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





Walking the girdle (part 2)

18 12 2012
1. Second part of the nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in turquoise)

Second part of the nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in blue)

1. Strangeways Prison from the east side

1. Strangeways prison from the east side

2. Broken picture found at the base of Strangeways prison wall

2. Broken picture found at the base of Strangeways prison wall

Part 2 of my circular walk around inner Manchester and Salford begins at Strangeways prison. With its 234-ft high ventilation tower, Strangeways is an extraordinary inner-city landmark in Manchester, but one that is nevertheless barely visible from the city centre. Of course, the presence of a prison – and a notorious high-security prison at that – in any city is troublesome, signifying as it does aspects of our society that we’d rather remained hidden. Walking up close to Strangeways (1) - an enormous complex made up of Alfred Waterhouse’s original 1868 building and new additions built after the 1990 riots – one is immediately reminded, in the most graphic of terms, what a prison is for: its blank 30-ft high brick walls an overwhelming visual symbol (and spatial enforcing) of incarceration. Circling these monstrous walls I found a broken picture frame containing an iconic photograph of New York’s Grand Central Station (2), one that probably adorns the walls of thousands of rooms across the world. In this photograph, sunlight streams through the high windows of the station onto a crowd of passengers below – a visual symbol of the dreams of liberation that once attracted so many to America’s iconic metropolis. Was this photograph some remnant of protest to the prison, resting as it did at the base of its immense walls? Or perhaps it was flung out of a high window above, a sign of abandoned hope in the prison that still has the highest suicide rate of any in Britain? Or maybe just a discarded object come to rest in a random place?

3. The ruined Springfield mill just inside Salford

3. The ruined Springfield mill just inside Salford

With these unsettling questions I headed away from Strangeways and across the invisible border that separates the cities of Manchester and Salford. Whilst both cities were built on the same industry – textile production – that was fated to oblivion, there’s a stronger sense of melancholy in Manchester’s lesser-known twin. Almost immediately there are ruins, such as the Springfield Mill, built in 1845 (3); ruins that are materially very different from those in Manchester. Where the mills of Ancoats seem to be awaiting some form of restitution, those in Salford seem beyond repair – cracked and crumbling and surrounded by a mixture of weeds and waste. And, walking through Salford towards Broughton and the river Irwell, the road is flanked by piles of rubbish, as if the geography of ruin has extended from individual buildings to whole districts.

4. An abandoned mill and Strangeways Prison behind, from the Broughton bridge over the river Irwell

4. Abandoned mill and Strangeways prison behind, from the Broughton bridge on the river Irwell

On this bright, crystal-clear day, finding the river Irwell seemed like a revelation – like discovering the hidden heart of both cities – where the seemingly ever-present brick of Salford’s closed-in streets suddenly opens out to reveal new vistas – the towers of abandoned mills rising in aesthetic unity with those of Strangeways beyond (4). Yet, the path along the banks of the Irwell is empty, the monotonous low-rise housing of modern Salford hidden behind newly-planted rows of trees.

5. Former docks at the junction of the river Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal

5. Former docks at the junction of the river Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal

Heading across the zone between Manchester and Salford, there’s an even greater sense of opening out, but here created by the vast waste-grounds that used to contain some of the terminal docks that turned Manchester into Britain’s third largest port when the ship canal to Liverpool was opened in 1894 (5).Now, these former docks are, in contrast to those at Salford Quays, filled with large expanses of rank grass and the signs of fly-tipping, their organic messiness contrasting sharply with the cluster of shiny buildings that ornament Manchester’s skyline beyond.

6. Railway viaducts marking the border between Salford and Manchester

6. Railway viaducts marking the border between Salford and Manchester

7. A portal to another world?

7. A portal to another world?

Further east, I cross that invisible line back into Manchester, but here between two giant railway viaducts that divide the two cities – a genuinely unsettling and claustrophobic place made up of very dark caverns under the arches (6), some of which bear the visual marks of bottom-end habitation (filthy mattresses, empty bottles) and graffiti that suggests that others might be the entrances to an infernal place below (7).

8. New housing in Hulme

8. New housing in Hulme

The final stretch of the girdle heads across Hulme, its once dystopian housing-block ‘crescents’ of the 1960s now replaced by community-designed housing that marries individuality – an eccentric curve here and there – with the rather-more repetitive requirements of mass housing (8). A short step across Higher Cambridge Street completes the circle – the stark, almost brutalist brick of the university buildings softened to an almost lovely orange colour by the last rays of the winter sun (9).

9. The University of Manchester's Cornbrook building in Booth Street West

9. The University of Manchester’s Cornbrook House in Booth Street West








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