End of the Line

bus_stop.jpeg

By Catherine Marshall:

This is a story of a rather unusual bus journey to the end of the line in Edinburgh, a discovery of an industrial museum witness to centuries of change and my own transition in moving to a new city and country.

I have always been drawn to the theme of transition both in my private life – often moving flats, cities, countries – and in my photography – which often features urban spaces undergoing change. When I first moved to Edinburgh from Germany, I had a reverse culture shock. I had to relearn a British culture that I had left behind fifteen years ago. To be honest I was happy that I had washed up in Edinburgh and not South of the border. It felt closer to Europe, the tenement-style buildings also reminded me of Berlin. As an English person, it was also nice to still feel foreign, to learn Scots phrases, hear poems read in Gaelic and learn about Scottish culture through my sons' school education. 

When it came to taking photographs and negotiating the city I was less comfortable. I almost felt that as an English person I didn't have the authority to go out there and reframe the landscape through my camera. Apart from that, I had no idea of the geography of the city and didn't know where to start. Then I came across came across (g)Host City, a kind of sound-map of Edinburgh to download where you can hear a story or a poem set in a particular location of the city. I decided to take an 'unreliable bus tour' by Japan-dwelling Scot, artist and musician, Momus. It gave me the framework (and courage) to set off to those mysterious sounding destinations on the front of buses I had seen in town: Wallyford, Ocean Terminal, Hyvot's Bank and Bonally. I cannot really describe the surreal, dark and funny tours he gave, as that is something to discover for yourself.

On one journey I wasn't sure if the bus had actually reached the end of the line. It seemed to circle back so I just decided to get off. The audio tour had ended, my google maps app was not working and suddenly I found myself off map. Two bus stops stood baldly on opposite sides of the country road, the only punctuation marks in an otherwise unreadable flat landscape. Should I go left or right or take the bus back? I decided to follow my nose. Walking down a winding B-road I saw another marker in the landscape, an exclamation mark of an industrial chimney stack. I was alone, not having seen another pedestrian since I had left the bus, and was glad to see some sign of civilisation. A pit head winding-gear came into view. As I walked closer I saw a bricked wall with tiles with illustrations of former industries; fishing, pottery, coal, and brickworks. Through serendipity I had found the Prestongrange Industrial Heritage Museum located on the north-east coast of East Lothian. For centuries this area was the centre of intense industrial activity, with a busy harbour, Morrison's Haven. Now you can just see where the harbour used to be, a rectangular outline on the grassy bank, marked with a sign on the ‘bygone years’, the sign itself nearly faded away through the erosion from the sea air. 

industrial tiles.jpg

At the museum I found myself donning my headphones again, this time to listen to an audio-tour of the outdoor exhibits narrated by the late artist John Bellany who grew up nearby, conjuring up, not so different from Momus, an alternative world to the one you see with your own eyes. From Bellany’s stories of Prestonpans you visualise a lost industry; the smoke billowing from the Beehive Kilns that once produced bricks for the buildings of the New Town. Or you find yourself at its mid-eighteenth century heyday with ships loaded with salt, oysters, ceramics, sulphuric acid and coal, or bringing silk, furs from Canada, whalebone and French brandy in return. In the nineteenth century, Irish workers, who first arrived in the West of Scotland, are brought with their families and their traditions to the East by new investors, Summerlee. These new owners also improved workers' conditions, installing indoor plumbing to the mining workers’ housing. Electric generators replaced the steam engines in the powerhouse and electric street lighting was brought to the area. Today the powerhouse houses art exhibitions. I was so taken with the museum, and the fact that I was free to wander with my camera making my own discoveries of an overgrown railway bridge and train tracks in the surrounding forest, that when I returned to the visitor centre the assistant said that she had been thinking of sending out a search party. 

As I left Prestonpans, walking west along the coastal path towards Musselburgh, I came across a quite alien landscape. This was not the Edinburgh that I could have imagined existed when I had set out on my 'unreliable bus tour' that morning. I had found, however, something equally strange. A vast cracked grey landscape stretched out before me towards the sea, made infinite by the fog that was closing in. These are called 'lagoons', a salubrious name for a place where Scottish Power deposited waste ash from the now closed Cockenzie power station. 

In these coastal areas, the delicate balance of man and nature is most apparent. The oysters that the Edinburgh population once enjoyed with their French Claret disappeared towards the end of the nineteenth century overfishing, new dredging methods and pollution from sewage and industrial waste. As industry disappears, nature reclaims, and also in this case offered opportunity for recreation. Bellany recounts several generations of Prestonpans children using the disused harbour as their own swimming pool after the 1930s, conveniently heated by the water dispersed from the pit boilers. Now this coastal area is a destination for walkers and bike enthusiasts. There are also plans to create a nature reserve on the site of the lagoons. Although the lagoons in themselves are dead, they have provided a sanctuary for both sea and wading birds and there are three hides for birdwatchers in the area. In the photographs I took that day, I was drawn to the themes of transition and change, nature reclaiming land itself. But I also wondered about the transitions that families had to go through in the passage of time when industries that had sustained them for so long, came to an end.  

About the author:

Catherine Marshall is an artist and writer based in Edinburgh. She studied photography at the London College of Communication and Glasgow School of Art. She has lived in different countries and cities including Berlin, which she made her home for a decade.

www.catherine-marshall.com

The Great Ruins of Love Lane

Image: David Lewis

Image: David Lewis

By David Lewis:

Cities are in a permanent process of evolution, fast or slow, and districts within a city change at different speeds, depending on investment, need, attitude.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Liverpool, which is no longer the crumbling monochrome city of the early Beatles photographs, but a modern holiday and conference destination.  Confidence roared through the city again from the late 1980s, building luxury hotels and celebrity-chef restaurants, revamping museums, opening new visitor attractions and developing the huge Liverpool One shopping development complex, a shopping mall in the heart of the city. 

A slower, more varied pace of change can be seen in the 1840s docklands north of the city centre, which have evolved since 1945 through bomb damage, obsolescence and redundancy.  This has left a bruised landscape of old warehouses and railway yards, closed pubs and overgrown vacant lots.  There is silence here, and sunlight, and huge empty skies.  The Mersey is never far away.

It is precisely this neglect that makes the docklands vulnerable to development.  Slowly, with altered attitudes, the pace of change is quickening and the confidence is spreading northwards.  New uses have been found for giant survivors; Jesse Hartley’s Stanley Dock buildings have become the Titanic Hotel, and the hulking Tobacco Warehouse next door, once the largest brick building in the world, is being converted into urban apartments.  

Image: David Lewis

Image: David Lewis

I walk these streets now with a new sense of urgency.  Blackstone Street, Cotton Street, Saltney Street, Dublin Street - I am at home here, clearing street dust to discover cobble or street railway, granite kerb, a softness of old sandstone.  These ground-level Victorian ruins add colour – rusts and steel blue-greys – to the streets.  Old Liverpool is a city of brick, and walls snake through the old districts; ubiquitous and invisible, shiny red or gleaming hard blue-grey; heavily sooted, organic, hand-made.  On the oldest warehouses the brick folds into narrow doorways and narrow barred windows capped with sandstone or rusted iron.  The bricks and mortar have flaked away after 170 years of river weather, but these structures add fluidity and definition to the city and warm colour – chalky reds, dark blues – to the streets.  Each brick was hand-laid decades ago, on bright days or damp days, sooted with river fogs and steam-smuts or laid in warm sunshine as the city roared north along the river; brick by brick, wall by wall, street by street.

This hinterland is full of oddity and unexpected glories.  Gateposts, fragments of walls, arches in stone or brick, monolithic survivors like ruined sandcastles left behind by the tide.  Some have found new uses and stand, silent and dominant, in new fences, new boundaries.  There are also ghost places, vacant lots full of buddleia and butterflies which once housed large railway yards or churches, their histories forgotten.  Nothing survives of the Martyrs’ Church, St. Augustine’s on Chadwick Street; nothing survives of the giant goods stations of Waterloo, Great Howard Street, or Canada Dock, apart from stumped walls and fragments of story. 

Ruins can be invisible here.  Love Lane lies beyond the huge railway arches carrying commuter trains up the coast, and is connected to whole streets of redundancy, truly empty places, scenes for a car chase or a clandestine meeting, film sets for unmade films.  Sprainger Street, Little Howard Street, streets of walls and graffiti, windows and doors bricked up, more buddleia and more grasses, silence, a beautiful decay.  Nobody seems to be here. The air smells of rotting rubbish, vegetation and illegally-dumped engine oil.  At night the few streetlights illuminate the darkness rather than dispel it, sending a weak light spilling across the cobbles to create great polygonal slabs of velvet darkness.  These lost streets are dominated by the amputated, hacked remains of another railway viaduct, overgrown and crumbling, a lost route to the lost station of Liverpool Exchange.  The bricklayers’ art has created great swirls of brick, smooth and close-fitting like dragon scales or armour.  These arches are muscular, seeming to crouch, tense and full of unexpressed energy.  They have the deep calm of gigantic Roman ruins, solid and seemingly permanent. 

Image: David Lewis

Image: David Lewis

And yet these old walls, these folds of brick and obsolete arches, are increasingly vulnerable.  A grandiose, long-term plan called Liverpool Waters is promising apartment blocks, and open squares of bars, restaurants and shops along the waterfront.  Everton Football Club have confirmed a £300m move from Goodison Park to the Bramley-Moore Dock.  At ground level, the Ten Streets project will deliver new work/living spaces, renovated buildings, more public space. 

I believe that cities need dark streets and grey areas, places of awkward, disjointed history and ambivalence.  Cities need to regenerate periodically, but they also need the old, the quiet, the derelict, a sense of faded history.  Is it not possible to have rough edges to our cities, dark corners, un-developments?  We should be able to discover something of our cities for ourselves; not everything should be signpostedPerhaps these old streets are where the city has most potential, perhaps these scraps of buildings and stumps of walls remind us that all things are possible within a city; perhaps without decay there can be no sense of potential, and ultimately no regeneration.  Our ruins should be left to their decay. 

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

The Library: Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys

Review: Christo Hall

For those who haven’t kept abreast with recent British infrastructural projects, HS2 is a £55bn high-speed railway plan first mooted by David Cameron’s government in 2009. It’s an attempt to renew Northern England’s economic potential after years of neglect from Westminster and deindustrialisation that has accentuated a north-south divide in the country. For its advocates, including the previous chancellor, George Osborne, it will “change the economic geography of this country”, for its opponents it’s over budget and comes at a huge cost to the areas affected – the homes that require to be demolished and the environment.

It’s these various divisions that Tom Jeffreys, in his first book, Signal Failure, grapples with via his attempt to walk the length of the HS2 route – a 119-mile trek that takes him out of Central London, through endless suburbs, beautiful and ordinary countryside and into Birmingham. Along the way he wild camps—in some cases to his own better judgement—in a suburban open space, a pub garden and besides a major road; he meets people that will be affected, in some cases displaced, by HS2; and ponders the disconnect between mind and body as he suffers injury and disappointment halting his attempt to undertake the walk in one sitting.

For one thing I have learnt that I am not a nature writer.

It’s nonsense to try to categorise a book to a single genre and it’s especially so for this one as Jeffreys smoothly and deliberately blends elements of nature writing, journalistic reportage and a meta-review of writing about nature and place. Each of these strands raise compelling passages, such as his observations of how an infrastructure project’s simulations and renders fail to depict relationships with real people, conversely his portrayal of a West Midlands dairy farmer’s complex relationship with HS2’s impact on his land, and Jeffreys’ framing of his book in the context of nature writing that has preceded it, making it in part an ode to the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin. It’s a signal of how much of an admirer he is of nature writing, and it reveals a kind of imposter syndrome, that Jeffreys feels incapable to write authoritatively about nature – that’s not to say that this is a bad thing, such reverence offers a welcome subjectivity and an absorbing down-to-earth tone.

Why does building for the future so often involve destroying the past?

While born in Buckinghamshire – as it happens near enough on the route of the HS2 – Jeffreys’ fascination for cities is not disguised, neither is his comfort within them. Nature, for many city dwellers, conjures up untamed forces and barbarism yet nevertheless is apotheosised because of its embodiment of a simple, more human life. It’s a view that at times leads Jeffreys to see the city as an encroachment, continually eating away at nature’s resources and beauty, and that impresses a strong tone of regret. Is it a metaphor for something that should have been done about HS2 while there was a greater chance of impacting the plans?

Perhaps the author’s greatest contribution is the perceptive and astute power of his social commentaries throughout the book. There are many striking and quotable phrases that come to mind, such as “you can tell officially approved graffiti because the people are always happy” or his insight to point out that state and council-funded outdoor gyms erected at the time of the 2012 Olympics, encouraging exercise, coincided with McDonalds being the Olympics’ official restaurant. In other passages he asks: “at what point does psychogeography become tourism?” or notes that “what bothers me is the implication that the UK’s only landscapes worth saving are those that fit within the aesthetics of the late Romantics.”

Somebody once wrote that as the mayor he would like to see his local country lanes neat and tidy and easily passable. But as a poet he would prefer them artfully overgrown.

Signal Failure is an enthralling and irresistible read, and difficult to review because along the way Jeffreys produces a better summary and analysis of his own book and its place in the canon of nature writing better than I or any reviewer could. As such this is a thoroughly researched book, substantiated by the tomes that weigh down his backpack throughout his walk. But it’s also a vital reminder that it takes more than demographic analyses and cost-benefit models to understand the value of our environment and our place within it.

What’s a train without its passengers, a town without its residents, or any kind of journey without its traveller? – Warts, imposter syndrome, injuries and all.

Christo Hall has written for The Quietus, Prospect, Review 31, White Noise and others, often about cities and urbanism. He is online editor of the Bartlett School of Architecture’s LOBBY magazine and founding editor of Cureditor, a site that recommends arts and culture articles.

Signal Failure by Tom Jeffreys is published by Influx Press

Postcard from... Bingley Five Rise Locks

IMAGE: Paul Scraton

IMAGE: Paul Scraton

By Paul Scraton:

We walked up the Leeds and Liverpool Canal from Bingley town centre, past old factories and the quay where barges would once have been loaded and unloaded. The towpath was busy; Easter weekend and the walkers, runners and cyclists were out in full force. When the canal network was built, its function was transport and the aim was making money. What it is now is a reminder and a resource, a web crisscrossing the country that at once offers us a stroll through some of the country’s most beautiful scenery while charting the rise and fall of industry, and how water was replaced by rail and road.

I grew up a few hundred metres from the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, in West Lancashire on the other side of the great divide from Bingley. The canal was an ever-present in my childhood and teenage years, a place of walks and birthday bike-rides, the place where we snuck our first cans of beer and then – later – our first legal pints in a pub by the locks. There was a mill in our village. Now it has been turned into apartments. Where the bridge crossed the canal on my way to school there has been a new development since I left home, a cobbled courtyard surrounded by cafes and restaurants, galleries and other craft businesses. The 21st century industry on the banks of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

At Bingley Five Rise Locks we arrived as a barge had just entered the first of the locks. The lock keeper had come down from the office and was making the initial steps of opening and closing the various parts of the five-step system. In less than a hundred metres, the barge would rise nearly twenty – the steepest canal ‘staircase’ in the British canal network and a marvel of engineering. When the Bingley Five Rise locks opened in the 1770s, almost thirty thousand people came to celebrate. It was the 18th century shuttle launch, a technological wonder, and in all those years since there has been no real need to substantially alter the locks system. It just works.

We stayed to watch the barge make its progress, ever upwards, until it had reached the top of the locks. Later, I learned a word that seemed almost too good to be true. A gongoozler is someone who enjoys watching activity on the canals, born out of a derogatory term canal-workers used for those who stood idle while they worked up a sweat. The lock keeper at Bingley Five Rise did not look like he needed any help, so we let him get on with it. On either side of the canal, the gongoozlers stood and watched. We joined the club.