Red river shore: exploring the Medlock culvert

7 03 2014

IMG_6708

In common with many other urban watercourses across the world, Manchester’s smaller rivers are today all but buried beneath the city centre. As Manchester rapidly expanded and industrialised in the nineteenth century, its once salubrious watercourses – the Irk, Tib and Medlock – became notorious as appalling foul-smelling and polluted streams (or, rather, open sewers). Unsurprisingly, by the turn of the twentieth century, the courses of these rivers were largely canalised or hidden beneath brick and stone culverts. So, today, the Irk disappears beneath Victoria Station in a giant 1km culvert before joining the Irwell, the Tib has long since become a sewer, while the Medlock snakes almost shamefaced through the city centre in a series of culverts before emptying into the Irwell at Castlefield. Even in suburban areas, the Medlock was long ago forced underground, most notably in a 600m culvert under what is now the car park of the Manchester City football stadium straddling Miles Platting and Clayton.

1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

1. 1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

When Joseph Adshead made his extraordinarily detailed maps of Manchester in 1851, the Medlock was depicted meandering across open fields in Miles Platting; while the Ordnance Survey map of 1893 showed the river still open but straightened in its course (1). Culverting of this section of the Medlock began in 1905 and was complete by 1909. At the same time, a whole section of the river upstream in Philips Park was canalised with millions of red Accrington bricks, forming a walled bank, the fast-flowing water carried in an artificial channel. Today, Manchester’s ‘red’ river is being restored to its ‘natural’ state, the bricks being slowly removed in an attempt to rehabilitate the watercourse in Philips Park.

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

3. Inside the Medlock Culvert

3. Inside the Medlock culvert

It remains to be seen whether the tunnelled section of the river Medlock will remain in place – for it is here that one gets the strongest sense of a shackled watercourse, banished underground. Despite being relatively easy to access (a hop over a fence and a short wade through the water), the culvert is nevertheless a forbidding place: walking into pitch darkness goes against all natural instincts and the sound of running water is magnified by the cavernous brick tunnel (2 & 3). The Medlock’s waters may be technically ‘clean’, but, over the years and together with many smaller overflows that line the tunnel, they have created a fantastic array of shapes and colours on the brickwork, a petrified miasma that is at once beautiful and repellent (4).

4. View inside a side drain in the Medlock culvert

4. View inside a small side drain emptying into the Medlock culvert

5. Inspection chamber, the Medlock culvert

5. Looking up the inspection chamber flanking the Medlock culvert

There are other wonders here too: an inspection chamber that rises 30 ft to the surface in a series of concrete platforms that resemble the startling modernist geometries of Brutalism (5); and, further down, a resolutely Victorian series of steps down which tumble water from the Ashton Canal, which lies above the culvert (6). More unsettling are the remains of tombstones within the Medlock’s waters: flushed downstream in a calamitous flood of 1872 when the river burst its banks and inundated the cemetery next to Philips Park, carrying off dozens of corpses and headstones.

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal to the Medlock culvert

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal into the Medlock culvert

The strange coming together of the ultra modern, Victorian gothic and the downright morbid in the Medlock culvert characterises many urban underground spaces and is no doubt why they are so appealing to urban explorers. Indeed, the rich interweaving of contradictory elements witnessed in the Medlock culvert is exactly what is missing from the rhetoric that surrounds the current project to restore the river to its ‘natural’ state, which seems to speak of the river in a way that divorces it from the (industrial) history of the city. Perhaps the real imaginative force of the Medlock (and all urban rivers) lies at the point where it meets human attempts to control its power – producing in structures like the Medlock culvert a fecund melding of human and non-human forces.





Rest in distinction: the allure of catacombs

2 05 2013
Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

Catacombs, West Norwood Cemetery, London

In an earlier post, I explored the origins of London’s catacombs and one group in particular: those at Kensal Green Cemetery. In November last year, as a favour for a talk I gave at West Norwood, I was guided around the catacombs in this South London Cemetery. Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: those at West Norwood being installed in 1840.

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

1. Recesses in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

2. Plaque denoting the owner of a recess in the West Norwood catacombs

The word ‘catacomb’ literally means ‘among the tombs’ and the latter clearly expresses why these spaces are so different from conventional burial sites. In a catacomb the dead are directly accessible: at West Norwood, coffins line the recesses along the brick tunnels (1), many now in an advanced state of decay. In former times, relatives of the deceased would visit these spaces and commune with their loved ones with a sense of intimacy not possible with a conventional grave. Catacombs are spaces where one can literally be among the dead, temporarily sealed off from the life above ground in a private and exclusive space. Yet, as with all cemeteries, there is also a community of the dead here; unless one is important enough to have an isolated mausoleum, places of rest are invariably shared. Certainly, catacombs are no place to be alone; when my guide took me into a tiny, pitch-dark recess filled with the tiny coffins of children, I felt a powerful sense of horror at being almost consumed by the dead, shuddering at the thought of such overwhelming losses.

3. Former grave-digger's spade, West Norwood catacombs

3. Former grave-digger’s spade, West Norwood catacombs

4. Catacombs under St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

4. Catacombs under St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

Despite their communality, the catacombs at West Norwood, just like their counterparts in other London cemeteries, nevertheless express the desire for continued social distinction after death. Purchasing a catacomb was a sign of high social (and financial) standing, the signs of which are most clearly expressed in the plaques that mark the individual spaces (2), a forlorn grave-digger’s spade the only reminder of the social ‘other’ that always haunts such a desire for exclusivity (3). In even more exclusive catacombs, like those beneath St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (4), this desire for social distinction generated both horror and absurdity. Once the burial site of nobles, in the eighteenth century these spaces became the general catacomb for all of Vienna’s residents. During the time of the Habsburg Empire, the catacombs were once again transformed into an exclusive space – a pristine stone-arched vault – while the rest of the bones were moved to an ignominious pit. Today, in these catacombs, the pickled organs of the former Habsburg rulers are preserved in copper urns, their mummified bodies preserved in two other sites in Vienna. It is as if this level of social distinction has literally torn apart the bodies, one burial site being inadequate to preserve the idea of an eternal kingdom.

5. Chambers in the St Paul's Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

5. Chambers in the St Paul’s Catacombs near Mdina, Malta

7. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul's Catacombs, Malta

6. Christian wall painting, c.3rd century, St Paul’s Catacombs, Malta

Yet, in their early incarnations, catacombs were once spaces of inclusivity. The island of Malta is riddled with ancient underground spaces, including the St. Paul’s catacombs, outside the former Greek city of Melite (now Mdina). In a series of deep rectangular shafts flanked by chambers (5), one can still see the evidence of Christian, Pagan and Jewish burials. Originating in pre-Roman Phoenician culture, these spaces were taken over by the successive religious groups that lived side-by-side in Malta over the centuries. In these catacombs, Jewish mourners might perform ritualised acts of memorialisation next to Pagan rites of sacrifice, while a faded Christian wall painting displays the same act embodied in another form (6). Walking and crouching in these spaces, their womb-like enclosures and soft, warmly-lit walls (7) seem to speak of the possibility of social unity rather than heightened division, where together we can face the inevitable erasure of distinction that will come to us all.

7. St Paul's Catacombs

7. St Paul’s Catacombs





108 arches to Ardwick: the view from below

22 02 2013
Arches under the viaduct near Piccadilly station.

Arches under the viaduct near Piccadilly station.

Trundling into Manchester Piccadilly on the train from Stockport is my normal way into the city: a mundane ride along the top of one of Manchester’s many Victorian viaducts. From this view from above, the city is distanced: readable, if strangely dislocated; not quite providing the sense of exaltation of seeing the city from the top of a high building, but nevertheless reassuring you that this city – of run-down factories, container storage areas, mean housing and distant hills – is understandable because seen from a secure, elevated viewpoint. Down below is another matter. Walking this route – tracing that same railway line from below – is exhilarating for different reasons – it feels transgressive, a bit dangerous perhaps, certainly mucky and murky: this is the 108 arches to Ardwick.

1. Arches fronting Temperance Street.

1. Arches fronting Temperance Street.

Ardwick – the area immediately south-east of Piccadilly station – was, until the mid-19th century, a pleasant Manchester suburb, with 18th-century houses and villas clustered around Ardwick Green (some of which, along with the Green, still survive). As the city spread its industry and cheap housing over the area in the mid-19th century, it became much like any other inner-Manchester suburb: a dense conglomreration of brick-built factories, terraced housing and warehouses. The railway arrived in the 1840s, cutting a vast swathe through the area on an elevated viaduct northwards to its destination at Piccadilly. From Ardwick station, that viaduct expands and is joined by others, gaining in height as its sweeps in a graceful curve towards its terminus – ordered into a disciplined cavalcade of arches, each numbered like a series of identical shops or houses (1).

2. Blind Lane

2. Blind Lane

3. Pittbrook Street

3. Pittbrook Street

4. Chapelfield Road

4. Chapelfield Road

5. The second viaduct over Temperance Street.

5. The second viaduct over Temperance Street.

Here, down below, are streets that are forgotten: Blind Lane (2) leads only to a mechanic’s workshop; Pittbrook Street (3) stands empty under the first arch, perhaps better known by its former name; Chapelfield Road (4) further down the viaduct cuts a cavernous and threatening route through it. Alongside the viaduct all the way to Piccadilly is Temperance Street – an immediately Victorian name that conjures up images of discipline, order and brow-beating sermonising. But what a name for this street! Lined on both sides by the tremendous brick walls of two parallel viaducts, you certainly feel cowered into submission, tiny in the face of such overwhelming forces (5). On the walls either side, trails of water leave a rich patina of moss, saturated brick, rust and sprouting Buddleia (6), while overhead is the base of another viaduct that slices through the main one at a seemingly impossible angle, its giant metal structure emphasising its savage symmetry (7). It all reaches a visual climax in the last hundred yards before Piccadilly, as the viaduct widens and passes over a busy road, creating a tunnel of vast proportions, rent in two by the viaduct above (8) and entered at one end through an expressionist portal of concrete ribs (9).

6. Patina on Chapelfield Road.

6. Patina on the viaduct walls fronting Chapelfield Road.
7. Underneath the second viaduct spanning Temperance Street.

7. Underneath the second viaduct spanning Temperance Street.

8. The split viaduct over Ashton Road.

8. The split viaduct over Ashton Road.

9. Expressionist concrete entrance to the Ashton Road tunnel.

9. Expressionist concrete entrance to the Ashton Road tunnel.

After this, entering the civilised chaos of Piccadilly station is like walking back into another world – reassuring – yes – but also somehow mysteriously changed. What riches there are in this short walk that is all but invisible from the train above!





Dream spaces: railway stations and the beyond

1 11 2012

The curving roof of York station’s train shed

From their beginning, railway stations were often perceived as having a dream-like quality. For some – particularly early travellers - the station was like a nightmare, particularly when seen at night, when the sight of steam locomotives seemed to emblematize the destructive or apocalyptic energies the railway seemed to have unleashed. Margaret Oliphant’s novel The House on the Moor (1861) was probably the first to actually use the word ‘phantasmagoria’ in relation to the railways, which she applied in describing the shifting spectacle created by a steam locomotive rushing through a country station at night. In later years, large iron train sheds became phantasmagoric for a number of reasons: for The Builder, ‘London Bridge recalls a nightmare or troublesome dream’ because of the ‘menacing girders’ of its enormous viaduct, ‘its impossible approaches, tortuous bridges, fearsome alley-ways, and cavernous entries’; while, for Filson Young, the light-filled train shed at Liverpool Street was counterbalanced by its ‘dark catacombs’ – hidden spaces that were full of the discarded remnants of hurried travel – ‘strange shadows, gigantic and discarded toys’ – where ‘you feel you have wandered into another age’.

Tunnel under the viaduct at London Bridge station

These nightmarish transformations of railway stations were generated by a long-standing anxiety about the loss of individual consciousness in the face of the railways, which transformed previously autonomous individuals into ‘atoms, pulsing, coalescing and dispersing across the network’, or ‘living parcels’ as John Ruskin had originally put it in 1848. In addition, Walter Benjamin has argued that the prevalence of dream imagery in relation to iron structures like railway stations was not merely a metaphorical transposition, but a material one, where collective dream imagery was actually inscribed in the spaces themselves.In this sense, the perception of iron train sheds as nightmarish temples, their wrought-iron arches as the vaults of caves, or their girders as menacing objects, transformed their presumed ‘solid’ materiality into one that dissolved the boundaries between the real and the imagined, creating new ornamental configurations of material, structure and atmosphere.

Caverns near Liverpool Street station

If some found the obliteration of individual consciousness perceived in railway stations as nightmarish, others embraced it as a stimulating dreams of a different sort that hinged on the individual’s linking with, what Henry James termed, a ‘larger way of looking at life’. Here, nighttime views of railway stations produced not nightmares but an ecstatic connection to a greater whole. So, George A. Wade, in his 1900 article on ‘famous railway stations’, described the ‘brilliant illumination’ of York’s train shed at night, which he viewed from the medieval walls of the city, watching ‘the grand curve of the rails through the station, with the northern expresses dashing towards Scotland’; while Paddington’s train shed became magical for The English Illustrated Magazine when seen at night, where the ‘innumerable coloured lights’ blurred the hard outlines of the iron structure, everything dissolving ‘in motion [and] rush, swish, and darkness’.

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’ (1862)

St Pancras Station, The Builder, 1916

Finally, when The Builder published its account of London’s railway stations in 1916, it also included a lithograph showing an up-to-date view of St Pancras’s vast train shed. If the article drew attention to the softening of the ‘utilitarian … ugliness‘ of London’s termini by ‘the machinations of soot, fog, gas coal, and company’, the illustration pictured something of this softening in its rendering of the vast iron-and-glass roof, one that does indeed make it appear to be dematerialised by the clouds of steam rising from the engines below. Updating William Powell Frith’s mid-Victorian panorama of Paddington station (1862), this lithograph simultaneously magnifies the train shed, which here fills almost the entire image, and softens its utilitarian aesthetic so that it appears to dissolve into the sky beyond the vast pointed arch. And unlike Frith’s carefully differentiated crowd, the travellers in this image are truly a ‘mass’ – that is, the crowd that had become synonymous of urban modernity, and rendered here as an almost solid undifferentiated block of black ink. In short, this image creates a new aesthetic out of St Pancras’s utilitarian iron, in effect a dematerialized ‘mass’ ornament that emerges out of the dissolution of conventional perceptions of iron’s material solidity.





Cryptic space

17 08 2012

Entrance to the crypt under Canterbury cathedral

‘The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls …walls that have the entire earth behind them’

-Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Underneath the apse of Canterbury cathedral (and in common with most large Christian churches) is the crypt, the oldest part of the building, constructed in the 11th century. In an almost exact reversal of the gem-like Gothic space above ground, the crypt is dark and severe. In one corner, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, constructed at the beginning of the 12th century, is an extraordinary testament to the power of cryptic space. Here, the column capitals are carved into a variety of grotesque forms, some devil-like, others more like mutated animals, as if the unconscious mind has here been given free reign; while above are the remains of a fabulous wall painting of Christ in glory, surrounded by beatific saints and angels. It’s as if two contradictory modes of the imagination – the utopian and dystopian – have been allowed to come together in this space, both being freely expressed but confined to the secretive world of the crypt.

Capital, Saint Gabriel’s chapel, Canterbury cathedral crypt

Wall painting in Saint Gabriel’s chapel

The English words Crypt and cryptic come almost uncorrupted from the Latin world crypta meaning concealed or private; and it’s this sense of the word that holds the key to understanding the potential richness of cryptic space. According to Gaston Bachelard, in his famous meditation The Poetics of Space (1958), domestic underground space (the cellar or vault) is first and foremost the ‘dark entity’ of the house, one that ‘partakes of subterranean forces’. For Bachelard, the underground is the one space the can never be rationalised: because it’s always in the dark, it’s a space that becomes a repository for the unconscious, a force that ‘cannot be civilised’ no matter how much we’d like it to be. Moreover, the unconscious itself is usually imagined in cryptic spatial terms – it’s the secret, concealed part of us, the bearer of hidden meanings.

The crypt under Oxford Castle, together with a re-enactment of the founding of the university

Restaurant in the crypt of St John’s church, Smith Square, London

Cryptic spaces have always been subject to attempts to rationalise their darkness. Crypts are often described as foundational spaces. Indeed, Canterbury’s crypt is said to be the foundation on which the present cathedral was built, while that under the Oxford castle is now quite literally cast as the space in which its world-famous university was founded, with monks offering the first clandestine teaching there over 900 years ago. Visualising the crypt as a ‘foundation’ fixes its otherwise obtuse meaning and transforms it into a mythic space, but one that is nevertheless rooted in its rationalisation. In present-day equivalents, many of London’s church crypts have now been converted into restaurants – St Martin in the Fields, St Mary le Bow, St John’s in Smith Square, to name but a few. Here, the potent mystery of the crypt is reduced to simply a novel spatial experience – a new background to an everyday activity – but perhaps with the element of secrecy still drawing the illicit in the form of hushed, private conversations.

‘Sound II’ in the crypt of Winchester cathedral

Yet, despite the increasing rationalisation of cryptic spaces, they nevertheless have a stubborn hold on the imagination that resists this process. Oxford castle’s crypt is widely perceived as the most haunted space in the city, with regular ghost-hunting tours promising to reveal its occult presences that lie far beyond the rational and reasonable world above ground; while the crypt under Winchester cathedral contains another ghostly presence – not an apparition but Antony Gormley’s striking sculpture Sound II, a life-size cast of the artist’s body contemplating a bowl held in its hands. When the crypt floods, as it often does, the sculpture appears as if hovering over the deep, the figure longing for the bowl to be filled by the rising flood. It’s a simultaneously gentle and disturbing symbolic representation of the imaginative potency of the crypt that, even as it evades comprehension, nevertheless haunts the mind for a long time after it’s seen.





The intestine of Leviathan: visiting the Paris sewers

20 07 2012

Light and darkness in the Paris sewers

The contemporary historian David Pike has drawn attention to nineteenth-century ideas about underground space, in particular the ways in which these articulated the urban underground as a symbolic space – that is, as a metaphor of society as a whole. In relation to Paris, we find this expressed most directly in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables. Society, for Hugo, is compared to geological strata with ‘upper and lower galleries’; at the bottom of society are located its most seditious elements – the ‘fearsome’ workers and the revolutionaries. The direct association of sewers and filth provided a powerful metaphor for these lowest levels of society; these spaces were more or less directly associated in the public mind with the moral filth of the city – places where, according to Hugo, ‘monsters may be born’.

1. ‘The sewers of Paris’, Illustrated London News, 29 January 1870, p. 128

However, in Les Misérables, Hugo also makes a clear distinction between the old sewers, seen as fearsome places – ‘the intestine of Leviathan’ – and the new sewers built from the 1850s onwards, which he describes as ‘clean, cold, straight and correct … [where] the filth is well-behaved’. According to Hugo, the transformation of the Paris sewers divested them of their older symbolic power. In 1867, a section of the Paris sewerage system was opened up to the public; visitors – both men and women – who descended into this transformed underworld admired the cleanliness of the spaces, the lack of smell, and the brilliant lighting (1). These visits challenged public understanding of sewers as fearsome places with a new mode of conception – that propagated by the engineer, who plans and builds sewers according to rational and scientific principles.

2. Stuffed rats in the Paris sewers

3. The history of Paris’s sewers as described in the Musée des Egouts

4. Jean Valjean’s escape through the Paris sewers as pictured in the Musée des Egouts

On the surface, today’s Musée des Egouts is a rather less exciting and more sanitised space than its nineteenth-century forebear. Guided by arrowed signs, visitors inspect the sewers without actually riding in the excrement, the cleaning machines are displayed as relics of the past, while stuffed rats in a glass case suggest that the sewers have been thoroughly cleansed of organic life (2). Meanwhile, the history of Paris’s underworld is described through unappealing exhibition panels inserted into the cavernous spaces of the sewers (3), while Jean Valjean’s heroics are visualised as they might be in an amateur dramatics production of Les Misérables (4). Yet, all the while, the great tide of Parisian excrement flows beneath your feet – overpoweringly smelt, heard and seen. The enormous water and gas pipes, suspended from the ceilings of the sewers, drip in the humidity while the enclosed spaces magnify sounds and create strange echoes. It is as if the spaces themselves constantly threaten to overshadow the rationalised understanding being presented to us. Indeed, looking past what is presented suggests an illimitable world beyond, at once terrifying and enchanting – passages disappear in all directions, up and down (5); tunnels recede into pitch black (6); unimaginable torrents can be heard in the far distance; shadows loom in unexpected places (7).

5. Looking up a passageway

6. Looking down a side drain

7. Shadows and light

The Paris sewers, like those in any other modern city, might have been called to order in the nineteenth century; yet, like all sewer spaces, no matter how rationalised in conception, they stubbornly resist to be perceived in this way. In providing an opportunity to experience these spaces, no matter how ‘guided’ this experience may be, the Musée des Egouts opens up a world in which the city can be re-enchanted, experienced as truly ‘other’ and offering fertile ground for the liberation of the imagination.





Advertising the underground: London’s first Thames Tunnel

23 06 2012

1. Fair in the Thames Tunnel, 1855, as depicted by The Illustrated London News

The Thames Tunnel was the one of the first attempts to exploit underground space in a major urban centre. Running from Wapping to Rotherhithe in the East End, it was begun in 1825 by the engineer Marc Brunel but only completed, after many setbacks, in 1843. In its early days, the Tunnel was a fashionable space for promenading by both Londoners and tourists alike, and was the site of numerous popular entertainments throughout the 1850s and 1860s.

2. The Thames Tunnel after its conversion to a railway tunnel in 1865

3. One half of the Thames Tunnel today – part of the London Underground network.

The Tunnel gradually lost its sense of glamour and was eventually sold to the East London Railway in 1865 (2), and, to this day, Transport for London uses the tunnel as part of its network of trains (3).

4. Thames Tunnel watchpaper, c.1840s (Rickards Collection, University of Reading)

Tunnel souvenirs, like these commemorative watch papers (4 & 5), introduced a new iconography of underground space to London’s populace, reproduced on a wide variety of other goods such as cups, plates, snuffboxes, posters and guidebooks. Typical representations of the Tunnel were of the construction process, shown above (4). Here a split-level view depicts a scene on the river rendered in perspective, beneath which an outsized cross-sectional view of the twin shafts shows the tunnel being built by the miners, rendered in blue and red. Below (5) is a perspective view of the inside of the tunnel, its arches seemingly receding infinitely, their scale emphasised by the diminutive visitors. In the borders of both watchpapers are Tunnel statistics: above (4), explanatory text as to the location of the image; below (5), information on the cost of the project and the materials employed in its construction. These combination views of underground space – on the one hand, technological, on the other picturesque – would become commonplace as London developed its subterranean infrastructure of sewers, railways and subways from the 1860s onwards.

5. Thames Tunnel watchpaper, c.1840s (Rickards Collection, University of Reading)

Watchpapers were small printed round paper inserts placed in pocket watches to protect their inner workings from rust. They were also employed by watchmakers as product labels, that is, as a way of advertising their wares. The use of this medium for advertising the Thames Tunnel demonstrates how the popular appeal of a particular sight might displace conventional forms of advertising. Although not an organised advertising campaign as we understand it today, the marketing of the Thames Tunnel nevertheless represents an early example of ‘total’ advertising, one that organises itself around a particular spectacle in the city rather than an individual commodity.





Absurd space: the Williamson Tunnels, Liverpool

12 01 2012

1. Entrance to the Williamson Tunnels

Around 1805, the tobacco-merchant Joseph Williamson moved with his wife to Edge Hill, a relatively undeveloped suburb of Liverpool. He began to build more houses in the area, but because this part of Edge Hill lay on top of an old sandstone quarry, the ground was uneven and Williamson decided to level the ground by building brick arches over the old quarry. These tunnels would become the first part in an extraordinary development that spread into the surrounding area (1). In the following thirty years, until Williamson’s death in 1840, many miles of tunnels would be built, employing hundreds of local men left unemployed by the recession that hit Britain in the years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1816.

2. Map showing the Williamson Tunnels that are currently known

Visiting the tunnels today – only a fraction of the network created by Williamson is accessible – one is struck by the absurd quality of the whole project. Looking at a map of the tunnels so far discovered (2), one sees that some tunnels join together, while others peter out after a few metres. Further inspection of the tunnels heightens this sense of absurdity: one tunnel, barely wide enough to squeeze through, cuts through a wall and then abruptly stops; another passes vertically through the ground, its opening visible on the roof of another tunnel (3); finally, one of the large brick tunnels was built on top of another for apparently no reason.

3. Brick opening on the roof of the tunnel open to visitors

Many have speculated on the reasons for Williamson’s tunnelling obsession: that he belonged to a religious sect and designed the tunnels as a safe haven from an imminent apocalypse; that he sought solace in the underground after his wife died in 1822; or that he was a showman courting publicity by being deliberately evasive about his motives. However, one thing is clear: Williamson provided much-needed employment for men in his local community, even if that employment seemingly had no direction. He continued to take more men on, some of which apparently performed pointless duties, like moving piles of rocks from one place to another and then moving them back again, or building tunnels and then immediately sealing them up. Viewed in this way, the project seems like an elaborate joke at the expense of capitalist notions of work – far odder than a simple act of philanthropy. All the bricks lining the tunnels were made by hand rather than by machines (4), suggesting a work-ethic more akin to WIlliam Morris than other contemporaneous subterranean projects like the Thames Tunnel, begun in 1825. In Williamson’s tunnels, work becomes an end in itself, disconnected from cycles of production and consumption, just like the utopian vision of work in Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890).

4. Handmade bricks lining the tunnel arches

Today, the presence of the tunnels creates an atmosphere of mystery in the surrounding area, now a run-down inner-city suburb of Liverpool. Walking the streets near the tunnels’ visitor centre, one cannot help but notice things in the landscape that would not normally solicit attention: high fences, dead-ends, abandoned buildings, bricked-up windows and doors (5). For, with the half-known understanding of Williamson’s tunnels, everyday sights take on a mysterious and alluring quality; for everything might now be a portal to another world, one that transforms the everyday into the marvellous.

5. A portal to another world?





The Dark Arches of Leeds

3 12 2011

1. One of the tunnels carrying the River Aire in Leeds' Dark Arches

Today, the entrance to Leeds’ central railway station is a rather banal building dating from the late 1960s. This replaced another station, dating from 1864 to 1866, which, in turn, was a ‘new’ station superseding a jumble of earlier buildings dating from the 1840s.  The enormous scale of the railway station today is best appreciated from below, in its aptly-named ‘Dark Arches’ – a line of immense red-brick groined vaults covering an access tunnel built beneath the station in the mid-1860s and still forming most of its substructure today (2). When it was built, this subterranean world was one of the largest man-made underground spaces in Britain, created by the engineers T. E Harrison and Robert Hodgson and using over 18 million bricks. The space is dominated by the River Aire – Leeds’ principal waterway – which crosses the west end of the Dark Arches in four immense tunnels spanned by a cast-iron bridge (1 & 3). Here, the tunnels carry the fast-moving river underneath the station where it then joins the Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Granary Wharf. Turbulent and unruly, its sounds and smells animate the atmospheric gloom of the tunnels.

2. The Dark Arches from Neville Street to Granary Wharf

3. Walkway in one of the tunnels carrying the River Aire

Lining the last tunnel is a narrow walkway, a tantalising aid for would-be explorers but sealed off by a gate and coils of threatening barbed wire (3). Other brick openings suggest more secret worlds hidden in the darkness beyond, their unknown extent emphasised by gigantic brick arches glimpsed among the shadows and receding into pitch black (4). While gleaming, transparent glass office blocks rise up from Leeds’s nineteenth-century heart, the Dark Arches remind us of the city’s foundation – namely, its murky, industrial past. Indeed, in one of the arches are reproductions of Victorian photographs of the area, stained black with soot and smoke and redolent with a sense of stygian gloom.

4. Receding brick arches in the shadows

5. A place of safety for some...

The Dark Arches used to contain a run-down shopping centre, designed to cleanse this space of its dark associations in the early 1990s, but one that failed to entice enough people to shop, eat and enjoy themselves underground. As with many leftover Victorian subterranean spaces, the symbolic power and industrial origins of the Dark Arches remain stubbornly resistant to gentrification. Today, some of the arches facing Granary Wharf have been converted into restaurants, while the majority are now filled with parked cars – a common, acceptable use of underground space that is probably due to us feeling that our cars (if not ourselves) are safer in these sealed-off worlds (5). In between the cars, a few people use the arches as a convenient thoroughfare; others, for more nefarious activities. As early as 1892, Leeds’s chief of police was citing the Dark Arches as a centre of idling, prostitution and mugging; while in 2007, the British Transport Police uncovered a cannabis factory hidden in its recesses. It’s this twin sense of safety and danger that continues to haunt all underground spaces, particularly Victorian ones, and which prevents them from ever being fully controlled by the powers in the world above.





Industrial ruins: abandoned slate quarries in North Wales

1 11 2011

1. Workers' houses at the Rhosydd Quarry, North Wales

Scattered throughout North Wales, and particularly concentrated in the Ffestiniog area, are a large number of abandoned slate mines and quarries. Perhaps the most evocative – and certainly one of the most isolated – is the Rhosydd Slate Quarry. Situated 1500ft above sea level between two mountain valleys, the location of the Quarry is spectacular, facing Cnicht on one side (known as the Welsh Matterhorn) and the bulky Moelwyns on the other. It’s accessible only by a mountain path, being over 2 miles from the nearest road and 4 miles from Croesor, the nearest village, itself remotely situated at the end of a minor road.

2. Fireplaces in the workers' houses

The remote site of the Rhosydd Quarry adds greatly to its potent sense of mystery. For it’s almost unbelievable to think that for 80 years from 1840, over 200 men were employed by the quarry, many of them living in purpose-built houses in this bleak location – treeless and one of the wettest spots in Wales. The workers’ cottages still stand in splendid but ruined isolation, their house-like quality just remaining in the surviving forms of the windows and chimney (1). For miles around are scattered enigmatic structures, including bits of rusting machinery and a succession of mills, barracks and adits constructed at different stages of the quarry’s development – testament to the lengths that were gone to to reach the then valuable slate, which lay in beds underneath the mountains.

3. Window in the workers' houses

4. Underground tunnel leading to the slate mine

Nearly all of the smaller Welsh slate quarries closed down in the early twentieth century due to falling demand and today only a few working quarries remain around the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The buildings of the Rhosydd Quarry express the complete dominance of just one building material: for everything that was built here was built with slate – from the window and fireplace lintels (2 & 3) (sometimes the only surviving bits of entire houses), to fences and walls that enclose and protect the buildings. Close to the houses are entrances to underground tunnels which gave access to the buried slate, hewn by hand and now made strangely beautiful by the return of nature – moss and water bringing colour to the otherwise grey walls of the tunnel (4). In the remains of the quarry buildings, architecture has been eroded into its most elemental forms: walls have bulged outwards, chimneys have collapsed in on themselves, isolated hearths are now surrounding by ruins. If these ruins are bleak and melancholic, they are also beautiful in their geometrical simplicity: in one of the buildings, the one remaining door lintel perfectly frames an enormous almost perfect cone of discarded slate above it (5).

5. Lintel and slate cone

The buildings of the Rhosyyd Quarry represent the ruins of an artificial industry naturalised by the passing of time and the brutal forces of nature – ruins that seem to be engaged in a powerful yet mysterious dialogue with their environment. In another remote abandoned slate quarry – the Prince of Wales Quarry – on the flanks of Nantlle mountains, most of the buildings have almost disappeared into the ground. Those that remain seem to testify to their submission to the larger forces that created the landscape from which they arose: the ruined roofline of one decaying building mirroring the form of the serrated mountain ridge behind (6).

6. Ruined building at the Prince of Wales Quarry








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,553 other followers

%d bloggers like this: