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

In the village there is a river

IMAGE: Martin A. Smith

IMAGE: Martin A. Smith

By Martin A. Smith:

In the village there is a river.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that along the edge of the river there is a village.

It is not a big river, or a grand river. It is a small river, alive with trout, which slowly, gently makes its way down from the hills and the mountains, skirts the four ruined castles that give this place its name and passes through to the world beyond.

As it approaches the village it first passes a couple of houses, both with chickens running around the garden, then a ruined factory full of broken windows and rusting machinery. This was a textile producing area and every town or village on a river had a mill. When the industry became too expensive the mills and factories were shut down and left to decay. Now all towns and villages with a river have a ruined factory.

A part of the factory in this village though has been turned into a visitor centre for the castles, another part into a restaurant that has a Michelin star, luxury out of decay.

The river continues past the restaurant, the town hall, the bakery (open every day except Tuesdays) and the post office (open Tuesday afternoons and usually runs out of stamps)

The post office used to be a night club and, rumour has it, a brothel.

The river runs past the car park and away.

It is a large car park for a small village. It is used by the tourists visiting the ruined chateaux on the top of the hill and is the site of the old station.

A village this size wouldn’t normally justify a station, let alone a nightclub, or indeed a brothel. But they were not for the village; they were for the goldmine further up the mountain.

But the mine didn’t last long, the station closed, the nightclub became a post office and the village returned to being a small quiet village with a large car park for the tourists.

Along the river’s edge running adjacent to the car park there are large sloping walls. Flood defences built with granite and concrete and cement. The gentle river seems trapped at this point, encased between the mountain on one side and these defences on the other. They seem incongruous, ugly, unnecessary.

I do not know if they were they built to protect and support the railway line, or built later as part of the car park. But I know that they are unforgiving and I wondered why they were built so.

Then it rained and we watched as the water rise.

And suddenly the walls looked small and insufficient. People ran to remove their cars and protect their homes from the onslaught.

It was only for two or three days but the rain was relentless, obliterating the view across the valley, shrinking the world to a few feet in front of the window.

Swept down from the mountains by the crying winds the rain and the river it fed brought whole trees past our doors, broke the banks upstream and some villages were evacuated.

But the walls were enough. The river was contained and the rain eventually stopped.

The water started to subside and the village could relax, this battle with the elements was over. The locals met and discussed the water, how many leaks their homes had, the after effects of the flooding, all thankful their homes remained intact. Because for a time it was not certain.

In the village there is a river, and there is still a river and there is still a village and the walls that seemed incongruous, ugly, unnecessary kept us safe.

Martin A. Smith is an artist and composer whose work is concerned with the emotional response to the nature of place, memory and environment.

This piece is part of a gently ongoing project to discover the story of a small village in France.