We’re still enjoying days of crisp, February blue skies, so when I had to get something from B&Q on Speke Retail Park, I decided to take our dog and walk a stretch of the Mersey estuary shore I hadn’t explored before. Two minutes drive from the bustle of the shops and the roar of traffic along Speke Road there’s a hidden pocket of wildness and Edgeland strangeness.
Speke-Garston Coastal Reserve is a haven of tranquillity carved out of the old Speke Airport site. It consists of a stretch of the estuary shore from Garston Docks to Speke Hall. The hi-tech office and warehouse blocks of the Estuary Business Park are never out of sight, but from the footpaths and cycle trails that wend their way through meadows and banks of tall reeds alongside the river there are fine views over the Mersey and the silence is broken only by the calls of sea birds and waders – and the occasional plane making its approach to John Lennon Airport.
This may be the edgelands, described by Marion Shoard (who coined the term) as a terrain of ‘rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland’. Raggedy, it may be, but it is peaceful, and the mix of saltmarsh, tidal mudflats, grassland, reedbeds, farmland and wildflower meadows attracts birds of great number and variety. No wonder the area is popular with bird watchers.
I could hear them (the birds, that is) – but, apart from the familiar cry of Oystercatchers, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. However, the RSPB and bird bloggers report that along this shore can routinely be seen plenty of the common wader species: Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Bar-Tailed Godwit, Knot, Redshank, and Snipe together with Teal, Mallard, Shelduck, Grey Heron, and Cormorant.
I walked out from the car park at the roundabout on Blackburne Street where sandstone marker stones with plaques that announce the Coastal Reserve suggest ambitious plans a few years back when the Business Park first opened. If there were plans, it looks like they were abandoned soon after: the car park is deeply pot-holed and the the sandstone boulders covered in graffiti.
I walked southwest, towards Speke Hall. If you are walking the shoreline path (now designated the Mersey Way) in the other direction, this as far as you can go: Garston Docks and the private residential Grassendale and Cressington Esplanades prevent public access to the riverside. The docks I can understand, but as a freeborn Englishman I can’t understand the idea that a private estate should have the right to deny people access to a great river.
The boundary of the Garston docks is marked here by an old sandstone jetty and tin-roofed warehouse. The tide was out and the mud flats glistened in the brilliant sunshine. Inland, across the strip of rough grassland, the new low-level office blocks and company headquarters of the Business Park gleamed white and silver.
The path was fringed with tall reeds in winter colours of gold and brown. Across the river, the stacks of Stanlow oil refinery gleamed through the haze. There were few around apart from one or two people walking dogs and a couple of guys with a van beachcombing: hauling huge driftwood timbers up from the mud flats. But there were birds – lots of them, a constant background chorus of cries and calls.
It’s this haunting, slightly disorientating juxtaposition of the natural and the ordered, the sublime and the unlovely that marks out the edgelands. Here were mysterious concrete structures and piles of rubble – left-overs from the old airport site presumably – amidst the reeds and wild flower seed heads. Look one way, and the land had a half-abandoned feel; look the other way and there were the pristine new buildings of the Business Park.
This is the kind of landscape which Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness by Liverpool-born poet Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts celebrates. The two poets begin their book with this explanation of the attraction that these landscapes can hold:
For a long while – an entire childhood, in fact – we wondered where the countryside actually was, or even if it really existed. Growing up on the edge of two cities – Liverpool and Manchester – in the early Seventies, it was easy enough to walk for a short while and soon find yourself lost in back lanes or waste ground; to follow the wooded perimeters of a golf course; an old path leading through scratchy shrubland, or the course of a drainage ditch. It was easy enough to find yourself on the edges of arable land; to follow the track bed of a dismantled railway or descend into an abandoned quarry. But none of this ever really felt like the countryside.
Anyone who has spent a childhood mooching around the fringes of four English towns and cities, where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders, might have come up with the word “edgelands”. If you know those places where overspill housing estates break into scrubland; wasteland. If you know this underdeveloped, unwatched territory, you know that they have “edge”. We might have come up with it ourselves, but geographer Marion Shoard got there first. Her writing on England’s edgelands; her call to arms, for poets and novelists to celebrate them and above all her naming of this ground, was the starting point for our study of these areas. [...]
I think that one important aspect of the edgelands that Farley and Roberts identify is relevant here on the Garston shore: the mutability of edgeland territory. They write that the edgelands feel anything but timeless:
Revisit an edgelands site you haven’t seen for six months, and likely as not there will be a Victorian factory knocked down, a business park newly built, a section of waste ground cleared and landscaped, a pre-war warehouse abandoned and open to the elements. Such are the constantly shifting sands of edgelands…
‘As difficult to pin down as poetry’ they write: decay and stasis, but also dynamic and deeply mysterious. ‘Edgelands are always on the move': true here, where I’m walking on the landscaped rubble of the old 1930s airport (a few streets away, the elegant 1930s terminal building is now the Crowne Plaza Hotel), while behind me the clean lines of Estuary Park’s new office blocks coruscate in the low winter sun.
Some of the Park boulevards I drove along to get here are so new they don’t show up on Google Maps. The approach is landscaped in the way of business parks that aim to attract prestigious, high-tech companies: manicured lawns and reed-fringed lakes.
But, cheek-by-jowl with carefully-managed landscaping is a rough and ready wildness, a sense of entropy and decay, and slip-sliding disorder:
Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism, there are still places where an overlooked England truly exists; places where the city’s dirty secrets are laid bare and successive human utilities scar the earth or stand cheek by jowl with one another; complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.
As Farley and Symmons Roberts note, it was Marion Shoard who coined the term, in an essay ‘Edgelands‘ published in Remaking the Landscape in 2002:
Britain’s towns and cities do not usually sit cheek by jowl with its countryside, as we often casually assume. Between urban and rural stands a kind of landscape quite different from either. Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion against a background of unkempt wasteland frequently swathed in riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic. This peculiar landscape is only the latest version of an interfacial rim that has always separated settlements from the countryside to a greater or lesser extent. In our own age, however,this zone has expanded vastly in area, complexity and singularity. Huge numbers of people now spend much of their time living, working or moving within or through it. Yet for most of us, most of the time, this mysterious no man’s land passes unnoticed: in our imaginations, as opposed to our actual lives, it barely exists. [...]
I walked as far as the lighting gantry that juts out into the Mersey and which, at night, guides the planes into John Lennon airport. This was the end of the last walk I did along the Oglet shore last August. Before I reached the gantry I passed the Liverpool Sailing Club, housed in a remarkable (and, I thought, quite beautiful) building shaped in the form of the billowing sail of a yacht. The Club’s concrete slipway provides the only access for sailing boats to the Mersey from the north shore.
I retraced my steps, entranced by a landscape which is, I think, magical, even though it is, in Marion Shoard’s words, ‘raw and rough’. The edge-lands, she said, do not conform to people’s idea of the picturesque :
On the contrary, they seem desolate, forsaken and unconnected even to their own elements let alone to our preferred version of human life. Tidiness is absent: here no neat manicured lawns with sharply demarcated edges are found. If there is grassland, it is likely to be coarse and shaggy. … swamped by a riot of wild, invasive plants that seem to over-run everything in their path: fragments of tarmac, wrecks of cars and derelict buildings.
There is a wild beauty here, something to be treasured so near to the city.
- Seeking sea level: walking the Mersey from source to sea
- Walking the Mersey: Oglet shore
- Walking the Mersey: Dungeon to Hale Point
- Pickering’s Pasture: sunset on the Mersey
- A walk round Hale