~Flow Engineering Writing Commission  Wes White

~Flow Engineering Writing Commission

Wes White

Bairn, burn, bonny, sweer cuddy dottle.

The source for the Tyneside vocabulary here used for headings is the University of Hawaii’s internet page on language varieties – http://www.hawaii.edu/satocenter/langnet/index.html

(The island of Hawaii being just one of the infinite number of places to which the waters of the Tyne eventually flow.)



When children (seven and under) were invited to write about the mill, they wrote of fantastical music-making machines – and they wrote of water. Water trickling, gushing, oozing and spilling,


d and

r p

i o

p u

p r

i i
n n

g g

(Their words, not mine).

On the mill, water is transformed into music. Water plays, water clangs, water echoes and bangs… music drips, music pours, music gushes and roars. Where is the boundary between water and music drawn, here, where the music is an expression of the water? How can their differences be defined, ordinarily, outside of this place?

What is the difference between music and water?



Standing at most points on the bank of any course of water, you can get away with calling a river a ‘stream’ (if not a ‘brook’ or a ‘creek’) – with a bit of poetic licence. Out here where brook upon creek upon stream has poured in; where the river has grown gigantic and we’re close enough to its sea-mouth that water moves back towards Newburn on big tides; that doesn’t wash any more. The word no longer carries enough water.

Here, the great river is getting so near the ocean that it starts to mimic it. The river here goes up and down with the sea, and so does everything on it and in it. The water here moves inland with the tides, and so does everything on it and in it. And so the wheel of the mill moves one way… and then the other. The stream that powers it oscillates. The electronic instruments on board are powered by an alternating current.



The building came together inside a larger building, light streaming in from rows of large windows. In the time-lapse video of the build, these bright rays swoop around the room; as the sun charts its path unseen in the sky outside. The wooden cladding goes on; then the spokes of the wheel, like a horsetail plant.

The wood has to have the right strength and the right weight. The shape has to keep for half a year, bobbing on the water, with thirty-seven thousand ‘live loads’ trampling on it (that’s us). ‘Diamonding’ is to be avoided. Its staying together is of a higher priority than it looking right. But the engineer says, “often, if it looks right, it is right…”

Beauty is an engineering concern.

It surely is a bonny building.




The tide, as we’ve said, sometimes pushes the wheel the other way. But the main force acting on the mill is not so fluid. Gravity, gravity, gravity – the ‘v’ in the middle ever pointing downwards. This is the main consideration, for the little wooden hut tethered to the bank with rope. How to keep it from capsizing, if we all went over to the wooden rails at once, and looked out across the Tyne at some seagull floating idly by. But, we are used to defying gravity. We are always pushing up – so, we walk on two legs. We’ve done so on the moon. We don’t even know it’s there, most the time.

~Flow, built on a human scale, is dwarfed by the Tyne Bridge, whose proud arch stands in defiance of gravity the way all bridges and buildings do. The five coloured rings, hung on it while the mill turned, weighed over four tons.

Back in Hadrian’s time, the Romans had a bridge across this same river, at this same point. The weight of the world goes on bearing down, on us as it did on them. We’ll keep pushing back.



Here’s the thing about a river: things come down it. All manner of things come down it. Just about, anything that lands in the fifty-four mile tail of river upstream will. And any of these things can interact with the mill. More than once it was a log that hit ~Flow’s flank: of particular note, “a sixteen foot tree, over a foot wide”, which got lodged in the wheel. Then people have to pull these things out, wrestling, with poles and hooks, or the wheel doesn’t turn, and the music doesn’t play. There is seaweed wrapped around the joints in the spokes of the wheel, too – that doesn’t stop it turning for a moment.

It’s not just plants that come down – a dead sheep had to be hooked out. And a calf. At the time of writing, as far as we know, any cuddies that might have come down went straight past ~Flow and carried on to meet the white horses of the sea – to the sure relief of those who’d otherwise earn a row of bruises across their chest fishing them out.

The engineering issue here is: you can put a guard on to stop unwanted entities getting in and inhibiting the movement of the wheel. But, you can’t do that without also preventing at least some of the water that brings them reaching the wheel – and that’s the force that turns it, and that’s where you get your power. Plus, it doesn’t work that well anyway; the trees and cadavers will sometimes just be pulled under the guard by the river and come in anyway – and then your guard just makes it harder to get them out.

Take the guard off.


(cigarette ash, droppings)

When I was there in July at the evening high tide, the wheel turning relentlessly fast and heavy – “if I put my arm in there, I’d lose it”, Ed told us – a bird went past out towards the other bank. A gull. It was just sat on the water, apparently enjoying the view, as the river took it willingly down – a free ride to the sea. As I watched, it dipped its head in the water and shook it off, casual as you like about being swept away at speed. I think it must have made this trip before.

There were a few things in the corners of the mill that weren’t in the architectural drawings, but didn’t need to be pulled out like a sheep or a tree would. The odd fag end and food wrapper that you can see anywhere that water sits and people go. Even the sun-bleached plastic bottle of an Olympic sponsor. Not lots – they swept the decks – but just the odd bit of detritus that must have risen up on a wave and come back down in a place where it couldn’t be fished out.

These were not engineering concerns.

~ ~ ~

As part of a series of engineering themed events that used ~Flow as inspiration, a group of writers were commissioned to produce a piece of original writing inspired by the engineering behind ~Flow. Engineering relies on precision and detail, as does good writing.

The writers worked alongside Dr Viccy Adams from the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Newcastle University and Buro Happold to develop their work. The selected writers were:

Wes White
Stevie Ronnie
Julie Ward
Guy Mankowski

~Flow is proud to have worked in partnership with The Royal Academy of Engineering to develop the ~Flow Engineering Programme.