‘A place as difficult to pin down and define as poetry, but like poetry you’d know it when you saw it. … Decay and stasis, but … also dynamic and mysterious’.
Who in their right mind would want to spend a wet and windy Saturday tramping the edgelands along the fringes of Birkenhead’s north end? Who would go, past the empty dock and the derelict grease manufacturing plant, over abandoned railway tracks, skirting the waste recycling plant circled by flocks of rapacious seagulls? Who might follow the tracks over the landscaped landfill site and down beneath the graffitied piers of the motorway flyover?
Well, we did: twenty-odd of us in search of the authentic edgelands experience. Led by Colin Dilnot, local writer and expert on many things (from soul music to Malcolm Lowry), the walk was organised by Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre as part of their current edgelands-themed season that has included an exhibition, Soft Estate, and a presentation by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, whose book, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, is largely to blame for this madness.
Colin Dinot points us in the direction of those ‘complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard’.
Having assembled at Birkenhead North station, we turned up Ilchester Road where Colin pointed out a sight that was a reminder of how the edgelands are shape-shifting places. We saw a barren landscape of wasteland and dereliction, but once this had been a thriving working class community where most people had jobs in the Birkenhead docks or the Mobil Oil plant. It was there that Charlie Wright once worked, a boilerman and shop steward. Then the plant closed, and along with the rest of the workforce, he was made redundant. Now, his is the one house that still stands in this wasteland; the rest have gone – cleared by the local council in preparation for Peel Holdings massive Wirral Waters development. Charlie refuses to move, and continues to fly his flag in the meantime.
‘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 … complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard.’
‘Pallets, like hi-vis smocks and supermarket trolleys, are invisible because of their ubiquity. They go into the world and circulate, carrying goods into the centres of our cities … Pallets are consumer capitalism’s red blood cells. They convey the products around the organism. … Pallets should be tagged, so their stories can be told.’
‘It was easy enough to follow the track bed of dismantled railway…’
The first stage of Colin’s edgelands walk took us through a landscape of abandoned pallets and containers, clearance works that had begun but then faltered, and past The Tyre Brigade, a typical edgelands business, squatting an abandoned building that backs onto all that remains of Bidston dock. Graving docks and a dock to handle iron ore were part of an ambitious plan, begun in the 1920s, to develop the tidal inlet of Wallasey Pool. The plan was only partly completed, and three large moveable cranes to unload iron ore were dismantled in the late 1990s. The branch of Bidston Dock furthest inland was closed and landfilled by 2003.
Mobil Oil: opened in the 1930s as an oil terminal and blending plant, closed in 2001 (visual tour here)
We crossed an abandoned railway track, overgrown with silver birch, where once an iron ore train ran to the steelworks at Shotton on the Welsh side of the Dee – tracks that also served the derelict Mobil Oil blending and grease manufacturing plant we passed further up the road.
‘If you are a gull, the allure of a windy cliff cannot match that of a massive, fetid landfill site’.
Nearby, a gigantic flock of seagulls soared, screaming, above the man-made hills ofthe waste recycling plant operated by the French transnational Veolia, the name we see everywhere, doing all those things – from refuse collection to recycling, waste treatment to street cleansing – that our local councils once did.
Across the road, another sign of shifting tectonic plates in global capitalism that mean lost jobs and an area’s transfiguration into edgeland – the abandoned Sasol Wax plant where smashed windows, shattered shutters and a flurry of warning signs are testament to the jobs lost here.
‘The hiatus between the end of one industrial era and potential future redevelopment.’
Sweeney country: ‘Pieces of broken glass click underfoot. … The air smells cold and musty, uncirculated, tinged with motor oil, mildew, brick dust, black unguents. … the harsh, metallic rattle of big shutters being rolled open.’
‘Bypassed by the flows of money, energy, people and traffic within which they were once enfolded’ (Tim Edensor, geographer)
‘A shape less recognisable each week/ A purpose more obscure’ (Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’)
The warning signs – Man and Dogs on 24 hour patrol – are a reminder that, as Farley and Roberts write, the edgelands often inhabit ‘the hiatus between the end of one industrial era and potential future redevelopment’. These desolate spaces await a visionary future when Peel Holdings’ Wirral Waters scheme will transform the derelict docks in Birkenhead into ‘a world class waterfront’.
Our guide points out an iconic edgelands sight: the abandoned mattress
‘Rubbish is part of the texture of edgelands … often in surreal juxtaposition: a fly-tipped sofa in a corner of a turnip field; an electric cooker rusting under a bridge; a mattress anywhere open to the elements.’
We turned off the busy road and headed up the slope of what was once a huge rubbish dump – Bidston Moss landfill tip, now Bidston Nature Reserve. As we gained height the lie of the land became clearer: Bidston Moss is a triangular piece of land sandwiched between the River Birket, the M53, the railway line from Chester to Liverpool and the busy approach road to the second Mersey tunnel.
‘The edgelands are a cross-hatch of wire. … A complex mix of fiercely-guarded private ground and common land by default, or by neglect. The history of these places is held in their wires.’
‘Graffiti is part of the visual noise of our age …the short, emphatic, florid statement of name, protest or allegiance, an impression … made at high speed.’
The site has had a varied history. Once a low-lying salt marsh subject to repeated invasions of sea water, the construction of a sea wall in 1847 destroyed the salt marsh. Land drainage and the canalisation of the River Birket allowed the construction of roads and buildings. A golf course was constructed in 1890, while some land continued to be used for grazing until the 1970’s (indeed, still is: we passed a field where horses grazed). Later in the walk, near to Leasowe lighthouse, we would cross land that was used for tipping builders rubble. Bidston Moss was designated a Local Nature Reserve in 1994 and is now an important wildlife site in North Wirral, with its ponds, reed bed and marshland.
A strange structure, whose meaning could not be interpreted …
As we ascended to higher ground we passed strange structures, whose meaning could not be interpreted. There was some speculation that an object made from breeze blocks might be the signposted ‘Stargazer’, but I’ve since discovered that ‘Stargazer’ was a sculpture made by Thompson Dagnall that was destroyed some time ago.
Bryan Biggs, Colin Dilnot and other members of the party star gaze..
Colin, our guide, reminded us that when this place was a tip in the 1980s it drew the attention of local photographers, including Ken Grant and Peter Marlowe, whose image of a ‘totter’ on Bidston Moss tip in 1985 can be seen in this post.
Ken Grant, ‘Last Walk of the Day, Bidston, Birkenhead’, 1985
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts devote significant passage to Bidston Moss in Edgelands, conjuring up the otherworldly landscape:
Bidston Moss on the Wirral must be one of the most worked-over, altered, landscaped areas of landscape in the country. It lies just inland of the Mersey and the sea, near the northernmost tip of the peninsula at Wallasey, a blank zone on the map criss-crossed by railway lines, the Mersey Tunnel approach roads and the M53 motorway. Within this zone, you find a network of paths. We entered into it by means of a tiny one at the back of the B&Q car park, leading through a gate in the dull, metal-spiked railings into a dark waste ground beneath the flyovers, greeted by undergrowth festooned with a spectacular array of moulded plastics: it seemed as if every colour and variety of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and polyvinyl has landed up here, snarled in the low scrubland and mattresses, thrown from the roads overhead or blown from the loading bays to the rear of the superstores. It’s a huge litter trap, an open space surrounded by people passing through very quickly, an unacknowledged or quickly disregarded blindspot. Looking closer, you can see how trefoils and bindweeds have begun to grow back over some of the takeaway cartons and soft-drinks bottles.
‘A blank zone on the map criss-crossed by railway lines, the Mersey Tunnel approach roads and the M53 motorway’.
Bidston Moss has always lacked definition, always been off-radar. It was formerly a low-lying, marshy inlet, drained and reclaimed in the second half of the nineteenth century. Before then, the coastline here was the haunt of wreckers – the mouth of the Mersey was once one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world – and outlaw gangs worked the dunes and beaches, lighting beacons to draw ships on to the banks at Wallasey and Mockbeggar Sands, and carrying their spoils inland through secret paths across what was then the deep and impenetrable boggy region around Bidston. Intimate knowledge of these paths made all the difference: this was a life-and-death business.
‘A green and largely open space of meadows and woodland has been carefully established by degrees.’
Once the area was drained, it was used as grazing land for a while until the Thirties, when it became a landfill and tipping site for domestic, commercial and industrial waste. The mound that built up over the decades became visible from miles away across the water in Liverpool, a hundred-foot-high landmark of rubbish. And then a new kind of salvager appeared. Tip scavengers – or ‘totters’ – began to work the site, sifting through the wreckage looking for anything of value. The site took in a huge amount of building materials, and a trade began in scrap-metal cabling and wiring, the plastic insulating sheath burned away in tip fires. Copper and lead were best, trundled off to the scrap dealers in a Kwik Save trolley. This was Merseyside’s economic nadir, and people were desperate. They were an image from antiquity, or the developing world, the grimy faced rag-picker and bone-collector. There is a photograph of a totter, taken by Peter Marlowe in April 1985. Marlowe’s tip scavenger is cowled and furtive, a character from the Middle Ages; Brueghel meets Magnum Photo Agency.
There were still scavengers on Bidston Moss as late as the mid-Nineties, working alongside the seagulls, hardcore recyclers. Merseyside Waste Disposal began employing security guards and dogs, but it was the closure of the tip that did for them. In recent years the site has undergone a process of restoration work. A green and largely open space of meadows and woodland has been carefully established by degrees; phases on a planning document. On the ground, paper-mill sludge and sewage cake from Ellesmere Port have prepared a new surface, which in turn has been planted with grasses and herbs and saplings. But ‘restoration’ here doesn’t mean an attempt to recreate the original, treacherous marshland that once obtained here: what it has created is a very twenty-first century melange of low scrubby woods, footpaths and cycle paths, graffitoed bridges and finger posts, pylons and road pillars. Even here, where recent planning has proscribed pathways for all kinds of public use, desire paths are already worn into the earth, cutting off corners, creating short cuts, circuits within circuits. The unplannable edgelands, reasserting themselves.
‘A very twenty-first century melange of low scrubby woods, footpaths and cycle paths, graffitoed bridges and finger posts, pylons and road pillars.’
We came down from the heights of Bidston Moss to encounter, beneath the pillars of the flyover that carries the M53 motorway, a remarkable vista that might have served as the set for some post-apocalyptic film (The Road, maybe?). This is a place above which thousands of motorists speed every hour of the day, unaware of what lies below. I have come this way countless times in the car, passing in the blink of an eye, heading for the Mersey tunnel, oblivious to the space beneath.
‘Nameless bridge, its cast concrete walls and pillars dark with run-off stains and vertical deltas of algae … a barely-registered, blink-of-an-eye space …’
‘Somebody has been here, though: there is graffiti. … That fluid aerosol-work we associate with urban train yards and rail sidings …’
‘Underneath … this complex of flyovers is another world. This is the world of Tarkovsky’s dystopian film Stalker: dark, damp, intense and menacing.’
It was here, beside one of the pillars supporting the road above, that we found the abandoned sofa, the archetypal edgelands motif, indicative of things ‘on their journey from one category to another’, as Farley and Roberts write before quoting from Sean O’Brien’s poem ‘After Lafourge’:
– ambitious settees in black frogskin
And minibars missing their castors, the catalogues
Turning to mush, the unnameable objects
That use to be something with knobs on …
The road to nowhere
As the traffic roared overhead, the sense disorientation was heightened by the sight of road markings (halt, filter left on a strip of tarmac that went nowhere). I asked Colin whether this was what was left of an earlier road system, overlaid by the motorway? No, he replied – it’s what’s left of a temporary access road that had to be built when 3 km of the motorway’s box girder structure that dated back to 1969 had to be strengthened.
We left the shelter of the motorway, following the cycle path that wends a way through the emerging woodland, past the newly renovated fishing lake, and between the ponds, reedbeds and marshland that have transformed this former landfill site.
Now a Nature Reserve and Site of Biological Interest managed by the Forestry Commission, Bidston Moss has become an important stopover for migrating birds and a place of refuge for wildlife, including Barn Owls and Lapwings, Sedge Warbler, Reed Bunting and Little Grebe. We didn’t see any of those on Saturday – but did spot a Buzzard brooding in the trees behind the B&Q superstore.
‘Nobody comes and, left to itself … quietly offers its opportunities to the wildlife edged out of our countryside by the homogenising, flattening effects of agribusiness, a last refuge … a place where things might start all over again.’
‘These giant warehouse-shops are only possible in edgelands. They take up too much space to sit in the middle of towns.’
It was strange to approach the giant B&Q store along a path that winds beside ponds and meres, through reeds and copses of silver birch, rather than by way of a neatly-edged tarmac slip road.
There’s a footbridge over the railway now, making the reserve more accessible for people from the local community. It was here that we encountered for the first time the River Birket, which flows across north Wirral from Meols, through Moreton, Leasowe and Bidston, before heading underground in the Great Culvert at Birkenhead. The Birket has more of the appearance of a canal than a natural river, with its straightened course and flood-defence embankments.
We passed places that reminded me insistently of paintings by George Shaw or David Rayson – evocative, even – as Farley and Roberts suggest – romantic landscapes that portray ‘the absolutely overlooked ordinary’.
‘The absolutely overlooked ordinary’
Our route now followed the course of the Birket, through a nondescript terrain of overpass and estates that ‘peter out into backfields and farmland’.
‘Birds have to seek out the habitat conducive to their survival that lies in our midst.’
As we headed towards the furthest point of the walk – the site of the abandoned brickworks at Moreton – the leaning white tower of Leasowe lighthouse came into view across the fields. It’s a striking 19th century structure built on the site of the first lighthouse, erected in 1763. The last keeper was a woman, who ran a tea shop in the lighthouse after it was decommissioned in 1908.
For the past decade the former clay pit of the Moreton Brickworks site has been turned into a fishery – another instance of the way in which the edgelands are constantly shape-shifting, as they are transformed from one use to another.
Mention of the brickworks reminded me of the amusing passage in Edgelands where Farley and Roberts, discussing the wasteland weeds and flowers that have established themselves in the edgelands – buddleia, rosebay willowherb, Japanese knotweed and ox-eye daisy – repeatedly intersperse their list of weeds with the phrase ‘There are branches of Starbucks, Carphone Warehouse, WH Smith, Dixons, Currys and McDonalds’. (It’s in the ‘Wasteland’ chapter.)
This was, without doubt, the most litter-strewn part of the walk: despite the signs that warned against fly-tipping, the way was strewn with large-scale deposits of rubbish – no doubt dumped by tradesmen unwilling to pay the fees levied at the official tip.
The Brickworks site borders on the Merseyrail line which is spanned here by a footbridge. I was amused by Colin’s remark that ‘you can always tell what kind of neighbourhood you’re in from the bridges’: this one has elaborate screening, preventing youths from hurling slabs of concrete onto passing trains.
Here we encountered a classic edgelands scene: a small industrial estate, dominated by a tall telecommunications mast – one of several noticed along our way. A look around the estate revealed several edgeland features described by Farley and Roberts.
‘Fear of the effects of [radio waves] makes the siting of masts a controversial issue, which is why so many of them end up in the edgelands, where schools and homes are rare, and few people are likely to raise objections.’
‘Self-storage is big business these days. Operating out of purpose-built big sheds, boxy low-rise units on industrial estates. … The low-rent edgelands are good places for storage to take root.’
‘By day, the many golf driving ranges that have cropped up on the outskirts of Britain’s towns and cities in the last several decades look far from enticing. These are usually dull, shed-like constructions; extended sheds…’
‘Edgelands pools are cluttered with shopping trolleys, car tyres, beer cans’.
By now we had seen much of what the edgelands can offer, and ticked off many examples of what Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts observe in their book. And so, as we made our way to Moreton station, our walk through the North Wirral edgelands reached its end. We had seen ‘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.’
- Wildness on the edge of town: an Edgelands encounter with Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts
- Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime
- Along the Cast Iron Shore: photos by Ken Grant
- The Edgelands: a zone of wild, mysterious beauty
- George Shaw: a sense of our time, acute and troubled
- Leasowe to Meols: space and emptiness
- A walk in the edgelands: along the Garston shore