Concrete island: the abandoned MP-203 highway, Spain

4 10 2014

Two miles south-east of Mejorada del Campo – a small satellite town of Madrid – the semi-arid landscape of thorns and hardy bushes suddenly reveals the MP-203 highway: over a bridge to nowhere, the silent concrete dual carriageway curves northwards to the horizon. Standing on the bridge, I film the highway: how long before I will capture the powerful sense of emptiness, I wondered? A few seconds? A minute? Ten minutes? The wind picks up, shaking the small bushes that have gained a foothold in the central reservation below.

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Intended as a relief road for the congested Madrid-Barcelona highway, this 12.5km stretch of highway was started in 2005 and 70 million Euros were ploughed into the project before construction work stopped abruptly in 2008. As it became clear that Spain would not be emerging from its deep recession any time soon, the highway project was shelved and has remained unfinished and abandoned for six years.

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In recent years, the Mail Online has published many articles on the numerous abandoned construction projects that now litter the Spanish landscape; the melancholy tone of these articles countered by a barely disguised schadenfreude at just how far the Spanish economy has sunk (well, compared to Britain anyway). In the Mail Online‘s estimation, the Spanish, it seems, always get ahead of themselves; their abandonments just desserts for their seemingly-intractable hubris.

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Perhaps one of the Mail Online‘s journalists should actually visit the abandoned highway; for it is an extraordinarily disconcerting site that raises questions about not only the future of all economies dominated by boom-and-bust capitalism, but also the place of the motorway in our imagination. For here is ruin at its most banal and also at its most brutal – the great swathe of concrete suddenly seeming like an alien entity that has simply appeared in the otherwise rural landscape. Without an endless stream of cars (which effectively removes the motorway as a ‘real’ space to be experienced), a road on this scale seems inhuman and out of time, as if both prehistoric and futuristic at the same time. If walking on a deserted motorway is a popular trope in many a post-apocalyptic fantasy (such as the first episode of The Walking Dead), then actually doing it is to realise just how inhuman motorways are; to walk on one is to lose yourself in a desert of concrete, devoid of orientating landmarks.

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As I wondered about the effect of this ruin in reverse, I was led to think of J. G. Ballard’s own fantasia of the motorway, Concrete Island (1974). Charting the  story of a lone male driver who crashes and becomes marooned on a patch of waste ground entirely enveloped by elevated motorways (based on the Westway in London), Ballard’s novel forensically documents an enforced experience of living in the fortress-like space created by the intersection of these monstrous roads, resulting in the Robinson Crusoe-like central character eventually accepting it as his home. As I left the surface of my concrete island (after barely an hour) and returned to the bustling streets of central Madrid, I realised that to truly embrace the motorway as a human space might require as radical a transformation as that seen in Ballard’s cautionary tale.





Ruin imaginaries: Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

17 07 2014
1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

1. Maenofferen slate quarry, north Wales

On a soggy Sunday morning in Snowdonia, I took the opportunity to re-visit Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 cinematic masterpiece Stalker. It’s a film like no other – an immersive, meditative science fiction story that moves at such a glacial pace that, by the end of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, one is either mesmerised or bored to distraction. Far more spiritually infused than its literary source, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1971), Stalker takes you on a snail’s-paced journey into a post-apocalyptic world of mudane detritus, damp featureless landscapes and industrial ruination, all suffused with melancholic longing.

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By the afternoon, the Welsh rain had cleared and I drove up to Blanaeu Ffestiniog to explore the extraordinary landscape to the north of this slate mining town. One of the wettest built-up areas in Britain, Blaenau Ffestiniog is surrounded by the remnants of a once global industry: groups of hills entirely made up of discarded slate and littered with ruined buildings and defunct machinery, and traversed by tramways at impossibly steep angles. As I walked up one of these hills from the northern edge of the town into the Maenofferen quarry, the ruined landscape closed in, the encroaching mist above accentuating the enveloping quality of the slate hills (2). With Stalker so fresh in my mind, this landscape could not help but call to mind the Zone in that film and with that recollection, the hills became inscrutable, mysterious and distinctly threatening. Some parts of the quarry are still worked: yet on this April sabbath, all of the machines stood idle, as if abandoned by an alien civilisation forced to leave in a hurry (3).

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Further up the slate-made hills, the mist descended like a benign miasma. As any hill-walker knows too well, mist is a peculiarly discomforting phenomenon. On the one hand, it makes everything so still, soft and muffled; on the other, it hides what is close by, collapsing the world into a small sensory bubble. Here, just as in Stalker, the mist turned buildings into visual mysteries – half-shrouded entities that only made sense when close enough to make out their forms (4). Throughout my perambulation of this vast, unruly site, those mysteries seemed to deepen with every step, as if confirming the Zone’s profound illogic that the shortest way is never the most direct. So, only after a long detour around the edge of the Snowdonia National Park – navigating by fenceposts, half-glimpsed reservoirs and stream-beds – did I eventually return to the quarry from its northern side, finally entering the vast and monolithic buildings where the slate used to be unloaded and worked until the complex ceased production in 1999. In these buildings – unlike many former industrial sites – all of the machinery and many of the tools have remained, seemingly abandoned with haste after some unknown cataclysm forced the workers to flee.

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In these spaces, objects piled on objects, crowding in and demanding to be deciphered: three delicately-composed circular metal saw blades waiting to be catalogued (5); one gruesome hook longing for a kill (6); a lone rusting screw suggesting familial loss (7); one glove marking the position of a dead hand? (8) Of course, with some basic knowledge of the slate-working process, I would have made sense of these objects, but who could have really understood the final room – a vast barn-like space filled with absurd vehicles petrified in immobility? As the mist rolled in through the missing timber roof, these objects became extraordinary bearers of meaning trapped out-of-time: the green trolley ‘not allowed underground’ (9); the blue one with a single bright-red wheel hub (10); the strange sunken ‘eyes‘ of the yellow one (11); and the almost comedic shape of the rusty one (12). Yet, whilst photographing these vehicles, all of a sudden the mist vanished and the power of that mystery lifted. At once, these objects became more grounded and the alien monoliths outside the barn became what they really were: half-finished concrete pillars (4). Now, the Molewyn range of mountains appeared beyond and the real world opened up once again.

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Strange territory: Liverpool’s dockland ruins

14 02 2014
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Looking south along Brunswick Place to the docks.

Walk north of Liverpool’s magnificent Liver Building – leaving behind the bustling angular forms of the city’s new waterfront buildings around the Albert Dock – and you enter the liminal dockland zone – the northern part of a vast interconnected port system that stretches over 7 miles along the Liverpool bank of the river Mersey. In 1907 – at the height of Liverpool’s preeminence as a global port – the writer Walter Dixon Scott described the ‘romance’ of the city’s docklands, a ‘strange territory’ that formed ‘a kind of fifth element’ to the world – ‘a place charged with daemonic issues and daemonic silences, where men move like puzzled slaves, fretting under orders they cannot understand, fumbling with great forces that have long passed out of their control.’

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

The 1901 Tobacco Warehouse seen from Regent Road.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Regent Road facade of the Tobacco Warehouse.

Today, those ‘great forces’ have seemingly abandoned Liverpool, wielding their power now on the eastern side of the planet, but their traces remain everywhere in the city’s docklands, which are perhaps an even stranger territory today than they were at the turn of the twentieth century. Walking north along Regent Road, which hugs the granite wall that encloses most of the docks (with their evocative succession of names – Trafalgar, Salisbury, Nelson, Wellington, Canada), one sees everywhere the material remnants of Liverpool’s former maritime dominance. First, surrounding Stanley Dock, are gargantuan abandoned buildings, including the world’s largest brick-built warehouse, completed in 1901 to store the vast quantities of tobacco that were then imported from the United States. Flanked by a host of other brick warehouses, the entire complex hovers between a state of ruin and recuperation, the largest buildings being slowly turned into apartments and, in the case of the Tobacco Warehouse, a vast hotel, while the smaller examples continue to languish in redundancy.

Brunswick Place

Brunswick Place

Effingham Street

Effingham Street

Ruined grabber, Huckisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Ruined grabber, Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3.

Things become even stranger the further north one progresses. In the streets beyond Huskisson Branch Dock No. 3, the semi-ruinous buildings continue to live on in a variety of forms: as spaces to store and sell salvaged car parts in Brunswick Place; as unspecified ‘Units to Let’ in Effingham Street; or as offices for a stationary company in Princes Street. All of these streets face onto the docklands beyond, where enormous hills of scrap materials accumulate before one’s eyes (presumably waiting to be exported for recycling). It is as if one is witnessing the entire wastes of the world being gathered into one space – a spectacle that leads to a strange sense of temporal dislocation.

Hills of scrap metal, Huckisson Dock No. 3.

Hills of scrap metal, Huskisson Dock No. 3.

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

Former spare car-parts warehouse, Brunswick Place

This feeling of being witness to the ‘great forces’ of material destruction is, of course, a mainstay in (post) apocalyptic cinema, particularly within the cyberpunk trend that began with the first of the Mad Max films in 1979 and has continued up to the present in The Matrix trilogy and the recent Robocop reboot. Within the cyberpunk genre, salvage plays a critical role in imagined apocalyptic futures, whether seen in the hotchpotch of technologies in machines in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or the appropriation of architectural ruins as domestic spaces seen in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008). The image of ruins in cyberpunk is both romantic – a form of neo-Gothic revelling in the excess of decay – and also critical, namely of late-capitalism’s increasingly accelerated regime of ‘creative’ destruction.

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walls of buildings along Brunswick Place.

Walking in Liverpool’s ruined docklands (in effect, the type of real spaces that underpin cyberpunk’s alternative realities) is equally fraught with contradictions, from the startling aesthetics generated by the clash of serene emptiness with violent destruction to the melancholic sense of lives and buildings clung onto in desperation. Liverpool’s docklands are a landscape that simultaneously speak of past, present and future: what was exists as both material remnants and absent ruins; what is shows itself in the ingenuity of those who continue to use the semi-ruined buildings; what will be comes in the sense of the landscape as prophetic of what will (inevitably) become of the world under capitalism.





Walking on water: the path to Hilbre Island

17 01 2014

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‘What do you call a path that is no path?’ (Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, p. 61)

Hilbre Island, and its two sister islands Middle Eye and Little Eye, lies 2 miles off the Wirral mainland in the mouth of the estuary of the River Dee. One of 43 unbridged British tidal islands that can be reached on foot from the mainland, Hilbre is a place set apart, marooned by the tide for 4 hours in every 12, and, although inhabited for centuries, now lies abandoned, its former houses falling in disrepair. Unlike the infamous paths that cross Morecambe Bay or Foulness in Essex, the way to Hilbre is easy (and popular): one need only consult tide times and avoid the couple of hours either side of high tide. Yet, to walk the 2 miles from West Kirby to Hilbre is to enter another world, one where the landscape is forever changing and where paths exist only as flux – a place where the path is everywhere and nowhere and you are free to choose it.

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In British landscapes outside of the national parks, such freedom of movement is rare; here, as soon as one steps out onto the sand, it comes upon you. The islands – low prominences of rock on the horizon (1) – are the guides that draw the path but, despite the passage of countless feet over the centuries, there are no lines made by walking. Until one reaches the red sandstone rocks of Little Eye, the landscape is a mesmerising spectacle of sand, light and water – always different because always in flux (2). Here the tide does not so much come in and out as appear and disappear out of the sand, its low ripples funnelling the water and light into endlessly shifting patterns.

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In this landscape, the rocks of Little Eye are an anchor, the southern edge of a shelf of sandstone that rises and falls for 2 miles before dropping back into the sea at the northern end of Hilbre Island. All along this shelf the rocks provide a temporary resting point for thousands of birds that feed from the rich tidal waters of the Dee: after high tide, the guano of countless newly-departed Oystercatchers fills the air with the rasping smell of ammonia (3). As one follows the rocks, they grow in redness, particularly if one is also following the setting sun, the layers of sandstone both sculpted by and resistant to the enveloping sea: here, swirls and eddies of orange and pink (4); there, green bands of algae support the red (5); elsewhere, tessellated lumps of fused sand and rock (6). At the northern end of Hilbre Island, where the rocks gently slope into the sea, one feels at the very edge of the world, watched only by the wild eyes of seals bobbing up beyond (7).

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At sunset, the return journey to West Kirby is magical, the shifting patterns of light now accelerating in a spectacular display. The hue of the red rocks edges from vermillion to purple, while the sand and water double the sky’s molten colours and mirrors its passing clouds (8 & 9). One is no longer walking on this landscape; rather between and inside it, enveloped as if caught within the elements themselves. And when one finally reaches the terra firma around West Kirby’s marine lake, the edgeland beyond still beckons in the semi-darkness – the now striated forms of water on sand like solidified embodiments of the fading clouds above (10).

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An area of outstanding unnatural beauty

6 12 2013
1. Stanlow oil refinery by night

1. Stanlow oil refinery by night

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.

2. Runcorn's chemical works from the footpath.

2. Runcorn’s chemical works from the footpath.

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?

3. Castner Kellner chemical works with the River Mersey beyond.

3. Castner Kellner chemical works with the River Mersey beyond

4. Castner Kellner chemical works with Stanlow in the distance

4. Castner Kellner chemical works with Stanlow in the distance

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).

5. Sunset over Runcorn

5. Sunset over Runcorn

6. Runcorn's industrial buildings from the Runcorn and Weston Canal

6. Runcorn’s industrial buildings from the Runcorn and Weston Canal

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.

7. Stanlow by night

7. Stanlow by night





Threshold space: the Rhinogs, Snowdonia

11 09 2013
Rhinog Fawr (left) and Rhinog Fach (right) from Cwm Nantcol

Rhinog Fawr (left) and Rhinog Fach (right) from Cwm Nantcol

Stone, heather, stone, stone, heather, stone, heather – walking the Rhinog mountains in south-western Snowdonia is all about what’s under your feet, the gaze almost always directed downward at the tiny paths that snake through the unending swathes of rocks concealed by heather. Not a place to admire the grand sweeping vistas of Snowdonia’s mountain ridges, but a landscape to be locked into, immersed, slowed-down and made to work. Perhaps that’s why so few people walk in the Rhinogs; perhaps that’s why I’ve been drawn back to these mountains three times this summer.

Sunset over the Rhinogs ridge, from Clip (left) to Rhinog Fawr (right)

Sunset over the Rhinogs ridge, from Clip (left) to Rhinog Fawr (right)

Rhinog comes from the Welsh word ‘rhiniog’ meaning ‘threshold’ and the Rhinogs are just that: a 13-mile chain of low mountains, uncrossed by any road, that rise steeply just a few miles inland from the sandy shores that stretch between the Dwyryd and Mawddach estuaries; and falling just as steeply on the eastward side into the more gentle lands that fan out across Snowdonia toward Bala. The Rhinogs – especially the rocky middle section of the chain – have been likened – favourably – to the Scottish Highlands. Such a comparison confers a certain character on these mountains: ruggedness, toughness of approach, isolation. Indeed, the rough nature of the Rhinogs reminds me of the Knoydart peninsula in the North-west Highlands: as if the character of those ‘Rough Bounds’ much further north had been miraculously transplanted to a more accessible part of the country, if in miniaturised form.

Llyn Hywel and Rhinog Fach from the slopes of Y Llethr

Llyn Hywel and Rhinog Fach from the slopes of Y Llethr

Rhinog Fawr from the descent from Llyn Hywel

Rhinog Fawr from the descent from Llyn Hywel

Three long summer walks in the Rhinogs with almost identical weather: humid gloom clearing to magnificent blue; the landscape’s mood switching in tune with this, from brooding to serene. The two jewels of the range – Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach – sit beside one another astride a wild pass – the Bwlch-Drws-Ardudwy – flanked on one side by Rhinog’s Fawr’s great shelves of rock, stepping down in long terraces from the unseen summit; and, on the other, by Rhinog’s Fach’s almost vertical face of rock and heather. These are only small mountains – barely topping 700 metres – but aggrandised by their aggressive ruggedness. Only from the south – particularly from the flanks of Y Llethr – does Rhinog Fach display its grandeur more tenderly: that is, as a finger of rock guarding one of Wales’s loveliest lakes, Llyn Hywel. And, seen from this side, Rhinog Fawr looks every bit like an ancient fossil emerging from the earth, its dark folds of rock seeming to emanate the fragility of an age-old living being.

Boulders left by glaciers on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

Boulders left by glaciers on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

Wall on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

Wall on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

From the north, Rhinog Fawr is also rocky, but appearing more like an inaccessible tower than petrified animal. I came to the summit the long way, across the wild 3-mile long ridge that links Clip and the northern Rhinog peaks with Rhinog Fawr. A lonely place indeed; virtually pathless and made up of alternating bands of shattered rock, vast grooved slabs with scattered boulders left by prehistoric glaciers, and small piles of stones that provide much needed human landmarks. Yet, on every part of the ridge  – whether on grass, boulders, or sheer rock faces – is a wall, marking another kind of threshold. This wall is a testament to the dogged determination of the human desire to enclose, protect and mark the land: on this side of the wall, that’s mine; on the other side, yours. With arrogant defiance, the wall negotiates scree, sheer rock faces, lakes, and peaks in turn, both an invaluable aid to navigation and a sign of the landscape’s domestication. Yet, even as this wall asserts its own kind of threshold, the landscape suggests another: an unbounded in-between zone; a place of freedom; a wild space.





Common spaces: downland churches

29 08 2013
Interior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Interior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

The South Downs is England’s newest National Park, created in 2011 and encompassing an 87-mile long ridge of low chalk hills, running from Winchester to the sea at Eastbourne. Yet, the majority of its land is still privately owned, often by large estates, and many of its paths are out of bounds for the walker, guarded by fences or ubiquitous signs proclaiming ‘private: keep out’ or ‘no right of way’. A far cry indeed from the unbounded freedom of the Peak District, where the ‘open country’ signs open up a different kind of meaning of the word ‘National’. For the Peak District, this was a hard-won and long-in-coming freedom, but one that is nevertheless a testament to the efficacy of popular (and disruptive) protest.

The road to Up Marden

The road to Up Marden

Yet, dismissive as it may be to the right to roam, the South Downs National Park contains its own unique common spaces, namely the ancient, and often tiny, churches that are hidden in the soft, undulating chalk and flint-scapes of these hills. The cluster of churches around the hamlets known as the Mardens on the Hampshire/West Sussex border are particularly striking examples. Always open to visitors (and nesting birds), the little churches at North Marden, East Marden and Up Marden are entwined as a thread of common spaces in this otherwise private landscape. They are also some of the most beautiful of England’s small churches – moving witnesses to early Christianity and its stubborn longevity.

Exterior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Exterior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

All the churches are small and undistinguished early medieval buildings: low, squat spaces rendered in the abundant local flint and covered in simple, terracotta-tiled roofs. No towers or spires proclaim the church’s dominance over the landscape and its people; no bells call the reluctant to worship; no transepts, aisles or elaborate tracery in the windows; just single, undivided spaces, bare walls and uneven floors of brick or weathered stone. Perhaps most evocative of all is St Michael’s church at Up Marden. Sitting as it does a hundred yards away from a tiny single-track road behind a barn and shrouded in trees, the 12th-century church seems to emerge out of the landscape in humility, the flint-strewn field adjacent to it mirroring the rough patterns of the flint in the church’s walls.

Nave, St Michael's church. Up Marden

Nave, St Michael’s church. Up Marden

Like other visitors to this church – like the architectural historians Simon Jenkins and Ian Nairn – I have never met another soul in or near this church. Yet its door is always unlocked and fresh flowers always adorn the tombstones and the altar. Clearly, someone cares deeply for this church, but in a way that remains mysterious: a presence in absence. Inside, the church is a space of extraordinary peace and simplicity: a single arch, crudely buttressed, marks a divide between the darker space of the nave and the light-flooded chancel, with its undecipherable fragments of medieval wall paintings emerging from the white-washed walls. Simple blue-painted candle holders give the interior an almost Byzantine feel, while the altar is as simple as possible – a rough-hewn cross sitting on an equally rustic table.

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael’s church, Up Marden

What is the undeniable presence in this church, one that led the staunch atheist Nairn to visit it repeatedly when depressed and nearing his premature death in 1983? Nairn declared that the church moved him beyond religion: it had an atmosphere developed by ‘slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century’. There is no didactic object that can explain this atmosphere – no carving, no buttress, pinnacle or stained glass. Instead, every human action, over hundreds of years, has made this church what it is today. Not the grand gesture of the esteemed patron, or the flourish of the craftsmen’s hand, but small and gentle actions; humble, yet determined; unseen yet powerfully evident. As it was for Nairn, for me this church is not a work of architecture but of humanity.

Candle holder, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Candle holder, St Michael’s church, Up Marden








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