with the popup/hyperlinked archive content (all © John Miers and the Gertrude Bell comics project)

EF: The project was only for a year, what are the other areas you would like to develop in the future?

SA-N: There are more stories to tell, particularly around Bell’s role in the founding of Iraq as a country and her influential 1920 White Paper ‘Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia’. There’s potential to make this visually really interesting, which is great for our interdisciplinary team. Mark Jackson and I were discussing links between the Lowthian Bell family’s patronage of Arts and Crafts artists in the UK, and Bell’s interest in the the geometric and symbolic styles of art and architecture in the Middle East at that time. It’s great to work with John as an artist who picks up on these visual references, and we’re all excited to see how this imagery comes through in the new comics we’re working on.

LW: This project is still ongoing really and is complex in terms of time and resources, as well as the translation in itself. There were a number of useful things we learned in the process that we could map to other archives, particularly when thinking of new users accessing archives as well as the translation of resources too.  For example there is huge potential in this work being developed as part of the curriculum and into richer educational resources, and we’re working with student intern Brad Lloyd to develop resources for A-level students undertaking independent study so there is a great potential new audience there. Brad joined the project as an A level student applying to study Archaeology here at Newcastle University: he is now starting his Archaeology degree here, so it’s a benefit to our project to work with someone at that transition stage, and hopefully a benefit to Brad too in building his CV. Comics are also a unique and innovative way to explore archives and artefacts, particularly here in using web comics with hyperlinked online archives. Overall we’ve had encouraging feedback from readers so far and want to continue making resources that help a range of readers around the world access the Bell archive and explore the significance of this history.

All the Gertrude Bell comics can be found here