Walking as a Research Method: transcending disciplinary boundaries in Northumberland National Park
Nick Pepper (PhD researcher, History, Northumbria University) and Alex Hibberts (PhD researcher, History, Durham University)
Greenlee Lough (pronounced ‘loff’) is one of several glacial lakes close to the Whin Sill, the prominent crag of volcanic rock upon which Hadrian’s Wall sits in this part of Northumberland National Park. Unlike much of the land in the national park, Greenlee Lough has been acquired by Northumberland National Park Authority (NNPA) and is now part of a significant nature recovery project.
For NNPA, with statutory purposes to conserve and enhance the natural beauty and cultural heritage within the park, and to educate about and promote enjoyment of them, Greenlee Lough presents an interesting challenge. It is relatively inaccessible with permissive parking for a handful of cars and no other visitor facilities. Most people will have to reach it on foot, and this will not be possible for all, nor is it desirable to turn it into a honeypot tourist destination. The park needs to consider public enjoyment of Greenlee balanced against the Sandford principle – where there is conflict then conservation should be prioritised. There are other imperatives at play too, not least that NNPA has commercial aims to be realised through the nearest visitor centre – The Sill. So, the question was posed for this IAS ECR project: how can The Sill provide the experience of arriving at, visiting, and leaving Greenlee Lough without encouraging visitors to physically visit the site which could paradoxically destroy the very thing the visitor has gone to see?
The Northern Environmental History Network (NEHN) in welcome collaboration with IAS, has devised an interdisciplinary fieldwork project which grew out of a series of conversations: How do we unite methodologically disparate disciplines such as history, psychology, digital storytelling, geography, extinction studies and poetry? Where might we like to carry out fieldwork? Why? And to the benefit of whom? The proposed project took shape as Nick Pepper, already working with NNPA collaboratively on his PhD, suggested that the park authority could be a suitable non-academic partner for fieldwork.
The Greenlee Lough project offers the NEHN an opportunity to both push at the limits of historical research and interdisciplinarity whilst creating a unified piece of work which could both fulfil public engagement, as well as academic methodological aims. In walking from The Sill to Greenlee and back, PhD and early career researchers across disciplines will have a point of commonality – we will all experience the same walk but see it through our disciplinary eyes. We hope to produce photographic, film, poetic, and written accounts as well as presentations for the public at The Sill. The aim for The Sill will be to give a visitor a rich sense of arriving, exploring, and leaving Greenlee Lough through our experience of walking there. The aim for us as academics, early in our careers, is to produce something genuinely groundbreaking, collaborative, and innovative in terms of interdisciplinary processes which challenge and test the boundaries of environmental history.
We will have an immersive visit to the national park over a weekend at the end of April, where all will stay in the Youth Hostel at The Sill and visit Greenlee over the course of a Saturday. For most, if not all this will be our first visit. This is a deliberate act of dislocation, to heighten the experience for participants. The choice of late April allows us to experience waders like the curlew, the symbol of NNPA, as they return to their upland breeding grounds. It will be a far more active time of year for animal life as well as plant life. It will also give us some advantages of lengthening days. Both the Head of Engagement at NNPA, Sarah Burn, and the project lead for the Greenlee Lough project, Steven Lipscombe, are supportive of this work. The national park is providing access to classroom and meeting room facilities at The Sill over the weekend.
Interdisciplinarity is not easy, nor should it be. It demands merging diverse worldviews, epistemologies, and methodologies to find new pathways to generate knowledge and make an impact both within and beyond academia. The NEHN is immensely grateful for the support of the IAS without whom this exciting project would not be possible. Watch this space!