Environment Emergency

Working with collections from Cumbria has given our north west hub a different perspective, one of rural life, a change from the urban landscape, which predominantly features in the collections from Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

The oral history projects from this region often feature people talking about the local environment and how ways of life have changed over time – not always for the better. Some of these changes have brought people together to question and challenge those in power, by highlighting the impact on the environment around them. I have previously mentioned our hub’s proximity to the climate changes protests held in Manchester city centre in recent years. Cataloguing one particular collection, High Fell, gave me a real sense of what the issues are and how they affect communities.

Haweswater Reservoir, Manchester Corporation Waterworks, Cumbria, 1955 (m60430)

High Fell – the Cumbria Landscape story, is a project by the Cumbria Wildlife Trust. This contains 49 interviews with local people about their memories of the fells from before and after the Second World War. The interviews record the changes experienced by local residents to the landscape and wildlife. Post war developments in agriculture and the increase in leisure time have also had an impact on the region.

Interviewees share aspects of their early life, including their occupation and their relationship to the landscape. Questions are often asked regarding the changes the interviewees have witnessed. When wrapping up an interview the final question is often ‘Over the last twenty years what are the biggest changes that you have noticed?’ Responses cover a wide variety of issues such as changes to the seasons and weather, damage caused by pollution and how these factors have had an impact on the wildlife.

Listening to people talk about the climate change they had seen in their lifetime was really thought provoking. Weather was becoming more extreme with less distinction between the seasons. Was this true or rose-tinted nostalgia? When I thought back, we really did have long, hot summers during the school holidays, not the wet, wash out we seem to have today. This thought is echoed by one interviewee, Mike Nixon. (DSO-313-37_e01 / download)


Changes in weather and climate can also affect local wildlife. John Callion talks about the bird populations over the past 20 years. He goes on to point out the effects on different species and their adaptability. “Climate is definitely changing because you just need to look at what is happening with a whole range of wildlife species…we now have a Mediterranean bird nesting…a butterfly you would not have got this far north 20 years ago…” (DSO-313-23_e01 / download) and (DSO-313-23_e02 / download)


Over the years conservationists have worked and campaigned to protect the environment. In his interview Geoff Horne talks about the chemicals found in bird’s eggs and the work of conservationist Derek Ratcliffe on eggshell thickness. (DSO_313-10_e01 / download)


Two local residents talk about their campaigning and conservation work. Bunty Ellison recounts her involvement with the Northumbria Wildlife Trust and the conservation movement in the 1960s “…it wasn’t considered something that you taught your children instinctively at school…” (DSO-313-4_e01 / download)

and Brian Jones outlines how he got involved with the Ramblers Association, and the reports they wrote. (DSO-313-5_e01 / download)


Finding the right balance between providing access to the fells with the need for conservation can be difficult. This dilemma is acknowledged by interviewees, including Jennie Massie. (DSO-313-21_e01 / download)

John Nettleton also remarks on how there have been changes to some paths due to increased activity while others have not changed “…some places of course have been damaged with motor vehicles and motorbikes and that’s a big contentious issue…” (DSO-313-26_e01 / download)


What is not in doubt is the increase in numbers of visitors to the Lake District. Here Mike Carrier states that the motorway has brought more visitors to the area. (DSO-313-32_e01 / download)

While Ted Relph remembers the motorway being built and the impact on the land. (DSO-313-51_e01 / download)


Tourism is not the only industry threatening the environment here. The growth of the nuclear industry and employment opportunities have also led to the expansion of towns and villages, along with an influx of new residents. Agriculture and energy production from the Sellafield plant have caused pollution and possible irreversible damage.


Mary Kipling recounts the beach closure following monitoring by Greenpeace in 1983. (SS-13_e03 / download)

While Peter McLean talks about the sea discharges from previous decades, partly due to “…lack of knowledge as it was a new science…” and partly due to government limits set at the time. (SS-26_e01 / download)


Agriculture was also massively affected. Jim Spedding can remember the introduction of fertilizers to his farm. (DSO-313-24_e01 / download)

Morris Steel recounts the impact of the Windscale fire on his farms milk production (DSO-313-36_e01 / download)

Hugh Parker describes the chemicals used in sheep dip and how they affected him. (DSO-313-16_e01 / download)


On a more positive note, Brenda Graham, talks about the pollution she used to see in the rivers from local mills and the brewery and the wildlife she can see there now. (DSO-313-2_e02 / download)


The interviews also look to the future, particularly on energy production. Mary Todd shares her thoughts on alternative forms of energy “…I think personally there is a lot more to be said for wave power…”. (SS-15_e03 / download)

While Ronald Graydon gives his opinion on windfarms. (DSO-313-44_e01 / download)

However, these alternative forms of energy also have their own issues, as Peter McLean points out regarding wind turbines. (SS-26_e04 / download)



For me these interviews show the predicament faced by individuals and communities. How do you achieve the right balance of making the landscape equally accessible to all, and at the same time preserve it for future generations to enjoy?


Vicki Caren, Cataloguing Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.

The High Fells oral history collection is held by Carlisle Archive Service. Sellafield Stories collection is held by Whitehaven Archives and Local Studies Centre. Digital copies of the full-length interviews digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage will be available at the respective libraries in due course.


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