Walking on water: the path to Hilbre Island

17 01 2014


‘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.





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.









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).







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).



Into the Forbidden Zone: Varosha, ghost city of Cyprus

30 03 2013
Varosha from Palm Beach

Varosha from Palm Beach

In 1974, the glamorous resort town of Varosha in Cyprus was abandoned by its 35,000 mainly Greek Cypriot residents after the Turkish army invaded the northern part of the island. Now fenced off and forlorn, Varosha has never been resettled, being set aside by the Turkish authorities as a possible bargaining chip should negotiations even begin with the south. Today, nearly 40 years after being abandoned, Varosha remains one of the largest modern ruins in existence, on a par with Pripyat in the contaminated zone around Chernobyl in Ukraine.

2. Fence around Varosha

1. Fence around Varosha

As part of the militarised zone between northern and southern Cyprus, Varosha is effectively off limits to all but official visitors: a ‘Forbidden Zone’ as the countless signs along the fence proclaim (1). The fence itself is a formidable barrier to any would-be explorers: a mixture of barbed wire, corrugated iron, Prickly Pear cacti, oil drums and signs warning off intruders. Yet, away from the obvious observation towers on the town’s seafront, where lone guards sit or stand in abject boredom or blow whistles at anyone trying to take photographs, there’s surprisingly little security: gaps have opened in the fence and it’s easy to slip in and out unnoticed.

2. View over Varosha from a former apartment building

2. View over Varosha from a former apartment building

3. Vegetation in Irakleus Street, Varosha

3. Vegetation in Irakleus Street, Varosha

4. Former workshop in Ermou Street, Varosha

4. Former workshop in Ermou Street, Varosha

5. Ermou Street, Varosha

5. Ermou Street, Varosha

So, my two visits inside the abandoned town were not fraught with danger; neither did they involve anything more physical than slipping through a large hole in the fence. Yet, once inside everything is different. You are at once an illegal trespasser in danger of arrest or even of being shot; an explorer of unimaginable ruins stretching as far as the eye can see (2); and the ‘Last Man’ (or woman) of Mary Shelley’s invention (and countless fictional end-of-the-world stories since). Almost 40 years without human intervention have resulted in the streets becoming overgrown with lush vegetation (3); former shops and bars disintegrating in the hot sunshine (4); signs becoming simply vacant spaces in the sky (5); and former apartments turning into the homes of pigeons and crows (6). Everyday spaces and objects left by fleeing residents now take on an uncanny or surreal quality: omnipresent peeling paint creates a new kind of interior aesthetic (7); broken chairs and rusted fridges and stoves become reminders of the accelerated redundancy of modern objects (8); a stripped motorcycle metamorphoses into a human skeleton (9); and a strange animal-like sculpture creates a mysterious presence in an empty room (10) (is it a post-abadonment intervention or just an unsalvageable leftover?)

6. Line of pigeon droppings in a former house in Varosha

6. Line of pigeon droppings in a former house in Varosha

7. Peeling paint in a former house in Varosha

7. Peeling paint in a former house in Varosha

8. Rusting 1970s fridge on a rooftop terrace in Varosha

8. Rusting 1970s fridge on a rooftop terrace in Varosha

9. Rusting bicycle

9. Dismembered motorcycle

10. Mysterious object in a room in Varosha

10. Mysterious object in a room in Varosha

Ruins on this city-like kind of scale always invite an immersive form of meditation. Sit still for a while and you hear the sounds of nature reclaiming the human environment: the cooing of pigeons, the cawing of crows, the wind rustling old curtains and rattling decrepit doors and windows (11). This, together with the obvious abolishment of what was once private property, is the emancipatory power of urban ruins: they calm, liberate and offer visions of different kinds of futures freed from the constraints of the normative present. However, ruins on this kind of scale are also always deeply unsettling, especially if we think of the violence that made them what they are. Embedded somewhere in the present peaceful spaces are traces of the tens of thousands of stories of violent rupture and loss that accompanied the abandonment of Varosha. All these silent spaces were once imbued with human qualities, whether those of the home, workplace or places of play. It is these stories that are waiting to be reconnnected with the spaces as they are now.

11. View over Varosha (video)

More of my photographs of Varosha can be found here.

An English edgeland: Covehithe, Suffolk

5 06 2012

The beach at Covehithe, Suffolk

Coastal erosion is a common-enough occurrence in Britain – from the windswept Holderness coastline, north of the Humber, to the wild rugged cliffs of Cornwall; yet, it never fails to generate unease, an unsettled feeling of dread that sometimes haunts our dreams.

1. St Andrew’s church, Covehithe

Some of my childhood dreams of being trapped on the beach by an onrushing sea were probably rooted in frequent visits I made then to the Suffolk coastline, near to where my grandparents lived. Guided by my father, I heard stories of Dunwich – the once-great medieval town now mostly buried beneath the sea – or the weird world of Orford Ness – a great shingle spit constantly being remade by the sea. Most evocative to me was the isolated coastline north of Southwold. At Covehithe, the ruins of  St Andrew’s church (1) stand just one field away from the crumbling cliffs, the original 100-ft tower now the outgrown focal-point of a much smaller church building. Like many churches in Suffolk, St Andrew’s was outsized in relation to the size of the community it served – never more than 300 people. The villagers themselves pulled down most of the building in 1672 leaving the tower surrounded by ruins.



Walking along the crumbling mud cliffs a stone’s throw from the church, one cannot help but re-imagine its history as a product of the unstoppable power of the sea. For, over many hundreds of years, this coast has been gradually eaten away: the only road terminates right at the cliff edge (on one childhood visit I remembered seeing a car that had careered over it); the footpath often disappears into the void; and trees are visibly tumbling over the edge.


It’s these trees that form a kind of mirror image of the ruined church, that is, of survival amongst ruin. On the beach a group of trunks are arranged in a spectacular display of the effects of the meeting of wood and water. In some, exposed roots have been transformed into explosions of weird spikes – like strange, petrified sea creatures (2); in others, the roots seem to emerge from the sand as the new growth of some unknown plant (3). Some trees stand almost complete, their angular forms offering a kind of melancholy testimony to their stubborn refusal to decay (4); others lie prostrate, gradually sinking into the sand world beneath them (5). Some cradle pebbles, stuck fast in between sea-smoothed branches (6); others, in a much more advanced state of ruin, barely register, mistaken for stones on the shoreline (7).



These trees offer tangible visible evidence of what happens to supposedly solid objects in these coastal edgelands. Contrary to what we imagine, these places are not really edges at all; rather, they are the meeting points of two different worlds, ones that we generally hold to be entirely separate. For us to remain solid and rooted, that other world of ceaseless flux must be kept at bay. In reality, however, this notion of solidity is an illusion; for everything is always moving, from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy. It’s precisely that movement which is constantly producing new and unexpected forms – the beauty of which is displayed in those sea-blasted trees.


A seaside icon: the Blackpool Tower

14 11 2011

1. The Blackpool Tower in 2011

By the 1890s, Blackpool was one of the fastest-growing resorts in Britain, with its working-class reputation firmly established. More than any other of its buildings, the Blackpool Tower (1; 1891-94) came to embody the town’s sense of itself as pre-eminently modern. The 500-ft high tower, constructed from a mixture of cast and wrought iron, was inspired by Gustave Eiffel’s tower built in Paris in 1889 and, like its Parisian model, the iron construction of the Tower was essentially structural and utilitarian, the only decorative part being the Tower’s crown (2), a vestige of orientalism that, up close, reveals itself to be a series of unornamented iron beams crudely bolted together.

2. The crown of the Tower

For the Tower’s first visitors, the panoramic view from the platform at the base of the crown, reached by an electric lift, was ‘simply indescribable’ where, on the ground, ‘people look[ed] like fleas’ (3). The lift was one of many other entertainments that were housed between the Tower’s four iron legs, including a circus, ballroom (4), terraced gardens, and promenades, all of which were characterised by exotic decoration in iron (5), terracotta and opulent low-relief tiles (6). The Blackpool Herald focused on the other-worldly ‘atmospheric transformation scene’ that formed part of each circus performance, when a unique flooding mechanism allowed the vast floor of the circus to be filled with water in a matter of minutes, transforming it into an arena for swimming and aquatic displays. Here, then, was a ‘fairy-like’ image of nature controlled by technology, the ‘interface between land and sea … mastered and controlled before the very eyes of the visitor’.

3. View north from the crown of the Tower

4. The Tower ballroom

More than any other seaside building – perhaps even any other building in Britain – the Blackpool Tower has come to symbolise both the town and British seaside experience as a whole. As John Urry has argued, Blackpool’s tower, just like its model in Paris, is no normal spectacle because of the original view it offers of urban space, that is, by turning it into a ‘natural’ landscape. The tower, in a similar way to piers, enables people to see the world as a whole and ‘to celebrate the participation within, and the victory of, human agency over nature’. Going even further, seaside historians have argued that the Blackpool Tower is variously a democratic space, freely available to all; a site of the carnivalesque, that is a complete release from – and reversal of – the norms and conventions of everyday working life; or a utopian symbol of hope for all those who visited Blackpool.

5. Ornamental iron in Jungle Jim's (the former Tower gardens)

6. Exotic tiles and terracotta inside the Tower

Central to all of these interpretations is the view of the tower from afar (7). As documented by the Mass-Observation research group in the 1930s, working-class visitors often described the effect of their first view of the tower from the train journey to Blackpool. It created great excitement, confirmed that you were on holiday and was a sign of the ‘other world’ of pleasure about to be entered where the ‘cotton and factory chimney are finished with’. Just like the Eiffel Tower, the distant view of Blackpool’s tower was what transformed an essentially utilitarian structure into a ornament of the town, the oriental iron crown being the most potent symbol of entering another world, one that reversed the normal associations of the factory chimneys of visitors’ home towns. The fact that the tower is still popular to this day is testament to its enduring symbolic potency, despite the terminal decline of the disciplines of industrial production that fed the desire for release. Yet, the tower’s pleasures – virtually unchanged since it was opened in 1894 – are still defiantly working-class, celebrating a collective experience that is both nostalgic for one generation and exciting and spectacular for another. Like much of what remains of Victorian seaside iron architecture, the tower experience is anathema to middle-class values, with its herded crowds, chaotic business, contrived entertainments and unashamed nostalgia. For this middle-class author, learning to see meaning in the iron tower (and in seaside ironwork in general) was one way in which this resistance can be challenged.

7. The Tower from the beach at low tide

Seeing and being seen: seaside balconies

20 10 2011

Iron balconies proliferated in the Georgian period, when large estates of terraced housing were laid out in newly developed suburbs of cities and towns across the country. The uniformity of these terraced buildings was relieved by balconies at the first-floor level, which were both decorative embellishments and useful escape routes in the event of fire. Early balconies were constructed of wrought iron but, as their popularity grew, this was increasingly substituted for cast iron which could be reproduced far more easily and cheaply.

1. Balcony in Cheltenham, c.1820

Early cast-iron balconies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries tended to be influenced by the prevalent architectural style of neo-classicism, a popular example being the heart and honeysuckle motif derived from designs by the architect Robert Adam in the Adelphi (1774) in London and seen in many balconies in Cheltenham and other spa towns (1). In the first decades of the nineteenth century, designs were increasingly drawn from pattern books created by architects or founders, which were effectively forerunners of iron manufacturers’ catalogues developed later in the century. Yet, even as the range of designs proliferated from the 1820s onwards, balconies attached to Georgian terraces tended to present a uniform appearance in keeping with neo-classical principles. Thus, when balconies developed into covered verandas, such as in many of those in the Clifton area of Bristol (2), they nevertheless maintained a uniformity of both design and construction, following without deviation the exacting line of the first-floor windows.

2. Balconies & verandas in Clifton, Bristol, c.1820

3. Bow windows and balconies in Kemp Town, Brighton, 1820s

The strict adherence to architectural convention seen in spa balconies was not followed in their seaside equivalents. Brighton’s Georgian estates – Kemp Town and Brunswick Town – were built in the 1820s after royal patronage of the town led to an extended building boom, attracting wealthy visitors and residents mainly from London. In Kemp Town, the balcony was developed into an architectural centrepiece, whether as part of a terrace of bow windows (3), projecting bays on the first floor level (4), or a continuous but disjointed series of railings, verandas and projections (5). In the eyes of late nineteenth-century observers, the bay window was one of the defining features of seaside architecture, which in Brighton, depending on your preference, either presented ‘a brilliant face’ to the sea or created a sense of ‘sad monotony’. In 1898, The British Architect questioned what it termed the ‘morality’ of seaside bay windows. It viewed the consequence of a desire for access to sunshine and sea air being an architecture of competition, extravagance, even excess, with the ‘amiable bellies’ of bay windows jostling to get the best view of the sea.

4. Projecting bay windows in Kemp Town, Brighton, 1820s

5. Balconies in Kemp Town, Brighton, 1820s

John Piper saw this ‘blossom and riot’ of the seaside balcony as a consequence of the primary focus of the Georgian seaside visitor: to look at the sea. This activity of looking out distinguished seaside balconies from their counterparts in spa resorts, which, as part of a unified architectural façade, were primarily to be looked at, a symbol of the occupants’ elevated social status to those who looked on from outside. With seaside balconies, the extent of one’s ability to look at the sea became the mark of status; what resulted was the competitive extravagance we see in the balconies of Brighton’s Kemp Town terraces. Such extravagance would later extend to seafront hotel buildings; when Brighton’s Grand Hotel was opened in 1865, The Building News felt unable to describe the building because its entire front was concealed by six tiers of ‘elaborate balcony railings which seem hung in rows like gilt gingerbread at a fair’ (6).

6. Balconies on Brighton's Grand Hotel, 1865

Orientalism-on-sea: Brighton’s birdcage bandstand

12 08 2011

1. Brighton's birdcage bandstand from the King's Road

Brighton’s ‘birdcage’ bandstand (1), one of the finest surviving Victorian bandstands, was constructed in 1884 as part of a wider scheme of improvement for the town’s western seafront. The original structure (2) included toilets and changing rooms on the ground floor, accessible from the seafront, and a bandstand or shelter above linked to the King’s Road by a bridge. The entire structure was designed by Brighton Council’s surveyor, Philip Lockwood, who was also responsible for many other iron structures on the town’s seafront, including several shelters and the Madeira terrace and lift on the eastern esplanade. All of these structures, including the bandstand, were manufactured by the Phoenix Foundry in nearby Lewes, and their name can be seen on almost all of Brighton’s ironwork, from the Palace Pier to the railings and lamps that line the seafront.

The extravagant design of the bandstand has been compared to ‘oriental’ buildings such as the Alcazar in Seville or the Alhambra in Granada. Like much seaside architecture of the late-Victorian period, its ‘cake-icing’ decoration (3) reflected its seaside context, where visitors escaped the drudgery of everyday life into a more exotic, exciting and enchanted world. The overtly ‘oriental’ style of the decoration of this bandstand evoked distant lands where pleasure reigned, albeit now presented to the many rather than the few. This direct association with pleasure has given this kind of ironwork a frivolous identity, dismissed by architectural historians as a subject unworthy of serious study.

2. The complete structure showing the toilets below and bandstand above

3. View from inside the bandstand

4. Detail of the bandstand decoration

Yet, Victorian seaside resorts were operating in a cut-throat world of competition for a rapidly exanding but class-divided populations of holidaymakers. Resorts like Brighton developed distinct identities that were fiercely protected by local governments and residents alike. The design of seemingly trivial structures like bandstands came under the sway of powerful notions of place-making, class identity, and visual decorum. Thus, the inclusion of dolphins in the spandrels of the bandstand (4) is no mere decorative whimsy; on the contrary, dolphins were part of Brighton’s civic arms and a long-standing emblem of the town. In this and many other iron structures in Brighton, dolphins reinforce the visual identity of the town that distinguished the town from its many competitors on the south coast. In addition, in relation to the bandstand, nearby wealthy residents in Bedford Square initially voiced objections to the new structure, which they felt would spoil the view of the sea and possibly encourage the congregation of disreputable crowds of lower-class holidaymakers. No doubt the inclusion of toilets in the structure fuelled these anxieties. Lockwood’s design reflects the delicate sensibilities of these socially-superior onlookers – the toilets are invisible from Bedford Square and only accessible from the seafront esplanade below, while the elaborate decoration of the bandstand contributes aesthetic appeal to the sea view rather than detracting from it.

5. Underground lavatories, design no. 61 in the catalogue of the Sun Foundry, Glasgow, c.1890

This sensitivity to social context in the design of the Brighton bandstand is reflected more widely in designs for public toilets in the Victorian period. In an extraordinary series of examples illustrated in an 1890 catalogue of the Sun Foundry in Glasgow, the range of designs for public toilets (over 60) are explicitly related to their intended social contexts. In one example illustrated above (5), the functional part of the lavatory is completely concealed underground and is topped by an ornamental fountain and railings which also act as a ventilator for the toilets. The elaborate disguise of the toilet part of this structure is similar in conception to the Brighton bandstand/toilets; as the accompanying text makes clear, like its Brighton counterpart, this particular example is designed ‘for situations where the erection of ordinary Closets or Urinals might be regarded as detrimental to the amenity of the neighbourhood’.

Another Place

14 07 2011

Another Place, Brighton-le-sands, Merseyside

Another Place is a seaside sculpture by the British artist Anthony Gormley. It consists of 100 cast-iron replicas of the artist’s body arranged over a 2-mile stretch of beach near Crosby north of Liverpool. Originally made in 1997 for exhibition on a beach in Germany, the sculpture travelled from there to Norway, Belgium and finally Britain where, after much local debate, it was decided to keep the sculpture permanently.

1: 'Sound II', Winchester Cathedral crypt, 1986

2: Figure on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall, London, 'Blind Light' exhibition, 2007

Cast iron is a material Gormley uses on a regular basis – and casts of his body appear in such diverse locations as the crypt in Winchester Cathedral (1) and on the tops of various buildings in London, as part of his 2007 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (2). In making multiple replicas of his own body, Gormley invites questions about the production of art, the mechanisation of the human body, and how the reproduction of art affects our consciousness of it. In addition, in his use of cast iron, Gormley harks back to an earlier era of industrialisation and the location of works like Another Place and The Angel of the North in former centres of industry reinforce these connections.

In Another Place these connections are further strengthened by cast iron’s relationship with the British seaside. In many of Britain’s seaside resorts, cast iron was formative in the transformation of sites defined by wild nature into artificial environments, in that it provided the raw material for both structures (piers, pavilions and shelters) and ornamental utilities (lamps, railings, toilets and kiosks). Today, much of this Victorian ironwork remains but now, in its state of rusting decay, a melancholic reminder of the slow decline of British seaside resorts from their heyday in the early twentieth century.

3: Another Place, figure on the shoreline

4: Another Place, rusting head

5: Another Place, view towards Liverpool docks

Gormley’s sculptures fill a relatively undeveloped stretch of coastline north of Liverpool, away from the Victorian resorts of Southport or New Brighton. All the figures face the same way – out to sea – and they are arranged in lines stretching from the high- to low-water tide lines. What is striking about the figures is their varying degrees of naturalisation. In only a few years, some of the figures are almost completely covered in barnacles or seaweed (3); others are rusted with golden patterns (4); some seem almost as new; others have even been given clothes to cover up their nakedness (5). Where Victorian cast iron in nearby Southport is being repainted to keep rust at bay, here the iron is deliberately exposed to the violent natural forces of wind, sea, sand and salt. The result is a sense of positive value given to both artifice and nature and the relationship between the two, which here assumes a highly individual character despite the original figures being exact replicas. Here, Gormley perhaps offers, in these cast iron figures, a metaphor of ourselves being both similar to each other but also made unique by our individual trajectories in life.

The aesthetics of decay: rust

5 07 2011

Railings, South Parade Pier, Southsea, c.1879

One result of the post-modern turn in architecture has been a fashion for ‘distressed’ materials – weathered wood, stripped beams, broken bricks – that supposedly invest a new building with some sense of historical authenticity. Decayed materials speak of processes over time, their patina the result of a unique history. However, one sign of material decay – rust – has largely remained outside the pale of this recent appreciation of decay in building materials. In almost all cases, rust devalues the object and as a result we fight a constant battle to protect our possessions and buildings from it – painting and repainting, sanding, filing, and soaking – to ward off oxidation.

Capital, Madeira Drive, Brighton, 1888-95

Yet, there have always been those attracted to rust. In 1890, the architect William Lethaby expressed his delight in iron’s appeal to the imagination. A material that spoke of strength, simplicity and severity, Lethaby argued that rust allowed nature to return to this artificial building material, giving it a ‘magnificent patina which was a true colour of iron’ and which contributed to its ‘mysterious appeal’. Today, a whole gamut of photography groups on Flickr testify to this strange fascination with decaying metal: ‘Wonders of Oxidation’, ‘Rusty and Crusty’, ‘The Rust Bucket’, to name only a few.

Railing, Victoria Pier, Colwyn Bay, 1900

According to Dylan Trigg, the contemplation of material decay, like rust, offers an escape from the illusion of progress that dominates our everyday perceptions. Taking the time to look at decaying objects means stepping back from onward rush to a slower time, that of gradual accumulations and imperceptible losses. In decaying materials, we are reminded that, at the root of things, entropy governs the material world – the unstoppable movement from order to disorder, form to formlessness. Of course, realising this produces melancholy, but a rich sadness that knows the fragility of life and perhaps even liberation from the need to impose order and clarity on it.

Columns and brackets of the derelict pier pavilion, Llandudno, 1883-84

Seating on Blackpool's North Pier, 1863

Perhaps nowhere is this sense of melancholy more powerful than in Britain’s seaside resorts, where rusting Victorian cast ironwork epitomises their long decline from opulent places of escape attracting millions of pleasure-seekers to the often-derelict and lonely places they are today. Here, rust speaks directly of both material and social processes of decay, and with it a mixture of pleasure and sadness. There’s no denying the rich lovely colours of cast iron created from decades of exposure to wild untamed nature, but the exotic ornamental forms, disfigured by years of neglect, also speak of long-distant dreams and desires that have either been cast aside or long-since transferred elsewhere.

Supporting column, Lytham St Anne's Pier, 1885

Great Victorian ways

25 02 2011

1: Joseph Paxton, perspective view of the Great Victorian Way, 1855

In July 1855, a Select Committee on Metropolitan Communications published its report on how best to improve London’s chronic traffic congestion. One of the proposals came from Joseph Paxton, celebrated designer of the Crystal Palace in 1851. Paxton’s plan comprised a vast iron and glass arcade, which would form an uninterrupted covered space of 10 miles around central London: the ‘Great Victorian Way’ (1). Unsurprisingly, given its projected cost of £11 million, the Committee decided not to adopt this scheme, despite Paxton’s high reputation, and would later choose a far less ambitious underground railway, which was built from 1859-63.

2: Wayfarer's arcade, Southport, 1896

Despite the failure of utopian projects like Paxton’s, the idea of a micro-city under glass and iron persisted in the second half of the 19th century. Although never realised on the kind of scale envisaged by Paxton, there were attempts to create sealed environments offering protection from both the elements and the chaos of the street, most notably in the countless shopping arcades that were built in Victorian towns and cities. One of these – the Wayfarer’s Arcade in Southport – was designed to integrate into an already existing network of covered walkways. Built in 1896 by the Scottish iron manufacturer Walter Macfarlane, this arcade extends the concept of the canopy beyond the street, creating a new enclosed space between two buildings fronting Lord Street (2).

3: Lord Street, Southport

In fact, Lord Street itself is unique in its scale in the Victorian period. For over half a mile, covered canopies project from the shops creating an almost continuous shelter for shoppers in the unpredictable seaside weather of north-west England (3). These canopies were not built by a central municipal authority (as would have been the case if Paxton’s proposal had been built), but by individual property owners responding to demand. One at a time, and presumably in competition with one another, each property owner acquired a canopy for their premises, employing a host of mainly Glasgow-based iron manufacturers to produce ornamental cast-iron columns and railings. So the castings of Walter Macfarlane sit next to those of J & A Law (4); those of McDowell, Steven & Co sit next to George Smith (5). Different-sized columns sit side by side in what amounts to an exhibition of the ironfounders technique. The result is a sense of unity in diversity, with each company vying with its competitors to produce the most elaborate designs to attract customers and heighten the esteem of the property owners. It is almost as if the resulting covered arcade is an accident, achieved piecemeal over the years by the principles of free competition.

4: Lord Street canopies, Southport

5: Lord Street canopies, Southport

If Southport’s Lord Street represents the part-realisation of utopian dreams in relation to iron and glass, other seaside resorts had similar ambitions. As early as 1874, Walter Macfarlane proposed building a mile-long iron colonnade under the cliffs in Brighton. This was never built, but its concept was revived 25 years later in the construction of Madeira Drive (6), a vast covered walkway that formed part of the wholesale re-sculpting of the cliffs to the east of the Palace Pier, which included terraced walkways and an elevator at the eastern end. All of this was the product of cast iron being produced and employed on an industrial scale for decorative purposes. The resulting colonnade was likened to a enormous grotto, hewn from the cliff and emblazoned with mythic subjects: Neptune, acanthus leaves, and water nymphs. This was iron remaking nature into a modern, progressive space but simultaneously adopting the image of an ancient and mythic past.

6: Madeira Drive, Brighton, 1888-95


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