~Flow Engineering Writing Commission Julie Ward

~Flow Engineering Writing Commission

Julie Ward


On the other side of the river, the less fashionable side, in a quieter place, away from the bars with their big screen TVs and the site of the Sunday market, there’s a rippling on the surface of the water as if a sudden gust of wind had blown in from the North Sea.  Yet it is still, a breathless evening.  A big harvest moon is rising.  Men are locking the doors.  Going home.  Time for a beer.

On the other side of the river, three women are meeting and greeting each other, their arrival unnoticed by everyone except stray cats who rub against their legs.

The women have brought trunks and baskets, leather satchels and cloth bundles.  A huge cart stands by, covered with sacking and there’s an old army lorry just like your Grandad used to drive in the war, with a canvas back all laced up.

One woman wears an old fashioned naval uniform, a shiny medal pinned to her breast; another, flowing white robes stained with blood; a third the voluminous skirts of a lady born before Queen Victoria.  Is this a girls’ night out on the Tyne, the remnants of a hen party all washed up downstream from the Bigg Market?

The cats couldn’t care less.  The women have brought food – they always do.  Women everywhere always provide, their hearts overflowing with the need to nurture.

Turn that wheel, power that engine, grind that corn, sing that song!

Hypatia has brought honeyed figs and Egyptian dates.  The cats lick her fingers.  Victoria offers a corner of her spam sandwich, the pink meat faintly obscene, wrapped in white bread.  Sarah has delicate sugary confections to offer, concocted in her own Bristol kitchen courtesy of the family’s refined sugar business, the produce of slave-labour.  Her sweetmeats are greatly admired especially by her own innocent sweet-toothed children, all six of them.

Hypatia removes the clinging cats from her white robes.  She takes an astrolabe from her leather satchel and turns her attention to the twilight sky.  Victoria meanwhile has donned a heavy diving suit and Sarah is making detailed sketches of the embankment.

Women come to engineering in quiet ways yet their presence ruffles and disturbs like wind on the water.

“It is unpleasant to speak of oneself,” says Sarah, noting a particularly unstable section of the riverbank in her technically excellent drawing.  “It may seem boastful, particularly in a woman.”

“I just kept my mouth shut, did my job,” says Victoria putting goose grease on her arms.  “In the end they saw I did it better than others.”  She puts on the helmet and flips backwards into the muddy water.

“The flow will be good tonight,” says Hypatia eyeing the moon and the distant stars.  “A strong tide to make the muses sing.”  She rubs her body where the memory of bruised and ripped flesh still pains her.

Turn that wheel, power that engine, grind that corn, sing that song!

Coarse laughter is on the air.  A woman’s voice, a different timbre.  She stands, legs akimbo, hands on huge hips, her frayed sacking skirts wet at the edges as she floats on a rough-hewn make-shift barge under the Tyne Bridge unseen and unheard by the evening revellers.

“It’s the Tide-Miller’s wife,” whispers Hypatia.  “I saw it in the stars, the summer showers, a portent of great girth and generosity.”

Already Sarah is by the water’s edge, searching for a safe mooring.  It must be away from shifting sandbanks and mindful of eddying currents, deep enough for the undershot wheel to turn unimpeded.

Victoria surfaces a short way off, thrusting her hand into the air holding a dead cat.  “This wouldn’t look too pretty caught in the paddles,” she says.

“Sing of muddy bottoms and filthy fishguts, turbidity tangled water droplets,

Sing of murky depths and prowling eels, electricity by a different name.”

The barge comes gently to rest against the river-bank.

“It’s a canny neet, alreet!”  says the Tide Miller’s wife as she throws a rope to Sarah and jumps ashore.  “An’ I’ll hev mesel some of them titbits you lasses hev brought, if yiz divvn’t mind!”

The cats scatter as she ploughs a furrow through the debris of centuries, everything under the sun washed up here and picked through at some time or other, from pre-historic oyster middens to the throw-away cartons of a night on the 21st century town.

She’s brought sacks of corn, useful ballast on her voyage downstream, soon to be ground to make celestial bread.

Turn that wheel, power that engine, grind that corn, sing that song!

Victoria is back on shore, her short hair damp at the edges dripping onto the collar of her navy issue jacket.  She clambers up the back of the truck and unlaces the tarpaulin cover.  Inside a perfect little wooden house waits to say ‘Hello’.  The windows, like eyes, looking out at the full moon as it rises from the North Sea beyond Tynemouth, trailing misty skirts across the water.

The women love the little house; that is also their nature, to make home wherever they find themselves.  They long to set curtains in the windows and put up hanging baskets by the door.

Victoria sets about unloading the little house using the hydraulic tail-lift.

“That’s a canny crank,” remarks the Tide Miller’s Wife.

The little house smells of forests.

“I know this smell,” says Hypatia.  “When the sun goes down on the Mediterranean, the cold air pricks all living things so they give up their perfume to the darkening night.  I remember pungent mint, roasted lamb with rosemary, the odour of goats, the smell of the forest on the hills above my grandmother’s house.”

They all breathe deeply, lost in a reverie of childhood dreams.

“I built camps in the forest,” says Victoria.

“I dammed streams,” says Sarah.

“I made mud pies,” says the Tide Millers wife.  “Aye!  And baked them in the sun!”

“I made a miniature temple for Serapis and Isis,” says Hypatia.  “Piled up columns of tiny white pebbles set amongst giant tree roots, perfectly symmetrical.  I strewed a path with flowers and counted the number of steps to ascend and descend.  Numbers are everything.  Even as a child I knew the beauty of quantification and arrangements.  As in maths so in music.”

“Why!  What’s she on?” cracks the Tide Miller’s Wife.  “I could dee wi’ some of that mesen.”

The women haul the little house on a platform-trolley across the broken ground, wheels turning smoothly under their gentle strength.  They make everything look so easy.  Hypatia has only one hand on the rope, holding it lightly as if to skip.  Such work is no chore for a woman who understands the science and purpose behind construction.

Sing of bubbling alchemy, chemical compounds in the key of ‘sea’

Sing of pumping, thumping, blowing, bellowing, bubbling phials of flotsam

Sarah leads the way.  She knows best where the water cuts underneath the bank, giving one a false sense of security.  The load-bearing weight of the earth and the things we put upon it are her speciality.

The little house is manoeuvred into place on the barge and fixed in place.  Already a cat is on the roof, patting its paws at the sky, trying to knock down the stars.

The women meanwhile are back on land, giving their attention now to the items underneath the sacking on the cart.  A huge wooden wheel, deep gold in colour, and a black cast-iron spindle lie waiting like strange lovers under coarse cloth covers.  Sarah inspects the wooden paddles on the wheel, running her fingers along the treated surface.

“I sent my special patented caulking device,” she says proudly.

The lovers are parted temporarily, as wheel and spindle are rolled off the cart and down to the water’s edge.  Victoria is in her diving suit again, preparing to receive the moving parts and ease them into place.  The Tide Miller’s wife has rigged up a temporary hoist, threading thick plaited ropes through the cruck of a tree, the other ends tied to the wheel.  Sarah meanwhile has suspended a rope-walkway between the vessel and the shore.

Hypatia has put on a large leather gauntlet.  She swings a lure around her head and intones a bird-call.  Not one, but seven sets of beating wings are soon heard. Now as then, her belief in logic and ancient magic combine to conjure awesome results.  She harnesses her cast of phantom falcons to the ropes and, like a set of shire horses, they begin to pull away, their freight following on behind the flapping of feathers.

Divine installation is not a mode they teach at engineering school.  By the light of a full moon pins are positioned, nuts and bolts are tightened, gears are greased, winding mechanisms neatly sprung.  The undershot wheel begins to turn, the tidal Tyne flowing hungrily through the caulked paddles.

The little house sighs and settles down for a night-long serenade.  The cat on the roof joins in periodically.

Sing of salty shores, seaweed fingers and sampled fish pheromes

Sing of cod and chips on a Friday night, sodium-fuelled sonatas

The women sit on the barge, dangling their feet in the water, their bodies resonating with possibility.  Music flows all around them and food will soon be served.  The Tide Miller’s Wife has ground some corn.  Sarah cooked up a kitchen in no time at all with gadgets to do most everything.  Bread is rising in an oven.  They catch fish to eat, using their hands to caress river trout.

And in the early hours, as gaggles of short-skirted girls make their way haplessly home, these four walk hand in hand, back along the riverbank, up the steep track onto the Tyne Bridge.  Seen from a distance they seem to be just another hen party washed down from the Bigg Market, but we and the cats know better.  Their mark on this world is indelible though mostly unseen and unheard.

Turn that wheel, power that engine, grind that corn, sing that song!

Author’s Notes

Hypatia (circa AD 350–370–March 415) was a Greek pagan and teacher of philosophy and astronomy in Alexandria.  She was the first historically noted woman mathematician.  Sometimes credited with inventing the astrolabe, hydrometer and hydroscope, she was savagely murdered by Christians in a political feud, her body torn apart and burnt in a library.

Sarah Guppy (1770-1852) was a prolific inventor living at a time when married women could not own property or take out patents.  Amongst other things, she was responsible for inventing a new system of pilings for bridge foundations, given to Telford and Brunel free of charge in the interests of public safety.  She also invented a range of extraordinary household gadgets for the kitchen and bedroom.

Victoria Drummond MBE (1894-1978) was the first woman marine engineer in Britain and experienced a lifetime of sexual discrimination before finally being made Chief Engineer in 1959.  She was decorated for single-handedly keeping a ship’s engines running whilst under fierce German bombardment in the Atlantic in 1940.

The Tide Miller’s Wife is pure invention.

~ ~ ~

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.