Red river shore: exploring the Medlock culvert

7 03 2014

IMG_6708

In common with many other urban watercourses across the world, Manchester’s smaller rivers are today all but buried beneath the city centre. As Manchester rapidly expanded and industrialised in the nineteenth century, its once salubrious watercourses – the Irk, Tib and Medlock – became notorious as appalling foul-smelling and polluted streams (or, rather, open sewers). Unsurprisingly, by the turn of the twentieth century, the courses of these rivers were largely canalised or hidden beneath brick and stone culverts. So, today, the Irk disappears beneath Victoria Station in a giant 1km culvert before joining the Irwell, the Tib has long since become a sewer, while the Medlock snakes almost shamefaced through the city centre in a series of culverts before emptying into the Irwell at Castlefield. Even in suburban areas, the Medlock was long ago forced underground, most notably in a 600m culvert under what is now the car park of the Manchester City football stadium straddling Miles Platting and Clayton.

1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

1. 1893 Ordnance Survey map of Manchester showing the River Medlock in Clayton

When Joseph Adshead made his extraordinarily detailed maps of Manchester in 1851, the Medlock was depicted meandering across open fields in Miles Platting; while the Ordnance Survey map of 1893 showed the river still open but straightened in its course (1). Culverting of this section of the Medlock began in 1905 and was complete by 1909. At the same time, a whole section of the river upstream in Philips Park was canalised with millions of red Accrington bricks, forming a walled bank, the fast-flowing water carried in an artificial channel. Today, Manchester’s ‘red’ river is being restored to its ‘natural’ state, the bricks being slowly removed in an attempt to rehabilitate the watercourse in Philips Park.

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

2. Entrance to the Medlock culvert, Philips Park

3. Inside the Medlock Culvert

3. Inside the Medlock culvert

It remains to be seen whether the tunnelled section of the river Medlock will remain in place – for it is here that one gets the strongest sense of a shackled watercourse, banished underground. Despite being relatively easy to access (a hop over a fence and a short wade through the water), the culvert is nevertheless a forbidding place: walking into pitch darkness goes against all natural instincts and the sound of running water is magnified by the cavernous brick tunnel (2 & 3). The Medlock’s waters may be technically ‘clean’, but, over the years and together with many smaller overflows that line the tunnel, they have created a fantastic array of shapes and colours on the brickwork, a petrified miasma that is at once beautiful and repellent (4).

4. View inside a side drain in the Medlock culvert

4. View inside a small side drain emptying into the Medlock culvert

5. Inspection chamber, the Medlock culvert

5. Looking up the inspection chamber flanking the Medlock culvert

There are other wonders here too: an inspection chamber that rises 30 ft to the surface in a series of concrete platforms that resemble the startling modernist geometries of Brutalism (5); and, further down, a resolutely Victorian series of steps down which tumble water from the Ashton Canal, which lies above the culvert (6). More unsettling are the remains of tombstones within the Medlock’s waters: flushed downstream in a calamitous flood of 1872 when the river burst its banks and inundated the cemetery next to Philips Park, carrying off dozens of corpses and headstones.

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal to the Medlock culvert

6. Steps providing a run-off from the Ashton Canal into the Medlock culvert

The strange coming together of the ultra modern, Victorian gothic and the downright morbid in the Medlock culvert characterises many urban underground spaces and is no doubt why they are so appealing to urban explorers. Indeed, the rich interweaving of contradictory elements witnessed in the Medlock culvert is exactly what is missing from the rhetoric that surrounds the current project to restore the river to its ‘natural’ state, which seems to speak of the river in a way that divorces it from the (industrial) history of the city. Perhaps the real imaginative force of the Medlock (and all urban rivers) lies at the point where it meets human attempts to control its power – producing in structures like the Medlock culvert a fecund melding of human and non-human forces.





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





Temples of convenience: cast-iron fountains and urinals

10 03 2011

1: Water fountain, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

From the mid-1850s onwards, temperance societies in Britain actively promoted the building of water fountains in public places as a potent aid in their mission against drink. In the second half of the nineteenth century many hundreds of fountains were installed in villages, towns and cities across the country. Some were constructed in stone or marble, but many more were provided for (at a lower cost) by the large iron foundries that dominated the industrial landscape of Glasgow, particularly George Smith & Co, and Walter Macfarlane. These companies produced their own designs which embraced the religious and moral language of the temperance societies. In almost identical examples found in Preston, Wallingford, and Bristol (1), Macfarlane’s design for a water fountain exploits the decorative potential of cast iron with a host of elevating aquatic motifs including: a heron standing upon leaves in the bowl of the fountain and repeated in the dome above (2); salamanders crawling on the pillars beneath the bowl (3); and Biblical and moral inscriptions above (4). Winged lions – symbols of civic pride – surmount the corners of the canopy, which in a larger example in Darwen (5), become part of a tour-de-force of naturalistic display, featuring arabesques of leaves and flowers infilled with birds supporting a dome of intertwined garlanded wreaths.

2: Heron, water fountain, Shirehampton, Bristol, 1886

3: Salamander, water fountain, Wallingford, Oxon, 1885

4: Fountain canopy, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

5: Fountain canopy, Whitehall Park, Darwen, 1906

These associations of natural abundance, water, civic pride and religion were interweaving aspects of Britain’s sanitary revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century. Casting fountains in iron provided a ready means of asserting these values in visual form throughout the country at a cost far lower than the commission of individual designs for each location. They also promoted the work of specialist ornamental founders like Macfarlane and the reputation of cast iron as a material suitable for decorative treatment. Such designs could be selected from a series of examples illustrated in Macfarlane’s increasingly lavish catalogues, issued from 1855 onwards.

6: Canopy inside the men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

7: Men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

Ornamental cast iron was also responsible for another piece of sanitary street furniture in the Victorian period: the urinal. Often located in urban parks in close proximity to water fountains, Victorian urinals (in both male and female versions) still survive in Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and London. Standing beneath the dome of the urinals in Mina Park, Bristol (6), one could be forgiven for imagining oneself to be in a strange wonderland, despite the overpowering stench and rusting surfaces. Manufactured by Macfarlane’s Glasgow rivals, George Smith & Co., these urinals adopt similar motifs to those of fountains, although with an emphasis on naturalistic flora rather than fauna (7). In one sense, this naturalism is suitable to the park environment in which the urinal is located; in another, it refers to the perceived elevating nature of sanitary improvement embodied in public urinals. To perform one’s necessity in this space is no mere vulgar bodily activity; it is, rather, an ennobled act, as much part of the natural as the ornament proclaims. As such it contrasts sharply with the more familiar toilet spaces in public places, characterised by their uniform white tiles and functionalist design, where the acceptability of the excreting body depends only upon its assimilation into a neutral environment devoid of symbolic meaning.





Spirals

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





Towers

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





Circles

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





Ladhar Bheinn

9 09 2009
Ladhar Bheinn, 2004, oil on canvas

Ladhar Bheinn, 2004, oil on canvas

The Knoydart area in Scotland exerts a fascination for walkers. Undisturbed by roads and virtually uninhabited, this rocky peninsula is only reached by boat (from Mallaig) or by foot. Walking in, after reaching the end of the longest single-track dead-end road in Britain, one enters a lush world of Caledonian pines, high bracken and fjord-like valleys. Rounding the headland before reaching the hut at Barrisdale, Ladhar Bheinn (Larven) comes into view – a great castellated semicircle rising high above Loch Hourn. Its remoteness lends a magical quality to this first view and in the subsequent days of walking and resting, I revisited it many times.

This scene indelibly prints itself on the memory, at once a place of openness and freedom and also a place enclosed, a circle of walls, a secret place. The hidden centre of the mountain offers a stable, still point around which turbulent forces coalesce: the unceasing movement of the sea, the rapid shifts in weather. Colours delineate the relationship between stillness and movement, between hidden centres and unseen continuities expanding out beyond the field of vision.

Ladhar Bheinn circle

Ladhar Bheinn circle








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