Looking Back Through the Archive: Part 2

Posted on: 13th April 2023
Artist Helen Smith at the Quaking Houses wetland. Photograph by Paul Nugent, 1997.

Hello! I’m Emily, a Helix Arts Archive Volunteer.

Following my first post in February, I’m excited to share a bit more about Skinningrove and Quaking Houses which I’ve found out from looking through Helix Arts’ vast archive!

Beginning in 1995, Helix Arts (then called Artists’ Agency) helped pioneer an ecological project to restore the polluted Stanley Burn in County Durham.

Huge amounts of heavy metal pollution was caused when a spoil heap from an ex-coal mine, Morrison Busty, was disrupted by the building of the A693 Annfield Pass road. This had severe ecological effects on the local wildlife, and the orange-coloured water was being pushed up into the soil.  At first unable to attract funding for clean-up work, the Quaking Houses Environmental Trust (led by resident and ex-miner Terry Jeffrey) reached out to hydrologist Paul Younger at the University of Newcastle, and plans were put into motion for the creation of a wetland near the village to purify the water as it passed through it.

Wetlands work to reduce pollution by slowing down water flow, allowing organic processes such as bacteria to feed on the polluting molecules and trapping sediment in the compost at the bottom of the pool. The wetland at Quaking Houses became the first of its kind in Europe for reducing sulphates — and it was built, imagined and managed entirely by the people who lived there. 

As the project developed, local people from the village of Skinningrove in Cleveland contacted the project at Quaking Houses, looking for ideas to decontaminate a beck running through the village that had been polluted by iron oxyhydroxide. In March 2000, a collaborative action-planning forum was held in the village’s abandoned Primary School, attended by over 200 people. There were approximately ten workshop groups, focusing on wider issues around bottom-up solutions to pollution.

The issue of how to obtain environmental justice is one that more and more occupies newspaper headlines, especially as movement from world governments on the climate crisis seems to stall in the face of escalating instability. What I find compelling about these projects is the glimpse into the possibility of what direct action can achieve, whatever skills you have. Also what is exciting about finding out about these projects from the archive is the reminder of the power of members of a small community have to create and sustain the physical, cultural and social environments they live in, especially when overlooked and ignored by the powers that be.

In creating a sustainable environment for everyone, there is a need for the collective to be effective, but also a need for close attention to the exercise of power: where do organisational needs override local voices? How do local projects like these interact with the wider national and global forces that impact upon them? As Terry Jeffreys said during the evaluative phase of the Quaking Houses project : “You have succeeded in that you have built the Wetlands. To build on that alone is quite weak.”