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





Threshold space: the Rhinogs, Snowdonia

11 09 2013
Rhinog Fawr (left) and Rhinog Fach (right) from Cwm Nantcol

Rhinog Fawr (left) and Rhinog Fach (right) from Cwm Nantcol

Stone, heather, stone, stone, heather, stone, heather – walking the Rhinog mountains in south-western Snowdonia is all about what’s under your feet, the gaze almost always directed downward at the tiny paths that snake through the unending swathes of rocks concealed by heather. Not a place to admire the grand sweeping vistas of Snowdonia’s mountain ridges, but a landscape to be locked into, immersed, slowed-down and made to work. Perhaps that’s why so few people walk in the Rhinogs; perhaps that’s why I’ve been drawn back to these mountains three times this summer.

Sunset over the Rhinogs ridge, from Clip (left) to Rhinog Fawr (right)

Sunset over the Rhinogs ridge, from Clip (left) to Rhinog Fawr (right)

Rhinog comes from the Welsh word ‘rhiniog’ meaning ‘threshold’ and the Rhinogs are just that: a 13-mile chain of low mountains, uncrossed by any road, that rise steeply just a few miles inland from the sandy shores that stretch between the Dwyryd and Mawddach estuaries; and falling just as steeply on the eastward side into the more gentle lands that fan out across Snowdonia toward Bala. The Rhinogs – especially the rocky middle section of the chain – have been likened – favourably – to the Scottish Highlands. Such a comparison confers a certain character on these mountains: ruggedness, toughness of approach, isolation. Indeed, the rough nature of the Rhinogs reminds me of the Knoydart peninsula in the North-west Highlands: as if the character of those ‘Rough Bounds’ much further north had been miraculously transplanted to a more accessible part of the country, if in miniaturised form.

Llyn Hywel and Rhinog Fach from the slopes of Y Llethr

Llyn Hywel and Rhinog Fach from the slopes of Y Llethr

Rhinog Fawr from the descent from Llyn Hywel

Rhinog Fawr from the descent from Llyn Hywel

Three long summer walks in the Rhinogs with almost identical weather: humid gloom clearing to magnificent blue; the landscape’s mood switching in tune with this, from brooding to serene. The two jewels of the range – Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach – sit beside one another astride a wild pass – the Bwlch-Drws-Ardudwy – flanked on one side by Rhinog’s Fawr’s great shelves of rock, stepping down in long terraces from the unseen summit; and, on the other, by Rhinog’s Fach’s almost vertical face of rock and heather. These are only small mountains – barely topping 700 metres – but aggrandised by their aggressive ruggedness. Only from the south – particularly from the flanks of Y Llethr – does Rhinog Fach display its grandeur more tenderly: that is, as a finger of rock guarding one of Wales’s loveliest lakes, Llyn Hywel. And, seen from this side, Rhinog Fawr looks every bit like an ancient fossil emerging from the earth, its dark folds of rock seeming to emanate the fragility of an age-old living being.

Boulders left by glaciers on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

Boulders left by glaciers on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

Wall on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

Wall on the ridge from Clip to Rhinog Fawr

From the north, Rhinog Fawr is also rocky, but appearing more like an inaccessible tower than petrified animal. I came to the summit the long way, across the wild 3-mile long ridge that links Clip and the northern Rhinog peaks with Rhinog Fawr. A lonely place indeed; virtually pathless and made up of alternating bands of shattered rock, vast grooved slabs with scattered boulders left by prehistoric glaciers, and small piles of stones that provide much needed human landmarks. Yet, on every part of the ridge  - whether on grass, boulders, or sheer rock faces – is a wall, marking another kind of threshold. This wall is a testament to the dogged determination of the human desire to enclose, protect and mark the land: on this side of the wall, that’s mine; on the other side, yours. With arrogant defiance, the wall negotiates scree, sheer rock faces, lakes, and peaks in turn, both an invaluable aid to navigation and a sign of the landscape’s domestication. Yet, even as this wall asserts its own kind of threshold, the landscape suggests another: an unbounded in-between zone; a place of freedom; a wild space.





Common spaces: downland churches

29 08 2013
Interior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Interior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

The South Downs is England’s newest National Park, created in 2011 and encompassing an 87-mile long ridge of low chalk hills, running from Winchester to the sea at Eastbourne. Yet, the majority of its land is still privately owned, often by large estates, and many of its paths are out of bounds for the walker, guarded by fences or ubiquitous signs proclaiming ‘private: keep out’ or ‘no right of way’. A far cry indeed from the unbounded freedom of the Peak District, where the ‘open country’ signs open up a different kind of meaning of the word ‘National’. For the Peak District, this was a hard-won and long-in-coming freedom, but one that is nevertheless a testament to the efficacy of popular (and disruptive) protest.

The road to Up Marden

The road to Up Marden

Yet, dismissive as it may be to the right to roam, the South Downs National Park contains its own unique common spaces, namely the ancient, and often tiny, churches that are hidden in the soft, undulating chalk and flint-scapes of these hills. The cluster of churches around the hamlets known as the Mardens on the Hampshire/West Sussex border are particularly striking examples. Always open to visitors (and nesting birds), the little churches at North Marden, East Marden and Up Marden are entwined as a thread of common spaces in this otherwise private landscape. They are also some of the most beautiful of England’s small churches – moving witnesses to early Christianity and its stubborn longevity.

Exterior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Exterior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

All the churches are small and undistinguished early medieval buildings: low, squat spaces rendered in the abundant local flint and covered in simple, terracotta-tiled roofs. No towers or spires proclaim the church’s dominance over the landscape and its people; no bells call the reluctant to worship; no transepts, aisles or elaborate tracery in the windows; just single, undivided spaces, bare walls and uneven floors of brick or weathered stone. Perhaps most evocative of all is St Michael’s church at Up Marden. Sitting as it does a hundred yards away from a tiny single-track road behind a barn and shrouded in trees, the 12th-century church seems to emerge out of the landscape in humility, the flint-strewn field adjacent to it mirroring the rough patterns of the flint in the church’s walls.

Nave, St Michael's church. Up Marden

Nave, St Michael’s church. Up Marden

Like other visitors to this church – like the architectural historians Simon Jenkins and Ian Nairn – I have never met another soul in or near this church. Yet its door is always unlocked and fresh flowers always adorn the tombstones and the altar. Clearly, someone cares deeply for this church, but in a way that remains mysterious: a presence in absence. Inside, the church is a space of extraordinary peace and simplicity: a single arch, crudely buttressed, marks a divide between the darker space of the nave and the light-flooded chancel, with its undecipherable fragments of medieval wall paintings emerging from the white-washed walls. Simple blue-painted candle holders give the interior an almost Byzantine feel, while the altar is as simple as possible – a rough-hewn cross sitting on an equally rustic table.

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael’s church, Up Marden

What is the undeniable presence in this church, one that led the staunch atheist Nairn to visit it repeatedly when depressed and nearing his premature death in 1983? Nairn declared that the church moved him beyond religion: it had an atmosphere developed by ‘slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century’. There is no didactic object that can explain this atmosphere – no carving, no buttress, pinnacle or stained glass. Instead, every human action, over hundreds of years, has made this church what it is today. Not the grand gesture of the esteemed patron, or the flourish of the craftsmen’s hand, but small and gentle actions; humble, yet determined; unseen yet powerfully evident. As it was for Nairn, for me this church is not a work of architecture but of humanity.

Candle holder, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Candle holder, St Michael’s church, Up Marden





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!





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





Wild spaces: Great Moss

10 10 2011

Scafell (left) and Scafell Pike (right) from Great Moss

In England, wild camping is an activity that is generally discouraged and is usually dependent on getting landowners’ permission. However, in isolated spots, such as Great Moss in the Lake District, it seems almost laughable than anyone owns the land and, in places like these, you can pitch a tent and not encounter anyone else for days. Great Moss is a vast, flat area of marshy ground near the headwaters of the River Esk, surrounded on all sides by England’s highest and grandest mountains with their evocative names: Scafell and Scafell Pike, Esk Pike, Bowfell and Crinkle Crags. From Great Moss – a five-mile walk up the Eskdale valley from the hamlet of Boot – these mountains present their wildest aspect: craggy, precipitous, treeless, and remote from either roads or buildings.

Scafell Pike, evening on the first day

Scafell Pike, dawn on the second day

I camped alone at Great Moss for two nights in unseasonably warm weather at the end of September this year, with a few isolated sheep and the occasional croaking of ravens for company. Here, mobile phone signals cease to operate and one is forced to focus on the basic essentials of living: preparing water and food, washing, and sleeping. Carrying everything on one’s back means leaving behind most of what we now regard as basic entertainments – a computer, television, even books. In my trip, the sense of aloneness was heightened by the short days, with darkness descending more quickly here – the sun disappearing behind the crags at 5pm and not reappearing again until 8am.

So, why would anyone want to expose oneself to this level of solitude? The nature writer Robert Macfarlane, in his book The Wild Places, argues that being alone in the wild has the potential to give us perspective on ourselves, our concerns and our place in the world. Yet, Macfarlane is also blasé about his own sense of vulnerability during his wild camping experiences, even as they are often characterised by intense cold, danger, and fatigue. For me, the experience was initially more frightening than liberating – for most of the first night I battled with anxiety and a sense of dread. Yet, once I’d relaxed the following day, the slowness of the passing of time became something that could be embraced as wondrous, the rituals of everyday life taking on a kind of mystical significance – bathing in the rushing stream, cooking in the twilight, waking to see the sky full of stars.

Scafell Pike, early morning on the second day

Scafell Pike, evening on the second day

Scafell Pike, the second night

By relaxing into the rhythms of silence, the world – narrowed to the views of the mountains from my tent – took on a kind of renewed simplicity. With my camera – my only luxury – the experience became framed as a series of almost-identical views of Scafell Pike, to which I had faced my tent on the first evening: in the last rays of sunlight, at dawn, in early morning sunlight, in late afternoon fading light, and in the pitch black of the final night. It’s almost as if the world had temporarily revealed to me its most basic origins, the mountain being the always-has-been presence in a world of ceaseless flux: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day. And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day”.





The Ancoats Peeps

3 10 2011

1. Peep 9, 'Clocking Off'

In 2002, the artist Dan Dubowitz was commissioned to contribute to the regeneration of Ancoats – an old and dilapidated industrial quarter of inner-city Manchester. Over the next eight years, he made a series of ‘Peeps’ – twelve brass peepholes in the walls of buildings viewed from the streets which revealed installations constructed in steel boxes embedded in the cavities behind. In addition, Dubowitz also helped create the area’s first public square – the Cutting Room – opened in 2010.

2. Peep 3, 'Mary's Room'

As documented in the 2011 book The Presence of Absence, the Ancoats Peeps offer ‘a fleeting glimpse of a walled-in space; a tunnel, a disused toilet, a spinning governor, a bell tower, a gauge.’ The worlds seen through the Peeps are intimately connected with Ancoats’ industrial past. It was once the first industrial suburb of the centre of the world’s cotton industry – that is, early Victorian Manchester – and the Peeps are saturated with nostalgic images of heavy industry: strange machines (2), dials, dirt and the toil of incessant work governed by the clock (1). Yet, despite being grounded in the history of the area, they are enigmatic images, strongly suggestive of former lives but ultimately mysterious in their meanings.

3. The Beach Club in Ancoats

4. The patina of decay on a wall in Ancoats

As an integral part in the planned regeneration of Ancoats, the Peeps are also much more than isolated visual reminders of the area’s industrial past; rather, they’re very much part of a projected image of a future for this now run-down and virtually silent part of the city. Walking around Ancoats on a grey Sunday afternoon with my wife and daughter, searching for the Peeps was bound up with experiencing the city in a new way. Ancoats is not an area of Manchester one would visit for any reason: it’s a forbidding place, almost devoid of people, its buildings seemingly in an interminable state of decay apart from a few pockets of gentrification. In the courtyard of one former warehouse, now converted into apartments, a makeshift nightclub is walled-in by images of the sea, its floor covered in sand (3); the wholesale decay of other buildings offering strange patterns that are sometimes mirrored in the forms of the peeps themselves (4); while a single tile on a wall is stencilled with the word ‘DEFECT’ (5). Are these also artists’ interventions, bits of history, or simply the result of natural processes of decay?

5. Defective tile or artist's intervention?

In one sense, the creation of the Peeps and the activity of looking for them makes you see urban space in a different way, one that makes everyday things suddenly seem like art (and vice versa). This re-enchantment of urban space has a long history, often bound up with densely theoretical texts and practices, but the way it happens here is disarmingly simple and bound up with an experience that is open to all (6).

6. Peeping in Ancoats








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