The Trent

The Trent: Triangle Structure, Ben Dolman 2013

There has been a bit of a pause in the Photography Reflective Journal blog due to having to prepare for my MA assessment, something which I have not experience since my degree some 26 years ago, interesting experience. I have not forgotten about my last incomplete blog posting ‘Has Technical Become a Dirty Word’ the first rough draft has been completed and will appear in a couple or so weeks, it is something close to my heart hence why I am taking my time on it. In the meantime I have a couple of new posts, this one covers one my current projects the I am working on, the working title at the moment is The Trent and the project is based along the river and the surrounding land.

This posting covers the start of the project with a series of photographs of the River Trent, the project arouse from looking at past work, my recent journeys and a documentary on BBC 4 ‘Crossing England in a Punt: River of Dreams’ presented by Tom Fort broadcast on 4th of April 2013. Over the past two years I have noticed that I am drawn to water, to rivers, the oldest passages through our landscape. I use to just travel to a particular location to photograph a subject quietly by-passing the landscape I journey through but now I am just interested in the passages as the destinations. Over the past few years I have made quite a few photographs or the River Soar that passes through Leicestershire and the Humber Estuary which enters the North Sea, now I am photographing and exploring the River Trent that connects these two bodies of water. The River Trent can be a means of passage conveying goods and people to and from the midlands and the North Sea, it also can be a barrier, it confines land movement, it is a demarcation in the land that can only be crossed by bridge or boat. The River Trent could be seen as the north/south divide, a river that once formed a significant boundary across the country. The River Trent is 170 miles long starting in Staffordshire and ending in Lincolnshire, the third longest river in England after the River Severn and the River Thames.

Our relationship to rivers has changed over the years, they were a means of travel and trade, many of our cities and towns grew next to the banks of rivers, but over time they were abused, polluted, abandoned and forgotten with the advance of canals, the railway and later road travel. In recent times they have entered back into our lives, they have been cleaned up in our post industrial society and play a part of our leisure industry but they have also become feared. As our climate changes through global warming the increase in temperature leads to more water being evaporated with a subsequent increased in rainfall, being island surrounded by the sea it likes to fall here and this has led to more flooding from rivers as they overflow their banks from sudden and heavy downpours. This was not a problem in the past, the floods spilled out onto flood plans which in turn deposited silts that nourished the land but due to the increase of population over the past century many of these flood plans have been built on. The land has been covered in concert and tarmac from housing and industrial developments stopping the water being absorbed into the land, the excess water is funnelled off to the overwhelmed rivers that now often breach their banks. Now we try to contain our rivers with embankments damming in and channeling the rivers away from the land and our lives. These embankments not only confine the river but also obscure it, the river has become hidden from view, an abstraction, an invisible river.

The Trent: Embankment, Ben Dolman 2013

My initial exploration of the River Trent started at Newark on Trent and I travelled along both banks to and from the Humber estuary, the river is mostly hidden from view, earth embankments run either side of the river separating it from the surrounding land. You can walk on top of the embankment and finally catch sight of the river but you are still separated from the river by either a wall of trees, swathes of rushes and the sheer drop of the embankment on the river side. The river itself in the northern reaches past Gainsborough becomes tidal and the current runs fast and strong, the tidal rise and fall can be up to 1.5 meters, it has a force and energy that is both menacing and alluring, even though it has been contained it still feels raw and restless. 

The embankments remind me of those I have seen in the Fens where I have photographed for past two years, engineered fortifications to protect us from nature, the land now reshaped for our modern industrialised agriculture production. These barriers, earth works, ditches create a new aesthetic in the landscape that is horizontal and the hard edged, linear and sculptured. These altered landscapes remind me of the land and earth artworks of Robert Smithson, James Turrell and Christo to name a few whose minimalist and conceptual interventions reshape and manipulated the land. The one thing you cannot miss when you travel along the banks of the River Trent is the old coal fired power stations, sited on the old flood plans to the west of the river they dominate the skyline hugging the river’s edge. They were built along the Trent so they could have access to the water from the river to cool the turbines and coal from north Nottinghamshire and south Yorkshire coal mines to generate electricity. The coal fire power stations are now slowly being decommissioned, the remaining coal powered stations now use coal that comes from abroad extracted from open cut mines, the local coal from England’s deep shaft mining the once powered our industry is now deemed uneconomical, most of the coal mines have now closed.

The Trent: The River, Ben Dolman 2013

The coal fired power stations have become relicts and reminders of our post war era, a time of recovery from the second world war when England underwent  a period of nationalisation and government centrally controlled economic redevelopment that focussed on re-industrialisation of the nation at the expense of the environment after the devastation of war. 

This spirit was exemplified in a speech made by Harold Wilson in 1963 to the Labour Party Conference  

“We are redefining and we are restating our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution.... The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or outdated methods on either side of industry.”

When Margret Thatcher came to power in 1979 this dream ended, the social experiment stopped, the white heat of the revolution turned to one of social and economic revolution where industry was de-nationalised, community replaced with the cult of individualism, heavy industry and manufacturing was supplanted by the rise of the service sector. There was no-longer any grand economic and industrial plans only asset stripping, mass consumerism and the polarisation of a nation.

In the place of coal generated energy gas fired power stations have been created and wind turbines spring up in valleys and hills either side of the river. I do wondered seeing the size and scale of the coal fired power stations that came to exemplify for the Midlands their very own Mega Watt Valley how these new wind farms and other forms of ‘clean’ energy generation will ever bridge the energy gap of modern societies insatiable appetite for electricity in the digital technological age when and if the last of ‘dirty’ power stations are decommissioned.

When photographing the power stations I noticed how close their proximity is next to human settlements and farm land, today the coal fired power stations have high tech filtration systems but you do wonder in the past what their impact was on the local population and the food chain from the wheat crops planted fields and the milk from the cows grazing on grass at the edges of the of the power station under it’s bellowing smoke stack.

The Trent: Cottam Power Station, Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: A, Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: Pylons, Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: Trees, Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: Shit and Straw, Ben Dolman 2013

The Trent: Chimney, Ben Dolman 2013

After looking at the land close to the River Trent I was interested to explore more of the surrounding landscape, the farm land and the settlements that follow the course of the river. A couple of things caught my attention, one was the continued industrialisation of farming production in the way the land was cultivated, the types of crops grown and the way livestock is managed. One particular activity that stood out was traditional battery farming that is turning to a type of ‘free’ range mode of food production, this has happened as society has started to question how food is produced, we want free range products, a sign of a rich country. To satisfy consumer demand has led to the building of new structures, at first they look similar to the battery farms of old but now the livestock can go outside through openings at the bottom of the buildings and enjoy the open air. The stripped down functionality of the buildings stands stark in the landscape, they can look like a detention camp and it’s associated past that has left a black mark human history from the gulag and the concentration camp to modern day at Guantanamo Bay, what gives a clue to their purpose is the white ammonia residue around the vents on the roof from the chicken faeces. The other observation in the landscape that I keep on coming across is the contrast between rich and poor villages and small towns, between commuter belt and single industry based communities, places that look like a picture card with there smartly kept Georgian facades to places where time has still not healed the industrial closures from the 1980’s.

On one of my trips along the River Trent I decided to return via north Nottinghamshire as I wanted to see what was left of the coal mines that once supplied the coal to the power stations along the River Trent. On my way through New Ollerton to Bilsthorpe I came across fields covered in a white material that protect crops from the frost but the resulting vista was very surreal and minimalistic, very much like a Christo’s wrapped land art, the sky seemed to merge into the white covered landscape, a landscape hidden from view, covered, controlled and sheltered, nature forced and manipulated to feed our modern unseasonal palates. It was a visual delight but an intellectual puzzle.

The colliery at Bilsthorpe is now closed, re-landscaped with a new industrial estate and warehousing sited on top of the old colliery, the spoil tips have been re-sculptured and where a new wind farm is being built. Traces of the past are fast disappearing, the land recycled and re-purposed. Across the hills of north Nottinghamshire wind turbines are sprouting up like weeds, sowed in a wishful hope that they will save our future, planned as a tax break, they seem to appear overnight, the once empty sky filled with a sea of blades turning in the wind.

On my way home a couple of miles from Bilsthorpe looking across the valley a distant hill line caught my attention, I have been looking and photographing an altered landscape shaped by humans, I then realised looking at the profile of the hill that the landscape has also been altered and shaped by nature, in this case it was the ice age and glacial erosion. The land we have inherited was the result of the last ice age, one of a continued series of altered landscapes that have slowly evolved over time through climatic and geological impact but now this change has been accelerated by humans, we live in a time when a mountain can be flatten within a generation.

The Trent: Hen House, Ben Dolman 2013

Trent: Bus, Ben Dolman 2013

Covered Field, Ben Dolman 2013

Covered Field and Hen House, Ben Dolman 2013

Bilsthorpe Wind Farm [site of former colliery], Ben Dolman 2013

Bilsthorpe Wind Farm [site of former colliery], Ben Dolman 2013

Edge of Valley, Ben Dolman 2013