Derelict Britain – John Barr (Penguin, 1969)
Almost fifty years ago, on 21 October 1966, 144 children and adults were killed in the Welsh town of Aberfan when an enormous slag heap, made from piled-up waste from nearby coal mines, collapsed and crushed a school. It is with this stark, grim imagery, an illustration of the potential dangers of industrial ‘dereliction’, that John Barr opens his passionate condemnation of “Derelict Britain”.
Aberfan was not the only community Britain living in the shadow of industrial dereliction, as Barr explains at the start of the book:
in a hundred other Welsh valleys and in hundreds of grey-black communities of the North and the Midlands, people continue to live amongst the spoil heaps of a dying industry [coal mining]. Some of the heaps are corpses, ‘buried’ atop not below the earth, their headstones the rusting winding gear and junk buildings of abandoned collieries… Other heaps are living (if that is the word), growing daily higher and fatter and more repulsive, the shale often smouldering, a gift of filthy smells for the people unfortunate enough to live beside them. Imagine a foul mountain growing by a million tons a year, ringed by evil, spreading slurry ponds… Dead or still growing, the heaps are monuments to man’s degrading presence.
And it is not only the dirt dumps of man’s lust for coal. Clay for pottery, clay for bricks, limestone and sand, sandstone and slate and chalk, and gravel for building houses and building roads – all the extractive industries, essential for national prosperity, yet which gouge and tear the earth to bring out well over 400 million tons of usable minerals every year… [leading to] cones as high as 300 feet or hogsback ridges half a mile long, then conical marlholes 300 feet deep or miles or raw scars on hillsides or lifeless man-made hillocks 100 feet down on the floors of clay pits or vast murky flashes where the ground has collapsed from man’s gutting. [pp.12-13]
Dereliction is quite a personal subject for me as I grew up in the shadow of a dying industry in the North West. I would walk home from school down Sydney Street, a steep street of red-brick terraced houses which led onto my newer estate. As I looked down the hill there was an old football pitch, a flat rectangle surrounding by those low slotting concrete fences and a rickety old block of covered seating. Behind the pitch was a line of long thin tall trees that looked almost Italianate and rustled with soporific grace at night. I later learned that there were seventy-five of these trees, symbolically planted by a chemical company on the seventy-fifth anniversary of its works opening in 1948. Over the tall trees, which themselves blocked out the view of a semi-derelict factory that had been dedicated to producing equipment and maintaining vehicles and railway rolling stock for the chemical works, there was a strange-looking building. Five gigantic tanks with a rickety old structure on top (see below). This was a huge storage and distribution facility for soda ash, a remarkably versatile chemical. The facility was built on an island, Wallerscote Island, and was so located for its easy access to the River Weaver, down which huge barges would sail to ship the product to Liverpool and then around the world. Until a couple of years ago, as the tankers in the picture show, it was still technically being used – so only semi-derelict – but the urban exploration photos at the bottom of the blog will show you the realities inside.
I was fascinated by the rusting and rotting skeletons of these former chemical factories; by the overgrown and long-abandoned pipelines and empty torn-up railway lines. As I grew older I became obsessed by the way in which industry had shaped the local landscape, not just in social and economic terms but physically shaping the local geography. That hill was not a hill, but a lime-bed (an acid-neutralising chemical waste dump), or an old railway embankment. Between my undergraduate and masters degrees, I took a year out researching the history of the local area, speaking to former chemical workers who generously gave me their time and finding photographs to help me visualise the area before the dereliction, when the great silent hulks were in use, at the beating heart of a town built around them, an industry employing thousands of people (including my granddad) locally.
For John Barr, however, this dereliction was something to be abhorred. The result of ignorance, indifference, and inaction that often had unfortunate class overtones. Indeed, as Barr notes, few of the lawmakers in Westminster who repeatedly refuse to do anything about dereliction had to live in sight of it. This was true even at the height of industry. In my home town workers terraces’ were built in the very shadow of the chemical works, while the large, pleasant houses of the managers were built several miles away from the smoke and smells. Barr angrily decries ‘academics’ (I am ever-cautious of the word used in this pejorative sense, especially in our age of post-factual politics) and others who admired dereliction from afar but didn’t have to live with it on a daily basis. I quite enjoyed living with dereliction, but for someone without my historical and industrial archaeology interests I can appreciate disliking what was essentially a load of rusting and rotting rubbish that wasted (and in some cases polluted) otherwise good space.
An early chapter called ‘The Disgrace’ sets the angry tone for much of Barr’s work. Barr pulls no punches in calling out what he saw as a failure to address Britain’s dereliction issue:
Britain’s current economic difficulties are of course frequently cited, because they are a strong argument for doing nothing. Yet it is all too apparent that the economic squeeze is a convenient pretext for a government which really doesn’t want to act, and a pretext positively welcomed by those many apathetic local authorities who simply don’t want to know about the problem of dereliction [p.31].
Barr, like many writing from a conservation-oriented perspective, was keen to point out that the ultimate cost of not seeking to clean up and re-purpose derelict land could be much greater in the long term.
The first section of the book accordingly sets out what a huge problem dereliction was, as Barr takes the reader on a tour of Britain’s dereliction hotspots, listing a grim catalogue of post-industrial filth across the UK. Barr urged action, and soon, claiming that: ‘We have the machines and the technical expertise to do the job. We must find the money. This will campaign will require, among many things, a national land-reclamation agency with sufficient resources, a Clean Land Act with sufficient teeth to require that the job be done.’
What emerges from reading this first section today is the astonishing pace of change in landscape use in Britain in the space of a few decades. The big baddie in Barr’s account is the National Coal Board (NCB). Spoil heaps, waste from coal-mining of the type that buried the children of Aberfan, then accounted for a third of Britain’s derelict land. The NCB was an organisation that was then operating 354 pits and extracting 170 million tons of coal from Britain’s earth each year. Just think about that for a minute. Three hundred and fifty-four mines, one hundred and seventy million tons of coal. In 2014 the British Geological Survey reported that just shy of eight million tons of coal was being mine at 26 sites. How times change.
While some things have changed beyond recognition, others are the same as they ever were. In the first section, Barr notes that one of the main obstacles to dealing with dereliction was conflict between local and national government and their differing approaches to land use and reclamation. These tensions remain relevant in the present-day as was recently demonstrated by the government’s decision to overrule Lancashire County Council’s ban on fracking.
The second part of the book consists of an in-depth case study of a pioneering attempt to reclaim one particularly derelict area, the Lower Swansea Valley, as shown in this remarkable colour film. Barr explains how a wide-ranging project team, led by academics across several departments at the University College of Swansea, was formed to chart the valley’s dereliction and suggest how to resolve it. The tone shifts from angry advocacy to reportage. Though it was not within the project’s budget or remit, they actually managed to clear some industrial ruins with the enthusiastic help of the Territorial Army, who were eager to try out their explosives and heavy mechanical equipment. Schoolchildren were brought in to plant thousands of new trees and act as Rangers roving the valley spotting for fires and vandalism. This is a welcome and encouraging story of what can be achieved with the requisite will and resources.
Returning to his earlier derision of academics, Barr describes how the Lower Swansea Valley Project went out of its way to relate itself to ordinary people’s lives. The section, unfortunately but characteristically, ends on a bum note – observing that the Project’s report appeared to have gone unheeded not just by many local politicians, but also by the Valley’s residents – the very people the project was trying to help. This popular apathy, Barr notes time and again, was another major obstacle to dealing with dereliction. But while Barr was frustrated by it, I can understand the local charm of dereliction, the heavy industries of the UK were so integral to people’s lives, the physical remains of them are bound to provoke all kinds of memories and feelings. Thankfully for Barr, this short snippet from 1986, suggests that ultimately the Project was successful in its aims.
The book’s third and final section briefly considers successful examples of land reclamation, instances where gravel pits had been turned into boating lakes and dereliction into attractive parklands and play areas. The section allows Barr to lay out his manifesto for the future. He suggested that legislation be enforced to create a ‘National Land Agency’, with the budget and power to help tackle dereliction. This should go hand-in-hand with a Clean Land Act, in the style of the Clean Air Act, which should aim to ‘clear yesterday’s dereliction, control today’s and prevent tomorrow’s.’ He ends with a direct appeal to deal with dereliction:
We need a radical change in attitudes about dereliction… If we fail to develop the will, our environment will continue to deteriorate, our contempt for environment will be proved. We shall be an economically prosperous people living in a physically impoverished land [p.225].
So how are we doing for derelict land today, nearly fifty years after Barr’s wake-up call? In that time, huge swathes of Britain have become de-industrialised as the heavy industries were closed down. With a national housing crisis (something Barr warned against) in full swing, how has that land been used? Despite urban regeneration, large areas in the North West remain derelict, something I remember well from my time as a student in Liverpool (even amidst all the Capital of Culture-inspired regeneration). What’s more, the huge loss of EU development funding from Brexit won’t make regeneration any easier in the years to come.
Closer to home, just across the river from Wallerscote island, a huge patch of derelict land sat abandoned and overgrown on site of a massive factory that had been closed down and partially demolished in 1984. Only in the past couple of years has this land begun to be developed for new housing. Elsewhere, I managed to scrounge up some relatively recent figures for England and Scotland. I present these figures with the caveat of lies, damn lies, and statistics – and Barr himself argued that the government’s estimates of derelict land were low because of the way it was defined.
Scotland: 12,674 hectares (2015). Source.
England: 16,900 hectares with only 6,340 hectares suitable for housing (2010). Source. A further breakdown of these figures is instructive, with 7,640 hectares of this derelict land in the North.
Wales: I couldn’t find figures so I asked Natural Resources Wales about this, but they haven’t got back to me at time of posting, I will update the post if they do.
So, nearly fifty years later, we’re still living in something of a Derelict Britain, especially in the still de-industrialising North and Wales. This physical neglect has had implications beyond the environment, transforming the culture and politics of these regions too. In these areas of the so-called ‘left behind’ dereliction is a physical manifestation of Westminster’s disinterest. The filth and the rotting carcasses of dead industries are a reminder of what these regions once were to Britain, and the world. If I can feel the emotive pull of these ruins, what must they mean to those who worked there?
Derelict Britain was a thought-provoking book on a fascinating subject which unfortunately remains relevant today, long after many of the industries its describes have withered and died. In an age of austerity, it is hard to see where local and national governments are going to get the money (and the willpower) to deal with the thorny problem of dereliction. In a modest attempt to help clear up some of this blood dereliction, I am giving the book four spades ♠♠♠♠.
Urban exploring, the practice of visiting and photographing derelict locations, has made it easier to look at creepy abandoned hospitals, train graveyards, and explosives factories than ever before. Note, it often involves breaking the law, so don’t say I didn’t specifically warn you, because I just have, and that means you’ll be lying (ah Darkplace).
For some more pictures of dereliction across the country, check out urban explorer forums, such as this discussion on Wallerscote Works (with much better pictures than the ones I took above).
It says a lot for continuing regional imbalances that this Flickr group has hundreds and hundreds of photos (many of them contemporary) about dereliction in Liverpool.