Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830

 

                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.





Peak Hollows

5 03 2012

Paul Dobraszczyk, 'Peak Hollows', 2012, coloured paper and sequins.

Hollow between two gritstone boulders on Kinder Scout.

Man-made hollows carved into the gritstone on Stanage Edge. These hollows, each of which is numbered, were created as drinking troughs for the moorland grouse.

Circular hollow near Monk's Dale in the White Peak. These man-made hollows were created as drinking troughs for sheep.

Natural water-filled hollow formed in the gritstone on Kinder Scout.

Abandoned hollow above Monsal Dale in the White Peak.

Natural circular hollow in the gritstone on Derwent Edge





Hidden spaces: the Derbyshire Dales

25 01 2012

Cave Dale, near Castleton, Derbyshire

There’s probably no more dramatic contrast in the English landscape than that between the Dark and White Peak of the Peak District National Park; and all because of two different kinds of rock – Gritstone and Limestone. Divided by the Edale and Hope valleys, to the north is the Dark Peak – an area of high moorland, its hard Gritstone foundation chipped away by the elements into undulating wild plateaus of heather and peat and rocky ‘edges'; to the south, the White Peak – its bed of soft Limestone sunk into gently folded hills, farmland and hidden valleys, known as Dales. In contrast to the wild, windswept and barren moorland of the Dark Peak, these Dales are places of fecundity – steep-sided valleys carved by rivers and streams into self-enclosed worlds, protected from wind and cold.

Hay Dale, looking towards Rushup Edge, the boundary between the White and Dark Peak
Moss covering trees and a stone wall in Cressbrook Dale

On a map, the Dales are identified by the serpentine windings of watercourses, enclosed by narrow countour lines. In reality, they are almost hermetically-sealed environments, usually hemmed in by thick broadleaf woodland and a treacherous floor of uneven and slippery limestone, collected over time from the crumbling cliffs that fringe the upper slopes. With alluring pastoral names – Monks Dale, Millers Dale, Dove Dale, Hay Dale, Chee Dale – these valleys are places cut off from the elements, where moss covers wood and stone alike, where exotic birdlife flourishes, and where ancient trees gradually sink into decay.

Limestone cliff in Chee Dale
Monks Dale in Spring

It is perhaps unsurprising that these secret spaces were one of the most important sites for the birth of England’s industrial revolution. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Dales saw the building of the first large-scale water-powered textile mills, such as Cromford (1771) and Cressbrook mills (1787). These provided the template for the hundreds of mills that would later define the urban centres of the industrial revolution: Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield. In these early days, production on this industrial scale needed fast-flowing water to power the steam-engines that drove the mechanised looms. It seems appropriate that the industrial revolution should have begun in these hidden worlds: the mills and factories almost shamefacedly emerging out of an otherwise agrarian world; their new kinds of workers housed in rustic cottages in the surrounding hills.

Cressbrook Mill, Cressbrook Dale, 1787





Ruins as memorials

5 06 2011

B-29 engine at Higher Shelf Stones, Peak District

England’s Peak District is a beautiful area of wild moorland and wooded valleys; but it’s also a graveyard for over 50 aircraft – mainly Second World War planes that crashed in poor visibility on the western edges of the Peak’s bare moorland. These tragic remains now attract ‘baggers’ in the same way that the Scottish mountains do and there are many websites and even books listing the wrecks and their precise positions in the often featureless landscape.

1. Wreckage of Meteor aircraft, crashed 1951 on Siddens Moss, Peak District

2, Memorial in wreckage on Siddens Moss

I came across my first wreck by accident, while trying to find my way over a desolate stretch of moorland in the area around the Black Hill in the far north of the Peak District. First, I came across single pieces of metal (1), shredded and twisted, and then, following their trail, I found recognisable parts of aircrafts – bits of wing, engine and fuselage – heaped together in a shallow gully. Finding this wreckage suddenly invested the landscape with a enigmatic sense of tragedy – an unknown story that obviously involved violent death. More striking was the discovery of a small memorial – a cross and a poppy – embedded in part of the wreckage (2). After returning home I found out the story of the wreckage: two Meteor aircraft had collided in mid-air in 1951 and crashed on the moorland, killing both pilots.

3. B-29 wreckage on Higher Shelf Stones

4. Wooden crosses in wreckage at Higher Shelf Stones

Many of the Peak District’s aircraft wrecks are also memorials. A much larger wreck at Higher Shelf Stones near Glossop is very close to a popular walker’s path and it consists of the ruins of a B-29 aircraft, which crashed in 1948 killing all 13 people on board (3). Amongst the wreckage – including almost intact engines, wings and wheels – are countless memorials, made up of a mixture of crosses, using stones gathered from the moor (4), bits of wood or even parts of the wreckage itself, and poppies arranged around the engine parts in scarlet wreaths (5).

5. Poppy wreath on an engine at Higher Shelf Stones

The iconography of these memorials is the same as those used for war memorials and many of the aircraft were used during wartime or carried veterans when they crashed. Yet, the effect of this iconography amongst these wrecks is very different from its more common counterpart – that is, cenotaphs and poppy-wreaths that form the focus for acts of civic remembrance. Here, unchanging ceremonies present the past as if it were static, undisturbed by the erasing nature of time and the duplicity of memory. In these Peak wrecks the memorials become part of the ruin: wooden crosses are scattered by the wind (6), poppies devoured by rain, stones sunk into the bog. As such, even as they bring to mind past lives obliterated by a violent event they also participate in the inevitable process of ruin itself.

6. Cross and wreckage on Mill Hill, Peak District

7. Mangled radiator at Higher Shelf Stones

We might even argue that the wreckage itself is a more powerful memorial than the later additions. Left where it fell in the landscape, it is overtaken by nature: the metal surfaces become strangely contorted by rust and weathering (7), moss and grass grow through the pierced surfaces, and sheep make use of hard surfaces as convenient places to relieve an itch (8). In its ruined state, this wreckage speaks both of a past event – one that is tragic and violently immediate – and of its subsequent return to a much slower time, where it accumulates the stories of the landscape itself.

8. Sheep's wool on an axle, Mill Hill





Wild spaces: Kinder Scout

22 03 2011

1: On Kinder Scout looking towards Edale

Kinder Scout is a high windswept upland gritstone plateau, most of which stands at around 600 metres above sea level. This is the largest and grandest of the upland areas of the so-called ‘Dark Peak’ in England’s Peak District National Park. Like its southern cousin, Dartmoor, Kinder Scout is studded with stone tors and crags, which flank all of its steep edges that guard the almost featureless plateau, which covers an area of four square miles.

2: Rocks on Kinder Scout

3: Rocks and aircraft trails

4: Balancing rock with Edale behind

It is the rocks that give Kinder its distinct personality. Sculpted by wind and rain and extremes of temperature, the gritstone tors act as landmarks on the plateau – strange presences that rise up out of the peat and heather. Here (1), a mushroom-shaped rock looks out over the steep sides falling into Edale; there (2), two isolated rocks are seemingly drawn towards a mysterious point in the sky; here (3), aircraft trails radiate from a hole in a rock on one of Kinder’s innumerable crags; there (4) a balancing rock frames the sweeping Edale valley behind. Without these presences, the landscape would be immeasurable, hostile and alien, as is the case on nearby Bleaklow. With them, the wild landscape assumes a reassuring character, although its meaning remains inscrutable if undeniably present. No wonder, then, that Kinder Scout was the site of a mass trespass in 1932, when thousands of walkers breached the fenced moorland to claim their right to roam, given formal recognition in 2003.

5: Kinder's plateau frozen in January

6: Frozen stream on Kinder Scout

Kinder’s landscape is transformed in the winter months, when its surfaces freeze hard and one can roam over the wave-like undulations of its plateau without sinking into a quagmire (5). Here the landscape becomes almost extraterrestrial, the deep reds of the peat and endless, blank horizons confirming on it the character of an alien planet. When its streams freeze into petrified white ribbons fringed with icicles (6), the landscape assumes a silence that is not characterised by absence; rather, it opens up a space of contemplation and wonder, stopped in its tracks and frozen in time. On clear days, this space of silence is only accentuated by the view of Manchester’s city-centre towers 20-miles away, gleaming behind statuesque rocks and the strange gurgling call of the grouse.








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