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Mullion Harbour and Making Sense of Transience

Mullion Harbour and Making Sense of Transience

Caitlin DeSilvey, the Environment and Sustainability Institute.

Key findings

  • The story of Mullion Harbour shows us that there are creative alternatives to heritage preservation and protection, which acknowledge historical value while embracing change.
  • The paper uses archival and ethnographical sources to explore different ways of seeing Mullion Cove and understanding its history.
  • As climate and coastal change accelerates, we will need new ways of understanding dynamic landscapes and making sense of change over time.


The paper concludes that in climate change discourse the concept of anticipatory adaptation  refers to proactive strategies for preparing communities for future change. This paper proposes an ‘anticipatory history’ approach.  Usually, heritage focusses on conserving the site indefinitely. However, this is a problem when the landscapes in which they sit are extensively transformed – or even destroyed.  this is  a process that is likely to become increasingly common with the acceleration of environmental change in coastal and other contexts. Might it be possible to experiment with other ways of storying landscape, framing histories around movement rather than stasis, and drawing connections between past dynamism and future process? At the core of this paper is an experimental narration of the history of Mullion harbour.  The narrative presents a reverse chronology of moments gleaned from diverse sources ranging over three centuries, looking to a fractured landscape past to find resources for encountering a future unmaking.

What I hope emerges from this telling is an awareness of the inevitable entanglement of ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ (and, indeed, ‘economic’) imperatives in the history of the harbour, as in the history of any material artefact. The invocation of natural process to support a policy of non-intervention at Mullion cannot be separated from the justification that led to the construction of the harbour in the first place, when the same set of ‘natural processes’ were cast as violent and threatening. The harbour is a temporary arrangement of matter, made durable by a 20th century heritage discourse that granted it a symbolic cultural value. The decision to allow the harbour to deteriorate reveals, as Gavin Lucas has pointed out, that ‘entropy is a social as well as a natural phenomenon’.  The eventual deconstruction of the harbour will be as technical as it is natural, and ‘working with the grain of nature’ will entail a managed ruination, a collaboration between sea swell and heavy machinery. As the National Trust struggles to hold together an artefact as old as it is, other inscriptions of place are waiting to resurface. When the harbour’s temporary arrangement of materialized culture gives way to a new (old) ordering it will be necessary to recuperate dormant relations to place, or invent new ones.

»Read full paper on Jstor