A Journey from upland North Yorkshire, to the North Sea at Spurn Point

Strid  The Wharfe in spate at The Strid

It is approximately 140 miles from the confluence of Oughtershaw Beck and Green Field Beck (to form the River Wharfe) – to Spurn Point, where the Humber flows into the sea. Within that distance we can see the results of glaciation, heather moorland, monastic communities, villages and towns that have born witness to near-revolution by mill workers, Viking settlements, tourist ‘honey-pots’, vast plains of arable crops, red-brick villages and towns, magnificent churches and abbey’s, massive power stations, a record-breaking bridge, ports that handle global trade, proud former fishing communities, an amazing city reinvented – and ultimately a National Nature Reserve and strip of land that looks both outward, towards Europe – and back, in the direction of three of Yorkshire’s rivers.

This project is looking at the people who know these rivers best. The communities who live alongside these – sometimes benign – sometimes ferocious river systems. The people who work on and with these rivers. The lives that are inexplicably inter-twined with these ribbons that lay across our land.

The aim of this project is not to comment on societal change, but to faithfully document elements of the lives of the subjects – as they see it, in the second decade of the 21st century.

download Hull: City of Culture 2017

The Background:

I’ve been interested in the relationship between rivers – and the communities they flow through – for a long time. As a small boy, I lived in the North East and the River Tyne looked to me like a magical silvery thread that wove everyone together, whether they lived in Wark, Wylam or Wallsend. Arriving in Newcastle by train from the south, it is always an impressive moment, as the river – with its collection of amazing bridges comes into view – as you traverse the King Edward VII Bridge. For a native of the region – it confirms ‘home’.

In the 1980’s I moved to Yorkshire and was introduced to new rivers. I was astonished to see vessels being constructed and launched on the Ouse at Selby. I could not believe the scale of the Humber Bridge. The first time, witnessing kayakers mastering white-water at Upper Kisdon Force on the Swale, I was transfixed by both the power of the river – and the geology of the surrounding Dale. Something must have ‘clicked’ subconsciously 30-odd years ago, because since then I’ve been enthralled in the symbiosis of rivers and the people who live along them.

In addition to my ‘river thing’, I’m also concerned with capturing and documenting something of ‘ordinary people doing ordinary things’ – because they usually turn out to be anything but. In 2000, working back in Tyneside, I was based in an imposing Georgian building in North Shields, that had formerly been a library. This busy building was looked after by a chap employed as caretaker. Largely invisible and overlooked by most of the staff and visitors, he would regularly talk to me about his previous role at Swan Hunter’s shipyard, where he had been an apprentice and tradesman since leaving school – until being made redundant when closure came in the 1990’s. I had a sense at the time that his (testimony) should be recorded for the future, or it would be lost forever. Recounting how he was part of a team that would take newly-built Royal Navy Warships on sea trials in the North Sea – and push their capabilities to the limit, it struck me that documenting society in all its forms was crucial. Unfortunately, at that point in my life, busy with work and with a young family at home, I wasn’t able to help preserve his memories for future generations.

Among musicians, there is a history in both metaphorically and physically recording the voices of everyday people – and this too has kept bringing me back to compiling this (however insignificant) social history resource.  The Unthanks interpretation of ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’, Kathryn Tickell and Corrina Hewat’s ‘Favourite Place’ together with the recent ‘Every Valley’ by Public Service Broadcasting, all leave powerful imprints for anyone researching history from a perspective other than that of ‘primary definers’. It’s beyond me to craft a song about life along the Wharfe, Ouse or Humber – but what I am able to do, is record something of what society is experiencing at this point in time, in a part of the world which means a great deal to me – and is home.

French writer Guy de Maupassant said “It is the lives we encounter that make life worth living” – and with that in mind, what follows is an effort to capture something of the lives of people much more interesting than me.

Colin Petch


All map images licensed by Ordnance Survey