At the northern edge of the border between England and Wales the Manchester Ship Canal snakes its final miles along the southern banks of the River Mersey’s estuarine course to Liverpool. Hugging the edges of the Canal are the some of the remnants of England’s heavy industry, which once so dominated the entire area: from the Castner Kellner chemical works at Weston Point in Runcorn to the vast Stanlow oil refinery near Ellesmere Port – England’s second largest (1). Walking this area is a challenge as I found out one bright afternoon in late November: although there is a footpath through Runcorn’s petrochemical plants (2), it ends abruptly before one reaches the banks of the Ship Canal. One resident told me that the path had been blocked off and was now too overgrown; another warned me of a feral black panther that apparently prowls the industrial areas. Meanwhile, at Stanlow all public access is forbidden – the entrance to a private road that bisects the refinery warning casual drivers away, or not to stop or take photographs.
Yet, so vast are these industrial sites – Stanlow is the size of a small town – that they are visible for miles around, even if mostly ignored by the motorists speeding over the flatlands between England and Wales on the M56 (who are ordered to ‘Keep two chevrons apart’ from each other as if diverting them from glancing at the endless smoking chimneys beyond). Stopping to look at this heavy industry is clearly discouraged, even as most would probably have no interest in doing so anyway. But why is this the case? If we celebrate and flock to contemplate areas of outstanding natural beauty, why should we not do the same for their unnatural counterparts?
High on Runcorn Hill, the forms of the Castner Kellner chemical works provide an unnatural mirror of the river Mersey beyond (3). Just as the river creates a sublime aesthetics of ebb and flow, so the countless multicoloured pipes make visible their own mysterious currents and courses. As the sun began to set, the drifting smoke from the factory’s chimneys increased the natural drama unfolding beyond (4). Later still, as the sun briefly shot out dazzling rays behind a bank of cloud, the now silhouetted forms of pylon, chimney and scaffolded pipework provided new aesthetic resonances – surreal, anthropomorphic forms that seemed to emerge out of the landscape itself (5). Then, in the aftermath of a glorious sunset, the red-soaked sky framed a fantastical vision of multicoloured lights and half-shrouded forms jumbled together like some fantastical city of the future (6). Finally, in darkness now, the forest of chimneys and pipes at Stanlow dazzled in their night-time raiment of white light, emerging behind marshy fields and bare trees like the vision of Los Angeles in Blade Runner (7).
Does this enraptured gaze work against a more sober appreciation of the environmental costs of heavy industry? Or of its brutal economics – the reduction of human life to mere units of production? The 18th-century philosopher William Burke argued that, on the contrary, finding beauty in otherwise repellent objects is necessary because it allows us to hold a gaze that has the potential to dig deeper than mere appearances. Burke’s sublime gaze is one that leads to a more fuller awareness of the wholeness of human experience and the contradictory desires that govern it. Perhaps not to look – or to look merely with disdain – is ultimately far more damaging than a gaze that allows itself to be enraptured by what is usually scorned.