‘By their own weight and worthlessness’ – stones, ruination and what comes after

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called repairer of broken walls, restorer of streets with dwellings” Isaiah 58:12

Of holes, wholes and parts

During the 1630s, Inigo Jones, by royal commission, surveyed Stonehenge and concluded that the ancient stones had remained in situ for millennia only on account of their “weight and worthlessness” (Webb & Jones 1655, via Chippindale 2004: 46). This blog-essay ruminates upon the life cycle of stone as a building material – the way in which it has both a tendency to circulate through a succession of buildings, and also an inertia that can shape and restrict future constructions and/or uses of places.

I’ve spent the last week variously in the company of heritage regulators, development surveyors and psychogeographers, so what follows draws across those divergent perspectives on ruination, reclamation and regeneration.

The perishing holes – Edward Gibbon’s ruinology

Writing in the 1780s, Edward Gibbon closed his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with a rumination on ruination. With all the confidence of the Enlightenment, he sought to model the process by which the temples and other great classical buildings of the Roman era fell into dilapidation and then ruin.

Surveying the broken stonescape of Rome’s Capitoline Hill, Gibbon presented his “four causes of destruction” of the Roman capital as –

(1) the injuries of time and nature

(2) the hostile attacks of the barbarians and the Christians

(3) the use and abuse of materials; and

(4) the domestic quarrels of the Romans.

In doing so he interwove the human and the elemental, the epic and the mundane, the long duree and the episodic, for the Hill and its structures fell apart both quickly and slowly, both through human agency and without it, both purposefully and incidentally.

Gibbon pointed to the age-old practice of re-using stone and other salvagable building materials, and in doing so gave us a passage that can fruitfully contribute to understanding the dynamics of twenty-first century architectural theft, in particular the pillage of metallic and stone elements:

“The value of any object that supplies the wants or pleasures of mankind is compounded of its substance and its form, of the materials and the manufacture. Its price must depend on the number of persons by whom it may be acquired and used; on the extent of the market; and consequently on the ease or difficulty of remote exportation, according to the nature of the commodity, its local situation, and the temporary circumstances of the world” (1960: 894)

In short, at various times and for a variety of reasons the stonework abandoned on the Capitoline Hill became subjected to varying degrees of attention and plunder. This ebb and flow, this noticing and ignoring of the ruins, played out over a thousand year span. If there was sufficient value in the endeavour the sites were subjected to what we would now call ‘urban mining’, but if marginal the site would be left alone. Ruins follow their own natural history, eroded by natural processes throughout, but for significant portions of their lives  left alone by humans, ignored as wastes.

Notably Gibbon ascribes a lesser role to Goths and Vandals in the ruination than conventional wisdom dictates. The barbarians’ plunder was confined to the “luxuries of immediate consumption”(894) and the precious metal artefacts that could fit upon their conquering wagons as they departed the fallen imperial city. The buildings, stripped of their finery, were left largely intact. It was the residents of Rome themselves, in the centuries that followed who ground marble down to fire in lime kilns to make cement, and they who repurposed the classical columns and blockwork for the construction of fortified towers to protect themselves over the following quarrelsome half a millennia. As Gibbon notes, fortresses call to be attacked and much of the ruination – and the consequent rubble of Rome – was  inflicted upon these subsequent constructions by local battering ram and vengeful public decree of demolition issued by politically ascendant clans against their enemies.

But still, despite these machinations, much of the classical stone remained in situ, presenting as eternal fragments of once resolute temples and villas. For, stone can be physically hard to remove. Whilst drystone walls or paving stones are readily open to pillage, most stone sits within (indeed it comprises) a building’s structural mass. The slow attack of nature and the contingencies of local events can come to the aid of the illicit deconstructer, but some structures are beyond incrimental attack. The sturdiest walls sit there, reasonably intact and offering no concession to the entropy otherwise afflicting built things. These monoliths will sit there indefinitely, inert but resolute.

The persistence of wholes – the Frankfurt Kulturbunker

Here is the Kulturbunker, an arts centre in the dockland area of Frankfurt. What fascinates me about this structure is the fact that it is a new building built on top of an existing older one: for the grey first three floors are an above-ground Second World War air raid shelter, a structure assessed to be too expensive to demolish. Defensive structures, by their nature, are built to withstand the wrecking ball. So, regeneration and re-purposing of this building saw ruination avoided via a co-option of the existing form, its use as a ‘starting point’, a foundation for the modern building placed upon it.

After half a century of semi-abandonment, the sturdy bunker had had problems with its flat roof and water ingress was starting the process of natural destruction of its habitability. But the rain would not destroy the sturdy walls. This building might in time have lost its roof and become a place incompatible with dwelling, but the concrete, stone and brick would have endured as the resolute indoor-outdoor elevations of a sturdy block-house.

In this sense the building would have lived on – as a ruin – but it would have become uninhabitable. It would persist as block rather than block-house. The place would have passed beyond human use, perhaps to then become seen as an offensive ‘eyesore’ due to its resolute corruption of the dwelling related purposeful rules that tell us what a building is. So, instead funds were found to re-purpose this building. A vertical extension (a suite of studios for resident and visiting artists) solved the roof problem and augment the existing cultural use of this place as music practice and performance, the remote location and thick walls serving to arrest youthful sound.

The fate of the Frankfurt bunker has got me thinking about the marginality of demolition as a response to the abandoned, and ruin-bound buildings. Demolition costs money. As my development colleagues are always eager to remind me, if the scheme cannot be made to show a profit overall it won’t happen, or at least the lofty ambitions of the designer will brought down to achievable size by a thousand pragmatic cuts and adjustments to ‘reality’. And this is as true of demolition schemes as construction projects.

Also, development rarely takes place on a tabla rasa, invariably there will be existing neighbouring features, remains of on-site structures, foundations and services which will steer how the new scheme will finally unfurl. The Kulturbunker is an extreme example – the survival of the former building and construction of a new one on top of it – but this effect is echoed more subtly on a daily basis in many redevelopment schemes via the required preservation of historic facades to mask a newly constructed generic modern core, the adjustment of a new building’s envelope to incorporate some long standing right of way or valued line of sight and/or the respecting of the vernacular in the design of the new. Just as science and language build on the shoulders of giants, so are new buildings built in the echo of what came before. This is the inertia of stone.

The valorisation of parts

In his 1630s survey of Stonehenge Inigo Jones was searching for evidence of Roman geometry within the stone circle, signs of classical design that could help to fuel what would become the neoclassical revival.

Jones proposed a plan for the restoration of the circle (above), a plan defeated by cost and the technological challenge, for moving the megaliths would have been at the very limits of seventeenth century man- and horse-power. And in subsequent eras, the stones increasingly came to be cherished as ruin, as an assemblage of disordered parts, rather than a neat ordered whole.

The love of ruins sees a foregrounding of the materiality of parts – broken or otherwise. Decay and deterioration encourages this attention at the level of parts. Through the deterioration, distortion and corruption of form caused by the building’s decay and the consequent revelation of a building’s structural elements, things are laid bare that would ordinarily not be seen, and familiar elements present in new ways. As the building falls apart Romantic ruin aesthetics finds in it a place of fascination and treasures of various kinds are revealed to some.

Here we are in the realm of valorisation – the attributing of a worth, cultural, commercial or material, to otherwise mundane or ruined parts of buildings. At the Kulturbunker one of the resident artists, Lisa Niederreiter, has valorised ‘Bunkerstücke  (‘bunker-pieces’) she has found at her new studio. In addition to presenting found objects such as a water trough from the wartime era, she has also created works to foreground the materiality of the building: a dress coated in bunkerdust and latex casts (shown below) of architectural elements.

But this aesthetic valorisation of building parts has a darker cousin. The architectural thief also reads a building as parts, but as incidents of exchange- rather than aesthetic value. Unlike the ruin aesthete the plundering thief has no interest in the building as whole. To him a building is purely an assemblage of parts, generic materials, commodities ripe for the plucking. And that plucking will be unleashed without regard for the consequential damage to the whole. The removal of any of those elements may hasten ruination and the ending of habitation: stealing roof lead will allow water ingress, ultimately a vertical flood.

This week I have been in the company of heritage crime specialists. The talk has been of the architectural crime waves, the theft of an embodied value currently vested in metal, stone and other constructional elements (and whether in ruins or buildings still in gainful use). I have heard of the regional patterns of this resource crime – that whilst metal theft is to the fore in the (former) industrial north of England, in areas such as the Cotswolds it is actually stone that is the most plundered building material. But the stone that is targeted is that which is accessible and reduceable to a portable, human scale. For just as the most splendid architectural elements were stripped by the Goths, Vandals and later imperial artefact hunters (think of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ for example), the architectural thief focuses on the items that are most valuable AND carryable. Here we are back in the timeless realm of pillage – that interplay of moveable things, perceived value and human-scale accessibility.

And in each case a building and/or its component parts is being read as rich in value.


Chippindale, C. (2004) Stonehenge Complete Thames & Hudson: London.

Gibbon, E. (1960) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (abridged by D.M. Low) Chatto & Windus: London.

Webb, J. & Jones, I. (1655) The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly Called Stone-Heng, on Salisbury Plain, Restored, London.

Image sources:

Painting: Roman Ruins with the Arch of Titus. Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1730s via http://www.laputanlogic.com/articles/2006/05/09-1659-1311.html

Kulturbunker: http://www.index-architekten.de/bunkeraufstockung.0.html?&L=1

Stonehenge, restored: Webb & Jones (1655) via http://www.ancientskies.info/proposal/

Bunkerstücke: http://www.inm.de/ (INM-Institut für Neue Medien)

Pavement theft: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-19276631

This essay is a.k.a New Uses for Old Bunkers #25: the building on the shoulders of a giant.


New uses for old bunkers #24 – the Manhattan shoe display

So, I’m sitting at the kitchen table. I turn from my screen to my wife.

“I’m finally shocked” I say.

She gives me a disbelieving look.

I pass the laptop across to her and point earnestly at the images on screen, imploring her to see the oddness that has just slapped me in the face.

“Look, a bunker display to sell shoes!”

She looks straight at me, showing no shock.

“It’s not a real bunker, you know.” She replies, deadpan.

We agree that she’s not shocked, and nothing I’m going to say is going to convert her to my incredulous cause. She walks off laughing, baffled that I would find this instalment of bunker imagery shocking.

I lick my wounds, stare at the pictures and try to work out for myself what makes me react this way to co-option of grey, concrete bunkerness in the service of a designer boutique and its wares.

I decide that it’s the category error, the semantic wandering that finds posh shoes and bunkers side by side. And in this perhaps, just for a moment, I glimpse my own positionality within my attempts to trace the reverberation of bunker-imagery through contemporary culture.

Here’s the blurb (from specialist shop display designers OSO Industries) that I stumbled on, and from which these photos originate:

“Raw cast concrete display for design studio Surface to Air for their American flagship store in Soho, Manhattan.  Designed and cast to mimic a World War II bunker, this 16 foot long replica was cast in 18 interlocking sections, the largest measured at close to 4 cubic feet- the surfaces were to look battle scarred and weathered.  Fabricated in collaboration with Situ Studio”


Always searching for somewhere to park: some ruminations on cows, clamps and immobilizing motor vehicles

“The way humans hunt for parking and the way animals hunt for food are not as different as you might think”  Tom Vanderbilt

So, I step out of the supermarket and look across at a familiar scene: the dark bunker-like edifice of the local Boots store’s loading bay. But today I have illicit car parking on my mind so the large ‘No Parking’ sign and elderly perimeter chain catch my eye. That will do nicely. I position myself to take a picture. It starts to rain, but I am resolute. This side road is quiet; click – photo one achieved.

But then a flurry of cars mess up my view, and suddenly two cars in turn glide off road into this prohibited zone. Each driver looks slightly surprised at the other’s like-mindedness, but in an unspoken balletic dance they both park up in this space. One car leaves almost immediately. But the red car stays. Slightly miffed I decide to try and freak the driver out by carrying on snapping. We exchange frosty glances as he and his wife (both retired and not all looking like they have any occupational association with Boots or its logistics) step out of their shiny red sports car and set off for their shopping spree, no-doubt regaining smug composure as they walk off:

We are not weak.

We know where to park.

We’re brave enough to ignore that sign.

Experience tells us that nothing happens if you park here.

Thinking about parking

According to Ben-Joseph (2012) vehicles are immobile for 95% of their working lives, they have to occupy a static point in space during such states of ‘rest’. Parking is a fundamental necessity in the urbanised world, and it provokes its own grammar of reading the streetscape – the 100 yard stare of the driver, hoping to spot a place to park-up before he has already driven past it. This need-to-park shapes how we design, manage and interact with our urban realm. As Paul Groth has put it, rather grandly:

“The ancient Egyptians organized their life and their gods in reference to the life-giving Nile. Colonial New Englanders organized their village life around the axis mundi of the meetinghouse, the place that manifested their connection to the cosmos. Although it happens just below the level of awareness, the parking space generates the most significant sense of personal and social place in the cosmos for today’s urban Americans; it is their axis mundis” (quoted in Ben-Joseph, 2012: 3).

In 1990 I stood in the basement of a Barcelona bookshop killing time. Whilst most of the books there were in Spanish, one caught my eye. The title was simple, a single English word: Parking.  I’ve never seen the book since. In my mind’s eye I see it as filled with elegant three-colour (black, white and red) stylized diagrams of parking manoeuvres, each page an instructional yet beautiful diagrammatic  depiction of a vehicular manoeuvre. On balance, I think it was probably an art book, but maybe it was an instructional manual, I really don’t know. It hovered indeterminately between the two. Whatever words were written there were in Spanish, so they didn’t help me understand the context of this book.

In a mild way that book haunts me to this day. A taxonomy of vehicular dance, a mapping of the possible ways in which a car can move in relation to other obstacles (many of which where in the book – as in life – other cars). There’s a great game – Rush Hour – that explores this, a puzzle in which a packed congregation of vehicles must be unjammed by the trial and error sliding of cars and lorries until a way can be found to unlock the gridlock.

The book left me with a feeling for the urban tessellation involved in finding (and slotting into) a parking space. That feeling that everywhere is almost full up, a clock ticking, time and space running out. That act of driving around looking for somewhere geometrically viable to park in, yet with an additional essential evaluative layer within the search algorythm: consideration of where it is permissible to park. Here’s where I return to the domain of mundane law, and it’s shaping role, within spatiality and the normative dimension of everyday life.

Let’s momentarily go back to the rear of the Boots store. The loading bay and its sign sit there passively, come rain or shine, cars coming and going – a testimony to the approximateness of such mundane, everyday declarations of territory and the city’s tantalisingly prohibited but parkable forecourts, bays and verges. As the red car shows, if you want to stop people parking you have to do something more than signage, and the available options are about to change.

On the 1st October 2012 it becomes a criminal offence in England to clamp or otherwise immobilise a vehicle because it is parked without the landowner’s permission on private land. This provision is a small portion of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which primarily deals with the more dramatic civil liberties issues of biometrics, the regulation of CCTV and powers of entry to land. Here I want to think a little about parking, clamping and the mundane interactions of law and the technology of vehicular immobilization. Along the way I will also have something to say about ancient laws on seizing straying cows.

Thinking about clamping

In 1991, very early in my career as an apprentice lawyer, I was asked to research the legality of vehicle clamping for a client, a local University. As I looked into it I found that the legal research trail was pointing towards medieval legal rulings about rights to seize and retain livestock that had strayed onto your land, the ancient rule of distress damage feasant. That rule was a pre-industrial one, and as regards seizure of livestock it was abrogated in 1971 by the Animals Act. But that Act said nothing about the curbing or abolition of the rule as it had come to be applied to non-animals in subsequent cases. By the reign of Charles I it had started to be applied to inanimate objects, and in 1853 it had been successfully invoked to impound a railway locomotive that had trespassed onto a competitor’s line. I relished this chance to read about ancient cases of bovine ransom, and train confiscation.

At the time of my research there was no regulation of the newly emergent ‘industry’ of vehicle clamping and release fees, and in the intervening 20 odd years there few cases have reached the senior courts to specifically develop this area of law and portray it in the modern way (with cars) rather than the ancient one (with cows). But my legal training told me that cows and cars can, at an appropriate level of generalisation, be treated as the same thing. The search for answers to legal research questions often requires this descent into the realm of analogy.

Whilst a mundane – everyday – issue, clamping proved to be an emotive one over the last two decades. In the handful of cases in which its legality was tested the courts equivocated – they didn’t like the idea that private landowners, or their clamping contractors, could set their own penalties, but they accepted that someone parking on private land in an area where a notice clearly indicated that no permission to park there was given, amounted to an agreement – a contractual acceptance of the fate that would befall you if you proceeded to park there.

Attempts were made to shave off the exploitative extremities – introduction of codes of practice, formation of a clamping association and a training certificate (a similar trajectory to the ‘professionalisation’ of bouncers (night club doormen)). But the base question remained – was clamping (and charging of a ‘release fee’) lawful, and if it was should it be outlawed?

Well, as culmination of a cross-party trend, the 2012 Act, finally, sees that question answered. Clamping or towing away is now prohibited.

Thinking around barriers

But (there’s always a but) this prohibition leaves open other ways of achieving immobilization and defence of private parkable spaces. There is nothing in the new law to stop landowners introducing barriers – pole gates, chains, gates or other ways of closing a space to access or egress and as a result trapping the trespassing car inside. Provided the barrier was present at the site when the unauthorised parking occurred (even if not deployed to prevent entry – i.e. raised or not fully chained across) that will be regarded as a lawful restriction of the vehicle’s movement if those barrier devices are later moved into a ‘closed’ position. A removal fee could then still be charged, and such a charge would still be upheld by the courts provided it was shown to be a genuine measure of the cost of attending and opening the barrier, rather than a penalty aimed at punishing the unauthorised parker.

Wheel clamping was an innovation of the 1990s. Prior to that decade unauthorised parking spaces were controlled by chains, bollards or pole-barriers. But these were largely plot-wide controls. The whole loading bay (in my example) would either have to be open or closed to access at any single point in time. The clamp enabled a selective, more targeted control of territory – and a strategy which could be more readily commercially incentivised and outsourced. For the first time, by these means, individual cars could be targeted. The plot could be left physically open to access (e.g. for lorries arriving there throughout the day), and the rules of use could become more differentiated. And all of this was now achievable without the need for a permanently resident parking attendant (anyone remember their little huts and ex-colonial seeming uniforms?). Instead of a simple binary of closed/open-to-access, controls over duration of stay, type of vehicle and permit-based parking could all be enforced through immobilization against individual cars without affecting all other users of that plot, or entailing constant human oversight.

The banning of clamping and towing will see the return of older technologies of parking control – access barriers, bollards and chains (but probably not resident parking attendants). So – get ready – here come the boom days for the barrier designers and suppliers and the men driving round in vans, opening up barriers after payment of their release fee. The clamp may be dead, but vehicle immobilization will evolve via a new wave of urban plot re-enclosure.

Watch this space (but don’t park in it).

Ben-Joseph, E. (2012) Rethinking a lot – the design and culture of parking, MIT Press: Massachusetts

New uses for old bunkers #23: sky-bunkers and the vertical geographies of shelter

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” Henry David Thoreau

Recently I was flicking through Muir’s (1986) The Stones of Britain and I came upon a description of the round stone towers built in Ireland in the eighth and nineth centuries by monastic settlements in the face of Viking raids. Muir interprets these towers as defensive in nature – stone silos into which the community could ascend and shelter, within the wooden framework of spiral steps and landings. Here – in the sky – they would shelter from the sea-borne raiders of the land.

As I looked at Muir’s photograph of the tower at Turlough, County Mayo, something about it struck me as familiar. Then I realised what it was – the tower reminded me of Winkelturm, the above-ground air raid shelters built across Germany during the Second World War.

These concrete or brick silos were built at factory sites, railyards and other facilities with labour forces needing quick access to local shelter. It proved considerably cheaper (and quicker) to build these shelters above ground – and up unto the sky – than it to burrow into the underground. Whilst exposed in the above ground world, these towers were tall but narrow in profile. Hard targets to hit directly. They were also well-suited to locations where geology or watertable made excavation untenable.

As with the Irish sky-bunkers, these shelters featured staircases and landings where their denizens could nervously await the end of the raid.

Attempted escape into the sky – the refuge of height – made an obvious modal sense in the case of the Irish towers, because they entailed escape from the sea and the ground occupied by the Viking raiders. But the Winkelturm warped that logic of escape, for in them shelter was being sought by ascending into the arena of the attack: the air above. The sky was the very place from which these assailants came.

Reflecting on this deadly irony got me thinking about Stuart Elden’s recent work on vertical geographies. At the 2012 RGS-IBG conference in Edinburgh I attended Stuart’s keynote lecture, in which he looked at the ways in which the subterranean, surface and sky all key together in a vertical mesh of power. Stuart’s examples included offense and defence, and highlighted the importance of reading place in three dimensions – not just laterally, but also vertically.

Thinking about the direction of attack, and the ‘logical’ direction of shelter reminds us of the importance of reading the vertical – particularly in an age of gravity defying technological capability.

So, the ‘new use for old bunkers’ at work here is two fold – first something eternal (or at least recurrent) in the relationship between the monastic defence towers of the Dark Ages and the counter-intuitive Winkelturm. Second, the way in which the vertical dimension of escape and shelter can encourage us to embrace the three dimensionality of space and place.

And – thirdly – the fate of the Winkelturm once again shows us how bunkers (and there are an estimated to be over 200 Winkelturm left in Germany) are co-opted into the contemporary world, valorised by enthusiastic bunker-hunters and/or adapted to new commercial uses, as shown below.

Elden, S. (2012) ‘Secure the Volume: Vertical Geopolitics and the Depth of Power’ Political Geography Lecture at RGS-IBG, July: a video recording (of an earlier outing of this lecture) is available at: http://progressivegeographies.com/2012/04/17/secure-the-volume-kentucky-video/

Muir, G. (1986) The Stones of Britain – landscapes and monuments, quarries and cathedrals, Michael Joseph: London

Image & information sources:





28 Months Later – an on-line community responds to bunkerology

A fascinating thread has erupted today on the www.28dayslater.co.uk urbex webforum. It seems my 2010 Masters dissertation on one aspect of that site’s urbex culture-forming has suddenly inflamed debate. My study looked at how accounts of exploration of former Royal Observer Corps (ROC) mini-bunkers (small underground Cold War stations for monitoring fall out clouds) circulated within that forum and helped to shape at least that aspect of urbex practice. For convenience I adopted the term ‘bunkerology’ (it was a shorter description than ‘the bit of urban exploration that involves seeking out ROC Posts’).

In summer 2010 I’d sent them a copy of my dissertation out of courtesy, but didn’t hear anything until today. Anyway, the forum’s thread makes fascinating reading. I will resist the urge to analyse how most of the contributors seem to be echoing one particular line of attack. That might seems condescending (and I never intended my study to be that, and don’t intend to start that now).

The thread is at:


What struck me reading through (3 pages so far on the thread) was that my critics don’t actually say what I’ve missed in my attempt to understand their account-writing practice through studying the accounts posted there. Instead the consensus seems to be that my dissertation is unreadable, not written by a “doer” and fundamentally misses the point (although what the missed-point is, is left unsaid).

The posters sound rather bruised by academic infiltration – whether shallow (as is my charge) or deep (of the Bradley Garrett variety). This isn’t a great surprise. Who wants to be put under the microscope and intellectualised? (well, some people probably…).

Suffice it to say that I will follow the thread with interest. And if someone could actually spell out what’s wrong with my interpretation of their account-making practices, and what I failed to spot or understand then that would be even better.

The one exception so far is a poster who goes by the name ‘The Littlest Jellyfish’ who flags that s/he’s got a paper in peer review that will take issue with my analysis. More than happy to hear that – and I look forward to reading that paper. The more the merrier.

Reflecting on the unspecified criticism of his peers on the forum The Littlest Jellyfish states helpfully:

“But I don’t see too much wrong with Luke’s paper (here) or indeed his whole Masters thesis (elsewhere). It’s one thing to criticise it constructively, but it’s another to write it off with the whole pride-in-ignorance ‘I didn’t understand it, therefore it’s shit’.”

This debate isn’t new, and if anyone wants to see me and Bradley Garrett locked horns over my 2011 article in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space – his attack and my rebuttal, then here’s the link:


And if anyone wants to read short articles here that try to explain where I’m coming from try (in particular) the following:





In my response last year to Garrett’s attack, in my dissertation itself and in my subsequent articles I’ve acknowledged the ‘onlooker’ aspect of my study – and have explained my background. As a middle aged academic with connections both to recreational and landowner stakeholders it would not have been possible or appropriate for me to ‘do’ hardcore urbex.

If anyone wants to debate whether ‘armchair’ studies have any validity then I’m happy to take up that challenge.

Etching floodlines on the valley – tracing the scriptural legacies of the 1864 Great Sheffield Flood

This essay is further rumination on the materiality of memory and the ways in which landscape is physically written upon. Recently I’ve written about how people trace out lines onto landscape by their thoughts and actions. Here I extend the analysis to look at an exceptional situation in which people, water, stone, brick and timber all made their orderly and disorderly marks upon a landscape. I consider the extent to which each set of traces can still be read today.

Written by stone onto water, land and timber

My family and I live within walking distance of eight impounding reservoirs, and the same number of covered, hilltop service reservoirs. We live in the flood plain of five of them. But we don’t give them that much thought. We happily accept the water that these colossal water stores – these stonework manifestations of human dominion over valleys and their natural drainage and ecosystems – pump and gravity feed into our home. Water? It’s harmless, it’s the stuff of life.

And yet…

No roar

No whistle or scream

Just smack like a hammer

A black hole

Where the house had been

[an excerpt from Rob Hindle’s (2006) poetry collection, Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864]

Written by water onto stone, land and timber

On a cold Friday night in March 1864, one of these reservoirs gave way and 650 million gallons of water (weighing some 2 million tons) came rushing down the steep sided Loxley Valley inundating the northern Sheffield suburb of Malin Bridge where we now live. Travelling at an estimated speed of 18 miles per hour (that’s 30 feet per second, faster than a man can run) the wall of water destroyed 50 dwellings and claimed 100 lives here and then hurtled on towards central Sheffield leaving devastation in its wake.  Over 238 would die across Sheffield that night, over 400 buildings destroyed or seriously damaged and with resultant claims for material damage against the Sheffield Waterworks Company by over 6,000 owners and occupiers, and 20,537 paid destitution claims by the Mayor’s relief committee.

As Joseph Ibbotson, owner of a corn mill in the first village to be struck by the reservoir-wave put it:

“It seemed as if the bowels of the earth were being torn up, or as if some unheard-of monster were rushing down the valley, lashing the hillside with scaly folds, crunching up buildings between his jaws and filing the air with his wrathful hiss.” (Amey 1974: 28).

The inundation scoured its way along the Loxley Valley, erasing hamlets, mills, trees and bridges at great speed (the whole dam had disgorged within 47 minutes of the breach).

“The wave, which according to one eye-witness reached a height of 50 feet in some parts, roared on with unabated fury. More bridges were torn away and flipped aside, mills were erased or ruined and hundreds of trees bobbed along like matchsticks.” (Amey, 1974: 30)

And when the wall of water reached Malin Bridge, the destruction amplified, as depicted in a contemporary account in the London Illustrated News (LIN 1864):

“Here there were mills and forges, and on each side of the river rows of cottages to accommodate the workpeople. Everything gave way before the roaring torrent. The immense mass of water, filled with debris, razed the ground along its track as easily, and almost as instantaneously, as a cannon-ball makes for itself a lane deep into the ranks of living men. Whole families — buried in sleep or, perchance, startled from it by the rushing roar — were literally hurled into eternity.”

In the era of the Hollywood CGI disaster movie we are somewhat blasé about such imagery nowadays. But – remember – this was real. A valley formed by millennia of fluvial erosion, thousands of years of glacial action, and hundreds of years of human settlement was, in a matter of seconds, scoured by a racing wall of escaped reservoir water.

Written by stone and timber onto land and water

Gathering up everything friable in its path the flood waters snatched up and sped onward an assemblage of animal, mineral and vegetable matter until eventually arrested by stronger obstacles or released by subsiding waters many miles downstream. The Sheffield Telegraph, reported accumulated material – once possessions, now dross – entrained against the resolute flanks of Lady’s Bridge in the centre of the city:

“fearful heaps of timber mixed with straw and other debris were piled up by the flood against the masonwork of the bridge. The immense quantity of rafters, flooring, joists, planks, and miscellaneous articles heaped to within a few feet of the top of the bridge told a portentous story of buildings destroyed . . . There seemed wood enough to build a village.”

Yet this debris was a reduction, not a multiplication. This was the shattered wood of many villages. These pieces could not be put back together to re-make what had been before. The flood waters passed through, clearing in a matter of minutes. The debris settled out, accumulated and briefly wrote its own story upon the valley.

Eventually this extreme flotsam would be cleared away, ruined possessions and abstract building elements alike. Each put beyond use or salvation by the flood waters, and rendered via the act of their disposal (if the owner remained alive to claim them) grounds for a compensation claim against the Sheffield Waterworks Company, the owner of the collapsed dam.

Written by hand onto pulped timber

Geoffrey Amey’s masterful account of the collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam and its aftermath has been my prompt for writing this piece. With all the depictive and forensic skill that a time served local newspaper reporter could gather, Amey’s account of that night first sets the scene – the appearance of the small crack in the 95 feet high dam wall and the staff stood there, pondering it. Next he emotively follows the path of the water as it floods down the valley, meeting the places and people at the moment of their inundation.

Then his book turns to matters of committees, compensation claims and technical appraisal of dam construction. Each stage of his interpretive journey is well paced, and this trajectory echoes something of the modern way of dealing with disasters – that there must first be a human-interest angle, an experiential scale treatment anchored in a tangible narrative of human experience of ‘the event’. But then ‘the event’ must be quantified, aggregated, abstracted and subjected to a dispassionate inquiry – all in order for it to be tamed and become known and understood. And this is primarily achieved via the writing of words, first the accounts of survivors and journalists, thereafter the more remote synoptic processing of the historian or lawyer.

In recent years, the Sheffield Flood of 1864 has attained a (slightly) higher profile within Sheffield via local historians, poets and other memorialists. However, measured in words expended, the inquiry reports, proofs of evidence, subsequent legislation, council minutes and other bureaucratic ‘processing’ of the event still dominates by sheer volume of its flood writing. Yet these texts are largely invisible. They have to be tracked down in the archive by the dogged researcher, dusted off and pulled back into the light of day.

Amey’s book details the ensuing processing of this disaster in thorough detail. Simpson (1996) takes this yet further, situating this dam failure within a jurisprudence of burst reservoirs and consequent litigation and legislating that came to shape the development of what we may here (for convenience) call ‘disaster law’ and the design and regulation of reservoirs across the world. The inquiries, compensation cases, parliamentary debates and forensic technical investigation are important stories, and tell us much of the interplay between ‘events’ and the evolution of law and technology. Events have their human stories, but they also have these structural contributions to expert bodies of knowledge. They run deep, but in a way that quickly decouples such ripples from a clear sense of the origin events that set the evolution in hand in the first place.

One window into this arcane world has been made available by the reproduction of the Sheffield Flood Claims Archive, an on-line search friendly version of the register of over 6000 claims made against the Waterworks Company in the aftermath of the flood (SFCA 2006). The original register, and its itemised ledger of claims for lost possessions, damaged structures, bodily injury and loss of trade has in recent decades provided a fruitful resource for researchers seeking to understand the industrial complextion of the array of small cutlery mills and iron works that inhabited the valley before the flood, and for studying the book-owning patterns and practices of the mid-Victorians. In a manner reminiscent of the ‘sudden’ ruination of Pompeii the archive gives a fascinating insight into the material life of the inhabitants of north western Sheffield, as at the moment of their inundation. Without this disaster no-one would have taken the trouble of surveying the material minutiae of daily life and work that this claims register brought into being. The flood wrote a unique account of possessions and people’s orientation towards (and dependency upon) the objects of their everyday lives.

Written by hand onto land and stone

Amey published his book in 1974 and noted in it that there was a surprising lack of any memorial to the flood and its victims.  At the end of his book, he recounts a trip to the now-empty site of the original dam wall. All he found there were:

“Weather beaten marker stones, about four hundred yards apart on either side of the valley. Bear[ing] the inscription ‘CLOB’ (Centre Line Old Bank)” (203)

Amey could find physical testimony to this disaster only in those modest remnants and in the cemetery headstones of the perished. Since 1974 the position has changed somewhat, although this disaster – one of the largest of the nineteenth century – still has a surprisingly low profile even in the city of its affliction.

A modest memorialisation of the flood has been achieved in recent years via the dogged efforts of local academics (in particular Armitage, 2001) and amateurs, who have circulated their findings, accounts and interpretations of the flood via on-line websites, local history presses and ‘home-made’ initiatives such as an interpretative geocache placed near to Malin Bridge.

But the signposting of the flood’s passage through the valley is still a subtle one. A few days ago I set out to find those memorial traces. The photos below show what I found walking the course of the river from Malin Bridge to Lady’s Bridge in the centre of the city. Over the course of three miles, this was it:  pubs co-opting the history of the flood to add to their ‘authenticity’; a hole where a Victorian plaque recording the water level (10 feet above the pavement) has recently been removed along with the adjacent street sign; cryptic municipal trail symbols probably launched with fanfare on the occasion of an anniversary or the summit of an individual crusade; and most recently a stone memorial, sitting amidst the sleek office buildings of the regenerated ‘riverside’ quarter in the vicinity of Lady’s Bridge.

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This disparate medley of markers sits here for the curious. But they are nodal points, dots left for the walker to join, feint approximations to a sheer mass of water that once hurtled down this valley throwing the city into disarray. How do you capture that? How can the ghost of an inundation be held in the city? The water passed through in horrific fashion, but it passed through quickly. In time the destruction was erased – new buildings and new people came and went.

Life went on, water and all.



Amey, G. (1974) The Collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam, Cassell: London

Armitage, M. (2001) Sheffield Flood website:


Hindle, R. (2006) Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864, Templar Poetry: www.templarpoetry.com

ILN (1864) http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mossvalley/mv2/sheffield-flood.html

Simpson, A.W.B. (1996) “Bursting Reservoirs and Victorian Tort Law: Rylands and Horrocks –v- Fletcher (1868)” in Leading Cases in the Common Law, Oxford University Press:  Oxford

SFCA (2006): Sheffield Flood Claims Archive at http://www2.shu.ac.uk/sfca/aboutFlood.cfm

New uses for old bunkers #22: doing ‘ruin porn’ in Churchill’s other bunker?

“I propose to lead a troglodyte existence with several ‘trogs’” – Winston Churchill, 21st September 1940

Yes, there was something wrong with my camera that day, my pictures aren’t very good. This blog-essay juxtaposes my ‘bad’ photos of an open-day at the ruined hulk of Churchill’s ‘other’ London bunker – codenamed  ‘Paddock’ – in Spring 2010 with a rumination on the practice of modern ruin gazing, and ‘ruin porn’.


‘Paddock’ was built 40 feet beneath a suburban GPO research station at Brook Rd, Dollis Hill, North London in the early stages of the war as a reserve bunker, a fallback in case the Government should be ousted from the Cabinet War Rooms beneath Whitehall. Whilst that central London complex is now presented as a restored walk-through ‘attraction’ and bunker-themed subterranean Churchill museum, Paddock has received no restorationist’s attention. Instead, it presents as a buried decaying hulk, its two layers having the ambiance of a cross between a rusting submarine and a buried Travelodge that the World somehow lost, and left to the decay in a fug of penetrating water, oxidation and fungal growth. This bunker, in short, is a modern ruin.

Paddock was decommissioned from military use in 1943 and ceased its subsequent GPO occupation in the 1970s. From that time it fell into decay. In the 1980s BT (as successors to the GPO) closed the research station, and in the 1990s the site was acquired by Stadium Housing Association and plans drawn up for a social housing development on this ‘brownfield’ site. At an advanced stage of the planning process the existence of this once ultra top secret bunker came to light and the local planning authority decided to impose a planning condition upon the developer. In return for permission to build 36 houses upon the surface, twice-yearly ‘open-days’ would have to be held, to give any who wanted to, a chance to venture inside.

Going underground

When I went along in Spring 2010, I found a gaggle of people milling on the pavement beside the nondescript entrance to the bunker. As the safety instructions sent to me by the Housing Association had mentioned with evident relief, this tour would be conducted by the experts – the bunker enthusiasts, Subterranea Britannica (Sub Brit).

Holmes (2009), in his book about Churchill’s main bunker, quotes from the diary of one of Churchill’s Assistant Private Secretary, Jock Colville who described Paddock in its prime, in September 1940 as:

“deep underground rooms safe from the biggest bomb, where the Cabinet and its satellites (e.g. me) would work and, if necessary sleep. They are impressive but rather forebidding: I suppose if the present intensive bombing continues we must get used to being troglodytes (‘trogs’ as the PM puts it). I begin to understand what the early Christians must have felt about living in the Catacombs.” (64)

Descending the cellar-like steps, the feeling was very much of entering some dank catacombs. This place is uncurated – there has been no preservation, let alone restoration there. There are no interpretation boards, there is no son et lumiere to bring this place ‘back to life’.

Instead (and I keep returning to this word because it really does capture the essence) here was a rusting and rotting hulk. In the two levels of long narrow corridors with office sized rooms either side, there was very little to identify this site’s prior exceptional purpose or even its subterranean location (apart from the absence of windows to these rooms). This was a rotting building, a long narrow rectangular office block, that just happened to be buried underground and to have had the good fortune to have been visited a few times by a wartime Prime Minister. Or, at least that’s how it struck me.

Seeing and doing

The crowd who had assembled for this trip underground was a surprisingly diverse bunch, a genuine North London cross section by race, age, gender and class. I suspect that many were there for the heritage angle – to glimpse another part of the Churchill trail, and perhaps others were curious local residents. It was strange to be in this derelict, decayed space in the company of an array of mainly smartly dressed middle aged people whom – I suspect – don’t normally clamber into the depths of dilapidated office-bunkers. Presumably they were here for the link to history and heritage, a link that was pretty hard to grasp hold of in this rotting void.

What attracted my attention most was the determined and disciplined photographic foraging of a black female teenager in the party. In each room she would seek out standard tropes of urban exploration photography and take multiple shots with her expensive looking camera. She clearly knew what she was looking for.

And what was she photographing?

Well, dust encrusted old bottles left on tables, fragments of notice board parchment, rusting signs: all the usual indicia of former use, abandonment and decay. And no doubt, from her thorough approach she would have come away with some ‘beauties’ in the oeuvre. In making this observation I’m not being ‘sniffy’. If my camera had been working properly that day I would have been attempting to perform the same stock compositions.

What struck me was that she (and I) had brought along a readymade way to ‘read’ this ruin – and we read it in a way that enabled us to pretty quickly forgot that we were in a specific place of heritage or events. Our engagement was more generic and focussed on the experiential materialities of this hulk – of the rust, the mould, the exposed metal: the place as ruin.

Smith (2004) recounting his own visit to this place with Subterranea Britannica, rendered this strange aesthetic – an unlikely conjunction of survey and poetics – thus:

“walls and floors ran wet…a beautiful snowy fur, the most exotic fungus I had seen below ground grew from the ceiling…gravy splashes of mould up the walls…droplets of water had been cultured into jewels by immobility” (333-334)

Our Sub Brit guides also seemed more captivated by the dank, broken-ness of this place that in portraying a clear and confident account of its wartime life. A line from Smith’s book had struck me when I first read it, and almost verbatim replayed itself via our own guide when we were taken into the generator room: his guide had inhaled contentedly there and declared with evident satisfaction “there’s still that engine-room smell”’ (2004:334), our guide showed a similar enthusiasm for this mechanical room and appended to every sentence of his description of these power devices the rider “as you probably know…”, co-opting us – willing or not – into a ceremony of subterranean machine-worship, recalling the obsessive enthusiast quoted in Geoghegan’s (2009) wonderfully titled article on industrial archaeology enthusiasts: “If you can walk down the street and recognise the difference between cast iron and wrought iron, the world is altogether a better place”.

Smith also relayed another evocative parallel recalled by one of his Sub Brit guides, about areas of water ingress into this bunker: “It’s like Star Wars where they’re trapped in a trash compactor” (333). It was, it really was. Trash compactor, space hulk, derelict bunker – they all merged as cultural reference points in this broken place.

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Ruin Porn

I’ve been thinking about Paul Mullins’ (2012) recent blog-essay on ruin porn and archaeology of modern ruins. The teenage photographer, the Sub Brit enthusiasts and I (with my damaged camera) were all – each in our own way – exhibiting and practising a contemporary ruin aesthetic in our engagement with this place. The decontextualised dimension is what renders the so-called ‘ruin porn’ aesthetic distinctive.

Garrett (2011) has sought to explore this free-ranging aesthetic sensibility in his notion of urban exploration as an ‘assaying’ of the past and its structures, it is a promiscuous, selective and ‘mix and match’ approach that is free of the channelling of meaning which curated heritage venues or an archaeological investigation would entail; that urban exploration harbours “no temporal or typological constraints to an appreciation of the past” (2011, page 1050).

Garrett takes to task High & Lewis (2007) for their attack on urban exploration, which they regard as shallow and lacking a deep engagement with the history and use-lives of the places that are briefly explored. He argues that places are more than memorials, more than an embodied outcome of use-lives waiting to be faithfully excavated by in-depth study. Instead he regards ruins as much about place as time, as places of more open-ended (and generic) material stimulation of the senses and experience.

I follow Garrett’s view up to a point. I agree that urban exploration can be performed via a ‘cross-reading’ of place (a notion captured in Edensor’s (2005) important work on the aesthetics of industrial ruins), but I depart from Garrett in terms of how ‘free-form’ the urban exploration aesthetic or practice actually is. I have sought to show elsewhere that actually it is deeply structured, that it is fairly easy to spot and replicate the ‘rules’ of its ways of doing in terms of what, where and how (Bennett 2011).

High & Lewis write off urban explorers’ narratives as (only) “a valuable window into how some white, middle class North Americans in their teens and twenties view[…] deindustrialisation…” (2007: 63). Whilst they make an important contribution in characterising urban explorers as tourists, in whose gaze places are romanticized and decontextualised. What they write off as “little more than impressionistic collage of observations and feelings. [Where] we learn more about how these abandoned buildings make the narrators feel, than about their history and function” (2007: 55), I view as products of a sophisticated and relatively stable genre, a mode of representation that is being performed by (in the case of this visit), me, the Sub Brit enthusiasts and the teenage photographer. This genre sets frameworks for approaching ruins, a way of measuring good and bad attempts at the genre and denies a truly free-form engagement with them (at least to the extent that any attempt to document and share the visit is concerned).

So, is this ‘ruin porn’? I guess it depends what you mean by ‘porn’, implicitly there is a negative judgment wrapped up in the term, but helpfully Mullins draws out some of the nuances, and potential positives.

In his essay Mullins seems to align the notion of pornography with a self-centred, gratificatory and asocial consumption of place. He points to critics of the ruin porn practitioners at work in the ruins of Detroit as celebrating the aesthetics of ruin in the way that previous generations of white, middle-class, male ‘hipsters’ might have extolled – from the safe distance of their life-comforts – the ‘soul’ of slums, or the authenticity of the ghetto. The fear that Mullins echoes (but does not necessarily share) is that ruin porn arrests social processes (like urban regeneration) that would otherwise address socio-economic and other inequities: that in ruin porn’s fetish of decay and remnant signs of the past, progress is somehow opposed or delayed.

Mullins then goes on to suggest that ruin porn may be a positive counter weight to modernism’s fixation on grand schemes of ever-change and perfection seeking; that an attention to decay and traces may open our eyes to a wider range of stimuli and ways of seeing our worlds.

I’m with Mullins on that. Yes, there is a danger that celebrating decay could avert attention from pressing issues, but there is also a danger that a relentless and unquestioning quest for modernisation, change and cleanliness rushes too boldly towards erasure.

There is a positive role that ruin porn can play. Just as it is said that children need to be exposed to a little dirt and germs to develop immunity, perhaps adults need to see a bit of a dank bunker now and then to remind them that the built environment has a wider range of textures, smells and forms than everyday experience might normally reveal.

If ruin porn helps to augment our sensory range then that is good – provided we remain vigilant against the rise of narrowing representational conventions within ruin porn itself and the proliferation of derivative and hackneyed depictions that lose their ability to offer augmentation of experience of the built environment.

However, there is also a need to remain attuned to the role (past, present and future) of these structures as places of social life, of questions of power, habitability and quality of life.

Bennett, L. (2011) “Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration”, Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 29 421-34

Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins: space, aesthetics and materiality, Berg: Oxford.

Garrett, B.L. (2011) “Assaying history: creating temporal junctions through urban exploration”, Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 29 1048-1067

Geoghegan, H. (2009) “ ‘If you can walk down the street and recognise the difference between cast iron and wrought iron, the world is altogether a better place’: being enthusiastic about industrial archaeology”, M/C Journal: a journal of media and culture, 12 2 unpaginated.

High, S. & Lewis, D.W. (2007) Corporate Wasteland – the landscape and memory of deindustrialisation, IRL Press: London.

Holmes, H. (2009)Churchill’s Bunker, Profile Books / Imperial War Museum: London

Mullins, P. (2012) “The Politics and Archaeology of ‘Ruin Porn’” at http://paulmullins.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/the-politics-and-archaeology-of-ruin-porn/

Smith, S (2004) Underground London – travels beneath the city streets, Abacus: London