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; hereĀ (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.

Icons of the ordinary

21 10 2010

Paul Dobraszczyk, 'Hayracks', pen and pencil on watercolour, chalk and ink, 2009

In Slovenia, the hayrack (kozolec) is a national icon. Slovenian emigrants are said to weep at the sight of them on postcards sent from their home country. These modest forms of vernacular architecture are scattered throughout Alpine central Europe and are wooden constructions that allow the mountain winds to dry harvested wheat and hay. They originated in the seventeenth century and are still used today, but are now more likely to be made of concrete rather than wood. In Slovenia, hayracks take many forms, from single standalone structures to toplargi, which are double hayracks joined together and roofed with a storage area on top.

Toplargi in Studor, Slovenia

How do such mundane structures become iconic in the national imagination? It has been argued that Slovenian hayracks are built according to the golden section – supposedly the ideal proportions in architecture – making them pleasing to the eye. Yet, in Slovenia, they only took on heightened significance after the nineteenth-century impressionist painter Ivan Grohar made them the subject of many of his paintings. It seems that for the mundane to become iconic, it needs to be invested with elevated ideas already present in other places.

This is what gives certain works of art their power. It is said that Henri Matisse looked at an object which he intended to paint for weeks, even months, until its spirit began to move him, to urge him, even to threaten him, to give it an expression. This intense discipline of study is a kind of meditation, a form of identification that enables the artist to feel the shared life that animates both him/her and the object. It is as if the object is making its own picture. And, as you travel in the Alpine meadows of Slovenia, it does indeed seem as if the hayracks have a life of their own, scattered over the hills like an extended family: here, a lone pioneer; there, gatherings of many; yet all joined together in a shared life.

Toplargi in Studor, Slovenia


25 09 2009
Stone spiral, Millook Haven, Cornwall

Stone spiral, Millook Haven, Cornwall, 2009

Unlike circles, in which we perceive stillness and completeness, spirals suggest dynamic movement springing out from a centre in ever-larger arcs. Spirals only end when a barrier interrupts their progress towards infinity: the hard casing of a shell, the top of a thermal, the edge of a sheet of paper. Making spirals is about encountering these barriers – stones too heavy to carry, the encroaching sea, or the edge of a beach. Spirals provoke reflection on limitations, in nature and in ourselves; we long for unimpeded movement but are all around confronted by enclosures of one kind or another. Perhaps it is why we often dream of flight, sailing up in spirals on a thermal as the falcon does so effortlessly.

Pilsey Island spiral, West Sussex, 2008

Pilsey Island spiral, West Sussex, 2008

Y Maes spirals, north Wales

Y Maes spirals, north Wales, 2009


25 09 2009
Five sisters, Scotland, 2006

Five sisters, Scotland, 2006

Towers are perhaps the most elemental of architectural forms – one of the first ‘building’ activities of young children, who take as much pleasure in destroying towers as in building them. Towers might be the products of infantile ambition, doomed to be knocked down by the vengeful; yet, they might also simply reflect on what is already there – a castellated mountain ridge, the undulations of waves in the sea, or a valley enclosed by high cliffs.

Millook Haven towers, Cornwall, 2009

Millook Haven towers, Cornwall, 2009

Rocky Valley towers, Cornwall, 2008

Rocky Valley towers, Cornwall, 2008


24 09 2009

Stone circles, Crackington Haven, Cornwall

Stone circles, Crackington Haven, Cornwall

When we see a circle, we immediately perceive a sense of completeness – not because of its mathematical properties, but because that completeness is already inherent in the shape itself before any analysis is brought to it. The circle is also a container for a number of powerful metaphors: enclosure, the womb, heaven, sky, safety, security, unity, infinity, return. More concretely, certain places suggest circles or roundness, particularly mountains and beaches. In these places, the making of a circle with found materials provides an opportunity to ‘contain’ the overwhelming scale of the natural world, to enclose its endless horizons, to trace unseen centres; in the words of Gaston Bachelard, in his celebrated book The Poetics of Space, ‘images of full roundness help us to collect ourselves … and to confirm our being inside’.

Stone and driftwood circles, An Teallach, Scotland

Stone and driftwood circles, An Teallach, Scotland

Driftwood circle, Hole beach, Cornwall

Driftwood circle, Hole beach, Cornwall


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