Here are some thoughts and development images from my trip to Sheffield in January
Across Britain new marina developments are springing up and waterfront flats have tempted ‘urban professional’ to move back to the heart of their hometowns. I’d seen on my journey how from Glasgow to Plymouth, cities have begun to fall back in love with their once neglected riversides. Regeneration of the waterfront has undoubtedly been one of the major changes to our cities.
Concretopia, by John Grindrod (2013)
This is only partly true for Sheffield, once you leave the confines of the city centre with it’s new hotels and cladding covered flats. You are confronted by a still inhabited industrial belt, complete with steel works, gently hugging the course of the River Don.
From the twelfth floor of Sheffield University’s ‘Arts Tower’, the tight corridor of warehouses, recycling works, scaffolders, and the inevitable dodgy car body shop, is clear to see snaking through the cities heart. All the way to the pinnacle of man existence, Meadowhall Shopping Centre. Which like all true regenerative cathedrals of commerce can hold the claim to have once been the largest in the country, and far grander than Sheffield’s true centre of religion, the Cathedral, tucked between shops on the city centres main concourse.
An excellent book on the regeneration of Sheffield, including the building of Meadowhall is by John Darwell and is available from Café Royal Books.
The reason for Sheffield’s reluctance to embrace the waterfront may have to do with the floods of 2007, when a large section of the Rive Don Burst it’s banks, leaving part of the city underwater. This lead to a hug amount of tidy of the river by the environment agency to alleviate the risk of future flooding and creating an area on calmness at the heart of the city.
The week from Monday 25th of June 2007 will be forever remembered by the People of the Sheffield and Rotherham. Two People sadly died and many had the stress of getting home, worrying about loved ones that were stranded or just late in returning home. RAF air crews were scrambled to winch stranded workers of Factory roofs as the River Don burst it’s banks and reclaiming it’s flood Plain. Meadowhall became flooded, Railways flooded and public transport suspended. In Brightside, a rescue boat was used to rescue stranded workers. Steering past abandoned cars that were being washed away during it’s journey.
Up Market Apartments on Nursery Street and Corporation Street became down market in a matter of hours as flood water swept through them. The journey home for some took hours if it could be completed at all. If not, emergency accommodation was set up in places like Hallam University. Hillsborough flooded and a substation blew plunging the area into darkness. Over night the Ulley Reservoir wall was damaged. The flood waters leading to fears of collapse and people having to be rushed to safety. The nearby Motorway the M1 had to closed while the nearby Power cables meant Sheffield and the local area could plunge into darkness. As the flood waters moved downstream other rivers burst their banks possibly claiming another life in Doncaster. press quote about the 2007 flood
At two other ends of the cities river network stand Sheffield’s other two religious icons, Bramall Lane, Hillsbury.
Football is Sheffield’s true religion as I have been reminded by films like When Saturday Comes (1996) and from my trip into the Millennium Museum, which proudly sold a range of t-shirts displaying Sheffield importance to the beautiful game.
Sheffield is home to the two oldest clubs in the world, the home of the first derby, and the home to the original rules to the sport.
Sheffield FC’s contribution to the modern game cannot be overstated. It is the first and oldest football club that sought to bring order from chaos. The original rules for the world’s most popular sport were written by ‘The Club’ at the height of the industrial revolution. The City of Sheffield’s backdrop was that of forges, smoke and molten steel.
Established on October 24th 1857 in the industrial north of England, Sheffield FC is the birth place of the most popular game in the world.
Not only are SFC recognised by the English FA as the oldest football club in the world, they are also one of only two clubs to be honoured, along with Real Madrid, by FIFA with an Order of Merit Award. Both clubs received this recognition as part of FIFA’s Centennial Celebrations in Paris 2004.
‘Sheffield FC is a symbol of the role of football as a common denominator in the community and society.’ FIFA
Hallam FC founded in 1860 (the world’s second oldest club). Hallam still play on their original ground, Sandygate Road, which is officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as ‘The Oldest Ground in the World’.
In 1860, Hallam first played Sheffield in a local derby which is still contested today. This ‘Rules Derby’ is considered the oldest, still-contested derby of any football code in the world, and is probably one of the oldest organised team-sport derbies in the world (besides those found in cricket).
Bramall Lane is the oldest stadium in the world which still hosts professional football matches. It opened on the 30th of April 1855 as a cricket ground and was, in its first 7 years, only used for cricket purposes. The first football match at the ground was played on the 29th of December 1862 when Sheffield FC took on Hallam FC (the match lasted three hours and resulted in a goalless draw). As Sheffield’s main sporting stadium of the time, it held all the most important local matches.
In 1867, Hallam FC made football history when they won The Youdan Cup; the world’s first ever organised football tournament, beating fellow Sheffield club Norfolk in the final at Bramall Lane. They still possess this historic trophy.
This was followed by the Cromwell Cup a year later, which was won by a newly formed team called ‘The Wednesday’. By 1877, a crowd of 8,000 watched The Wednesday beat Hallam FC in the Sheffield Challenge Cup. Bramall Lane effectively became The Wednesday’s permanent home between 1880 and the opening of their new stadium at Olive Grove in 1887, but since 1889 it has been the home of Sheffield United FC.
The following images were taken in January on a Canon DSLR as development images. I walked the River Don path from the city centre to Meadowhall, while killing time waiting for my train back to Norwich (as a student I’m too cheap to buy a ticket to travel during normal hours, so spend my life waiting till after 7pm to get a cheap fare).
one of the things that really struck me was how alive the city was in terms of small industry, the big steel works might be all but gone but it has open the way for smaller enterprises. One of the things I’m intrigued about is exploring some of these businesses and the people that work there.
Another thing I spotted is how many of these business seem to be built on the foundation of previous establishments, recycling building fragments into parts of their properties.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, as you can see from the earlier OS map the industrial corridor covers a wide area between the Don and the canal on the other side of the Don Valley Stadium complex and entertainment park. I look forward to returning in the future with my large format camera to really get to know the area. As well as hopefully spending less time swearing about out of focus images (I didn’t have my tripod with me).
For just over the last week I have been struggling to sit down and write, it’s one those moments that I just can’t think of anything constructive to say. It’s is linked to the fact that twitter keeps throwing up interesting people and blogs concerned with psychogeography and I’m hit by the amount of really exciting work that is already happening and I’m struck with doubt in the validity of what I’m doing and trying to say.
This would no doubt of been helped if after last weeks time spent in the Thames Gateway I had been able to develop my films and hold a tangible piece of research. However film as I am readily reminded by everyone (especially while out in the field trying to explain what a large format camera is) is a dying entity, and increasingly difficult to get commercially developed. While my local Snappy Snaps is able to run 120 through their machines in an hour, I am very reticent to trust their level of service. So instead I either have to use uni or Metro in London, the downside to this is I have to wait until either I am visiting London for a meeting, or have enough film to make the trip financially worth while.
In an attempt to kick-start some ideas again, I have been going through old notes written in my notebook and was struck by one fundamental idea; how do you define the character of a place? So welcome to what in my original plans should have been my first real post after the introduction.
First of all we have to question what place even is. To most people, at least on first thought, it is a physical geographic entity, we have to think of it like that to ground us, ‘I am here, in this place’. In this case Purfleet, opposite Feederz mini mart.
But I stop and take a breath, allowing my mind to wander, slowly I start to pick up on sounds that a few seconds ago where an ambient jumble of noise, I start to smell my surroundings. Now that place is a collection of sensory stimuli, unique to that point and time, transitory, but also a defining characteristic of the location.
As I’m setting up my camera on it’s tripod, a security guard comes over to speak to me, I’m expecting the usual hassle of trying to explain why I’m standing on a patch of grass owned by Esso, outside of the Purfleet Thames Terminal. Instead he starts to talk to me about my camera, which in turn leads to a discussion about my PhD topic. We chat for five minutes and he talks candidily about leaving Ghana to come to the UK, and having to take any job he can get as companies are worried about his foreign qualifications. Place is now about people and their stories, how they are affected by the local, regional and national (micro, meso and macro levels of analysis) socioeconomic politics.
Place is no longer a single geographic entity. To explore it we have to be open to all of these ideas.
Certainly Place is something more often sensed than understood, an indistinct region of awareness rather than something clearly defined. ‘Place’ has no fixed identity, as places themselves do not.
Place, Tacita Dean & Jeremy Miller (2005)
As a photographer, working merely on the visual senses this was something that caused me problems. In early discussions surrounding the PhD I used to joke that the easiest way of doing this work would be to take a group of people to each location and let them experience it. However I chose to go into the arts as I am interested in exploring the world and presenting my curated reading of it. There are many fine academics, sociologists, ethnographers, geographers and artists who are leading walking tours of locations, and this is brilliant, but just not for me at this moment. So how do I produce a more experiential ‘image’ of the Place.
Amy Hanley and Rick Dargavel from Manchester School of Architecture Intimate Cities, edgeland program introduced me to the work of Professor Doreen Massey and her writing on a Sense of Place, ‘First… we understand space as the product of interrelations: as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny… Second, that we understand space… as the sphere in which different trajectories coexist [plurality]… Third, that we understand space as always under construction.’
• places do not have single identities but multiple ones.
• places are not frozen in time, they are processes.
• places are not enclosures with a clear inside and outside.
In a Podcast interview with Social Science Space Massey talks about the idea of physical space being alive.
“A lot of what I’ve been trying to do over the all too many years when I’ve been writing about space is to bring space alive, to dynamize it and to make it relevant, to emphasize how important space is in the lives in which we live.
Most obviously I would say that space is not a flat surface across which we walk; Raymond Williams talked about this: you’re taking a train across the landscape – you’re not traveling across a dead flat surface that is space: you’re cutting across a myriad of stories going on. So instead of space being this flat surface it’s like a pincushion of a million stories: if you stop at any point in that walk there will be a house with a story.
Raymond Williams spoke about looking out of a train window and there was this woman clearing the grate, and he speeds on and forever in his mind she’s stuck in that moment. But actually, of course, that woman is in the middle of doing something, it’s a story. Maybe she’s going away tomorrow to see her sister, but really before she goes she really must clean that grate out because she’s been meaning to do it for ages. So I want to see space as a cut through the myriad stories in which we are all living at any one moment. Space and time become intimately connected.”
The idea of space and time being linked is at the heart of contemporary ‘Ian Sinclair’ psychogeography.
Sinclair’s peculiar form of historical and geographical research displays none of the rigour of psychogeographical theory and is overlaid by a mixture of autobiography and literary eclecticism… London’s topography is reconstituted through a superimposition of local and literary history, autobiographical elements and poetic preoccupations, to create an idiosyncratic and highly personal vision of the city.
Psychogeography, Merlin Coverley (2010)
This form of psychogeography and it’s issues as a sole means of research has been written about by the spatial filmmaker Patrick Kieller, famous for his Robinson trilogy of films were he knowingly subverts the educated middle class hang ups of Sinclairian psychogeography with the creation of a fictitious ‘disenfranchised, would-be intellectual, petit bourgeois part-time lecturer’.
Through the character of Robinson, Kieller is able to at times knowingly satirise the role psychogeographer as self obsessed auto ethnographer, while at the same time using the method as a means of interrogation. ‘Pschogeography was conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seem more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods’. Ultimately highlighting the danger that all art concerned with Place can fall foul of, the danger of the artist acting as a colonialist, ‘capturing’ places that they find fascinating.
MSA’s Intimate Cities program proposed a method of research gathering to start to analyse Place; Eyewitness, Ear Witness, Interviewer, and Cartographer. It is their opinion that no one method of data gathering can explore a system as complex as the idea of Place, and it needs to be tackled through a multidisciplinary method. This is something that the traditional still image is very bad at, be it in a book or gallery wall it only offers a two dimensional representation of a multi dimensional space. For years I have struggled to come to terms with the limitations of the medium and have grown frustrated by it. Both sound arts and the moving image have been born out of collaborative practices. Combining multiple elements to give a more rounded reading of a locale.
The Sound work of Angus Carlyle in pieces such as Air Pressure (2012) and Peter Cusack’s Sounds from Dangerous Places (2012) combine photography, storytelling and psychogeographical elements in their chosen publication methods.
While the moving image work of Patrick Kieller, the Films of Saint Etienne
and the most recent documentary/ music collaboration of Karl Hyde and Keiran Evans in the project Edgelands/ The Outer Edges (2013) blend multiple disciplines to create a reading of Place.
I would argue that technology advances have allowed more photographers to start transcending the traditional boundaries of their practice, and methods of self publication have allowed them to take risks with the presentation of work that commercial galleries and book publishers would have found difficult to sell. Examples of this range From Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen’s Sochi Project, which blended photography, interviews, moving image and psychogeography to explore the complex area of the southern Russian Caucasses.
To David Dufresne & Philippe Brault’s Prison Valley (2010) which explores Cañon City, 16% of the Cañon City population is inside prison; it is an economy based almost entirely upon incarceration. Cañon City has a population of 36,000 and 13 prisons, one of which is Supermax, the new ‘Alcatraz’ of America. The new Supermax was described by former warden, Robert Hood, as “a clean version of hell.”
Purposefully designed as a web based project and “Web Documentary”. To view the film beyond its introduction you must sign in with either your Twitter or Facebook social network accounts. Once signed in the website will bounce you between a mixture of multimedia, interviews, photo-galleries, non-sequitur video clips and auxiliary documents. The documentary canvases opinion from various characters who the filmmakers meet along the way. ‘When we first started this project. We didn’t really think about shooting video. Of course, we planned to to film our interviews, but that was pretty much it. We were thinking that we would be working with photography above everything else’. World press awards judges described it in their first multimedia contest as a ‘Magnus opus visually, conceptually and in terms of the information and reporting offered’.
Both of these examples along with Karl Hyde and Keiran Evans are complemented through a strong web presence and allow the creation of interactive, explorable, curated archives.
A group from London took an alternative approach to exploring Place, Learning from Kilburn (2013-14), which they describe as:
A tiny experimental university with its curriculum rooted in Kilburn, nw6. The university will use the high road and its hinterland as a campus, occupying a number of locations for classes initially running from October 2013 to April 2014.
Weekly classes will study what makes Kilburn what it is, led by a range of artists, architects, writers and thinkers. Each class will ask a single question, looking at one thing at a time in order to understand Kilburn as a whole. The university wants to know what Kilburn looks like, where it starts and finishes, how money works in Kilburn, whether Kilburn even exists, where Kilburn is going.
Over a period of months the pop-up university has run a series of classes ranging from evening seminars, too traditional lectures, and daylong practical assignments run by collection of lecturers from differing academic and artistic backgrounds.
My practice proposes the creation of an archive of materials ranging from photography, moving image, field sound recording, and interviews as well as mapping the locales through writing. I hope like Learning from Kilburn to be able to develop the work into a wider entity and utilise the input of others into the work.
This is in conflict with the traditional architectural view of Place, which many of us can agree often has a blinkered view of the wider world that proposal inhabit. Speaking to one of my old housemates who is now a landscape architect he told me about having to perform ‘Landscape Character Assessments’ on sites during the proposal phase.
Our appreciation and understanding of landscapes have increased over time, partly as the result of our need and desire to record, understand, influence and manage change.
Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) is one tool that helps in that understanding, and is defined as:
“The tool that is used to help us to understand, and articulate, the character of the landscape. It helps us identify the features that give a locality its ‘sense of place’ and pinpoints what makes it different from neighbouring areas.”
Landscape Character Assessment: Guidance for England and Scotland, The Countryside Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage, (2002)
LCA can be used in many situations, for example in devising indicators to gauge landscape change and to inform regional planning, local development, environmental assessment and the management of protected landscapes.
Ultimately this kind of analysis produces very limited data and is concerned with categorisation of space through a series of typologies. These are produced by Natural England as National Character Areas, and divide England into 159 distinct natural areas. Each is defined by a unique combination of landscape, biodiversity, geodiversity and cultural and economic activity. Their boundaries follow natural lines in the landscape rather than administrative boundaries, making them a supposed good decision making framework for the natural environment.
So the five regions that I’m concentrating on can be defined through the following character types
I am happy to admit that they do have their merits, but the point I, and others are trying to make is that no one method of data collection is correct, in fact to even think of it as quantifiable data is wrong, these are living breathing places. Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy stated in his book General Systems Theory (1968) ‘complex phenomena cannot be reduced to the discrete properties of the various parts, but must be inderstood according to the arrangement of and the relations between the parts that create a whole. It is the particular organisation that determines the system, rather than it’s discreet parts.’
The French have a term in wine making to describe the complex land properties that go into making wines, that I first came across in 2006 on the BBC’s “Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure”,
‘Terroir’, the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. This is often described as Gout de terroir,” which can roughly translate to “taste of the soil,” “taste of the earth” and “sense of place”. It defines a sensory profile, in aroma, taste and tactile sensation that is common to wines grown in the same terroir. To the French, terroir includes the soil, the climate and topography, three conditions that are inseparable.
It got me thinking that could this word be adapted from complex Sense of Place system to another, does an Urban Terroir exist. Some research lead me to a few blog posts on the issue.
‘Terroir’ is not a word to be found in a Dictionary of Human Geography, but geographer Tim Unwin (2012) locates the notion of terroir “at the heart of Geography”. A recent article from The New York Times entitled ‘Vive le Terroir’ reappeared in the International Herald Tribune as ‘A sense of place that defies globalization’. The narrative introduces a family who reside in the rural village of Castelnau de Montmiral, South West France. It explains the family’s deep and emotional connection to the land (Jérôme is a farmer), to the extent that one “knows every inch, every stone, and which parcels are for what”. It describes terroir. The article defines terroir as a concept “almost untranslatable, combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and particularity – of roots, and home – in contrast to globalized products designed to taste the same everywhere”. The elements of soil, weather and region are important here, but the quotation also captures notions that are keenly geographical: roots and home (dwelling perhaps), as well as authenticity and genuineness. The ideas also capture a sense of knowing a place through practice and performance, as well as debates that examine local and global geographies of food production and consumption. The idea of terroir then, is not all that distant from geographical concepts, and may be useful as a tool for capturing a notion more deeply in qualitative or ethnographic research at the micro-level.
Knowing ‘Terroir’: a Sense of Place, Fiona Ferbrache
It is therefore an important idea to use to interrogate the urban environment and a means to discuss the very complex factors that have gone into forming the system as we experience it.
The geography, climate, history and structure of a place impart special meaning on a city. Perhaps most closely linked to the structure, scale and density that make up a spaces’ urban fabric, urban terroir refers to the elements that make up the conditions of our urban spaces. Thus, the feeling of New York City’s is distinct from that of Boston; just as being in Denver feels different from being in Austin.
Another way of looking at terroir is the parts of a city we can influence. Just as a farmer carefully nurtures and cultivates his or her soil, a city can influence its structure and history. Indeed urban terroir posits human cultivation, and cultivation in an urban sense is how a city becomes “our space.”
What gives terroir importance compared to words like ‘density’ or ‘fabric’ is its holistic nature. Urban terroir explicitly includes both humanity and nature and we cannot treat it unconnected from either. Indeed, each is intrinsic to terroir and the reason we cultivate it. Simply focusing on static features such as structure and scale lack this holistic connotation.
While the built form of the city can be static, or dead, its terroir is constantly evolving. As with all living things, terroir is subject to both discrete human intervention and to larger economic and climatic patterns as well as the relationship these factors form. As a mix of the found and the cultivated, urban terroir can be improved, revived, diminished, and even destroyed. Whatever affects it—such as scale—becomes part of the terroir, nurtured both for its own sake and for what it can give to what we want to achieve and to sustain in our cities.
Urban Terroir: The Qualities of a City, Yuri Artibise
As with all things, a sense of Place is a subjective idea, experience (of a place) is personal and depends on the individual personal characteristics, just like Place we are all a complex system informed by similar factors. Take an idea like experiencing a colour, I am colour blind my experiences of red is probably very different to someone else’s, but I know it’s red because that is what I have been told. But then the same applies to the resulting experience of your representations (the curated artwork etc.). Your reading will be coloured by your experiences. All you can do is produce your reading and then let the world respond to it. There is no right and wrong answer, the same, as ultimately you can’t map the character of a location.
To use a ham-fisted analogy, the idea of Place suddenly exhibits some of the basic characteristics of quantum mechanics, were things can exist in multiple states simultaneously, this is often explained with the idea of Shroedinger’s Cat. In the hypothetical experiment, which the physicist devised in 1935, a cat is placed in a sealed box along with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. If the Geiger counter detects that the radioactive material has decayed, it will trigger the smashing of the bottle of poison and the cat will be killed. Quantum mechanics suggests the radioactive material can have simultaneously decayed and not decayed in the sealed environment, then it follows the cat too is both alive and dead until the box is opened. Up until the point of observation it exists in multiple states, but once observed becomes a fix entity. Our idea of Place is such a complex system that it exists in multiple states/ readings, until observed by an individual, at which point it becomes an entity but just for that individual at that time. This is fine as long as we are aware there is no such thing as objectivity in art, only the individuals curated reading.
If we think of the French concept of terrior being a process in which physical characteristics act on plants, whilst this can be experienced subjectively as a flavour, that flavour will be subject to an individuals variations of palate and likes or dislike of certain aspects.
Are people, and places like plants? Are these complex systems growing, absorbing, being shaped by and then in turn shaping their environment in this way?
Terroir is an evolving context, subject to human intervention and to the vicissitudes of nature in a larger sense. It evolves, but the pace of evolution of its different elements can vary radically. As a mix of the found and the cultivated, terroir can be improved, revived, diminished, and even destroyed.
We use words like structure, scale, density, and fabric to describe the urban context, but these are all elements of something larger. By calling this “something larger” terroir, we raise the possibility of cultivation, but against a deeper background—the regional ecosystem in which a city is situated. Terroir could also be said to be that part of nature we can influence. Thus its boundaries are potentially vast. Exurbia* (read Subtopian Edgeland), the embodiment of our economically and culturally divided society, is also a byproduct of a cultivation strategy that treats social displacement in its different forms as an externality. The question of who cultivates, and why, is as legitimate for city making as it is for farming, fishing, or forestry.
John J. Parman
*(Sociology) US the region outside the suburbs of a city, consisting of residential areas exurbs that are occupied predominantly by rich commuters exurbanites
What’s blue, red, and blue? I’ll give you a hint; it’s not Cardiff City FC.
I spent Thursday and Friday at West Thurrock and around the area known as the Thames Gateway, starting to photograph and explore some ideas for my first case study/ site-specific body of work.
It is fair to say that I have been obsessed with the idea of the Thames Gateway for a number of years, ever since I first visited the evocatively named Isle of Grain in 2005. At the time I was going through a period stress following the discovery that I was failing my photography degree and had three weeks to turn it around or I would be asked to leave the course. Due to the increased stress, an idea got under my skin; it started off just being about the industrial landscape, but over the years became refined and increasingly politically motivated.
The Thames Gateway was New Labour’s flagship regeneration scheme, in reality it built upon a plan started under the last days of John Major’s Conservative government surrounding HS1, then simply known by the far less “cool” Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The original plan for HS1 had it going under South London by Tunnel to an underground international terminus near Kings Cross. This plan was rejected in favour of a plan to send the line through East London to St Pancras. The plan was Michael Hesaltine’s legacy to urbanism, he saw that the East End of London had some of the poorest wards in the UK and was ripe for regeneration.
The label ‘Thames Gateway’ is said to have been coined by Michael Heseltine while being given a helicopter tour of East London and the lower Thames. With a bird’s-eye view, Heseltine became convinced that the whole area – over 40 miles of river bank and floodplain stretching from the London Docklands to the Thames Estuary, and traversing some 16 local authority boundaries and three government regions – needed to be treated as a single strategic whole.
As Heseltine rightly saw, the area badly needed investment and regeneration. Where the Thames to the west of London has an almost Arcadian quality that has long attracted wealthy settlers, the area to the East was given over to docklands and industry. It was bombed heavily during the Second World War, and as the docks declined and industry and population fell away, an area which was already poor and environmentally degraded took a further toll.
Whatever happened to the Thames Gateway? By Ben Rogers on 12th April 2013
The project expanded hugely under New Labour and became one of four poster boys for regeneration set out in it’s Sustainable Communites Plan (2003). Along with plans for Milton Keynes, Ashford, and the ‘Peterborough-Stansted-Cambridge’ corridor, The Thames Gateway was by far the most ambitious, which ultimately played a major part in its downfall. The plan for the Thames gateway called for the building of 91,000 new houses in a 70km window by 2016.
By 2020, London Thames Gateway will be a destination of choice for living and working. It will form a new city within a city, with a well-designed mixture of houses, a range of job opportunities, excellent social and cultural infrastructure and good transport connections to the rest of London, South East England and Europe.
Tapping into the development potential of the Thames Gateway will help to accommodate London’s growth without encroaching on green field sites or the Green Belt, will deliver significant quantities of affordable housing, and will improve quality of life through integrated social, environmental and economic revitalisation for existing communities.
Public sector agencies, and local and regional authorities, will work with the private sector to build new housing that is integrated with – and reflects the character of – East London’s existing communities, that centres on hubs served by new and existing public transport, and that is designed to include buildings and public space of the highest quality.
London Thames Gateway Development and Investment Framework
In reality very little of the proposed development ever came into existence and that which did was either for the 2012 Olympic development or off the back of pre existing conservative projects; the millennium Dome and surrounding Greenwich peninsular, or HS1. The below table of development in the Thames Gateway region is taken from Wikipedia, so it needs to be considered on the correct level, but it does give an overview of the project.
The current coalition government quietly sidelined the Thames Gateway project when it wound up New Labour’s regional development agencies in favor of local government oversight. My original intentions for the Thames Gateway section of my PhD was to explore the legacy of this project on the region, the affects of a series of disjointed infrastructure decision taken and altered by a series of governments, whose first mandate is always to ignore what has been put in place by the opposition before them and start again.
Given all of this, I was incredibly surprised when George Osbourne’s announcement surrounding Ebbsfleet Garden City came out. What surprised me further was the choice of language.
We’re also for the first time in a hundred years going to build a garden city in Ebbsfleet, in the Thames Estuary. This means morehomes, this means more aspiration for families. This means economic security and economic resilience because Britain has got to get building.
In Ebbsfleet, well the initial plans will be for 15,000 homes. I’ve spoken to the
local MPs. They’re enthusiastic about it. We know that local people want to see the regeneration. We’ve got a high speed stop actually on the high speed line to the Channel Tunnel, so it’s closely linked to London, and it will be …
(over) Fifteen thousand is a huge amount, isn’t it?
Well it will be a proper garden city. It’s not something this country’s attempted for decades. But that’s one of the messages of my Budget. You know Britain has to up its ambition, Britain has to upits game, Britain has to earn its way in the world. Yes the economy is recovering, but that is not enough. We’ve got to finish the job.
I don’t want to be offensive in any sense to Ebbsfleet, but a lot of people have said that this or thought that this new garden city would be in Oxfordshire or somewhere up in the richer parts of the country. Why have you chosen Ebbsfleet?
Well Ebbsfleet, there is the land available, there is fantastic infrastructure with a high speed line. It’s on the river. It’s in the South East of England where a lot of the housing pressure has been and, crucially, you’ve got local communities and local MPs who support the idea. We’re going to create an urban
development corporation, so we’re going to create the instrument that allows this kind of thing to go ahead – in other words sort of cuts through a lot of the obstacles that often happen when you want to build these homes.
Will we see turf cut before the Election?
Well I hope we will get go… There are already some homes being built on the site, so actually progress was underway but it was on a much much smaller scale and with much less ambition than what I’m setting out today. You know I think this is … When you look at Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City or Milton Keynes, you know our predecessors, they had the ambition to build for Britain.
My first issue is the use of the term first Garden City in 100 years; suddenly we are removing the whole new town movement and all its supposed negative connotations. Instead we have tapped into the concept of the rural idyll and a mock historical vernacular. John Grindrod in his book Concretopia (2013) describes the Garden city movement as being ‘The Britain of bucolic railway posters, those mythmaking images where the latest locomotives were seamlessly blended into the rolling landscape, as if they had always been there’. Even the supposedly politically independent think tank Centre for London, starts referring to the East, West London divide, where the Thames to the west of London has an almost Arcadian quality that has long attracted wealthy settlers, the area to the East was given over to docklands and industry. To use the term Arcadian suggest that only the semi rural or ‘Rurban’ is an acceptable, aspirational method of development.
The apparent separation of Garden Cities and New towns in George Osbourne’s mind suggest that he has no knowledge of what he is tapping into or worse a deliberate spin of the history, to further distance the conservative government from left wing ideals of true regeneration as they have done with the NHS and state education. Both Garden Cities and New Towns are interconnected.
Ebenezer Howard was a Quaker and reformist who in 1898 published To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, this book would lay out plans for a third type of landscape that was neither town nor country, but instead Town-Country. Howard was repulsed by the quality of life in the slums of our industrialised cities and proposed a series of new settlements inspired by Port Sunlight and Bourneville. ‘There are in reality not only, as it is so constantly assumed, two alternatives- town life and country life, but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination’. I can’t see how a true garden city can be built in an old chalk pit next to Bluewater.
The squalid slum conditions that Howard was trying to save the working classes from, on the whole no longer exist. To me the adoption of the garden city smacks of the snobbery that existed during the new labour years, the idea of aspiration. According to New Labour and the current coalition, we are all supposed to aspire to being middle class, or at least the middle classes that Grayson Perry explored in his channel four program In The Best Possible Taste (2012). Everyone should go to university and get a degree, everyone should drive at the very least a new VW if not BMW, our homes should be decorated wholesale with Next soft furnishing. It seems to be no longer acceptable to be working class, industry is dirty, along with places like the Thames Estuary, they need to be dragged into the 21st century.
Please don’t sully the history of the Garden City and New Towns with your watered down, private finance lead ‘regeneration’. The new towns were brave developments and took an act of parliament to see them through and avoid the NIMBYism that will clearly haunt this project. They were born out of a desire to make the world a better place.
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.
This is by no means an extensive post on the subject of either New Towns or the Thames Gateway, and I still have an extensive amount of reading to do on the subject. My intention is to work on this case study over the next 6 months leading to a series of publications. I look forward to expanding on these early musings.
I have been dreading writing this post, but as my research is both ethnographic and auto ethnographic it is as much about my experiences within the locations and producing the research. I haven’t shown a completed new body of work to the public since I finished my Masters Degree in 2007, in the mean time I have been working on bits and pieces, but life has tended to get in the way.
Producing work outside of the supportive confines of academia is a very scary process and can feel very isolated, so I am intending to document the tests and shoots that go into the production of my final body of work. Hopefully this will lead to a level of discourse with the wider community and help the editing and development process, as well as giving me a place to show my visual musings.
This is one of the first development shoots that I produced on the Thames Gateway and it is of a new development in Chatham called St Mary’s Island. I first became familiar with the development during my MA at UCA Rochester. The photography department was situated on the top floor of the building and had amazing views across the Medway Valley. Our MA room had no windows or natural lighting, so I would regularly have to go out to the corridor to soak up my much needed daylight, to stop the cabin fever of constant Photoshop retouching, and to enjoy my mug of noodles. I would stand staring out of the huge picture windows, a view that took in Rochester castle and Cathedral, the huge war memorial on the headland, and carried on across the historic dockyards over to the Isle of Grain. Stuck on the edge of the peninsular was St Mary’s Island, just past the dockyards and the hanger housing Dickens World.
Aerial Photo of St Mary’s Island[/caption]
While I was struggling to find my muse, I became interested in an area on my own doorstep. One mile from the university sits the old Chatham maritime dockyard.
In the mid 1990’s, the Government announced an international competition to create a master plan for the regeneration of St. Mary’s Island, a part of the former dockyard. Of the master plans submitted, Countryside Properties’ was the most visionary and they were chosen by English Partnerships to undertake the 150-acre residential redevelopment of the island.
St. Mary’s Island is a 150-acre residential redevelopment by Countryside Maritime, a joint venture between SEEDA and Countryside Properties that forms part of the 350 acre Chatham Maritime regeneration project. The regeneration of the island was always going to be more than just a building project. It was going to be a grand scheme to create a new way of life for people who valued the simple things: tranquility, harmony and community.
St. Mary’s Island has the unique distinction of being Britain’s first and only strategically planned island community.
The architecture on the island changes according to phases of construction and were they are geographically situated on the island. The range from New England style wooden clad buildings to brick semi detached properties. I became interested in this architectural mix of styles and were they collided with one another creating juxtapositions of style.
Taken from my MA final Paper (2007)
In reality the so called ‘Island Community’ is no different from the swathe of new housing developments up and down the country. It’s mixture of housing styles is a range of buildings in a series of faux fishing and scandinavean vernaculars. It’s the kind of development that takes it cues from HRH Prince Charles’ Poundbury development, kindly described by many as a bastardised view of history, the creation of a Thomas Hardy theme village, as depicted in Steffi Klenz’s 2005 work Non Such.
The same can be said about St Mary’s Island, it has all the realism and charm of the Next door Dickens World amusement. The developers have managed to sell the notion of a place that never existed on this site, a notion that many are happy to buy into, a safe mock existence to go with their Ikea interiors.
So if there is nothing remarkable about the buildings, why my passion for the location over such a long period of time? The answer to that is in the sites history and the legacy it leaves upon the landscape. The following is taken from Countryside Properties website.
The Romans found good use for the Island, even though it was little more than a marshy swamp criss-crossed by tidal channels. They constructed a road and established a ferry route from the Island to the Hoo Pensinsular. The ferry – incongruously named Prince’s Bridge on early maps – remained in constant use right up to the final years of the last century.
The Island and St. Mary’s Creek (subsequently filled in to create the great Victorian basins we see today) – played an important part in the defence of England. Hurriedly, when an invading Dutch fleet was sighted in the summer of 1667, old ships were sunk across the creek and between St. Mary’s Island and the far bank of Upnor.
It was all to no avail, for the Dutch fleet sailed round the sunken vessels, smashed through a chain stretched from one side of the river to the other, and caused such destruction to the sheltering English fleet.
From the time of the Napoleonic wars to the end of the reign of Queen Victoria, the ox-bow reaches of the river off St. Mary’s Island were used to accommodate line upon line of hulked ships. These decommissioned naval vessels accommodated incarcerated hardened criminals and prisoners of war.
At the height of Victorian England, thousands of convicts were used to dig out St. Mary’s Creek and construct, in its place, Basins One, Two and Three. The spoil was used to create St. Mary’s Island. Completed in the 1870s, the three Basins were used by Chatham Dockyard and warships of the Royal Navy for close on 100 years. It was closed in March 1984 by the Ministry of Defence with the loss of around 7,000 jobs and left a legacy of contamination that required extensive remediation before housebuilding could even start.
The Big Clean Up
The ground levels on St. Mary’s Island were originally made up from waste materials used at the brickworks and dockyard.
English Partnerships, who were initially responsible to the Secretary of State for the Environment, set about determining the nature and level of such wastes as an absolute priority. A detailed research plan to test the ground across the whole of the Island was therefore put into effect, extensively testing and retesting soil and water samples.
Once the testing process was completed, a programme of work was begun to bring the Island up to the most stringent levels recommended by government safety guidelines. A redundant pump house was excluded from the regeneration programme only to be demolished at a later date.
Over a three year period 1.2 million cubic metres of soil was taken away from the site and replaced. The extent of the clean-up operation and the attention to detail with which it was carried out can best be illustrated by the fact that for virtually three years, every four hours, twenty-four hours a day, a train left the site carrying away soil and unwanted deposits in covered containers.
Radiological testing was carried out by the Ministry of Defence and English Partnerships and checked annually by an independent assessor.
The history as portrayed by the developers is very limited, it’s largest period of use as a royal naval dock is dealt with in one paragraph and leaves you none the wiser to it’s real use. You then get to the almost throw away sentence about yearly radiation testing by the MOD. Is this standard for all ex MOD brownfield sites or something else? In reality the three big basins at St Mary’s were used for the refitting of Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet up until the dock closed in 1984, including refuelling of the submarines reactor core. Low-level radioactive waste was buried in the Dockyard near Gillingham Pier. Medium level radioactive waste (pumps etc.) was stored in the warehouse in the same location pending offsite disposal. The spent nuclear fuel was stored in the Core Pond, and placed directly in the nuclear flasks when Windscale (now Sellafield) had capacity to deal with it. It was possible to see Cherenkov’s Glow) in the Core Pond when spent fuel was stored. The blue glow is caused by negatively charged Beta particles travelling faster than the speed of light in water.
This interesting history has lead to a lot of discussion and ‘urban rumours’ on various local history forums, the following posts are taken from http://www.kenthistoryforum.co.uk/
• Bilgerat, Re: Radio-active waste Chatham Docks
when the navy had the yard, nuclear waste was stored in the old collier dock to the right of the south lock on the map. The river end of it had been bricked up and it was filled filled with water. I remember seeing the yellow radiation warning flags on poles all around the roof they built over it. The spent fuel from the submarine reactors was taken out in crash-proof flasks on special trains in the dead of night, with armed marine guards aboard. In the late 70’s a couple of local boys who lived up the road from me, i think their surname was Dallas, made the headlines in local papers when they scaled the wall and got into the nuclear waste storage facility.
• WildWeasel, Re: Radio-active waste Chatham Docks
So, the railway line from the dockyard runs in a cutting parallel to Rosebury Road / Richmond road.. It meets the main line just East of Gillingham station…Clearly visible on Google Maps…
I grew up in this area so we used to play on the line as kids…Big clue that it was used was the fact that the rails where always clean …IE No rust….
A mate of mine ( now sadly deceased ) Lived in Brooklyn Paddock next to the Bridge over the line at Burnt Oak Terrace …He took photo’s late one night of a train coming out of the Dockyard loaded with suspect containers…
He had a visit from MOD Police and was told to ” Be carefull “…………
We know Chatham was a base heavily involved with the re-fit of Nuclear Subs…So its obvious that there would have been a need to remove waste material from the spent reactors….Taking it out by train in the middle of the night would seem to be a sensible option…
MOD Banged to rights by this and other posts…
• Ben_10000, Re: Radio-active waste Chatham Docks
Very interesting topic, it seems that as kids we used to FISH within 50 meters of a Nuclear storage dump off of Gillingham pier. Well that was until one night when all the fish washed up dead, this would have been late 70’s… Many years later there were rumours of something to do with HMS Dreadnought coming up the river glowing; she never sailed under her own power again after her last visit to Chatham. But as this happened in the dark ages (pre google) little trace remains of articles about HMS Dreadnought, she had a mysterious machinary problem (possibly secondary coolant circuit) and as then laid up.
Its odd to think that we used to live so close to a Nuclear facility (I could see it from my bedroom) and that we fought to keep it too but it was jobs I guess, my father worked in the yard for many many years. I also remember that after the dockyard closed they left low and medium level waste behind.
Best access to the rail line for us kids used to be from the wooded area behind Hillyfields School where we used to muck about and fire pears at each other, happy days ☺ and as an adult I used to commute from a station that saw Atomic waste trains overnight but it never did us any harm now did it, ☺.
• ChrisExiledFromStrood, Re: Radio-active waste Chatham Docks
So to sum up the trains…
a. when the dockyard was operating, there were occasional workings of spent fuel from the subs travelling in the dead of night* with military escorts. Those wagons were much much bigger than the ones still used today for power station waste, with a sort of double bogie arrangement at each end. The escort staff rode in converted mainline coaches.
b. after it closed, there were the trains pictured earlier in the thread, carrying low-level waste for landfill. The sort that’s basically harmless after a few years in the ground.
*there was one incident where the train derailed in Gillingham sidings and was there for all to see the following morning in broad daylight, sometime around 1980. Not a serious derailment, probably just fell off a dodgy bit of old siding at low speed. Shame I didn’t have a camera then.
While there is no danger from the sites former use (that is known of) it is clear that this isn’t the kind of history the inhabitants would expect, and as well as the physical decontamination of the site, there is also a little historical decontamination to avoid any of the hysteria that surrounds anything related to nuclear energy. The low level waste is still stored in a walled off area owned by the MOD, away from the housing development. It was originally thought to have a half-life of 25-30 years (the time needed to decompose to a safer state), but this figure is now apparently far higher based on increased levels of various radioactive compounds.
Like the rest of the Thames Gateway region, the Medway towns have an incredible amount of psychogeographic potential based on their maritime history and recent redevelopment.
The following images are all early developments, taken on a borrowed Hasselblad H2D. I am not happy with them at this stage as they are to detached from the resonance of the location, and the digital format adds a sense of hypereality that I don’t want in the images as the site study progresses. The images are designed to ape the publicity material of the developers and slowly reveal elements of it’s unfinished state and industrial neighbours. I used a longer lens than my normal wide angle to create a visual compression within the plains of the image, as an attempt to document the claustrophobia of the over developed site.
Following on from my earlier post, several of Jason Orton’s images remind me of articles I have read in the last few years regarding the Essex coastline.
Owen Hatherley describes the journey down the Thames estuary as
following the path described by Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , the riverside journey taken by the Romans to the blasted, uncivilised, inhospitable edges of the known world. It can still feel like that.
It has been the topic for a recent Jonathon Meades program The Joy of Essex (2013).
Shaped by its closeness to London, Meades points out that this is where 19th-century do-gooders attempted to reform London’s outcasts with manual labour and fresh air, from brewing magnate Frederick Charrington’s Temperance Colony on Osea Island to the Christian socialist programmes run by Salvation Army founder William Booth.
Meades also discovers a land which abounds in all strains of architecture, from the modernist village created by paternalistic shoe giant Thomas Bata to Oliver Hill’s masterplan to re-imagine Frinton-on-Sea and the bizarre but prescient work of Arthur Mackmurdo, whose exceptionally odd buildings were conceived in the full blown language of the 1930s some fifty years earlier.
In a visually impressive and typically idiosyncratic programme, Meades provides a historical and architectural tour of a county that challenges everything you thought you knew and offers so much you didn’t.
Taken from BBC4’s synopsis to The Joy of Essex (2013)
The Thames estuary has always been an area of non-conformity, with the many temperance farms of Victorian reformists and the post war plotlands movement.
The result of a specific set of circumstances, Plotlands were a peculiarly English phenomena, tied in large part to the desire to own a piece of land, no matter how small. The agricultural decline of the 1870s, brought on in part by increased imports from British colonies, resulted in farms becoming bankrupt and their land being sold off cheaply in small plots by developers. Farmers in marginal areas that had vulnerable sea-side locations or where the soil was not very fertile, such as the clay soils of Essex, were worst hit. With an increase in holidaying, buying a small plot of land to build a holiday home or set up a small holding became a popular and cheap option for Londoners wanting to escape the cramped conditions of the city.
These self-built, self-reliant settlements were often without basic services such as water and sanitation, with the owners having to petition councils, and to sometimes contribute financially towards their provision, which lead to a strong sense of community. Due to the relaxed planning regulations, the Plotlands took on a character of their own, some converted boats and railway carriages, whilst others built summerhouses; anything from discarded bits of mahogany joinery to sections of garden trellis were used. Over time people from these settlements were relocated to new towns or the areas upgraded so that they have slowly become part of the encroaching suburbia.
The strange hinterland of Essex’s haphazard and unplanned coastal communities has also been the subject for a series of national newspaper articles after Jaywick was named the most deprived in England. The Guardian’s article is a reasonably even handed piece of light ethnography, while the Daily Mail decided to run a series of grey overcast photographs of a rubbish strewn Jaywick (just in case you didn’t know what deprivation looked like).
One of my concerns, working on a body of research about interstitial sites and communities is that it will be read as a project on deprivation. We have all become very literate in looking at deadpan photos of the landscape and linking them to negative connotations. It is a topic that the British Journal of Photography explored in it’s musing and opinion section Intelligence.
I have included the article in full below, all text and image are copyright of Philip Wolmuth:
The Guardian newspaper recently illustrated a story on the ‘north-south divide’ with a picture of a child running down a Manchester back alley in the rain. The caption read “A child playing in Manchester. A charity says 1.6 million UK children live in poverty”. The alley does look typically northern, but nothing in the picture suggests deprivation, other than an echo, for photo buffs with a long memory, of a Bert Hardy photo of the Gorbals taken in 1948.
There is nothing wrong with the Guardian photo itself, just with how it has been used. The iconography of poverty too often makes use of stereotypes, and in this case the caption relies on ‘up north and wet’ to convey the intended meaning.
What does poverty look like when the sun is shining? According to the latest Indices of Multiple Deprivation, Jaywick Sands (below), close to the Essex resort of Clacton-on-Sea, is the most deprived ward in the UK. But despite the boarded-up shops and broken pavements, under a blue August sky, it doesn’t really look the part.
With some exceptions, it is difficult for a single image to capture either the experience, or the causes, of poverty in a developed western economy. We don’t have tin-roofed shanty towns (although Brooklands Estate in Jaywick, originally built as a low-cost beach-side holiday resort, comes close). Even the poorest child has shoes. The statistics tell us that a low income tends to result in obesity rather than emaciation.
Decaying infrastructure, as in Jaywick, signifies something is wrong, but not how it impacts on people’s lives, or how it got that way. No-one is suggesting that those living north of Watford Gap are particularly feckless. The poverty of the ‘north-south divide’ is clearly systemic, its causes macro-economic and political, usually complex, and often longstanding. Many parts of northern England have never recovered from the rapid de-industrialisation of the 1980s. The tens of thousands of jobs lost in coal and steel have not been replaced. How do you show something that isn’t there?
The exceptions – instances where a single photograph does unambiguously capture something of the feel of poverty – are also problematic. Obvious examples are the images of rough sleepers used in fund-raising publicity by charities for the homeless. Family breakdown, mental illness and drug misuse are the most common reasons people end up on the street. But the focus on individual stories, however tragic, which such images encourage, diverts attention away from the failures, also systemic, that underlie them: inadequate care homes, mental health facilities and housing provision.
The current economic crisis is often compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the UK, that era is still remembered through the faded black and white images of the Jarrow Crusade, flat-capped dole queues, and downcast men standing idle on street corners. Poverty doesn’t look like that any more. Colour makes a big difference. The girl in the Guardian photograph is wearing a bright red coat. It looks new. In black and white it would have shown up as a miserable dark blob.
More importantly, the communities that grew up around the now closed pits, steelworks and other heavy industrial sites have largely fragmented. The ethos of solidarity that they embodied, and that underpinned the birth of the Welfare State, has been displaced by the individualism of the neo-liberal years. Although the causes of poverty and unemployment remain systemic, they are no longer experienced collectively. How can you convey the bigger picture with photographs of individuals? It can be done, but it needs more than one picture, the right words, and some history.
In the USA, the Depression years were famously documented in depth by the photographers of the Farm Securities Administration. The body of work they produced, of derelict farms, dust-blown fields, bankrupt share-cropper families, soup kitchens and the rest, managed to show that bigger picture, in a way that gave a context to photographs of individuals. It is impossible to look at Dorothea Lange’s well-known ‘Migrant Mother’ photograph, for instance, without having in the back of one’s mind images, by Walker Evans and others, of the destitution she was fleeing.
All that is a long way from sun-blessed Essex. Not only is the experience of poverty in 21st century Britain more fragmented, it is also mitigated by the existence of the Welfare State, whatever its inadequacies. In Jaywick a high proportion of residents are dependent on state benefits or pensions, but they are not typical. Most people whose income falls below the poverty threshold in the UK are in work. The National Minimum Wage is currently £6.08 an hour for those aged 21 and over; the minimum for apprentices is £2.60; the National Living Wage (outside London) is £7.60. None of these rates are affected by the weather. People ‘up north’ aren’t poor because it rains a lot. And down south, even if it looks less gritty, poverty doesn’t go away when the sun shines. It’s a complicated story, and newspapers need to find better ways of telling it. This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of the British Journal of Photography.
I really don’t think newspapers are capable of this level of photo journalism, it is too complicated to be dealt with in a few double page spreads. Issues of this kind can only be dealt with by long form journalism on the gallery wall or on the pages of a photographic book. The real problem will always be finding a way to output this kind of work to the widest audience possible. Arts council cuts mean that galleries are less likely to run work that is a harder sell.
The documentary film, Jaywick Escapes (2012), better dealt with the story of Jaywick Sands, it is British producer / director Karen Guthrie & Nina Pope’s third documentary film, following Bata-ville: we are not afraid of the future (2005) and Living with the Tudors (2008). The film follows the lives of three Jaywick newcomers, drifters whose reasons to escape here are revealed across a year. At its heart is Nick, a reformed wide boy. Recently widowed, he fulfils a long-held dream of moving to Jaywick, throwing himself into a new life. But before long, and as they have for the town itself, things seem to go very wrong.
This post follows on from last week’s entitled The East Anglian Plains, The Topographic Sublime and looks at the work of Jason Orton and Ken Worpole.
Thanks to programs like TOWIE and Snog, Marry, Avoid, most people’s only perception of Essex is a lazy shorthand of fake tans, boobs and short skirts. While there is of course an element of truth to this stereotype, it is certainly not a localised phenomenon, and it is unfair to taint an entire region with it.
Photographer Jason Orton and author Ken Worpole have been working on a series of projects based on the topography of Essex since 2005, when Jason was commissioned by ExDRA, the Essex development agency to produce a series of images depicting the Essex coastline. Jason contacted Ken to contribute an essay on the history and topography of the region. These two linked essay, photographic and literary where published as 350 Miles: An Essex Journey (2005).
In the early months of 2005, we walked, cycled and occasionally drove, separately or together, much of the 350 miles of coastline, taking in the atmosphere, the landscape, and the abiding relationship to the sea. At the end of the journey we appreciated, more than ever, that the Essex shoreline is especially memorable for its obstinate refusal to conform to conventional notions of what is beautiful or picturesque. This landscape is singularly rich in history, and full of layered meanings and visual pleasures to those who give it the time and attention it deserves’
Like many topographic bodies of work it is always a difficult decision whether to include people and portraits within the series. Since Alec Soth published Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) the use of the awkward large format portrait has in my opinion become saturated and there is a real danger of it detracting from story you are trying to tell.
There was one difficult editorial decision to be made, however, not without anguish, and that was whether to include any of the portraits which Jason had taken. These were of some of the people he had met in his travels – a boat-builder, a Salvation Army Captain, a well-known gardener, a gallery director – amongst others. Try as we may, we couldn’t make these portraits fit. For as we quickly came to realise, both Jason’s photographic point of view and my essay, were based on a sense of distance (though not detachment). Distance of space, distance of time. The portraits brought us too close in: broke the spell, disrupted the reverie we were each trying to create.
This does not mean that ‘350 miles’ is depopulated. The ghostly presence of human activity is to be found everywhere on this extraordinary coastline, and along its great estuaries, along with the ruins of past epochs and battles, buildings and boats. The water’s edge proved for both of us to be a memory theatre, a place of constant shape-shifting and evocation of past lives.
Memory Maps: ‘Estuary Lines: An essay on the Essex coastline’
Like the work of Mark Power and Daniel Cockrill on Destroying the Laboratory for the Sake of the Experiment (DTLFTSOTE) (2006-10), much of the journey was undertaken separately.
Although we communicated frequently between visits, discussing places we had been, it was always understood that the photography and the writing were being pursued independently – each according to our own distinctive interests and obsessions.
On publication a number of reviewers or commentators remarked how well they matched, and it is pleasing to record that this was wholly a matter of shared, elective sympathies, rather than brute aesthetic force. This is not to say that there was no editorial judgement involved in the final publication, far from it. The essay had certainly picked up on some of the places Jason had enthused about or found especially mysterious, whilst on several occasions I pointed him in the direction of places which over the years held a particular appeal to me. So there was a degree of inter-weaving of themes and places before the final editing took place.
In the proceeding years Orton has continued to work on projects around the Essex foreshore and the area now designated the Thames Gateway. Some of this has been in response to both this major planning project and the 2012 Olympic site at Stratford, which would eat heavily into the Lea Valley.
Owen Hatherley described the Thames Gateway as:
A gigantic dollop of land between London and the North Sea; an area which should really be described as the Industrial South. It begins with the disused wharves of the London Borough of Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs, extends up the the River Lea to the industrial estates of Stratford, then along the Thames past Silvertown, Barking, Erith, Dartford, Gravesend, Tilbury, Sheerness, Basildon and Canvey Island, finally departing up the Medway to Chatham, Rochester and Gillingham. It passes London’s internal organs, and places that the keep the capital going but which have long been expelled from the metropolis itself: container ports, factories both closed and thriving, petroleum refineries, sugar refineries, several power stations, marshes and nature reserves.
The Thames Gateway has recently often been a locus for M25 flanerie or exurban poetics… it is a slippery zone, its very name implying that it is merely the way into the real event, the Metropolis itself.
A New Kind Of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain (2012)
The following images are taken on the site of a former smallpox hospital on the edges of Dartford and the M25 crossing. Since Orton took the pictures, the 264-acre brownfield site, including the former hospital grounds, has been developed into a mixed-use “community” of offices, industry and homes called The Bridge.
Below are two of Jason Orton’s images from the 2012 Photofusion show Residual traces, which looked at the development of the Stratford Olympic site and it’s impact on the pre-existing edgeland community.
Cities need to have holes in them. Places where they can breathe – a valve where the unexpected can be let out
Residual Traces brings together photographic projects which have engaged with the consequences of the London 2012 Olympic Games coming to one of the most deprived areas of London, the Lea Valley.
This secret pocket, loved by the locals but little known to the rest of London, was an untamed part of the East End where golfers and quad bikes played next to gasometers and scrap yards and where giant weeds dominated the river bank.
The hinterland of sprawling post-industrial wilderness, an enclave with an eclectic social mix of young artists, street gangs and run down council estates was characterised in 2007 as a “ragged hole in the city’s fabric” [Andy Beckett, The Guardian].
Five years on the area has been transformed and the hole has been partially filled. New housing developments, restored tow paths, cycle tracks and organic cafes are evidence of a new era in the valley, but the older traditional society is still in residence, perhaps more marginalised than ever.
Taken from the exhibition statement for Residual Traces, Photofusion 2012
For nearly a decade we – Jason Orton and Ken Worpole – have collaborated on documenting the changing landscape and coastline of Essex, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography and architecture.
The New English Landscape critically examines the changing geography of landscape aesthetics since the Second World War, noting the shift away from the arcadian interior to the contested eastern shoreline. It discusses how writers and artists gravitated towards East Anglia, and latterly towards Essex, regarding these territories as places of significant topographical disruption, often as a result of military and industrial occupation, and the dramatic incursion of the sea.
These are landscapes of profound ecological and imaginative resonance, particularly along the Thames foreshore, and the islands and estuaries of its north-eastern coastal peninsula. The book assesses the past, present and future of this new territorial aesthetic, now subject to much debate in the contested worlds of landscape design, topography and psycho-geography.
While the subject of the images and essay aren’t necessarily considered edgeland site (as laid out by Marion Shoard) they are interstitial regions, and this is something that Worpole explores in his accompanying essay.
Many Londoners discovered a spiritual home along the River Lea, and further out in the Essex reaches, and loyalty to this ‘bastard’ countryside is complex and enduring. The distinctive topography of the Lea Valley remains hallowed ground. Combining industry, agriculture, leisure and recreation, ecology and a tumultuous social history, it was a prototype of a new kind of landscape which emerged after the war, a model of how a working landscape could be seen to possess aesthetic and communitarian qualities. Such hybrid landscapes capture the ambivalent feelings we all have about our wavering loyalties between town and country, the life of the street and the solitude of the woodland walk or coastal path.
The hard and fast distinction once made between town and country is no longer tenable in many parts of Britain today, especially as road building, housing development and retail parks have extended deep into formal rural terrain, whilst at the same time agriculture itself has industrialised.
There is today a wide and rich vocabulary used to describe these new hybrid landscapes, ranging from the relatively benign ‘suburbia’ to the scathing ‘drosscape’.
The Thames Estuary in South East England, home to the London 2012 Summer Olympics and wartime “bulwark shore against invasion”, is a drosscape to some but a place of great fascination to others. Photographer Jason Orton and author Ken Worpole have spent over a decade documenting these sodden flatlands and reveal them to be a place of quintessential English beauty.
Here Worpole explains for uncube the shifting English landscape aesthetic.
Landscapes, and the representation of them, are charged with political significance. This makes the study of landscape aesthetics – particularly around issues of topography and ‘sense of place -’ of continuing intellectual interest and concern, more so since the European Landscape Convention (also known as the Florence Convention) was adopted by the Council of Europe on 20 October 2000, and came into force on 1 March 2004. Article 5 states that “each party undertakes to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity.” The UK government belatedly endorsed this charter in February 2006.
What is considered beautiful in landscape changes over time. In wartime, highly sentimental representations of pristine fields and forests, along with crystal streams and snow-capped mountains are often patriotically evoked. However, most of Europe has now been at peace for seventy years, during which time rapid industrialisation, and subsequent post-industrial decline have altered many European regions irrevocably. Can we continue to insist that the study and representation of landscape remains a matter of picturesque, national-romantic or modernist frames of reference? Landscape aesthetics is now surely a much more shape-shifting and muscular affair.
In mainland Britain the aftermath of the Second World War brought about a profound geographical shift in what had hitherto been regarded as the quintessential ‘English’ landscape. Previously the ‘West Country’, along with the Peak District and the Lake District, provided the stock images of English life and culture, represented as small villages nestling within the folds of undulating uplands and gentle river valleys. After the war there was a marked shift to the east, particularly to the coastline of East Anglia. This was a somewhat harsher territory, bleaker in its marshes, mudflats and estuaries, but heroic in its role as ‘the bulwark shore’ against invasion.
The eastern shoreline was thus established as a steel, concrete and armoured wall, and the remains of those fortified structures can still be seen today, and have become not only familiar but almost cherished elements in the landscape. Writers and artists have also gravitated towards East Anglia, regarding this historic coastline as a place of significant visual and cultural disruption – the result of military or industrial occupation – and therefore open to a surrealist, constructivist or abstractionist interpretation.
In recent years there has also been significant interest in landscapes which have developed unbidden in the interstices of urban and industrial development. In North America topographers now talk of drosscapes, whilst in the UK and elsewhere the same abandoned land is described as urban fringe, edgelands, or bastard countryside. None of these terms is as effective in capturing this indeterminate territory as the 19th century French phrase terrain vague.
I really do wish that I could include more of Ken Worpole’s beautifully written essay, however I have already taken too much. I urge you to pick up a copy of this book; at £15 it is a bargain and worthy of a place in any topophiliac’s library. It is clear that we share many of the same references and interests and I’m sure will include elements in future posts.
All photographs are the copyright of Jason Orton, and all quotes are by Ken Worpole unless otherwise stated.
A Photographic Exploration of Edgelands and Subtopia