Careful what you kick at – a short rant about anti-health & safety culture

Copy of DSC01025

Tuning into the 10 o’clock news last night to marvel at how a businessman could sell millions of pounds of bogus bomb detectors to strife torn countries around the world, I lingered through the weather and thus stumbled upon the first episode of Ben Elton’s new comedy, The Wright Way. It takes a lot to wind me up but this supposed ‘comedy’ about an anal Health & Safety official did just that.

Has it really come to this – that a champion of 1980s leftist alternative comedy, and writer of landmark subtle and inventive shows like The Young Ones and Black Adder – is now hawking sub Daily Mail rants against health & safety?

In his 1980s and 1990s stand-up routines Elton was always attentively PC (sometimes self policing and pulling punches in scrupulously observed ‘no-go’ areas). I’m sure that this latest offering doesn’t represent a complete about face. Positive nods (albeit token and wooden) were there to Lesbianism and female plumbers for instance. But the whole premise of the  show was that health & safety is bad and that anyone in that role a) has an abundance of power b) gets a kick from wielding it and stopping things from happening and c) represents a whole sphere of bureaucratic endeavour that serves no positive purpose whatsoever.

How on earth did we get here?

Growing up in the 1980s my history lessons where full of (a rather tired and past its prime) Whiggish reading of recent English History as progress towards social justice. We learnt about the horrors of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the Factory Acts and the steps taken by factory owners to resist the abolition of slavery and restriction of the length of the working day, the employment of children and the fitting of guards to factory machinery. The ascendancy of controls over the maiming potential of untrammelled free enterprise and its machinery was  lauded as an unquestioned ‘good’ and the Trades Unions extolled occupational heath and safety legislation as a major success of the labour movement.

Yet now, the figure of the health and safety official (replete with clipboard and check-list) is lampooned by Left and Right alike without challenge.  This is dangerous stuff.

Yes, there are problems in the way that principles of safety law have migrated (and mutated) beyond the confines of the factory walls.  But danger doesn’t stop at the factory door and neither does the industrial/commercial management of space. The Offices, Shops & Railways Premises Act 1963 – as its name suggests – was an early acknowledgment that people and things interact in places other than manufactories. Should these places and activities within them not also be shaped by safety (and hygiene) focussed standards?

Then in late 1960s Lord Robens (smarting from experience as head of the National Coal Board at the time of the Aberfan disaster) was appointed (as mea culpa?)  to devise a more flexible, lean and less prescriptive, approach to heath & safety – acknowledging the ever greater variety of activities and places that people and things congregate in. The Robens Report gave us the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, and the core principles that still subsist today.

What Elton may or may not realise, is that in joining in the health & safety bashing he is facilitating a deregulation agenda that has been high on the Right wing wish-list for many years. Neo-liberal ideologues would love to strip out much of the heart of regulatory law (whether environmental, equal opportunities, wage control etc) in the name of enterprise (i.e. cost reduction). The anti health & safety (seeming) consensus in popular culture is a potential bridgehead for this.

In a study that I did back in 2008 I was able to chart the close association between this deregulationist agenda, the ‘pro-adventure’ outdoor recreation campaigners and New Labour. That trend only accelerated with the arrival of the credit crunch and the new coalition government, with Lord Young appointed in 2009 to (in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron) improve the poor standing of health & safety in the public’s eyes by reducing the regulatory creep and thereby aiding “businesses …drowned in red tape, confusion and the fear of being sued for even minor accidents.”

But the compensation culture is a myth not borne out by the claims data, and confusion is a product of how we think about safety and risk assessment, not inevitable products of the current system. It is not the law that is requiring this urge to inaction. Rather it is the way in which the system is regarded, understood and implemented by the people and organisations to which this self-policing is delegated. And, perhaps inevitably – but certainly not helped by vitriol and lampooning of Elton’s kind – becomes a caricature of itself, as the Health & Safety Executive are often keen to point out in their attempts to debunk whatever myth is circulating by way of local or trade-sectoral interpretation of what this system of principles requires (see

Yes, ‘health & safety’ can be a dead-hand mantra, a retarding anti-action force, an excuse for inaction. Yes, health & safety departments appear to attract a certain mindset (systems driven – reflecting the mechanical engineering origins of many practitioners) but as David Ball’s work has shown and argued, there is nothing inherent within the system of health & safety law itself that is damaging to (non-maiming) spirit of enterprise, a culture of doing or even of risk taking. The beauty of the system introduced in 1974 is that it encourages self regulation (rather than prescribing precisely how each and every type of machine and event should be rendered safe). But, it is precisely this delegation that facilitates mutant effects. It does appear that marking out each worker or manager as ‘responsible’ for assessing and addressing the risk inherent in their activities can lead to a culture of caution, and – at times – over reaction, particularly where organisations see health & safety as self-contained, rather than as part of a supported holistic process of weighing up costs and benefits of the what they decide to do and not to do.

Ball advocates an embrace of the notion of risk-benefit assessment, particularly in safety-beyond-the-factory-wall. There is nothing in the legal principles to disallow adventurous pursuits. But there seems to be plently at implementational / interpretative level that creates this effect. This is where the work needs to be done. And it is work that needs to be done in the spirit of fine tuning, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater and tumbling back into the (mythical) laissez faire era of the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

The deregulationists have to date been largely unsuccessful in their attempts to purge the statute book of ‘health & safety red tape’. Indeed the Löftsted review – appointed by the present government to tackle the ‘problem’ – found little that was ripe for repeal. It would be a grave pity were the grumpy old men of ‘alternative’ comedy to fan the flames of this agenda.


Ball, D. & Ball-King, L. (2011) Public Safety and Risk Assessment – Improving decision making, Routledge: London

Bennett, L. & Crowe, L (2008) Landowners’ liability? is perception of the risk of liability for visitors accidents a barrier to countryside access? Countryside Recreation Network: Sheffield

Lord Young (2010) Common Sense, Common Safety , HM Government: London

Löftsted, R. (2011) Reclaiming Health & Safety For All: an independent review of health and safety legislation, Department of Work & Pensions: London:



New Uses for Old Bunkers # 31: WD’s Posting Sentries Project

sentry crouching

Last year I had an academic paper published that offered up some thoughts and reflections on why some people (predominantly male) invest considerable amounts of their spare time cherishing the dank concrete ruins of defensive emplacements. In part of my paper I ruminated on bunkerologists observed restoring their prized structures, and the pervasive desire to resurrect these places and their stories from the mundane background into which it was felt that they had slid. Their fear was that these structures had become imperceptible – whether through ubiquity or physical and informational decay. There was also an evident faith in the power of the materiality of these buildings to convey something above and beyond what books could achieve.

Thus, often driven by the dedicated efforts of amateur enthusiasts, individual pillboxes, bunkers, tank blocks and so forth had became foregrounded via local initiatives – an interpretive sign added here, a memorial plaque there, a coastal walk leaflet, a local history book or talk, a re-enactment or other event day now and again.

Such projects appeared to meet little if any opposition, they were seen as a valid (if at times a little nerdy) example of localism and community spirit.

But what if the attempt to rescue a site from obscurity is carried out by an individual and involves affixing artwork to the fabric of the structure itself. Should that be lauded any less?

This was the issue I found myself grappling with after becoming aware of War Department’s ‘Posting Sentries’ Project. War Department (WD) is a Scottish street artist who stencils life-size sentries and other period-inspired images onto and into the fabric of abandoned pillboxes and related structures. The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by me with WD earlier this week. WD is aware that it is being published here and has given permission for the use of photographs of his work.

LB – How do people react to your work (e.g. visitors, site owners, heritage groups)?

WD – Very positively with some heritage bodies recently asking for work to be produced for them especially at their own sites and events. I get a lot of emails with photos taken by people who have found a piece which are always great to see and I do get the occasional email from other artists and urban explorers wanting to come on a mission with me which is something I don’t allow. The only negative comment I had was that someone thought that one of my prints featured the wrong model of Bren Gun for that location…they were right and I replaced the print at the site a few weeks later.

LB – What types of people do you meet in these places?

WD – I have met a few people on site and they are generally either hikers or geocachers. Once they see me, they tend to hang about and watch me work and have a chat about the project which is good.

LB – How does your project approach the issue of respect for place and authenticity?

WD – I avoid any sites that have a very documented past, maintained in any way or are in private ownership – I look for the forgotten and do my research in to its past before I create a piece. I try to find out unit names/tasking/equipment etc to give the work some accuracy for those in the know. The majority of the sites I work with are in ruins and are in no way maintained, a fact I am very careful about. For example I do not work with Royal Observer Corp (ROC) posts as they have groups dedicated to their upkeep and I would not wish to upset them as they do a great job in keeping the past alive.

LB – Is there a tension between selling prints and declaring yours a noncommercial project?

WD – Not at all. The prints went on sale after I received dozens of requests from followers of my work who wanted to own a print themselves. The money raised from the sales of prints pays for the materials I require (which are rising in price every day) and a percentage of each sale goes directly to a UK armed forces charity I support. I don’t make any ‘profit’ from the prints and that will remain the case for the length of project. The company who sell the prints on my behalf make no money from the sales either and have been a great supporter and promoter of the project.

LB – Has your work ever been vandalised / ‘written over’ by others?

WD – Not as far as I know, but I am not too worried if they do.

LB – What prompted you to add the safety disclaimer about the inherent dangers of visiting your sentries?

WD – Unfortunately some people are not prepared for exploring such sites and although the majority of the sites are safe, I would hate for anyone to get hurt looking for a Sentry. So I thought it wise to highlight that safety should be uppermost in the mind of the would be Sentry hunter. It is also partly for that reason I do not list the locations on the website.

LB – What got you interested in targeting bunkers in particular (i.e. why not similarly re-populating abandoned farms, derelict mills or old quarries with stencil people?) – was the attraction the bunkers’ non inner-urban locations, their ‘forgotten ruins’ status, their link with militarism/defence or was it family or other interest in wartime heritage?

WD – In the area that I live there are hundreds of wartime structures strewn throughout the landscape. I realised that although I knew what they were (thanks to summer holidays with Grandparents) many people didn’t and they were at risk as being regarded as just a lump of concrete and having no significance by future generations. I began looking into the history of the structures and found that the stories and the people behind them were fascinating so I started the project as my way preventing the loss of these stories.

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So, what’s going on?

WD appears a well meaning enthusiast, driven by the same memorial urges as the more ‘mainstream’ bunker-savers. Both seek to re-remember these abandoned structures and the time and seriousness of their deployment. Both invoke the language of research and public engagement. Both co-opt popular graphic styles to achieve their aim, neither are ‘high art’, conceptual or otherwise obscure in their intention or execution.

And yet, I initially found myself uncomfortable about WD’s project, and that unease hasn’t entirely gone. One anxiety was that of copy-catism, WD’s designs are very well executed and there appears to be a restraint (borne of respect) in both choice of site and approach. But does such re-energising attract adverse attention to these sites, encourage them to be seen as canvasses for a variety of others? But then I remind myself that bunkers close to urban centres were targeted by graffiti long before WD came along, and graffiti is itself an archaeological artefact (see for example).

Issues of ‘authenticity’ lingered in my mind too – would these stencils spoil the original structures?

But then I thought about it further. What are the differences between WD’s augmentation of these derelict hulks, and putting up interpretative boards, guides, directed pathways, and/or restoration activities that seek to portray a moment in time during the 1939-45 war? The only differences that I can think of are (1) how well does the intervention conjure something beneficial to the experience of the encounter and (2) who is the doer – the site owner, a national custodian or self-appointed enthusiast?

Two essays by conflict archaeologist John Schofield are helpful here. Schofield argues that such sites have little value without interpretation, and that contemporary approaches to interpretation take a wide view of that term. These places are not beholding a single essence, one that can only be extracted carefully by expert investigation. No, there are many possible meanings and the act of foregrounding one of them, is a necessary act of choice, and will reflect the preoccupations of the host society in which the interpretation takes place.  Few places lend themselves well to a flat, ‘facts-only’ presentation, and certainly not crudely build defensive emplacements which even in their operational life had few home comforts or other ‘trimmings’.

What good (i.e. effective) public realm art can provide is what we might call ‘positive provocation’: confronting the visitor such that an intellectual and/or affectual response is summoned by the artist’s appropriation of place, structure and signs and the relations summoned between them via unexpected juxtaposition: and the stumbling upon a lifesize image of a crouched sentry in an otherwise overgrown and desolate abandoned outpost certainly fits the bill.

Schofield quotes fellow combat archaeologist Graham Fairclough thus:

“sense of place is not a given, and therefore cannot necessarily be passed on only by interpretation. It is created by individuals, and the aim of displays should be to give people the means to develop their own appreciation of significance…The sense of discovery is vital.” (Schofield, 2009: 46)

Schofield tables the notion of artists as ‘incavators’: that whilst the archaeologist finds meaning by excavating the layers of materiality at a site, an artist can add matter to a site (incavating) thereby adding, or drawing out, greater understanding, experience, engagement, meaning, significance, value (choose your preferred term).

Schofield’s writings here summon a refreshing view of the mutability of material culture – these structures cannot stand still. If left untouched they will eventually decay to nothing, any intervention – whether with preservation or interpretation at the fore, involves change and choices, opening up one possibility, whilst necessarily closing down (or at least subduing) others.

So, if I end up concluding that WD’s interventions are successful augmentations, then that only leaves (2) to work through, and that tumbles into the politics of who should be the custodians of ‘heritage’ and how such assets should be both preserved and presented.

I suspect that my initial adverse reaction was a classic Romantic ruin-porn one, that to discover a site warped in this way would be to not find an ‘authentic’ site. Yet, when out exploring I sometimes come across other street art augmentations of non-military ruins and feel that I’ve come across something delightfully surprising, something that has added to the experience of the trip.

I think, ultimately for me it comes down in large part to this issue of augmentation – adding something of worth – but also issues of community engagement, is the intervention done with the approval of the local community? But here that gets complicated, who are the local community and how should approval be measured? Is the local community only those enthusiasts who already know of these structures, or does it include the unknowing mass, whose engagement with these structures will only be triggered by such interventions?

Perhaps the only difference that ultimately matters is that WD is doing this without permission. It is interesting to hear that WD has been approached by heritage groups seeking to co-opt him into ‘legitimate’ interpretative work (a step which he doesn’t appear to have any ideological opposition to). To my mind there is nothing inherently wrong about WD’s interventions in an aesthetic or interpretative sense but if done without the place owner’s permission (and without regulatory sanction in the case of sites designated as listed buildings of protected monuments) it is probably criminal damage. The legislation looks to preservation of the fabric of these buildings (no matter how dank or decayed). The application of paint, paper or any other materials to these surfaces is an infraction.

It was particularly interesting to see WD’s answer above to the question of site selection, that he would not target sites that appeared in private ownership. This comment seems to equate private ownership with habitation or use, the reality is – of course – that everywhere is owned by someone, even if there are no apparent signs of use.

In pulling this piece together I find myself with a left/right brain tension. The lawyer in me says ‘clearly unlawful’, the other part of me says this is an interesting way of appropriately augmenting these forgotten structures. I’m left stuck on the fence on this one…


Bennett, L (2012) ‘Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers’ Gender, Place & Culture: a journal of feminist geography iFirst article, 2012, 1–17, DOI:10.1080/0966369X.2012.701197

Schofield, J. (2005) Combat Archaeology: material culture and modern conflict, Duckworth: London.

Schofield, J. (2009) ‘Constructing Place: when artists and archaeologists meet’ in Aftermath: readings in the archaeology of recent conflict; Springer: New York.

WD’s website:

Another interview with WD: Issue 4, twohundredby200 magazine at:

Parkwood Scree: the shimmering hillside tip


For over a decade I’ve seen it every morning from my sitting room. Pulling open the curtains it looms large before me, the Parkwood tip fills my field of view, it is my horizon. It’s a dependable background, not a conventionally pretty scene but a shared familiar vista for thousands of Sheffield houses. for years it was a place known known to me, but at a distance. A canvas on which the seasons would play themselves out on that brutal bald hillside: grey hue in autumn, dusting of snow in wintertime, a brighter tinge to the scrubby green in the spring.

Glimpsed from different vantage points around the city the tip gives up very different profiles to its spectators. Seen from above, from the heights of Crookes, one can look down into the void. From here the tip is wide, muddy, sparsely populated by a handful of diggers. It looks like a child’s sandpit scene: Tonka-land at lunchtime. Viewed from the valley bottom around lower Walkley the hillside has a caldera like form – an erupted earth crater, whose edge-on view entices with what it does not reveal, offset by the off-white scratch marks of the adjacent dry ski slopes.  Approached via the foothills of Neepsend, it is (like any ‘normal’ steep hill) a trickstery succession of false summits.

Parkwood Landfill sounds like the kind of oxymoron dreamt up by a PR company to reposition an eyesore. But the name actually precedes the tip. Old Park Wood in its day was a deer park, a hillside covered by ancient woodland. But even in this era it was a working place – a zone of extraction and resource management. Within their coppiced woodland charcoal burners felled trees roasting it to produce optimum fuel for the iron works in the valley below. Over time this hillside became deforested as industrial exploitation of the woodland resource intensified. Meanwhile mining set in, the adjacent ward of Pittsmoor talking its name from the abundance of iron ore and coal pits being worked there. The sandstone and underlying shale measures in the escarpment yielded workable stone, fireclays and coal. This hillside was gouged successively, and it was filled successively too. Ash wastes from the valley’s gas works, brick works, foundries and its power station were all deposited up on the hillside, with spoil from the mines spread upon the surface too. Holes appeared and were filled. Matter – like the demolition rubble from air raid reconstruction and slum clearance – rose up out of the city. This is how the hillside grew.

The naming of parts

Now, newly built hilltop houses (the resolutely named Standish Gardens) crowd right up to the edge of the tip site, a source of tension for all concerned. An earth bund was recently built to shield these houses from the sight of the active tipping area. The earth for the bund was excavated from a flank of the site. The hole that was created was then named, Cell 4.

Everything is assigned its place and productivity up here on waste mountain. Plans show the phasing of infilling, names are ascribed to amorphous zones of earth, mud, scrub and air. An empty surface is depicted vertically as active in a distinctly more-than-human way. We scratch at the surface and just below it, but our processes of shallow engagement require a wider network of deeper remote surveillance – a monitoring of the geologic through boreholes, a nervous apprehension of pollutant presence and migration through conceptualising the trafficking properties of subterranean space and the synergistic toxic potentialities of the intermixing of waste matter, with all of this to be managed across greater-than-a-single-lifetime durations.

It wasn’t always this way. Time was when tipping was an incidental and truly temporary activity – carried purely in the present, with no regard to the future. It was pure expediency. Matter to be got rid of and a convenient empty surface nearby to accommodate that. Getting rid required some transport engineering (gantries, buckets, loading bays) at the point of departure from the productive site down in the valley, but little at the point of disposal. It was just tipped out in smouldering heaps.  Mapping from the 1930s shows Parkwood’s ash tips as conical piles along the course of the ropeways, acne on the hillside. Progressively the hill’s many quarries came to be in-filled too and later the mapping shows vast curling landforms as the mountain slowly rises through the cumulative action of an uncoordinated array of tips across the hillside:

                  different times;

                                different reasons;

                                                different owners;

                                                                different operators;

                                                                                different matter;

                                                                                                different speeds;

                                                                                                                different effects upon the hill.

The current operators acquired this extensive tipping land in 2002, and a few years later submitted plans to consolidate the planning permission and environmental permits under which the site would complete its operational life. That process spewed a wealth of paperwork: maps, engineering cross sections, geomembrane liner specifications, leachate and gas extraction schemes. Much of this engineering and premediation is mandated by law. I could take you through it if you had the time or the inclination, but I sense that you would soon fall asleep. No, instead let me summarise without the citations and footnotes.

Layers of learning

I spent a number of years advising on waste management law, and in part my career as an environmental lawyer was based upon the sudden eruption of legal control over tipping. Until relatively recently the law had little interest in where rubbish went, as long as it didn’t affect public health. The potential for illness and pestilence from waste matter has pre Biblical provenance. But it was urbanization that increased the attentiveness to the potential hazards of waste disposal. Waste disposal in the heyday of the industrial era had largely been a localised, often ‘on-site’ affair – with much matter consumed nearby in the process of making firm ground for further urbanization (the so-called ‘made ground’ underlying much of our settlements, as our contribution to the anthropocene). But as urban expansion slowed, as industrial waste producers consolidated in scale, as foundation building techniques changed and as the problem of differential settlement became better known (the danger of building on heterogeneous matter)  waste matter increasingly came to be evacuated out of the productive / dwelling areas. Hillsides often seemed the most logical candidate destinations: nearby and too steep for development. So, as with Parkwood, the hillside became the conveniently located tipping space.

The wisdom of uncontrolled tipping on steep hillsides was challenged by the Aberfan disaster of 1966. The tipping of colliery spoil onto the steep hillsides above that South Wales mining village produced vast man-made heaps. Weakened by rain and underlying water courses that drained the mountainside, at 9.15am on Friday, 21st October 1966 one of these heaps failed, slumping down, avalanche like upon the village below. 144 people were killed, 116 of them children inundated at their primary school. After Aberfan conical tipping from aerial ropeways no longer felt a sophisticated evacuation of matter from valley bottoms. From the ensuing inquiries and compensation cases new technical understanding emerged of how heaps behave on hillsides. Specific legislation was enacted to regulate the disposal of mineral spoil, with landform design, stability monitoring and record keeping as central components.

Meanwhile the frugal Victorian approach to material efficiencies (the world of rag and bone men, collectors of night soil, toshers and the like that Henry Mayhew chronicled in London) and the early Twentieth century vogue for waste incineration,  gave way to a vigorous embrace of former quarries as disposal sites. There was a modernist fascination with ‘hole-filling’ a neatness evident in the erasure of urban quarries and brick pits (something I also write about in Scree, with particular focus on the former excavation site at what is now Kilner Way Retail Park and its surrounding 1970s housing estates). English Law is littered with cases arising from subsidence damage suffered by rash 1960s and 1970s new build on such eagerly infilled voids.

And then a bungalow exploded early one morning in Loscoe, Derbyshire. The date was 24 March 1986. The time was 6.30am. We know this precisely because that was the time set by the elderly occupants for the central heating to come on. That morning the boiler ignited, but encountered a build up of methane gas that had seeped into the basement of this bungalow. The gas had come from the nearby rubbish tip, a former brick pit. Up until that point the English approach to tip design was one of ‘dilute and disperse’, put the rubbish in the ground and let its gaseous and liquid emanations seep into the surroundings. But with the new found awareness that stuff could escape from such sites, as liquid, gas, odour or litter and afflict surrounding land and its inhabitants. Tips were no longer simply a matter of physical (land stability) hazards, there was a return to health concerns – but not just those of humans, but also of the wider environment.

This environmental heath focus was accelerated by the Love Canal site in upstate New York, a housing estate and school built on top of a former canal strip infilled with industrial waste by Hooker Chemical Co in the 1950s. Medical studies showed elevated levels of congenital and other disease. The estate was abandoned in 1978, under federal declaration of a State of Emergency. Waste was excavated and an new industry launched – environmental consultants, environmental (as distinct from  planning) regulators, environmental lawyers. A tidal wave of regulation and litigation ensued. Tips would never look (or be looked at) the same.

Then in the late 1990s the European Union jumped in, setting harmonised design standards for landfill engineering. Increasingly landfill became framed around a containment model. Tips would be repositories, sites from which no matter should escape. Waste cells would be lined with impermeable barriers and all liquid and gas would be contained within them, being sucked up into pipes and shunted to technology to manage those arisings. But an anxiety remains amongst the designers. No barrier is truly impermeable, no system is failsafe. Thus perimeter monitoring wells stationed like mute prison camp guards to detect signs of escape.

Figuring tips

In my old job I would trawl through consultants’ fat reports compiled as part of licensing processes. I was always captivated by the images within, massive fold out maps and cross sections of landfill sites. The cross-sections read like a security diagram, layer upon layer of barrier, arrestment and monitoring devices. The maps showed expanses of empty space, blank white zones of future filling. The action in these maps always took place at the periphery, these deserts were edged with thick coloured lines, then rows of enumerated dots in the no-man’s land beyond: the sentinel boreholes guarding against a re-run of Loscoe.

Then there were the hydrogeological monitoring reports – replete with their complex mathematical models predicting migration pathways and outfall timings for hypothetical jail-breaking pollutants. If the modelling showed that any spill would took thousands of years to hit water resources then that was ok, it satisfied a workable notion of ‘impermeable’.

These maps, and their white voids bear little relation to the muddy, undulating three dimensional reality of the actual landforms. Mappers struggle to know how to capture such features, particularly as quarry and tip sites are dynamic, changing local typology day after day in a cycle of opening up voids, then erasing them, each phase unlikely to act upon the face of the earth in a nice neat urban-like linear form. Quarries and tips are all curves, sprinkles, jagged edges on mapping. They also lack a sense of scale, few human reference points (or humans) are there to help ground the observer in time or in space.

The hill’s lone beacon

Parkwood is a rare and extreme case. A void in the centre of a city. A massive tip on a hillside looked upon daily by many thousands of city dwellers. Little that happens there is out of sight, and yet the tip feels apart from the life of the city that feeds it.

On opening my sitting room curtains some mornings I see a lone amber light winking at me from the desolate hillside across the valley. This is the compactor dozer. It drives upon the freshly tipped waste, ploughing it into the day’s plateaux. This is one man against the waste-mass, almost a modern Sisiphys: as soon as the waste is flattened another batch arrives to disrupt and unsmooth the tip-face.

There are probably fewer than 10 members of staff at work at the tip site at any one moment. The driver of the dozer, a wheel wash attendant, a few orderlies on the tip face spotting for oddities in the deposited material, and perhaps a handful of portacabin office workers. That’s it. This is sparce, post-human almost. So much human activity is embodied in the truck loads of waste matter brought to this site each day, yet so few are involved in its interment.

The swelling of this hill requires few humans on the ground, but embodies so much of human action elsewhere, and not just in waste generation but also all of the abstract works to enable the act of tipping itself. If I stare at the hill I see many ghosts, including those of structures, frameworks, arrangements that leave faint traces upon the surface of the land. This hill is the way that it is, this tipping is the way that it is (and not any other way), because of incidents and lessons learnt elsewhere, events distant in space and time but connected via regulatory, ownership, engineering and other immaterial frameworks to the daily conduct of tipping at this place and to the undulating to and fro motion of this compactor, this driver, this flashing red light on the hillside across the valley from my home.


Beck, E.C. (1979) ‘The Love Canal Tragedy’  EPA Journal, US Environmental Protection Agency, January (at:

McLean, I & Johnes, M. (2005) The Aberfan Disaster:  (The Aberfan image is from this site)

Milne, R. (1988) ‘Methane menace seeps to the surface’ The New Scientist, 25 February, 27

Williams, G.M. & Aitkenhead, N. (1991) ‘Lessons from Loscoe: the uncontrolled migration of landfill gas’ Quarterly Journal of Engineering, Geology & Hydrogeology 24 191-207

Photograph: Aberfan after the 1966 tip collapse, from Mclean & Johnes (2005)

Parkwood Scree: the stuff of war, the comfort of rubber

repair inside barrage balloon

Ok, so this week’s blog essay was going to be another extract from Scree, my and Katja Hock’s collaboration about the Parkwood hillside. But in chewing over which snippet to post-up, my mind started wandering and I find myself compelled to overlay rubber, bombs and the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, as I picture the hillside’s landfill site.

Circling the tip

The Parkwood hillside has had municipal tipping taking place upon it for over 100 years. The current operations are due to be concluded within the next decade. As I gaze down upon the as yet unused Cell 4, it appears that beneath the shallow earthen skin of the hill lies a shell of black rubber. The birds are the only occupants at the moment, basking in the warm east facing flanks of the cell’s impermeable liner. The cell looks like a vast garden pond waiting for its hose-water.

The first time I came to the tip I was ‘killing time’. I had dropped off one of my kids at the Ski Centre for a friend’s birthday party. I had 90 minutes to waste and decided to circumnavigate the tip, to see whether that was even possible. It was.

It was a grey, wet day and my dog and I squelched off up the fence line away from the habitation of the then buoyant Ski Centre.  It was a Saturday morning but I saw no-one else on my wander. Reaching the summit I cut through a ravine of dark, dank shale rock, a fissure that felt quite disturbing to encounter. My thoughts turned to an ailing elderly family member and by the time I came upon the open Cell 4 my head was already in a gloomy place. Looking down upon the vast expanse of black liner, patiently awaiting its fill this place took on a special meaning which I still find difficult to shake off.

Here was where I came to terms with my grandmother’s mortality, and it’s a place I now return to as a way of continuing to grasp that sense. Cell 4 has the connotation for me of a grave, waiting to be reunited with its content.

            Ashes to ashes,

                                    dust to dust.

                                                All of it finds its way

                                                                        up onto this hillside.

Behind me there was a strange stone pad, a remnant of an anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Nearby Burngreave had suffered casualties in a Zeppelin raid in the First World War, the dense industrial use of the Don Valley prompted early co-option of the hilltop as an Anti-Aircraft post, and by December 1940 there were heavy AA guns at Shirecliffe. Later the site became a rocket based emplacement (a Z battery) manned by the Home Guard. Rumour has it that this hilltop also flew barrage balloons, extending the effective height of the hill by up to 6,000 feet in defence of the attractive target of the power station, gas works and foundries at the foot of the hill.

Unsurprisingly the war brought matériel (as military matter is known) to the hill. The AA battery brought bunkers, shells, metal and munitions. Enemy bombers brought bullets and bombs. On the night of 11th December 1940 a parachute bomb targeted at the AA battery destroyed houses in nearby Musgrave Terrace. Meanwhile on other occasions bombs and incendiaries fell onto the hillside. 25% of the houses in Parkwood Springs were damaged.

I pause. Most of the above text is taken straight from Scree. But as I recall what I have previously written, I find myself thinking again about the exposed liner of Cell 4.

On our last visit to the hillside, Katja and I stood there, she captivated by the photographic potential of this expanse of stretched blackness. I stood and looked also, as she arranged various shots and angles. The liner was bulbous, shimmering, undulating. It was larger than life, mundane and yet mesmerising. It was also sensuous. I nervously blurted out this impression, fully aware of the stock seedy connection between PVC and erotica. But my gaze wasn’t a lustful one, if there was a body part emerging from the heap of this rubberised mountainside it was a maternal, nurturing bosom.

The assembly room

A similar sensation hit me one evening, towards the end of my career as a lawyer. I’d been working on some projects involving the redevelopment of some former munitions factory sites. A client had passed me a copy of 1942 training film relating to a once secret site and its production processes. I’d had a bad day, week, month. I put the film on to block out the doubts preying in my mind about the suitability of my then career. A woman appeared on screen, arriving for her shift in the assembly room. The camera followed her to the changing area, she started to undress and the camera cut away through ranks of lockers and benches. In the next scene she was clothed, shrouded in what looked like a very heavy rubber apron, gloves and boots. She strode off to the production line.

That image of an ordinary woman from the ’40s, transformed via wartime exigencies to rubberised worker haunts me – set, as it was, in the context of my gloomy mood that evening.

I lived with my grandmother for most of my childhood years. For some of that time my great grandfather also lived with us. I grew up with the accounts of his gassing on Passchendaele Ridge and her close scrapes with air-raids in the Second World War. I came to know these stories by heart, but never tired of hearing them. My own kids would hear them too, and did three days before my Nan died peacefully last Spring. But to them they were just abstract stories from an old lady they occasionally spent a few hours with. I doubt whether they will inculcate a strong, strange association between bombs, rubber and the dignity of female war-labour.

My grandmother had spent her pre-war years working in local shoe-shops, but was steered towards war related work in the run up to D-Day. Each day she would cycle to a motor garage at the other end of town and change into overalls, before sitting down to clean disassembled torpedo boat engine parts day in, day out. It was wartime contingency that placed her in this strange role, she never learnt to drive, had little mechanical interest or knowledge and – after the war – had no cause to ever again coat her hands with grease, oil or to ponder the intricacies of grooves, recesses, and other articulations of these alien mechanical components.

One day a messenger came to the garage, calling her home as a matter of urgency. Arriving there she found a telegram curtly advising her of her husband’s death on 11 June 1944. A machine gun had cut him down amidst the clatter of his encampment’s Sunday breakfast. My Nan resolved that that was the end of her war work. She had given enough. She never went back to the garage, the grease or the engines.

What made rubber matter?

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This rhyme is first recorded in John Gower’s Confesio Amantis of 1390. It playfully attests to the vital role of small things in the success or failure of greater things that – whether we realise it or not – depend upon them. A missing nail could bring down a horse and a kingdom, a defective rubber seal (D ring) brought down the Challenger space shuttle in 1986.

Something similar could have happened during the Second World War with rubber. The rapid advance of the Japanese forces across East Asia had by 1942 withdrawn 90% of the world’s natural rubber production from Allied grasp. Only Ceylon (Sri Lanka) remained under Allied control. The material consequences of rise of Japanese power in the late 1930s had been noticed, and the US authorities had set up an option agreement whereby 500,000 bales of cotton would be traded for 90,000 tons of British Empire rubber in the event of war. However the fall of British Malaya and the Netherlands Indies undermined this careful planning: if Ceylon had fallen to the Japanese the Allies would have been left with access to only two weeks supply (via small sources in Africa, South America and Mexico) for the then burgeoning war economy.

In the face of this the US Office of Economic Warfare took control of rubber supply, stockpiling and rationing and sought to promote an expansion in rubber production in Latin America and in California, and an acceleration of the development of synthetic rubber production (from oil). As the war progressed a plethora of market (and resource) controlling agencies appeared: the Rubber Director, the Rubber Branch, the Rubber Reserve Company and the Rubber Research Board

As a recyclable material rubber also became the subject of collection-drives, gathering up hosepipes, old tires, raincoats and gloves for the war effort. A statement published by the U.S. War Production Board in April 1942 illustrates the sense of urgency behind the attempts to accelerate the extraction of material and its co-option into the production of matériel:

“The rubber situation is also critical.  In spite of the recent rubber drive, there is a continuing need for large quantities of scrap rubber.  We are collecting every possible pound from the factories, arsenals and shipyards; we are speeding up the flow of material from automobile graveyards; we are tearing up abandoned railroad tracks and bridges, but unless we dig out an additional 6,000,000 tons of steel and great quantities of rubber, copper, brass, zinc and tin, our boys may not get all the fighting weapons they need in time…  Even one old shovel will help make 4 hand grenades.”

Bringing things to the surface

My grandmother never talked about her bike and the rubber tyres on which she rode to and from the garage. By the time that I met her that portion of her wartime stories had faded back into the mundane, unnoticed, layer of ‘everyday items’, yet at the time the near-impossibility of obtaining a replacement tyre or inner tube would have been a pressing concern, with strategies devised to ‘make do and mend’, to elongate the working life of everyday components made of this material. In the US restrictions on mileage (and fuel allowances) were targeted both at preserving oil resources, and the effective life of tires.


Wartime brings a strange focus to the existence and flow of commodities, and of their centrality within the greater, more complex and/or more evident assemblages of which they are seemingly but a small part. But wartime rationing and redirection of labour jumbles up these priorities, expectations and familiarities. Mundane materials like rubber become foregrounded, and our material dependencies – and their vulnerabilities – are revealed, and both my grandmother and I come to encounter those materials with an intimacy and an association that might otherwise have never come upon us.



Wendt, P. (1947) ‘The Control of Rubber in World War II’ The Southern Economic Journal, XIII (3) 203-227

Tyre/Tire poster –

Cecil Beaton barrage balloon picture –

Parkwood Scree: making matter mountain


This essay is an early draft of what is likely to be the closing piece in my and Katja Hock’s photography and text collaboration exploring the Upper Don valley escarpment in northern Sheffield. The preceding pieces will reflect on the areas of scrub, scar and dross-scape that we visited. This piece however steps back a little from the act of walking this terrain, and instead recounts one portion of it (the area of Parkwood / Shirecliffe) through the experiences of others as found by me on various community forum sites.

This hill is not a mountain, at 175m (575 feet) at its highest point it falls short on that score. But it still looms over the valley beneath it. The occupants of a wide plain of valley houses look up at this vast seemingly empty hillside, a dull swathe of scrub and broken earth, a wasteland as big as London’s Hyde Park. In what follows, using the online testimonies of others, I will show how this hillside is actually rich in both matter and meaning, for it is both an extraction space and a projection space: a venue for visceral engagement with the stuff of this hill and a canvass for diverse practices of meaning making.

Working with scree

This hill is partly made by people, and their lives in turn are partly shaped by their interaction with it. The place names in this area attest to the longstanding human engagement with this hillside, and of the matter that can be made to matter here – Neepsend, derived from Hnip Old English for steep hill. Shirecliffe, a bright or gleaming steep hillside in old English, and two ancient remnant woodlands Rawson Spring and Scraith Wood, the latter echoing Screith, a  boulder-strewn slope in Old Norse.

This place has a long history of systematic exploitation of its natural resources. In 1392 Sir Thomas de Mounteney was given a licence by King Richard II to make a deer park on this hillside, a woodland area to be farmed for venison, hares, rabbits, game birds, fish in fishponds, plus cattle and sheep in launds, cleared heath/pasture areas. By the end of 16th century the park had been reoriented towards coppicing, in particular by charcoal burners and 18th century records show sophisticated woodland management here, including bark harvesting from oak trees to make a liquor from which leather was tanned, alongside increasing timber felling  to build and power the water mills down in the Don valley.

But still, much of the hillside remained wooded, with the Old Park Wood, described by Joseph Hunter in 1819 as “beautifully clothed with a forest verdue…the ground declining to the River Don” whilst John Holland could still write in 1836 of its “sylvan ornament of the neighbourhood of Sheffield”. But as industrialization took firm hold down in the valley, deforestation increased at an increasingly aggressive pace – partly due to demand for timber and charcoal to build and power the furnaces, but also to clear space for rock quarrying, brick pits and ganister mining. By the early 20th century most of the woodland at the centre of the site had fallen, with roads and mineral tramways appearing on the hillside. But not all work was productive, with rumor of a parish-pit type scheme in operation near the then present piggeries, a field pointlessly dug over backwards and forwards in return for parish assistance.

The hill’s ganister mine operated between 1936 and 1963, its 28 miners and a pit pony named Tommy extracting 200 tons of the silica rich hard rock and 40 tons of coal each week. The coal went down the hill to the power station and the ganister was processed into refractory linings for local furnaces. By 1954 this drift mine stretched half a mile into the hillside, capillaries reaching out within the mountain in search of this locally valuable rock. Stories abound of the miners accidentally driving their tunnels into the daylight of the railway embankment or the allotments, and then hastily filling the surface eruption before anyone noticed, like an errant mole, or a wayward escape committee. Upon closure of the mine, Tommy the pony, now blind after a lifetime underground, was put out to pasture on the hillside.

The mining and quarrying up on this hillside also created many intentional holes and spoil banks, and in the early 20th century the landowner the Duke of Norfolk, granted tipping rights to Neepsend power station for the disposal of ash from the power station upon the hillside, a system of gantries, aerial ropeways and buckets carrying the hot ash up the hillside, and then tipping it in smouldering heaps.  Mapping from the 1930s shows these tips as conical piles along the course of the ropeways, acne on the hillside. Progressively the hill’s many quarries came to be in-filled too and the mapping shows vast curling landforms as the hillside slowly rose.

But this was not the first use of the hillside for disposal of matter. That accolade went to burial of the dead, for Wardsend cemetery had opened in 1857, interring 20,000 of Sheffield’s citizens in the lower reaches of the hillside over the following 120 years.

The present tipping of municipal waste by Viridor plc will conclude by 2020 and the plan is then to restore the tip’s presently occupied central area to country park use. Attempts to restore previous portions of the site have faced mixed fortunes. Nature (in its scrub form at least) has already returned to the former Parkwood Springs housing settlement. Whilst the gouged hillside zone of the former Neepsend Brickpit (closed 1978) is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, to protect   the flora and geology of its exposed outcrops of the Lower Coal Measures, formed amidst Carboniferous sandstone 290 – 354 million years ago when the British Isles were in an equatorial location, swathed in tropical forest.

The stuff brought onto this hillside has shaped the way that nature ‘returns’ here. Japanese knotweed and Himalayan Balsam are prevalent along the river, whilst upland heather is spreading in the dry acid conditions of the ash tipped zone, in place of the woodland bluebells for which Old Park Woods was renowned, where they once grew now lies 30 feet under graphite dust tipped from the former Union Carbide factory down in the valley.

Living with scree

In reading through reminiscences of the area on the local community bulletin-board, Sheffield Forum, what has struck me most is how residents of this part of Sheffield remember their material encounters with this place – they don’t just write about where they went on the hillside, but also what they did there and the significant role given to stuff found and used there. This recollection captures the point well:

The best den I ever saw was made by best pal … it was in the old derelict allotments at Parkwood. It was built on the foundations of an old bombed in greenhouse. He obtained bricks, timber, sheeting and old glass window frames from the tip.”

In their accounts, this hillside is recalled as a place of play, exploration and abundance of material for co-option. The stories tell of fossil hunting amidst the ganister mine’s shale heap, gathering tadpoles from the quarry ponds, rabbiting, pilfering coal, gathering scrap, searching out discarded knives from the local bowie knife factory, making braziers from gathered clay in which to burn “oil wop” (fabric soaked in oil) given to kids by the local foundry workers, digging bullets out of the firing range embankment, hunting for dynamite in the quarries, gathering bricks and stones as ammunition for the hill’s so-called ‘brick wars’ – in a battlespace betwixt rival gang territories. They also tell of co-option of the typography of the hillside – the slope for sledging, rolling old tyres, riding bikes down perilous courses. The river for rafting using found materials: crates, drums.

Then there are the tales of the hillside’s structures – whether derelict or active – being co-opted into new playful possibilities, the quarries, the mine, the engine shed and of the ruins of the hilltop anti-aircraft battery’s bunkers being a place of deep dark exploration and optimistic rooftop leaps.

It is particularly notable in the following reminiscence how the hillside is remembered as simultaneously abject, and a delight:

“The sulphur from the Electricity Power Station used to smell unpleasant, rot the curtains and kill privet hedges. As children we used to climb the massive spoil heaps of black ash at the Power Station, jump into the empty buckets going up the hillside and jump off at the next heap.”

It is also interesting to look at how the forum posts engage with the past and present ‘state’ of the hillside. The deforestation is noted and frequently linked to a recurrent fable of workers in the 1926 General Strike harvesting the central woods. Given the amount of trees that disappear from the map between the 1920s and 1930s this suggests an unfeasibly intensive locust swarm of felling during the nine day strike and its aftermath. But the story resonates, through the popular accounts of this hill. It is part of its history, whether true or not. The effect is to ennoble the felling – oddly keying into the dignity of labour, rather than the avarice of landowners.

Likewise, the ganister mine and the hill’s quarries and brickpits attract a positive recollection, and even the tipping is seen as an inevitable part of a ‘natural history’ of this site. That is not to suggest that the present tip is without its opponents – there are action groups, concerned residents and a swirl of anxieties about what may have been tipped. Interestingly though the arrival of suppositional stories about the tipping of radioactive waste from Windscale is challenged by forum elders. As one commentator notes: there is a tension between drawing attention to the tip as a way of opposing expansion (and/or pressing for its early closure) and a risk of adding to blight for properties and the poor fortunes of the area by foregrounding the tip and its conjectured hazards.

This hill is also haunted by a folktale of bodysnatching at Wardsend Cemetery. The truth is slightly more prosaic but the more emotive version continues to circulate. In 1862 a labourer living above the cemetery’s coach house complained of unpleasant odour. His complaint triggered a riotious assembly at the cemetery and the destruction of the cemetery manager’s house by the angry mob. The odour trail had revealed dissected corpses buried in an unmarked grave. The manager and the local vicar were prosecuted for falsifying of burial records and sentenced to brief imprisonment. The court had found that the bodies had come from the local workhouse, they had been lawfully dissected but re-interred without coffins in the mass grave. As it turned out this was more a case of fraud (the manager re-selling grave space) than the supply of bodies from the cemetery for illegal dissection.

What haunts the forums (and oddly echoes the dominant conventions of psychogeography and urban exploration) is a fascination with the seemingly mundane, and a desire to re-energise it with (in the case of the forums) reminiscence and attesting to the practical engagement with this place and its matter. Indeed such rumination was in play even before the mountain was stripped of its trees. In 1836 John Holland stood at the foothills of the hill and its verdant vista. But his attention was drawn first to two (then state of the art) foundries beside the Don: Old Rolling Mill and Club Flour Mill. Reflecting on the strange lure of these structures, Holland signaled a proto-urbex sensibility:

“at no great distance from each other, stand two buildings, both in reverse of elegant certainty, but respectively interesting to a person who is apt to make visible objects, not always in themselves striking, the nuclei of thoughts and feelings depending in a peculiar manner on the association of ideas”

Meanwhile in 1936 George Orwell stood at the same spot, figuring it in his diary rather differently (but still foregrounding a mundane structure in order to make his point):

In front, across the piece of waste ground, a cubical building of dingy red and yellow brick, with the sign, ‘John Grocock, Haulage Contractor’. Other memories of Sheffield: stone walls blackened by smoke, a shallow river yellow with chemicals, serrated flames, like circular saws, coming out from the cowls of the foundry chimneys, thump and scream of steam hammers (the iron seems to scream under the blow), smell of sulphur, yellow clay….”

On the Sheffield History Forum site I find research striving to trace Mr Grocock, as if to bring his cubical building of dingy red and yellow brick into the foreground. The research finds the Grococks to have been a dynasty of fruiterers in this area, that business spawning – via coal and furniture shipments – a more generalised transportation services in due course. The researcher trawls trade directories to map this dynasty.

This reassembly process plays itself out with a multiple cast of participants on Sheffield Forum, in the collaborative reconstruction of the ‘lost’ community of Parkwood Springs. In reminiscence, posters to this site swap names, dates of remembered residents, at times working towards clarification of misremembered points (establishing the ownership history of the local chip shop for example), at others swapping colourful stories at others simply telling where their lives took them after they left Parkwood Springs, an enclave of around 200 back to backs and houses with small back yards, five shops, two pubs, a chapel and a windswept playground, an

“island village flanked by the Manchester railway, quarries, earthworks and a vast tipping area On all sides the land rises so steeply that the only entry by road is through steelworks under a low, narrow railway bridge” (Sheffield Star 1970).

For George Orwell (he stayed here, with Gilbert and Kate Searle in 154 Wallace Road, in 2-4 March 1936 as part of his research for The Road to Wigan Pier) it was habitation at the limit of habitability. With a southerner’s disdainful eye, Orwell noted the offset cobbles needed to give grip to horses and the wobble of womens’ bottoms as they pushed prams up the (to his eye) unfeasible slopes of Parkwood Springs’ streets.

By the early 1970s this area was depopulated. The houses boarded up and this streetscape erased by demolition in 1977. The roadways remain vaguely evident on maps and on the ground but this settlement remains firmly etched in the minds of those who once lived or visited here.

We are scree

To wander this hillside attentively by foot or via internet forums, alerts us to the richness of this place’s history, use and significance for those attached to it. If we look closely we find plenty of material on and about this hillside. It is not empty, it is not meaningless. This hillside is riddled with scree, both matter strewn across this hillside, AND the memories and meaning making actively projected onto this surface and its matter.

Select sources (future publication will list them in more detail):

Holland, J. (1836) The Tour of the Don, extempore sketches Made During A Pedestrian Ramble Along The Banks Of That River, And Its Principal Tributaries. The Sheffield Mercury: Sheffield.

Orwell, G. (1984) ‘The Road to Wigan Pier Diary’ – Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1: An Age Like This 1920-1940, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth

Jones, M & Jones, J (n.d.) Parkwood Springs – from Deer Park to Country Park?, Sheffield City Council: Sheffield (available via:

Sheffield History Forum:

Sheffield Forum

Representing rockscapes

Here’s an embedding of my SHU colleague Steve Spencer’s short film of photograph / digital painting montages of views of Stanage Edge, a popular Peak District ridge south west of Sheffield. In his film Steve examines the act of representation – the attempt to capture something of the essence of the scenes.

Stanage interests me on a number of levels, it is very accessible to Sheffielders, it is a popular climbing venue and was opportunistically quarried for hundreds of years as testified by abandoned millstones and chisel marks in the rock, before being redefined as landmark / recreational asset.

Steve is a visual sociologist / cultural anthropologist.