The Sea’s the Boss

This November saw ‘Horse’ return to Uffington. That was an important step for me, and I’ll write about it in my next post. In the meantime, I paused on my journey home for two nights in Stamford, Lincs, for the 10th annual New Networks for Nature gathering, Creating Connections. I was introduced to this inspirational alliance of artists and scientists in 2010 by my friend, the writer and naturalist Mark Cocker, who first suggested the gathering and helped to found it.

Over the last decade I’ve felt our common concern with our human depredation of the planet becoming ever-more acute, our sense of the need to act, severally as well as individually, increasingly urgent. This year, Mark was discussing his latest book, ‘Our Place: can we save Britain’s wildlife before it’s too late?’, a heartfelt indictment of this country’s ecological complacency. Another brilliant friend, Adam Nicolson, spoke eloquently with Tim Birkhead about the loss of seabird numbers, the destruction of the marine environment, and the personal steps he has taken to protect razorbills, puffins, guillemots, fulmars and other nesting birds, by eradicating rats from his beloved Shiant Islands.

Wildlife film-maker John Aitchison has written a wonderful blog post, exploring the wider conversation of the gathering. What lies at its heart, he concludes, is love: ‘this sense of closeness to home is the key to conservation; persuading us to care enough to act, because we love most what we know best.’ I always feel this at New Networks: a shared love among very different individuals for the intricacies and complexities of wherever we call home. I am always stirred: disturbed by the urgency of the task before us. And I always feel simultaneously affirmed, in what otherwise often feels a lonely vocation. As John Aitchison says, we discover that what matters ‘is feeling connected, being part of something bigger’.


This matter of nature, community, ‘home’ and our love for it, the indissoluble intertwining of human culture with the natural world, has always lain at the heart of my own writing. My early involvement with Friends of the Earth in the 1970s saw me severely reprimanded by my Cold War Headmistress for ‘disseminating communist literature’ at school. I was doing no such thing, only promoting the recycling of paper and plastics, questioning the desirability of the fast breeder nuclear reactor and the motor car, and urging my friends to love the earth at their feet.

In my 20s I was greatly influenced by the seminal work on ‘local distinctiveness’ of Sue Clifford and Angela King at Common Ground – prescient figures, who probably prepared the ground for the flowering of much of today’s ‘new nature writing’. The careful field research which I undertook during the 1980s, which later grew into my long poem, ‘Dunstanburgh’, was an exercise in the application of Common Ground’s values. My poems about the Beadnell fishermen, which some read as backward-looking, romantic or nostalgic, were essentially ecological:

       ‘Them greet muckle traa’lers – it’s nowt but greed.

        Whae, there’s nae bloody chance for the fish t’ breed…

        An’ the lobsters! Y’ bugger! In wor day

        W’ hoyed aa’ th’ berried hens away!’

(from: ‘Charlie Douglas’, The Lost Music, Bloodaxe 1996)

What I most valued in the inshore fishermen’s traditions – their intimate cultural knowledge of their local sea floor, and their heartbreak and anger at its ruin by newer, more industrial fishing methods – was a microcosm for all our human relations to place. ‘The sea’s the boss,’ Charlie Douglas used to say; meaning, we must respect the sea, and all nature, because our very lives depend upon it. Over the last nine years, during which I’ve had the honour of being an Ambassador for New Networks for Nature, I’ve spoken about this several times at the gathering, and many times beyond it, for example at the Andrew Raven Trust.

New Networks ranges far and wide in its subject matter and speakers; but at its heart remains the understanding that individual human beings and communities cannot be separated from nature; and that this is not a luxury but a fundamental connection – cultural, emotional and spiritual. It could not be more important. It’s no exaggeration to say that our survival depends upon it. How are we to protect and promote this essential value, while embracing capitalism and the liberal western democratic traditions most of us uphold? I can’t answer that question. At the latest gathering, Caroline Lucas and Barbara Young bravely focused our minds in their discussion of whether conventional politics has failed us. But I did not come away with any practical solutions.

For me, poetry, and perhaps most art, works underground, subversively, not by political activism or direct polemic, but as a mycelium, branching, spreading, preparing the soil from which those things will grow. New Networks affirms us in this vital task. Can we open people’s hearts to what matters – beyond price, beyond the marketplace – to the essential value of nature in and of itself – and understand that the Earth that we love is a complex system of which we are part, not centre? That we belong within nature, not the other way around? ‘The sea’s the boss,’ as Charlie used to say. Can we recognise that before it really is too late?









Can She Bait a Line?

The unsung heroines of North Northumberland’s fishing communities

Public Talks in October and November

Most people have heard of the 19th century heroine, the Northumbrian lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Grace Darling. Fewer are aware of a different kind of heroism – that of the everyday labour of women in Northumbrian fishing communities over the centuries. Most Northumbrian coastal villages between Spittal and Hauxley were shaped by inshore fishing, which, like farming, was the occupation not of individuals but of whole families. Although fishermen were superstitious and it was traditionally unlucky for women to set foot in a boat, until the mid 20th century they relied on their female relatives for the unpaid, land-based tasks that kept that boat at sea.

In particular, all winter, as soon as the family coble was launched, the women set to work gathering bait for the next day’s line. For centuries, the long lines were the staple fishery, catching high-priced white fish such as cod and haddock. Each was nearly a mile long and carried 1,400 ‘heuks’, and each heuk was baited with a mussel, and often a limpet. It was left to the women and children to harvest these shellfish, carry them home in creels, and ‘skeyn’ or shell them before placing them on the heuks. It took real skill to bait a line. Each baited heuk was laid neatly in rows in a basket called a ‘swull’, so that the ‘sneeds’ which carried the heuks would not ‘fool’ (tangle) when the line was shot.

19 Kate Douglas Baiting lines, Beadnell

Kate Douglas baiting a line, Beadnell c1914

When the boats returned from sea, around dinnertime, the women carried the heavy wet lines ashore, and helped to sort the catch. Traditionally they then took over the next task, which was to sell fish in neighbouring villages.

Although fisher women’s lives were almost unimaginably hard well into the 20th century, from the early 19th century some younger women began to enjoy a degree of economic independence unusual for the time. This was due to the emergence, alongside the local economy, of the more industrial summer herring fishery.

Herring were caught at night, and were processed as soon as they were landed. Throughout the 19th century in the herring season, fisher lasses worked in teams of three, gutting and packing the herring expertly into barrels with layers of salt. As the shoals moved down the coast, the Scottish lasses travelled with them, staying in lodgings above the yard to supplement the local workforce. Many Northumbrian lasses joined them as they ‘travelled the fishin’s’. Away from family supervision, journeying as far as Great Yarmouth, unmarried girls from villages like Beadnell and Seahouses could enjoy wider horizons than those in farming communities just a few miles inland. Although hours were long, women often looked back with affection on the female companionship of the herring yard, and the relative freedom which it represented. It was certainly a great step from the near-slavery of the winter long lines – although one which also foreshadowed some of the problems which have beset fisheries in more recent times.

You can read a fuller version of this summary in The Cheviot magazine, issue 3, Winter 2016, available HERE.

I’ll be giving some talks about all of this, in the context of the centuries-long tradition of the Northumbrian fishery, with a few real-life examples; and considering what we can draw from these two models of female labour about wider human relations to nature, culture, place and sustainability.

All talks are open to the public. There may be a small charge.

Rothbury & Coquetdale History Society, Jubilee Hall, Rothbury. Friday October 19th, 7pm 

Coble and Keelboat Society, Crescent Club, Victoria Crescent, Cullercoats, NE30 4PN. Saturday October 27th, 3pm

Friends of Berwick & District Museum & Archives, Parish Centre, Parade, Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 1DF. November 23rd, 7pm

Beadnell women at the herring c1900

Beadnell Women packing herring, c1910

For more Northumbrian fishing history, please see: Limekilns and Lobsterpots by Katrina Porteous



Immortalised – The Long Line

Immortalised: the people loved, left and lost in our landscape

A free exhibition at the Workshop, Lambeth, London

30 August – 16 September 2018

Immortalised is a free exhibition by Historic England, questioning who and how we remember. Among the memorials around the country, where are the women? The minorities? The working people?

Earlier this year Historic England ran a competition for artists to find new ways of remembering events, people and identities in the public realm. Among the ten chosen for this exhibition was my idea, The Long Line.

The Long Line by Katrina Porteous and Peter Zinovieff, with the voices of Northumbrian fishermen and women, and singing by John Dixon.

The Long Line is a sound installation consisting of five minutes of poetry and electronic music, commemorating the fishing communities of the Northumberland coast, who for centuries worked the ‘long lines’ from boats called ‘cobles’. This type of fishing involved an intimate, sustainable relation to nature, but came at a terrible cost, especially to women, whose unpaid job it was to bait 1,400 hooks a day. The first engines, introduced into sailing cobles in 1918, marked the beginning of mechanisation, which eventually freed women – not, for some, until after World War II – and which also had wider, ultimately unsustainable, consequences.

Peter Zinovieff’s electronic music uses my archive recordings of local dialect voices, and derives instrumental sounds from a traditional Northumbrian folksong, sung by fisherman John Dixon.

The original idea was for a multi-channel piece, which could be located in public spaces at harbours and beaches on the north Northumberland coast. We would love to develop this idea further.

A stereo version can be heard every 20 minutes, as a small part of the Immortalised exhibition.

The Long Line - K Porteous 3

Immortalised: the people loved, left and lost in our landscape


30 August until 16 September 2018

Wednesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm


The Workshop, 26 Lambeth High Street, Lambeth, London SE1 7AG

London Underground: Vauxhall (Victoria line) and Lambeth North (Bakerloo + Northern lines)

Train: Vauxhall

Bus: routes 3, 77, 344, 360, 507 and C10


Immortalised: the people loved, left and lost in our landscape

A free exhibition at the Workshop, Lambeth, London

30 August – 16 September 2018


For millennia, we have celebrated and mourned, marked and memorialised. Through our culture, places, stories and rituals we pass down what matters to us.

It is how we make people immortal. But who decides who and how we remember?

Immortalised explores the ways people and events have been commemorated in England, by the statues, the plaques, shrines and murals that mark heroic, quirky, inspirational and challenging lives.

Peter Zinovieff and I are delighted to have been selected by @HistoricEngland to make The Long Line, a new memorial for this exhibition.

More details will be available on August 30.


30 August until 16 September 2018

Wednesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm


The Workshop, 26 Lambeth High Street, Lambeth, London SE1 7AG

London Underground: Vauxhall (Victoria line) and Lambeth North (Bakerloo + Northern lines)

Train: Vauxhall

Bus: routes 3, 77, 344, 360, 507 and C10





Dartington International Summer School 2018, Week 2, August 4-11th

Poetry of Place

It’s not often that you end a week as tutor on a residential writing course feeling completely energised. Much as I love working with other writers, giving everyone the individual attention they deserve can be tiring if you give it everything you have. It’s worth it, though. In the past I’ve co-led courses for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank and at the Welsh Writers’ Centre at Ty Newydd, and always feel that I learn as much from participants as they do from me. This time was no different in that respect; but it was also an unusually invigorating experience in other ways. It was my first time at Dartington, the world-famous music summer school in Devon celebrating its 70th anniversary, under Artistic Director Joanna MacGregor.

Students come to play instruments, to sing in the choir, and to experience a wide range of world-class music in the fabulous medieval setting of Dartington Hall, with its glorious gardens, ancient trees, and wider parkland stretching down to the River Dart. I cannot recommend it highly enough. In keeping with the historic spirit of the place, under Joanna’s inspired leadership, literature and creative writing have now been added to the curriculum. Alongside James Runcie’s courses on ‘Historical Fiction’ and ‘Reading the Landscape’, I led a twice-daily writing course entitled ‘Poetry of Place’ which, over six days, involved 18 hours of close reading of published poems, writing exercises to take away, group reading of the results, and some individual tuition.

The participants in my group were quite various in their life and writing experience, but every single student proved insightful, generous, sensitive and supportive of the others. Whether that came from the legendary Dartington spirit of cooperation or from the experience which many had of communal singing, who can say. They were a joy to work with.

And when work was finished, there was lovely food, great company and a wealth of fabulous concerts to enjoy. Highlights for me were Joanna MacGregor’s transcendent piano concert, including Chopin, Ginastera and Beethoven’s Appassionata, recorded for Radio 3; Steven Devine’s brilliant renditions of CPE and WF (or, as he put it, WTF) Bach on the fortepiano; Trio Gaspard playing Schubert; James Runcie’s moving play, ‘Bach, Man and Myth’; Kate Semmens’ glorious early English songs; Robert Howarth on the harpsichord; and the extraordinarily powerful final night – Bach’s St Matthew Passion, conducted by Tom Seligman, with the role of the evangelist split between tenor Tom Randle and soprano Gillian Keith. The emotion of the piece was heightened for me by the intimate setting, the projection of the words in English, and the very personal connection with so many of my students and new friends sharing with us so movingly the experience of the deepest human failing and the redemptive power of love. I shall never forget it.

On the Sunday evening I was lucky enough to be invited to perform some of my own work in the Great Hall, alongside the brilliant folk fiddler Alexis Bennett. Alexis performed live, to an electronic soundtrack of new music which he had created for the performance entirely from sounds made by the fiddle. Various techniques were used, including recording some passages on a phone, and hitting an old fiddle with a spoon. A traditional Northumbrian pipe tune, “The Bonnie Pit Laddie”, was quoted. I read from old and new work about the Northumbrian fishing community, women’s lives and education, and the wider natural history of Northumberland, from the perspective of some of my recent science-based pieces. Our collaboration was well-received and we hope to be able to build on it for future performances.

On the last afternoon my group of writers gave a short presentation of their work to a select audience in the lovely oak-lined Solar. There were some very interesting pieces, including two sound-based works each for two voices, developed from listening to a recording of the sea; a multi-perspective sketch examining the Dartington buildings as a film-maker might, using close-up and wide-angle views; and a powerful short verse drama based on 19th century French melodrama.

Everyone’s work had been developed that week, and everyone had, to some extent, surprised themselves with something new. We gathered these texts together into a small anthology, which the hard-worked Summer School office staff printed for us.

I cannot thank everyone enough: my students for teaching me, James Runcie for his good humour and moral support, all the tutors, performers and students for their great music and spirit, the fantastic staff, both in the kitchens, the domestic arrangements and in the Summer School office: huge thanks to Emily Hoare, Rachel Wilkinson and – especially – all the volunteers, without whom none of it would be possible. Special thanks to Joanna MacGregor for inviting me – and, indeed, for asking me back next year. I greatly look forward to returning, to new adventures; and in the meantime, cherish the many wonderful memories I take away: walking across the courtyard in the morning to the swell of Bach’s choruses rising from the Great Hall; bathing my feet in the silky Dart one hot afternoon and catching a glimpse of a kingfisher through the oak trees; rehearsing poetry and fiddle music with Alexis; finding a couple of quiet hours in the summerhouse to improvise some words and music with brilliant composer and hurdy-gurdy virtuoso Stevie Wishart and the extraordinary vocalist and nyckelharpa player, Anna Tam. I hope that these connections may continue.

Most of all, I came away from Dartington feeling supported, appreciated, energised and affirmed. That is a great gift to give to an artist of any kind. I don’t often think of myself in those terms but, by surrounding me with other artists, for a short time Dartington allowed me to do so. Thank you, Dartington. May I carry a little of your spirit with me to Northumberland, as I brought a glimpse of Northumberland to you.


Click on this link to find out more about Dartington International Summer School









The Imaginary Museum

What is a museum for? What sort of things might it contain? How do these things help to shape our perspective on time and change? These questions were the starting-place for some marvellous poems, written by children from Mrs McLeod’s class, Year 7, Tweedmouth Middle School, Berwick, working with me, Berwick Museum, and the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, as part of  The Imaginary Museum of the North.

Over time, even the most ordinary objects become important or interesting, because they represent a moment, a place, a person or group of people, and tell a story. So we began with a session in Berwick Museum, in which we were allowed to handle some exhibits, including everyday objects from the human past, such as an embossing stamp and a butter churn, together with much older natural history specimens of fossils and minerals.

But a museum is not just about old things. In the days before the internet, photography and easy travel, a museum such as that begun in the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, at the end of the 18th century might be the only place to encounter new discoveries, inventions and curiosities – things that evoke distant countries, other worlds. We looked at pictures of objects from the Lit and Phil’s early collection, including Egyptian mummies, outlandish inventions, and specimens of wombat and duck-billed platypus from New South Wales.

The children began to think about the contents of their Imaginary Museum.  They wrote lists, containing ordinary things from the present that they might want to save for the future; objects that are personally important to them in their daily life; things which represent the place or area where they live; interesting inventions from our own time; and, more excitingly, ideas for things that they would like to see invented, and exotic objects from far away, even from other worlds. The children came up with a stream of brilliant ideas, from ‘a model of the three Berwick bridges, the last one with a train going along it’, to ‘an endless notebook’, ‘a hurricane simulator’, ‘a machine to bring dodos and mammoths back to life’, ‘a space hotel’ and ‘another colour’. They sent postcards with these ideas to the Lit and Phil, where they are on display as part of the exhibition.


Poetry gives its writers and readers a structured way to explore a subject, and a heightened sense of emotional engagement with it. So in the second session at Berwick Museum, we worked on poems based on the children’s initial ideas. I asked them to choose two of their favourite things from their lists, and to imagine a conversation between them. We thought about how to find interesting words and sounds without using rhyme, and how to give more impact to words using short lines and careful line-breaks. As an alternative to rhyme we decided a structure for their poems using a simple repeated line or ‘refrain: ‘In the Museum of the Future…’

Next we imagined opening the door on a room from the past – perhaps an Egyptian mummy’s tomb; then opening a door on a room from today in the far future. What do the objects in it look like, sound like, how do they feel to touch? What might today’s commonplace objects say to children of the future about each of them, their home, and today’s world? Then the children thought about what a future invention might say to them, the children of tomorrow’s past. Again, I suggested that they structure their poem by repeating a refrain: ‘Open the windows, open the door’.

‘This is the feeling you have longed for,

It is called being free.

It is possible to get this,

But not behind a phone…’

                                                                               ‘…For they are old, quiet, irrelevant things,

                                                                                 And we are young, loud, relevant…

                                                                                 Open the windows, open the doors,

                                                                                  It is time to be heard

                                                                                  In these museum walls…’ 

The results speak for themselves. The children’s poems are original, mysterious, funny, striking, moving. Every single one has something I love about it. The creative inventions of scientists and artists all begin in the same place, the imagination, and these poems spring from that place – the thoughts and dreams of the scientists, artists, poets and inventors of tomorrow.

The Imaginary Museum of the North runs at the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, until September 8th.

Berwick Museum ‘Fragments’ exhibition, with work by potter Graham Taylor, photographer Jose Snook and poet Katrina Porteous, runs until September 30th.