Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat

<em>Public View:</em> celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat

The Bluecoat is 300 years old. Miraculously, the oldest building in Liverpool city centre has twice survived the threat of destruction (post-war city planners thought it would be a great idea to replace it with an inner-city ring road) to become one of the UK’s oldest arts centres. Completed in 1725, after two centuries serving as a charity school, in 1907 the building was taken over by a group of artists determined to stimulate Liverpool’s artistic and intellectual life. Two years later they hosted the First Post-Impressionist exhibition that featured work by Matisse, Picasso and others. Today, the contemporary arts continue to be showcased in this Grade One listed building. I went down to have a look at Public View, the first in a series of events celebrating the Bluecoat’s first 300 years. Continue reading Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat”

Through the edgelands of north Wirral: ‘complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard’

Through the edgelands of north Wirral: ‘complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard’

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‘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.

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Colin Dinot points us in the direction of those ‘complicated, unexamined places that thrive on disregard’.

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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.

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‘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.’

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‘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.’

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‘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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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‘The hiatus between the end of one industrial era and potential future redevelopment.’

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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.’

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‘Bypassed by the flows of money, energy, people and traffic within which they were once enfolded’ (Tim Edensor, geographer)

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‘A shape less recognisable each week/ A purpose more obscure’ (Philip Larkin, ‘Church Going’)

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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’.

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Our guide points out an iconic edgelands sight: the abandoned mattress

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‘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.’ 

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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.

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‘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.’ 

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‘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. Edgelands 17

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.

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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

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.

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‘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.

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‘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.

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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.

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‘A very twenty-first century melange of low scrubby woods, footpaths and cycle paths, graffitoed bridges and finger posts, pylons and road pillars.’

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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.

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‘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 …’

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‘Somebody has been here, though: there is graffiti. … That fluid aerosol-work we associate with urban train yards and rail sidings …’

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‘Underneath … this complex of flyovers is another world.  This is the world of Tarkovsky’s dystopian film Stalker: dark, damp, intense and menacing.’

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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 …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.’

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‘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.

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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.

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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’.

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‘The absolutely overlooked ordinary’

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‘Electricity pylons find their true home in the edgelands.  In towns, they worry people. … Only in the edgelands do these giants look at home …’    Edgelands 44  Edgelands 46

Our route now followed the course of the Birket, through a nondescript terrain of overpass and estates that ‘peter out into backfields and farmland’.

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‘Birds have to seek out the habitat conducive to their survival that lies in our midst.’ 

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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.  Edgelands 52

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.’

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‘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.’

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‘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…’

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‘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.’

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See also

Wildness on the edge of town: an Edgelands encounter with Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Wildness on the edge of town: an Edgelands encounter with Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

I went to the Bluecoat on Thursday evening to hear Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, authors of Edgelands, talk about how their book took shape, read extracts and answer questions from the audience that had packed out the performance space.  They form a great double act, these two northern poets, with Farley sometimes playing the cheeky scouser to Symmons Roberts’ thoughtful and elegantly rounded phrasing.

Edgelands explores the wildness on the edge of town – those liminal spaces passed through on the way somewhere else, ignored and untended places where an overlooked England exists.  The edgelands is the theme of the Bluecoat’s current Soft Estate exhibition to which this presentation was a complementary event.

Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director at the Bluecoat, began by introducing Farley and Roberts, both of whom are successful writers from the North West.  Paul was born in Liverpool in 1965 and (this was news to me) began by studying art – first at Mabel Fletcher College on Smithdown Road – a site now occupied, Bryan noted, by a branch of Tesco.  He’s published several successful volumes of poetry, as well as writing and presenting many radio dramas, documentaries and features. He is Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.  Michael was born in 1963 in Preston, Lancashire, UK, and spent his childhood in Lancashire before moving south with his family to Newbury in the early 70s.  He has published two novels and several volumes of poetry: his 6th collection – Drysalter – won the 2013 Forward Prize and Costa Poetry Prize, and was short-listed for the TS Eliot Prize.   He is Professor of Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The pair began by launching into a slideshow to illustrate the origins of their collaboration on Edgelands.  The first slide up featured this cover of the 1950s Ladybird book What to Look for in Summer.

Ladybird Summer cover

‘For an entire childhood we wondered where the countryside actually was.’

CF Tunnicliffe’s cover illustration presents a classic image of the English landscape, imprinted on the conciousness of a generation of children, since these were the books by which we learned to read and know the world.  But, as Paul bluntly put it, as children they would wonder, ‘Where the fuck was this England?’  As the pair wrote in Edgelands:

For along 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, each had the experience of being able to follow paths across waste ground and along the fringes of housing estates to easily find themselves on the edge of farmland. But none of it ever felt like the countryside of the Ladybird books.

What they found instead were places of ‘possibility, mystery and beauty’: unwatched places in which children  and teenagers felt at home, built dens (in what was, according to Farley, ‘the golden age of den-building’) and pursued a largely feral existence.

Netherley

Paul Farley’s Netherley. ‘We were forever going on expeditions, sorties into a wilderness of drainage brooks, arable fields, sewage farms, disused railways: in today’s A–Zs, the white pages, the blank edges’.

Paul and Michael went on to talk about how they came to write the book, and how it gradually evolved into the form that it eventually took.  Paul recalled that the germ of the book came when they were discussing the essay by Marion Shoard, the eco-geographer, in which she first coined the term ‘edgelands’ to describe 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’.  Paul recalled that Shoard had concluded with a call to arms:

It is time for the edgelands to get the recognition that Emily Brontë and William Wordsworth brought to the moors and mountains and John Betjeman to the suburbs. They too have their story. It is the more cogent and urgent for being the story of our age.

As poets in the English lyric tradition, they were fired up by this and decided to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Shoard.  Michael intervened at this point to make the observation that this all came about in a bar somewhere.

We decided to celebrate the vigour and diversity of these places that were so familiar to us, neither city nor country, wild or not wild, but the unnamed, ignored places which have a strange beauty all of their own. We planned research trips were planned to exotic edgelands locations.

Michael and Paul had often talked about these places – their first, childhood landscapes – before they were ever referred to as ‘edgelands’. In fact, they had both already written about them separately, either in poetry or prose. So our interests converged, and giving them a name just galvanized the whole thing. They began gathering material on the subject long before the decision to write the book was made. Apart from reinforcing each other’s interest and excitement, it was all pretty haphazard to begin with.

They talked about editing an anthology of edgelands writing, commissioned prose and poetry from writers they knew. They mulled over the idea of curating an exhibition of edgelands art having found that visual artists had been among the pioneers investigating the terrain (along with psycho-geographers, and poets such as Sean O’Brien, Jean Sprackland and Philip Larkin (who wrote, in ‘Church Going’ of ‘Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky, /A shape less recognisable each week, A purpose more obscure’).

But the more they talked, the more they came to realise that they wanted to author something together – in prose. Appropriately, they would meet at Tebay Services on the M6 in Lancashire. They eventually decided that the book could be shaped, not as the travelogue of a walk through the edgelands, but thematically, in categories, along the lines of books like Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies or George Perec’s Species of Space.

So, they explained, Edgelands came to be co-authored, editing one another as they went along, exchanging emails and computer files of their drafts. They decided to sink their individualities into a single voice – the ‘we’ of the book’s narrative, rather than, for instance, authoring alternate chapters.  As the book took shape they continued to meet at motorway service stations. The first chapter they completed was the one called ‘Water’ – which Paul and Michael then read for us, each voice alternating a page or two at a time.  This is Paul and Michael reading the chapter in a video made at Newcastle University:

Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts reading from Edgelands at Newcastle University on Vimeo

I could listen to these two reading aloud for ever. It’s got a lot to do with something that they alluded to in the question and answer session afterwards: their deep-rootedness in the North-West, richly revealed in their voices.  Although, they said, they had explored the edgelands in various parts of the country, in the book they decided to limit the account to the Midlands and the North-West, avoiding London (which had, after all, already had its fair share of scrutiny).  Listening to Paul and Michael read I was made aware, far more than when I had been following text on the page, of how much of the book’s prose comes close to poetry.

So Edgelands was shaped by memories of the places here in the North-West where Paul and Michael have lived,  worked and known all their lives, with the result that many of the most memorable passages hinge on images from childhood memory, details such as a red plastic milk crate in a pond. Responding to one particular question, they acknowledged that during the writing of the book they had found themselves consciously resisting the pull of nostalgia (just as, when writing about aspects of the edgelands terrain, they had tried to resist producing more ‘ruin porn’).

They were asked what it us that fascinates about the edgelands.  Paul was quick to point out that this is an interest not everyone shares – ‘you either get it or you don’t’ – while Michael recalled their hilarious encounter with the  receptionist in a pallet yard:

‘A book?’

‘Yes, a book about the edgelands’.

‘The what?’

‘Pallets, it’s about pallets.’

‘What do you want to do?’

‘Look at the pallets in the yard.’

‘Just look at them?’

‘Well, photograph them and write about them.’

‘I can’t let you take photographs.’

‘Why not?’

‘I can’t authorise that.  You’ll have to spea to head office if you want to do that.’

‘We’ll just write about them then.’

‘What d’you mean?’

‘We’ll just look at them and write about them’.

‘Will you need to sit down?’

‘No, we can write standing up, thank you.’

The fascination which the edgelands exert for some of us has a lot to do, I think, with the sense that they constitute a zone of freedom, beyond restriction and out of sight of authority.  This is why children and teenagers tend to be the main colonisers of the edgelands, with their dens, graffiti and the litter of illicit smoking and drinking sessions.  (It’s also why fly-tippers and litter-louts like the edgelands, too.)

Farley and Roberts reminded us of another reason why the edgelands are interesting:they cannot be pinned down.  This is a terrain of almost limitless variability: compare the strict regimentation of the business park (where ‘anyone on foot is suspicious’) with the wildness of the edgeland’s wastelands, sites of decay which have a strange beauty all of their own.  And the edgelands never stay the same.  They are constantly in a state of flux, so that the litter-strewn site of an abandoned factory or patch of wasteland will turn out on a visit not much later to have been landscaped or transformed into a business park.

There is now a growing body of artistic work interrogating the edgelands terrain in poetry, painting and photography.  In writing Edgelands, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts have challenged the conventional duality of urban and rural that was a marked feature of writing on landscape. Their book reveals how edgelands can be found in many places, in the heart of our cities as well as on their fringes, and even along the verges of a motorway. I was struck by Paul’s observation – as he described how we drive past, or through, such places in a car – that at life-changing moments (such as a car crash, first kiss, or the birth of a child) the memory lays down ‘a thick, multi-tracked record’ that slows down time and preserves the experience.  Whereas, driving the same piece of road each day and seeing the same scenes pass at the edge of our vision as we speed onward, lays down a memory track so thin it lacks all detail. The edgelands may hold strong childhood memories, but they are also places where ‘our slipstream has created a zone of inattention’.

Next: we venture into the wilderness of north Wirral’s edgelands.

See also

Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime

Soft Estate: an inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime

Edward Chell, Eclipse, Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus Repens)

Edward Chell, Eclipse, Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus Repens)

I’ve been to see the current exhibition at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Arts Centre.  Called Soft Estate, the title derives from a term used by the Highways Agency to describe the natural habitats that have evolved along the edges of motorways and trunk roads and which offer a refuge for wildlife and a modern form of wilderness in the midst of intense urbanisation and agro-chemical farming. The exhibition displays work by artists fascinated by the ‘edgelands’ – those familiar yet ignored spaces that are neither city nor countryside. Their works, like a walk through the edgelands, juxtapose beauty and pollution, wilderness and human despoliation.

The main focus of the exhibition is on the work of artist and academic Edward Chell who investigates contemporary motorway landscapes – quintessential examples of the edgelands, lovingly described in the book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (in a related event on 6 February the two poets will be discussing the book and reading their work).

Edward Chell, M2, Medway services eastbound, 2008

Edward Chell, M2, Medway services eastbound, 2008

In the first room are recent examples of Edward Chell’s recent work that take the form of large, almost ghostly paintings in cream and grey.  They look like that because Chell has incorporated into their making road dust.  They have titles like Motorway Intersection, 2010 and Motorway Island, M62, J3, 2013 – because they are the places explored by Chell (with official permission and wearing a fluorescent jacket) before being portrayed in these large works that depict flourishing grasses and wildflowers with the hard surfaces of the motorway visible beyond. They have been described as combining ‘bleak nostalgia and dirty romanticism’.

Chell has spoken of motorway verges as ‘strangely forbidden zones, Ballardian spaces’:

You’re not allowed to stop there – if you do you’ll be picked up by the police within ten minutes! These are amazing landscapes – full of wildflowers – just really beautiful. Motorways are extremely hard and loud and dangerous, and yet, running alongside them we have these pesticide – free strips which offer us one of the few ‘wilderness’ places in England. There’s something like forty thousand hectares of this land – it’s been described as Britain’s largest unofficial nature reserve.

In an essay entitled The Garden of England, Chell explained how he came to be inspired to explore motorway verges:

I regularly drive from London to Canterbury and back and have done so for the last twelve years. This journey to my workplace in Canterbury takes me down the A2/M2, driving through the middle of what King Henry VIII described as ‘The Garden of England’. My experience of gardens is as quite places of stillness and reflection. The motorway greenery by contrast fizzes rapidly past the windscreen of the car, punctuated by familiar landmarks, signs and intersections. Other people leave and join in ordered succession while the familiar places just pass by, rapidly recede then dissolve in the rear view mirror.

One day, while waiting in a traffic jam I suddenly became aware of how still and vibrant the wildflower ‘meadow’ of the verge actually was. The banks were a varied and lush carpet of greens, broken intermittently by small shrubs, swaying flower heads and the clicks and buzzing of insects. These motorway embankments, which are seemingly part of the despoliation of the landscape, in fact act as biological corridors for some endangered wildflowers and valuable zones free of chemical pest control. This encounter triggered a realization of how these green spaces could act as a primer for minimally painted landscapes which speak of the disjunction between the man made and the natural environment.

These paintings allow us to glimpse a place rich and alive with wildlife, evoked by Chell as one of restful stillness. he makes us aware just how separated and isolated we are from these wild landscapes that we hurtle past in our vehicles. ‘There is a dystopic separation from the land immediately around us’, Chell has remarked, while in Edgelands Farley and Symmons-Roberts speak of Chell being drawn to ‘its inaccessible wilderness, mundane and sublime in its infinity’, a wilderness ‘as difficult to reach as sea cliffs’.

Edward Chell, Eclipse

Edward Chell, Eclipse

In another room I find Eclipse, a series of 60 silhouette paintings of plants and weeds that inhabit the roadside verges, painted on shellac in a way that brings to mind 18th century silhouette portraits of loved ones carried in lockets.

Edward Chell Eclipse 1

Edward Chell Eclipse 2

Here are plants with wonderfully evocative names: from Angelica, Bindweed and Buddleia  via Dandelion, Fat Hen and Freverfew, to Tansy and Teasel, Wood Anenome and Wood Groundsel, to Yellow Rocket.

Edward Chell Eclipse 3

Edward Chell Eclipse 4

Edward Chell Eclipse 5

One commentator has contrasted the way in which Chell’s work recalls the rational, scientific impulse to record and classify the natural world according to Linnaean rules with the ‘fragile, fugitive, ever-shifting ecosystems on which our existence depends’; or as Chell puts it:

For me these present a fascinating paradox – the motorway network presents a nightmarish vision of the asphalting of our green and pleasant land, but the roadside habitats also amount to an unofficial national nature reserve.

George Shaw. The Gamble

George Shaw, The Gamble, 2012

I’ve written here several times of my admiration for the work of George Shaw, familiar with his paintings – executed in Humbrol model paint – that speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible to us.  The Bluecoat exhibition doesn’t have any of those,  displaying instead a selection of lithographs that have the same subject – the ragged edges of the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry where Shaw grew up and which he explored in childhood expeditions. These are neglected no-place locations.  There’s a shed, abandoned amidst saplings that have grown up around it (The Birthday); the blank entrance to a pedestrian underpass (suggestively entitled The Gamble); and a lonely track through trees on the edge of the estate (The Other Side).

George Shaw. The Birthday

George Shaw, The Birthday

George Shaw - The Other Side

George Shaw, The Other Side

The black and white prints emphasise the contrast between areas of light and deep shadow which lend the works a sinister and ominous ambience. The uncanny atmosphere is heightened by the fact that all of Shaw’s scenes are devoid of human presence. This gives them a feeling that something is about to happen, or perhaps has just taken place.

Day Bowman, Weymouth Portland series

Day Bowman, Weymouth/Portland series, displayed during the b-side Festival,  Portland

Nothing else in the exhibition approaches the insight or achievement of these two artists.  Day Bowman’s work explores the landscapes of Weymouth and Portland that are, like the motorway verges in Edward Chell’s paintings,  passed through and ignored. These are landscapes that can be found on the edges of any city, seen in fleeting glimpses from a car or train window or a departing ferry where quay, wharfs and rusting hulks loom large.  During the Olympic Games, as part of the 2012 b-side Festival in Portland, Bowman’s work appeared on advertising  hoardings placed on the approach  to Weymouth Station.

Laura Oldfield Ford M6 Junction 9

Laura Oldfield Ford, M6 Junction 9, Bescot6, 2011

Laura Oldfield Ford’s drawings on watercolour paper, made in pencil and chalk with acrylic ink additions, represent, in her own words, an ‘investigation into the marginal, a process of burrowing under the heritage version of England to uncover the repressed psyche of a land’.  The works on show here depict the urban wasteland beneath and around the M6 as it has sliced its way through Walsall in the Midlands.  Her work is displayed near to photographs by John Darwell, going under the series title of An Alloted Space, that depict scenes on urban allotments.  I could see nothing special or significant about these at all.

Hind Land

Tim Bowd and Nick Rochowski, Hind Land

All this time I had been exploring the ground floor areas of the exhibition, with the monotonous roar of the motorway ever-present.  Ascending the stars to the first floor it became apparent that what I had been hearing was the sondtrack to a projection and sound installation by Tim Bowd and Nick Rochowski called Hind Land, the result of the two photographers surveying the pedestrian walkways beneath London’s Orbital M25 motorway.  Locating points at which you can pass underneath the motorway on foot, they became fascinated by the voids left by the motorway as it carves through the landscape. The motorway, they say, ‘divides the countryside in two, leaving a visible and audible rip in the environment above the ground, and a no-man’s land beneath’.

No Way Out

Jan Williamson and Chris Teasdale (The Caravan Gallery), No Way Out, Thurrock, 2011

At the top of the stairs was a photographic print by Jan Williamson and Chris Teasdale called No Way Out, Thurrock which I found an amusing commentary on consumerism (as George Monbiot wryly comments in the Guardian this morning, ‘Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores’).

Williamson and Teasdale are an artist partnership ‘interested in recording the reality and surreality of everyday life’.  They specialise in photographic essays which explore sense of place from a psychogeographic perspective and exhibit in their a mobile Caravan Gallery, as well as in galleries, empty shops and temporary spaces. Their Pride of Place Project aims to create thought-provoking exhibitions in collaboration with local communities.  Much of 2013 was devoted to Merseyside, with an exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.

Edward Chell Creeping Buttercup

Edward Chell, Creeping Buttercup

The final display of this exhibition once again showcases work by Edward Chell: a series of screenprints of wasteland plants that have been painted in oil and ‘micro-particulate matter’ or, as we might say, roadside dust.

Edward Chell Songbird

Edward Chell, Songbird, 2011

Finally there was Chell’s Songbird, looking like a motorway sign with words from a poem, ‘This Time of Night’, by Liverpool poet Andrew Taylor in white sans serif lettering on a blue background.

In an essay in the exhibition catalogue, Richard Mabey writes of how ‘nature’s irrepressible inventiveness – those wild, stretching limbs – invades the tidy plans of the architects’:

The un-treed stretches of motorway verges, apart from occasional scrub clearance and mowing for safety purposes, are pretty much allowed to develop as they will, and have turned into a great estate of feral grassland. A botanical survey of the M1 verges in 1970, ten years after it opened, found 185 species of plant had arrived of their own accord. In the following year, a colony of native columbines was destroyed during work on the extension of the M1 in Nottingham shire. Luckily the county naturalists’ trust had the foresight to collect seeds before the bulldozers arrived, and, with some poetic justice, got permission to grow them on in the grounds of a motorway maintenance depot. Later in the year the mature plants were transplanted to the motorway verges as close to the original site as possible. They are still there.

Mabey gives examples of the varied organisms whose habitats the motorways invaded but which have now become ‘part of the foreground of the motorway landscape’ – huge drifts of cowslips on the M4, Michaelmas daisies and golden rod, red kites, buzzards, rooks:

But it is a plant that provides a perfect parable of the motorways’ wild landscapes. it knits the traveller’s need for colour and structure at speed, and the opportunism of nature when faced with new, anthropocentric habitats. In the mid 1980s, colonies of a scarce coastal plant, Danish scurvy grass, began to appear along the edges of motorways and major roads, especially in the prophetically named ‘central reservations’. It’s a modest member of the cabbage family, but in late March these roadside colonies become so dense in places that they resemble a layer of deep and persistent frost. … Today there is scarcely a large road without it.

The only inland region it has failed to colonise is Ireland, despite the species being native to Irish shores. What is different about Irish roads is that no salt is added to the winter grit. There are many reasons for the plant’s spread throughout the UK road system – the turbulent slipstream of traffic whirling the seeds along; the similarity between its native strandline habitat and the stone edges of the road. But there is little doubt that the major factor is the saltiness of the modern road – that shoreline tang sprayed from gritting lorries on icy evenings even in the landlocked heart of Britain. Seen close to, Danish scurvy grass is an undistinguished plant. Streamed by at speed, it is a ribbon of dazzling white at the motorway’s grey edge, a traveller’s joy. I call it wayfrost.

Bluecoat preview of Soft Estate

See also

The Edgelands: a zone of wild, mysterious beauty

The Edgelands: a zone of wild, mysterious beauty

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

You come across all kinds of stuff in the edgelands – mouldering leftovers from past endeavours as well as shiny, new hopes.  The book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, is like that, too – a bit of a jumble, but plenty that’s interesting and unexpected.

The book takes the form of around thirty short essays, each one sketching an aspect of the edgelands, from  Paths and Dens to Ruins and Woodlands, by way of Canals and Landfill. Organising their narrative this way, Farley and Roberts steer clear of the common form of landscape writing as an expedition or journey, though the accounts here are clearly based on many walks through edgeland territory, as well as childhood familiarity with the terrain. Instead they have presented us with a sort of gazetteer of generic types: paths, dens, landfill, ponds, sewerage, wire, bridges, ruins and woodlands – assorted topics, just like the motley objects that tend to accumulate in the tracts of ignored land that form the edgelands.

What, exactly, are these edgelands?  Robert Macfarlane provided one of the best descriptions, albeit in a review of the book that was not especially sympathetic:

The edgelands are the debatable space where city and countryside fray into one another. They comprise jittery, jumbled, broken ground: brownfield sites and utilities infrastructure, crackling substations and pallet depots, transit hubs and sewage farms, scrub forests and sluggish canals, allotments and retail parks, slackened regulatory frameworks and guerilla ecologies.

For the two poet-authors – both ‘edgelands comprehensive schoolchildren in the 1970s’ – the edgelands comprise a ‘zone of inattention’ in which all manner of interest and beauty thrive. They marvel at this ‘richly mysterious region in our midst’ and celebrate it as a ‘place of possibility, mystery, beauty’.  It’s a wilderness, yet so close to our urban centres and so familiar it is never seen, yet we see it all the time. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, ignored, the edgelands have become the great wild places on our doorsteps, places so difficult to acknowledge they barely exist.

‘Somewhere in the hollows and spaces between our carefully-managed wilderness areas and the creeping, flattening effects of global capitalism’, say Farley and Roberts, ‘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’.

The authors describe this as a book about ‘the blank spaces on the A-Z, the hinterlands of Britain that are not urban and not yet country’, the skuzzy, overlooked fringe of UK towns where homes end and motorways, business parks and Little Chefs reside. Sewage farms, disused mines, overgrown allotments and bridges daubed with florid graffiti are all grist to their mill. They once told an interviewer how the idea for the book came about:

It all began in the bar of a Premier Inn, somewhere on the edge of the Midlands. We had this idea to celebrate the vigour and diversity of these oh-so-familiar places, neither city nor country, wild or not wild, but the unnamed, ignored places which have a strange beauty all of their own. Research trips were planned to exotic locations – Swindon, Wolverhampton, Gateshead – staying in edgelands hotels, walking edgelands roads and talking to edgelands people.

The book – which I recall the pair reading extracts from a year ago on Radio 4’s Book of the Week – is a pleasure to read, with some essays, as you might expect from a couple of poets, bordering on the lyrical (though, sadly, although poems by others are quoted, Farley and Roberts offer none  of their own).  Some essays are more successful than others. There’s a feeling of the book running out of steam towards the end with accounts of retail parks, motels and golf ranges, weather stations and piers that seem less authentically edgeland. Canals, meanwhile, an edgeland essential if ever there was one, get a few short and somewhat limp pages.

Paul Farley spent his pre-school years just around the corner from where we have lived for thirty years:

The first house my parents lived in after I was born was on Ullet Road, near the Park. I have only the faintest memories of that house, and I’m not sure any of these are very reliable. My mum used to take me in my pram to the Palm House, and I really want to be able to recall this, but the story has taken on the shape of a memory. Then we moved round and lived just off Wavertree Road, in houses that backed onto the railway at Edge Hill. This area I do remember. It was overrun with mice. They ate my mum’s wedding cake! It must have been quite minty, but kids don’t really notice peeling wallpaper or mould. The trains shook past at night, and I loved it. All those streets were flattened and redeveloped years ago.

Then, towards the end of his primary school years, the family moved out to the edgelands of Netherley, one of those council estates built out in the fields on the edge of Liverpool in the 1960s.  This is how he described it in an article for Granta in 2008:

We all climbed into the back of this furniture van with our stuff, and were deposited a few miles away in a half-built place surrounded by fields and trees. Insects. Birds. I remember even the light seemed different. Everywhere smelt of newness: fresh-cut timber, putty, paint. But then over the coming months and years, the older city we’d moved from sort of grew and loomed in my imagination. I started to miss it, and as soon as I was old enough I’d jump on buses to revisit it. Similar kinds of things must have happened to kids all over the country, because most big English cities had housing clearance programmes like Liverpool’s.

Michael Symmons Roberts had a similar experience in Manchester, and the two writers begin Edgelands with this explanation of how the unique landscape of the urban fringe burrowed itself deep into their souls:

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.

It was a landscape that entered my soul, too, growing up in a now-prosperous former coal-mining village in Cheshire. Poynton had been the centre of a small but thriving coal-mining industry from the 18th century until the mid 1930s.  As a kid in the 1950s I roamed freely through a classic edgelands landscape where farmers’ fields and woodland shaded imperceptibly into the ghostly industrial remains of mine-working machinery, railway tracks and slag heaps.

A favourite childhood haunt was ‘the Jigger’, a level path that was the remains of a railway spur that linked the collieries in Higher Poynton and Middlewood to the main line at Poynton station; straight and narrow and overgrown in places, it pushed past fields and through woodland.  The tracks were gone, but the path was littered with industrial remains: crumbling and overgrown brick buildings and shards of rusting metal machinery. For a child, it was an edgelands heaven.

‘Dens’ is one of the most evocatively successful essays in the book, also imbued with childhood memories. It opens with this vivid account of two makeshift dens:

Inside a large ditch overhung with whitethorn that marks the border between a few acres of unkempt meadow and the perimeter of a private golf course, a tepee-like vertical frame has been attempted using pliant elder branches, which in turn have been cross-woven then packed with grasses to disguise its presence; the floor inside has been carpeted with an offcut of ratty Axminster and the rubberised foot mats from an abandoned car; a red plastic milk crate, partially melted in one corner from the heat of a fire, serves as both chair and table, where a boy is studying a punished copy of Mayfair, pulled from a hedge full of empty vodka bottles in a lay-by.

A sheet of tarpaulin, stolen from a nearby lorry yard, has been used to insulate the inside of another hollow bramble hedge near a main road; the entry point is a crawlspace a few feet lower, hidden on the leeward side, and only the slimmest child can enter, beavers like, into its hidden space; a hole has been left in the crown of the construction to act as a chimney for the small fires that will kipper the clothes and hair of its occupants with woodsmoke; a few broken-down Golden Wonder cardboard boxes make a comfortable if slightly damp and spongy floor, where a boy has stripped down the spring-piston mechanism of a .22 air pistol.

den

The den: home of childhood memories

It was Marion Shoard who first coined the term edgelands to describe 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’. This was 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.

In this YouTube video, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts take a tour of Birmingham’s edgelands:


As you might expect from a couple of poets, there are countless references to poets and other artists, photographers and writers who have been inspired by these areas (actually, there are over 75 such references; I didn’t count them, but someone whose review I came across had done).  This is one of the joys of the book, as the remainder of this post will reveal: I encountered artists both familiar and previously unknown to me: here you will find cited names like Keith Arnatt, George Shaw, Michael Landy, Richard Billingham, William Eggleston, John Davies, Philip Larkin and many, many more.

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

George Shaw: The Time Machine, 2010

I was already familiar with George Shaw’s wonderful paintings of nondescript landscapes of our inner cities and edgelands: scenes of typical urban desolation on Tile Hill housing estate in Coventry, where he grew up.  As Farley and Roberts observe, ‘this is the absolutely overlooked ordinary’.  His paintings speak  expressively of the landscapes through which we hurry each day, their elements so familiar that they become almost invisible.

David Rayson, The Shortcut

The Fire, 1999

David Rayson, The Fire, 1999

Another painter mentioned by Farley and Roberts was new to me; David Rayson is another Midlander for whom the edgelands are important.  He has made his reputation with meticulous, deadpan drawings and paintings of urban and suburban scenes, attempting to make sense of his immediate surroundings. ‘I want my work to tell stories, stories which take place all the time and everywhere’, he says; ‘I feel it is the familiar and the everyday that reveal our complex and private relationship with the world around us.’

Like his contemporary George Shaw, Rayson makes precise, almost photorealist images of suburban landscapes based on recollections of childhood and adolescence. Rayson draws and paints images of suburban Wolverhampton where he grew up and continues to live.

David Rayson, From Ash Park to Wednesfield, 2003

David Rayson, From Ash Park to Wednesfield, 2003

Farley and Roberts refer to one set of paintings by Rayson in particular: the series From Ash Park to Wednesfield, in which Rayson leads us along a canal path, past dens and places where he grew up:

There are no people about, just their traces in the old leaden water, the missing railing, the litter, all linked by the implacable path. It follows the backs of houses and passes under a busier road … a forgotten route, bypassed by the world as it speeds up.

Modern Painters – David Rayson from Tamara Pictures on Vimeo.

One important aspect of edgelands territory identified by Farley and Roberts is its mutability. 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…

There is a poem, ‘Scrap Metal’ in Michael Symmons Roberts’ collection Soft Keys (1993) that hints at some of this:

The whinings of light planes
half wake me.  In my sleep-half
the sky fills with so many
that their wings clack together
like beaks, bringing them down
in the field behind the house.

The rooks in the end trees
racket amongst themselves.
The house shifts on its rust
mattress of scrap metal.
The soil beneath is gorged
with bolts, chains and spokes.

I tear off finger-long strips
of the blue and gold patterned
wallpaper by the bed.  Underneath,
the old paint feels cold.
I decide to paint my room
completely orange – windows too.

The hill in the rooks’ field
is a long barrow for motor-bikes.
Sometimes in the night,
I hear one spark up
like a distant throat,
then settle again.

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.

One such place visited by Farley and Roberts is Bidston Moss on the Wirral, ‘one of the most worked-over, altered, landscaped areas of landscape in the country’ in their words. Lying just inland of the Mersey near the northernmost tip of the peninsula, it’s a ‘blank zone’ criss-crossed by railway lines, Mersey Tunnel approach roads and the M53 motorway – and a network of paths.

We entered … 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 grasses, 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.

In the 1930s the area became a landfill and tipping site for domestic 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, in the desperate 1980s, a new kind of salvager appeared. Tip scavengers – or ‘totters’ – began to work the site, sifting through the wreckage looking for anything of value: copper, lead, anything of value.

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.

Peter Marlowe, Totter, Bidston Moss, 1985

Peter Marlowe, Totter, Bidston Moss, 1985

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.

In the chapter on Gardens, the authors elaborate their thoughts on landscaping – and note that railway embankments largely escape opportunities for orderly landscaping:

From a train entering a city, the rows of domestic back gardens abutting the railway have a familiar kludge of fencing, corrugated iron, doors and particleboard that marks the boundary between one kind of space and another. Escapees are common, seeds finding their way into a new corridor of opportunity, and blown along the tracks by the timetabled movement of trains. The verges easily slip into the category of edgelands. […] The result: a space that nobody takes much responsibility for. And so brambles and bindweed form a kind of slow-motion surf, rolling down the banks into the cutting. In winter, the snarled detritus of the decades is clearly visible, lost footballs and unspooled video- cassette tape, tin cans and plastics of every description, tangled and suspended. Maybe a glacier is a better way of thinking about railway embankments. The litter from both back gardens and train windows is caught like till in the ice, inching slowly towards earth with the general tumble of each season’s growth.

The references to  Ward, Rayner and Marlowe occur in the chapter on Paths, which begins with Farley and Roberts making this observation about ‘desire paths’, a feature of the urban landscape which I particularly enjoy encountering:

Planners love telling us which way to walk. Our built environment – especially our mercantile spaces, shopping centres and the like – is carefully constructed to control footflow and footfall. But we do like to collectively, unconsciously defy them. This is why we see desire paths in our landscape. Desire paths are lines of footfall worn into the ground, tracks of use. They are frowned upon in our national parkland, where they are seen as scars and deviations. PLEASE KEEP TO THE FOOTPATH. You often see desire paths in public gardens and greened city spaces, taking paved paths ‘off road’ into new trajectories, along roadsides and riverbanks. Our edgelands are full of them.

The post-war overspill developments seen on the edges of many of our cities were planned right down to every concrete walkway, subway and pathway. But their green squares and verges were soon criss-crossed with desire paths: a record of collective short-cuttings. In the winter, they turned to sludgy scars that spattered trousers and skirts and clung to shoes, and during hot summers they turned dusty and parched. Once established, they fell into constant use, footpaths which have never entered the literature. These footpaths of least resistance offer their own subtle resistance to the dead hand of the planner. They lead across borders, into open fields and woodland, along drainage brooks, away from the backs of the houses. On a housing estate, a path leading through a hole in a fence is still freighted with possibility. Each one offers promise and danger, whether what lies ahead is known or unknown. Each one has a flavour and mood (or several moods) all of its own. Desire paths are interesting because of the way they come into being: a ‘bottom up’ system against the ‘top down’ methodology of the planner, and proof of human unpredictability. Nobody decides to make a desire path. There is no ribbon-cutting. These are the kinds of paths that begin over time, imperceptibly, gathering definition as people slowly recognise and legitimise the footfall of their peers.

In the essay on ‘Landfill’ the authors observe that ‘rubbish is part of the texture of edgelands’ (reminding me of a line from Leonard Cohen: ‘I’m stubborn as those garbage bags, that time will not decay’). Rubbish, Farley and Roberts write, may be encountered here, often in surreal juxtaposition:

A fly-tipped sofa in a corner of a turnip field; an electric cooker rusting under a bridge arch; a mattress anywhere open to the elements. We see things on their journey through from one category to another, often losing their identities in the process, as in 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 used to be something with knobs on,
And now they live here, by the siding, the fishhouse,
The building whose function is no longer known.

Eileen Inlanding, Edgelands sofa

Eileen Inlanding, Edgelands Sofa

Keith Arnatt, Boiler fuel

Keith Arnatt, Boiler Fuel

On the subject of decomposing rubbish, Farley and Roberts quote a poem by Jean Sprackland, one of a sequence inspired by the East Lancs Road (which, before the M62, was the main route into Liverpool from Manchester; I remember many traverses of the road as a hitch-hiking student in the sixties). Specifically the poems were Sprackland’s response to the detritus thrown or dropped from cars or ‘washed up on the shores of the central reservation’:

The rag-and-bone man would give away a balloon
 in exchange for a broken saucepan
 or a coat riddled by moths.
 My mum boiled the bones clean for soup first
 and kept the best rags for the floor.
 There’s no currency mean enough round here
 for trading in ring-pulls and plastic bottles,
 the loops that hold beer cans together,
 the polystyrene panels a fridge comes packed in.
 You can buy a roll of fifty black sacks for a pound.
 They hang flapping in trees and no one bothers to free them.

One road leads to another.  You know that convoluted bit of motorway where the M5 joins the M6? Have you ever wondered, the authors ask, what lies beneath? Most drivers, they write, are fixed only on the roadside landmarks – ‘the iconic Dunlop building, the muscular, futuristic shapes of the electricity subs station, the RAC Control Centre jutting out over the traffic like the prow of a flagship’.  But underneath this long, extended bridge, this complex of flyovers, is another world. This is the world of Tarkovsky’s dystopian film Stalker: dark, damp, intense and menacing.

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

Laura Gale, Underneath the M5

A painter (not mentioned in the book) who has explored this territory is Shaun Morris. He has produced a series of nocturnes  framed by the motorway pillars and lit by unnatural light of the night-time motorway. They represent a response to the ‘necropolis of motorway pillars’ explored by Farley and Roberts.

Shaun Morris, Edgelands charcoal

Shaun Morris, ‘Edgelands’, charcoal (click to enlarge)

On his blog recently, Morris wrote about returning at night to a favourite location underneath the M5 between Oldbury and West Bromwich with photographer Laura Gale (one of her atmospheric images can be seen at the top of this post):

You enter a very intense, visually rich and murky world, that is at once quite frightening in it’s scale and darkness and with the noise of the traffic above, yet simultaneously beautiful and otherworldly. This otherworldly quality was further enhanced by the still water of the canal and the enormous, crystal clear reflections of the underbelly of the motorway. It looked like you were viewing a giant sunken ship in the water. It was quite deathly and unsettling.

Shaun Morris, Nocturne

Shaun Morris, Nocturne

In the chapter on ‘Wasteland’ I learnt that the buddleia, the archetypal marker of edgelands territory, gets its name from a 17th century botanist, Adam Buddle.  It was a plant then recently imported from Latin America; now it has colonised huge swathes of unchecked, uncultivated land around our towns and cities.  It’s a chapter that begins with buddleia, meanders via the photos of Don McCullin and Julian Trevelyan, the paintings of Michael Landy and edgelands honey, before arriving, inevitably, at TS Eliot: ‘poet of the city’ and representative of how, between the wars, ‘the idea of the wasteland seeped into British art like a brown fog’.

The authors note that Don McCullin, in photos made in the 1960s and 1970s, was “one of the greatest artists of our cities’ wastelands”.  They draw attention, particularly to an image taken in Liverpool 8 in 1961:

Two young boys, about ten years old, stand on a classic piece of wasteland, strewn with bricks, stones, abandoned cars and bits of industrial machinery.  A row of houses stands in the background, some smashed and empty, though one still has painted window frames and curtains.  One boy looks across at the camera, straight at us, but the other is coiled backwards like a longbow at full draw, blurred with speed.  He has a stone in his hand. This could be one of many traditional wasteland games: throwing stones at bottles, throwing stones at windows, throwing stones at passers-by.  But such is the strength of his backward arch that his stone will fly over the bottle, over the coal yard, out of the wasteland, out of Liverpool to drop in the icy shallows of the Irish Sea.

Julian Trevelyan, Rubbish May be Shot Here, 1937

Half a century earlier the painter and photographer Julian Trevelyan was working in Bolton for the Mass Observation project founded by Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings:

He photographed a world of chimneys and rubbish heaps and rubble-strewn earth, of allotments and fences, the industrial dereliction where the people of Bolton existed, isolated figures moving through a desolate landscape or rummaging on tips. But his most striking work was made using collage. Using magazine cuttings, newsprint and paper, he recycled pieces of the ephemeral world to create images of the same dumps and pylon fields, standing pools and factories with their smoking chimneys. Trevelyan’s wastelands are dynamic places, alive as a result of their indeterminacy; their fragments appear caught in a kind of unresolved tension. They suggest to us a new way of looking at an ignored landscape, neither grimy documentary realistic nor entirely whimsical and surreal, but occupying a border territory in between.

Bolton mills, 1937, Julian Trevelyan

Julian Trevelyan, Bolton Mills, 1937

The artist Michael Landy (he’s the guy who famously destroyed all his possessions in Break Down, leaving himself with only the clothes he stood in) was drawn to wasteland, too.  He turned his attention to weeds, the common but overlooked denizens of the edgelands that he preferred to call ‘street flowers’, producing a series of etchings under the title Nourishment.  Here were the flowers that flourish on waste ground and in the cracks in the pavement: groundsel, herb robert, toadflax and creeping buttercup. Like Richard Mabey, he celebrated their names, neglected histories, medicinal qualities and the meanings that people used to attach to them: Canadian Fleabane hitched a boat-ride across the Atlantic to colonise these shores; Oxford Ragwort jumped the wall of the city’s Botanical Gardens to run wild, and hybridised with the native species.

Creeping Buttercup

Michael Landy, Creeping Buttercup, 2002

In ‘Ruins’, the authors meditate on how deeply the ruins of Britain’s industrial past have entered the collective consciousness: a favourite location for TV crime dramas and photo shoots:

Pieces of broken glass click underfoot. Every few paces, the floor becomes spongy with pads of mosses, until eventually you’re standing on a hard and level surface. The air smells cold and musty, uncirculated, tinged with motor oil, mildew, brick dust, black unguents. Somewhere high above there’s the ghost applause of a pigeon, before – a hundred yards or so in front of you – you hear the harsh metallic rattle of big shutters being rolled open. The screech of a car means you can feel the size of the echoing emptiness you’re standing in; the engine draws near, nearer. Even though you’re wearing a blindfold, you know this place. You’ve been inside here before many times.

Tim Edensor 1

Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins

Farley and Roberts cite the work of geographer Tim Edensor, a connoisseur of industrial ruins (British Industrial Ruins is one of two websites he has dedicated to the subject).  Edensor says:

Most studies of ruins have concentrated on the noble piles of classical antiquity […]. Yet the 20th century has produced more ruins than ever before, whether through warfare or as a remorseless, short term-oriented capitalism turns solid things and places into air, rendering the contents and activities housed within industrial buildings instantaneously obsolete. In Britain, at the end of the 1970’s and through the eighties, the government of Margaret Thatcher allowed ‘market forces’ full reign, promoting an orgy of real estate speculation which produced a reconstructed industrial landscape. But not everywhere was able to capitalise on this economic reconstruction and in many areas, as old industries died, the buildings that housed them lay dormant and empty. This process persists and the material legacy of the industrial revolution, in the form of ruins, can still be found in most British cities.

Tim Edensor 2

Tim Edensor, British Industrial Ruins

Somewhere in the book the authors, appropriately, quote Phillip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’:

But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure.

Something of that poem’s sensibility permeates ‘In Praise of Flaking Walls’ in Michael Symmons Roberts new collection Drysalter:
To be alive is to throw shadows.
No mere ghost could obstruct the light
like we do. This much we know:
that to be made incarnate
is to be as solid as this limewashed wall,
t0 come from rumour, hope, to weight.
We  know  that  sheets  of stucco  crumble
under frost and sun, that every flaw
is nailed by lichen, that all
this is provisional. We know more:
that such beautiful distress – a stone
wall turned to mud and straw –
will be mirrored in our own,
that mountains will give way to snow,
that light will look through us again.

You come across all kinds of stuff in the edgelands – which is perhaps why this book by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts ultimately feels a bit like a bag of odds and ends picked up along a path across the terrain. Some of the pieces collected here are brilliant, and taken as a whole I rate this as one of the most stimulating and evocative books that I’ve read recently.  I think Geoff Dyer puts it fairly at the close of his FT review:

Inevitably, some components of the edgelands prove more creatively productive than others. Overall, though, the book can be fairly represented by any particular part of it. The effect is cumulative only in the sense that the pieces mount up. It’s not just that there is no sense of a developing argument; there is an absolute lack – and I mention this as a shortcoming precisely because I am the kind of reader for whom this is not a priority – of any kind of narrative drive. Two-thirds of the way through, it becomes evident that Edgelands is never going to be more than the sum of its parts – but the parts are often terrific.

See also

Paul Farley: Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4M646Bju69I

A walk in the edgelands: along the Garston shore

A walk in the edgelands: along the Garston shore

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. […]

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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.

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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.

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Gallery

See also