Walking on water: the path to Hilbre Island

17 01 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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Cottonopolis

3 02 2013
Paul Dobraszczyk, Cottonopolis, 2013, charcoal on watercolour and chalk and ink, 50x70cm

1. Paul Dobraszczyk, Cottonopolis, 2013, charcoal on watercolour and chalk and ink, 50x70cm

In this painting (1), I wanted to represent my recently-adopted home city: Manchester. Like all cities Manchester is, at least in part, defined by its textures: its surfaces and colours. And, for this city, that surface is brick and that colour is red. Yes, brick is used all over the country, being, perhaps, the most common building material, but here in Manchester it is somehow uniquely synonymous with the city as a whole: sodden and almost infernal on the frequent rainy days; warm, rich and earthy when the sun graces the sky. And if you look closely, Manchester’s seemingly monotonous brick is really a rich spectrum of red hues and subtle shapes: from the uneven hand-made bricks of its earliest warehouses (2) to the variegated patterns of its later flamboyant Victorian buildings (3).

2. The Merchant's Warehouse, Castlefield, 1820s

2. The Merchant’s Warehouse, Castlefield, 1820s

3. Warehouse on Princess Street, c.1870s.

3. Warehouse on Princess Street, c.1870s.

Fashioned from this omnipresent brick are Manchester’s buildings, particularly its industrial buildings from the days when the city was also known as ‘Cottonopolis’. World-centre of cotton textile production and marketing in the Victorian period, Manchester’s innumerable mills, warehouses and factories were once the defining visual motifs of industrialisation. For early-Victorian visitors to Manchester, like the German architect Karl Frederich Schinkel, the city’s mills that were concentrated in Ancoats presented ‘a dreadful and dismal impression’ of ‘monstrous shapeless buildings’ that Schinkel visualised in a kind of hurried fever in his 1826 sketchbook (4). Schinkel gave us the perennial Manchester motif (passed all the way down to Lowry): the massive utilitarian rhomboid dotted with innumerable but highly regularised windows; and the chimneys of course – a ‘forest’ of impossibly high ‘needles’, according to Schinkel, belching smoke incessantly into the skies over the city.

4. Schinkel's sketch of mills in Ancoats, 1826.

4. Schinkel’s sketch of mills in Ancoats, 1826.

Today, most of these industrial buildings and their chimneys are gone; or, if they remain, the smokestacks no longer smoke and the buildings are either half-ruined, empty or gentrified – ‘post-industrial’ in the literal sense of the word, frozen in an in-between state, no longer industrial but not yet something else. Yet, even this seemingly bygone industry is never ‘post’ – as we all know it’s simply been relocated elsewhere, out of sight, out of mind, halfway across the globe. Once, Manchester’s mills seemed to be literally taking over the world in a vast unregulated conglomeration, a kind of architecture that was dictated entirely by newly-industrialised capitalist production, one that threatened to reproduce itself in unending exact replicas across the face of the earth.

5. Old Mill, Ancoats, 1798-1801.

5. Old Mill, Ancoats, 1798-1801.

Yet, even in the blankness of Manchester’s surviving mills (5), I find a sense of honesty about industrial production that seems to have been covered over with what’s replaced it (the glass sheen of global finance). It’s as if the regular, repetitive windows on the surviving mills in Ancoats speak very precisely and transparently about the nature of capitalism itself; each window casts a light on the machine and its workers; each are identical cogs in a wheel; each are bound by the same brutal scientific rationale.








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