Hadrian’s Wall

Towards the end of 2000 I wrote a long poem about Hadrian’s Wall for Radio 4, called This Far and No Further. The poem was based on interviews with people who live and work along a central stretch of the Wall, most of them hill-farmers. It contains many voices, including those of the place itself, and those of Iron Age farmers whose fields were literally bisected by the Imperial frontier in 122 AD and thereafter.

My interviews with contemporary hill-farmers revealed a widely-felt sense that their way of life was not always well-understood by the many regulatory authorities who now oversee the World Heritage Site. What is the countryside for: Leisure? History? Environmentalism? Farming? All these competing pressures generated a vast amount of regulation.

Underlying this was a deeper sense of a cultural frontier between an urban, ‘metropolitan’, ‘global’ frame of mind, represented by distant administration and bureaucracy; and a strongly-independent, anti-authoritarian, locally differentiated, rural way of life. There was a deep sense that life lived along the Wall was, and had always been, remote from the centres of power. The bureaucratic mishandling of the foot and mouth crisis which followed in 2001 bore out these concerns. I tried in my poem, and in a subsequent poem, An Ill Wind, to articulate these feelings.

Last week I recorded an interview for BBC Radio 4’s Making History (produced by Nick Patrick) about cultural interpretations of Hadrian’s Wall. Historians Prof Richard Hingley and Dr Christopher Donaldson discussed with presenter Tom Holland what the Wall has meant to people across 2,000 years. I read and discussed some sections from This Far and No Further – then worried afterwards about taking excerpts out of context. Brexit has given the debate between the rural and the metropolitan a more inflammatory cast.

All the more reason, then, to open up the discussion. Seventeen years is a long time, and as Prof Hingley points out, perhaps I should go back and ask the farmers how they feel now. In many ways, the cultural frontier between what is perceived as a metropolitan political elite and those parts of the country which feel that they have no real ‘voice’ seems sharper today. This perceived polarity helped precipitate Brexit; on one level, that vote can be read as a symptom of this deeper unease.

The ‘Farmer vs Romans’ confrontation in the poem is not, however, Brexit. Neither is it nationalistic. Rather, it’s a rural voice protesting all distant, anonymous, undifferentiated bureaucracy – whatever the source. It’s a stand against unrepresentative authority — no more and no less. The interpretation that is put on it might change over time; but the sense of remoteness from the centres of power remains. I hope that, read as a whole, the many voices of This Far and No Further – and my book (called, in recognition of that rural-metropolitan cultural frontier, Two Countries) – may find their way to those in authority, to persuade them to listen to rural voices, to think about local differentiation and distinctiveness, and to consider the complex and manifold meanings of landscape in our culture.

If you would like to hear ‘This Far and No Further’ in full, I will be performing it with Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston at The Riches of Gilsland, in The Samson Inn, Gilsland, Northumberland, at 5pm on Thursday June 1st. The Riches of Gilsland, supported by the Campaign to Open Gilsland Station, Lancaster University and English Heritage, is a free day of exploration of many aspects of Gilsland’s rich history, through local knowledge and academic research. For a full programme, see below:



Saturn's moon Enceladus has been in the news this week as a potential host for life elsewhere in the solar system.

In 2013 Peter Zinovieff and I wrote ‘Edge’, a journey through the solar system in four moons. Enceladus was one of the moons we chose. My poetry and Peter’s multi-channel electronic music explore the immensely hostile conditions of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io and our own dead Moon, and the potential for primitive life beyond Earth, first on Saturn’s large moon, Titan, then on tiny Enceladus. Peter’s music draws on real sound from space missions, including the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.

Edge’ was produced for Radio 4 by Julian May as a Poetry Please Special, recorded at its premiere in Life Planetarium, Newcastle. It’s 28 minutes long, and accompanied by fabulous planetarium visuals by Chris Hudson, adapted for flat screen by Stephen Patterson. We’ve since performed it in venues as various as Tarset Village Hall, Northumberland, and Stamford Arts Centre, Lincs, as the finale to the New Networks for Nature conference 2014. Edge’ is the first of three planetarium pieces Peter and I have written, the others being ‘Field’ (about quantum fields and the Higgs mechanism) and ‘Sun’ (about solar physics). All three are multi-channel electronic pieces with visuals and live vocals, and can be adapted for any space. Please contact me if you’re interested in arranging a performance. Here, in the meantime, is a snapshot from Enceladus:

A rumble. A mutter.
A tin sheet, shaken.

Ditches. Fissures. Iron 
Miles. Scarps, folds.
Not rock; ice, 

Split. Canyons filled
With smashed walls, old
Darkness. Frost. 

A locked fist of ice,
Wriggling inside it
A furious secret.

Water, arguing with itself.

What am I? What will I become? Where next?  


Spring Events

‘Sun’ – by Katrina Porteous and Peter Zinovieff


Saturday May 6th  4.30-5.30pm

Alderman Peel High School, Wells Next the Sea, Norfolk, NR23 1RB

Live performance, stereo version. Visuals by Chris Hudson and Jonathan Sanderson.

Sponsored by Wells Town Council and NADFAS

‘Sun’ is an astonishing half-hour poetry and music performance with stunning visuals, exploring our nearest star.

It was created as part of ‘Imagining the Sun’ at Northumbria University.

Tickets £10 – book here





Sun at ‘Words by the Water’, March 2017


Riches of Gilsland

Gilsland, Northumberland, Thursday June 1st

As part of a day of celebration of Gilsland’s history, Katrina Porteous and Northumbrian piper Chris Ormston perform poetry and music of the Borders

Time and venue to be announced — more details soon.


Grey Hen Press     10th Anniversary Celebration Reading

With Joy Howard, Meg Peacocke, Katrina Porteous and Fiona Ritchie Walker

Lit and Phil, Westgate Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne, Thursday June 8th, time to be announced. Details here


The Cheviot magazine

The Cheviot is an excellent new journal from Wanney publishing. Issued three times a year, it celebrates the history, landscape, nature and culture of North Northumberland through a series of interesting, informative and entertaining articles. I’ve written for every issue so far, on subjects ranging from women in the fishing industry, to dialect, to the importance of the often-overlooked local and particular things which make each part of Northumberland distinctive.

Subscribe or buy back issues here


Woven Landscapes

Ed. Deborah Gaye, Avalanche Books, 2016   ISBN 9781874392804   £9.95

Woven Landscapes is not, as Amazon suggests, by Katrina Porteous. It is an anthology of six poets, Roselle Angwin, Wendy French, Katrina Porteous, Anne Caldwell, Kaye Lee and Katherine Gallagher. It contains eight new poems of mine exploring fundamental forces of nature, and includes work from my science-based collaborations ‘Edge’, ‘Field’ and ‘Sun’.

Available here


Words by the Water

Imagining the Sun

An exhibition at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, Cumbria

Part of Words by the Water, 2-11 March

Visual art by Helen Schell, poetry by Katrina Porteous


Saturday March 4, Studio, Theatre by the Lake, Keswick


Carol Davenport, Richard Morton, Helen Schell, Katrina Porteous

Imagining the Sun, the exhibition at Theatre by the Lake, combines science, poetry and visual art. Artists and researchers from Northumbria University, along with schoolchildren, have been finding out how we can use creativity and imagination to understand our Sun.

This presentation includes extracts from a stereo mix of Sun, a poetry-and-music collaboration by Katrina Porteous and Peter Zinovieff, with photographic images realised by Chris Hudson and Jonathan Sanderson.

£8 – Book Here

A publication of science and art collaborations from the Imagining the Sun project, including images of Helen Schell’s artwork, some of Katrina Porteous’s poems, information about Peter Zinovieff’s electronic music derived from solar oscillation data, and real photographic images of the Sun, will be available from Think Physics at Northumbria University after the event. Imagining the Sun was funded by STFC.

Copies of the Imagining the Sun publication will be available free while stocks last from the Think Physics address.



A few years ago Peter Zinovieff and I wrote a half-hour music and poetry performance piece about the 3,000 year old Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire. Our piece, called Horse, was commissioned for ‘Between the Ears’ on Radio 3, and recorded in performance at Sage Gateshead as part of the Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival (produced by Julian May). It’s a very unusual and dramatic piece. Its primeval music is derived from the clanks of the King Harry chain ferry in Cornwall. It has since been re-recorded and published as a limited-edition artist’s book and CD, with illustrations from a series of original prints by Olivia Lomenech Gill.

In my afterword to the book I write about the chalk figure and its setting as they appear around the time of the Winter Solstice. The relation of the figure to the winter sky, to ‘Dragon Hill’, and to the rest of the landscape around it in late December, seem particularly significant.

Aerial View of the Uffington Horse

Peter and I are now working on an exciting proposal to develop a new performance of Horse – ideas which we’ll make public next year. We want to honour that Bronze Age figure and its ritual landscape, and to connect people back to them, through echoes of the Cretaceous sea, the dragon beneath it, and recollections from our deepest past.

While touching upon something really ancient, Horse is at the same time like nothing anyone has seen or heard before.

Please watch this space for further announcements.

‘A mysterious and moving interaction of sounds’ – Radio Times


Britain at Low Tide

It was great fun taking part this summer in the new Channel 4 coastal archaeology series, Britain at Low Tide, with the wonderful and multi-talented Tori Herridge. The series begins on Saturday November 19th at 8pm.

The first episode visits Northumberland. My role was to talk to Tori about fishing traditions in the village of Beadnell, and before that to guide researchers to interesting sites around the village. I also provided archive photographs from my collection. Among the sites I showed them were the ‘old pier’ which former National Trust Archaeologist Harry Beamish and I identified in 2006 from a 1759 plan of the village. As I suggest in my book Limekilns and Lobsterpots, this pier, ‘old’ in 1759, could potentially be medieval. The CITiZAN archaeology project and Britain at Low Tide have provided an opportunity for archaeologists to test this theory. We will find out on Saturday what they conclude.

If you would like to know more about Beadnell’s maritime history and archaeology, including the ‘old pier’ and the ‘bratt holes’ which appear in the programme, my book Limekilns and Lobsterpots (Jardine Press & Windmillsteads Books, £7-99) gives a fully-illustrated guide to these and many other sites of interest in the village. It also contains the 1759 plan, courtesy of Northumberland Archives and the Craster family. Copies are available locally, from Barter Books in Alnwick, or online from Northern Heritage.


For more detail on the medieval fishing traditions of north Northumberland, and their relation to more recent Beadnell history, a paper on the subject which I co-authored with Dr Adrian G. Osler appeared in Mariner’s Mirror vol. 96, 2010, issue 1. Its title is:

‘Bednelfysch and Iseland Fish’: continuity in the pre-industrial sea fishery of North Northumberland, 1300-1950


Above: The ‘old pier’, Beadnell, which appears on a plan of 1759 and features in Britain at Low Tide (photo from Limekilns and Lobsterpots).


An exploration of our nearest star in words and music

By Katrina Porteous and Peter Zinovieff

 Planetarium, Life Science Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4EP

 Friday November 18th

Two performances, 7.30 & 8.30pm


Photo credit: NASA SDO

Our Sun is amazing. In this immersive half-hour performance, see it in wavelengths beyond human vision and ‘hear’ its sounds, which scientists use to ‘look’ inside it. A rare world premiere from poet Katrina Porteous and computer music composer and pioneer Peter Zinovieff. Visuals by Christopher Hudson.

Duration: 45 mins, including introduction to the Sun by a Northumbria University Solar Physicist

Part of ‘Friday Night Life’ series (age 18+).  Tickets £8 online, £10 on door: