Gazing up, looking down: following cathedral stone back to its source

“Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the property of spaces and the possibilities of time.”

Jacques Rancière (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum: London, p. 13.

Cathedral_Exeter4

You’re standing in the vast nave of Exeter Cathedral, staring up at the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England.

“When visiting such places most of us have gazed in awe at lofty stone arches and intricately carved tracery, each paying tribute to the masons who have fashioned them with loving care. Few amongst us, however, have given a passing thought to the men who provided them with their raw materials by working deep underground, enduring conditions of extreme hardship and danger, to wrest the stone from its natural bed” (Scott & Gray n.d.: 1)

In a previous post I’ve written about the after-life of stone fragments released (or prised) from crumbling ruins [here]. In contrast, in this post I will wander Beer Quarry Caves – the origin point of stone blocks that went into many of the grandest Medieval English cathedrals – in the company of a tour guide, walking through the vast underground spaces from which the cathedral’s rock was hewn and thinking about the possibilities of animating absent quarrymen, their toil and their stone prize.

Beer Quarry Caves, in East Devon were founded by the Romans in AD50 and then worked continuously for nearly two thousand years. The Roman entrance sits beside the Norman one, slightly apart – a few feet – and yet a thousand years too, the intruding rays of sunlight revealing thousands of pick marks on each threshold, in each case the ancient scrapes of very long ago. The Roman’s quarried into the cliffs from landward, at first in open workings and then following the ¼ mile wide seam of this 65 million year old chalk limestone underground, beneath the burden of 100 feet of overlying rock. In doing so, generation by generation, they and their successors inched forward a trail of Cathedral-like voids of excavated space: the pitch-black darkness now the spent inverse of the evacuated beautiful creamy-white, fine textured limestone won from this strata’s 13 foot seam of desire.

The Bishops of Exeter leased the quarries for centuries – but the reformation in 1540 saw the collapse of ecclesiastical demand for Beer Stone, and for a while the mine fell silent, then finding more modest secular (and local) uses for it, with some resurgence in the Victorian thirst for urban church building. Production finally ceased in 1920, leaving a 75 acre underground labyrinth comprised of sturdy stone pillars and the void spaces between: the extracted stone now elsewhere: dried, hardened and discoloured by centuries of exposure to sky.

What is there to see in the dark?

As Strangleman (2013) notes, a mine erases itself, though fulfilment (and exhaustion) of its purpose. It is a place at which there is nothing to see as such. The extracted stone is normally the story – and the places created with it – as Knoop & Jones noted back in 1938 the histories of stone are of their use, not their production.

The recorded story of Beer Stone is of its diffusion, its mobility (by sea) – Beer stone recorded on masons’ stock rolls at London Bridge (1350), Rochester Castle (1368) and Westminster Abbey (early 1400s), the result of impressive networks of supply. Tracing these networks is a challenge in itself, a trail only partially satisfied by ancient archives, as Edensor has argued. Seeking to explicate the networks by which metropolitan Manchester’s stone found its way into (being) the heart of that Victorian city,  Edensor set out to trace stone’s urban materiality: seeking out the relations and the consequences of the mineral ‘stuff-ness’ of cities and their buildings, and adopting multiple methods to find the “multiple traces of other time-spaces … [amidst]… an affective and sensual encounter with materiality that promotes empathy with other times, people, events and non-human agents.” (450) This tracing takes Edensor (and us) to the stone-source, the quarry: a former ‘workspace’ (literally worked-space) – a space made by work.

At Beer Quarry Caves the remains of quarrying tools from Roman era onwards, found within spoil filled chambers, testify to a day in day out playing out of working lives, alongside the working marks, scrapes, scratches, spoil, candle burns and graffiti. Walking into the workings is to walk amongst eras of excavation within paces of each other – but out striding as spectator the inch by inch creep of the working faces: Roman arches, then the more rudimentary square openings of the Saxons, then a turn into the expanded halls of the Normans, all adjacent to hundreds of subsequent years of steady workings up to 1920, and connected up by the mine’s poly-era workways, and their ‘robbed pillars’ showing the scars of subsequent trimming of stone from these ancient bulwarks, the quick winning of stone by shaving it from the pillar by sawing the one remaining connecting face, rather than an arduous six (as entailed in cutting a block free from virgin rockbed).

Here – in this gloom – is human/matter relationality: the pragmatism of ‘corner cutting’, the working lives and family fortunes entwined in the prising out of this stone.  These traces speak to the toil at this place, as does the following scrawl, scratched into a pillar in angry Norman French deep within the workings:

 “Master mason, you built your cathedral towards heaven

With stone that was quarried from hell.”

But in what sense can we know this toil? What illuminates these voids? What creates the experience of being there? How much hangs on the interlocutor and the narration of this place? Without lighting, without a pathway through the cave complex this would be meaningless unilluminated space – truly dark void. This place becomes animated by our guide’s (re)performance of the lives of this quarry, his eloquent foregrounding of background, of revealing the worked – made – space of this subterranean honeycomb: the incidental cathedral-like spaces of this evacuated rock mass.

Our guide’s incantations make us think of the 15 hours a day, 6 days a week toil, and of a quarryman presenting a four tonne quarried block to the foreman – the ‘touchstone’ – at the end of the lightless day – only to be paid if the rock ‘rang true’ in retort to his expert strike upon it. Our guide also emotes, narrating centuries of local antagonism, speaking a bitterness towards the productive focus of the Bishopric, and its driving of production at this site in the Middle Ages, of the collapse of a piece of the quarry roof in 1758 response to a surface explosion – 48 men and one boy killed, the owner’s only question in response to that news: “Have we lost any horses?”

There is ancestral bitterness directed at the masons too. An up-welling of the ages-old division between the local quarrymen and the far better paid stone masons who would often visit the site, sourcing blocks and working them underground in their softer – still moist – form. The secrecy of the masons kept the local quarrymen at bay, keeping to their brotherhood their valuable stone carving skills. It was not until 1856 that one – William Cawley – finally became a stone mason – entering the brotherhood using a community collection given to William’s grandmother after her husband was killed during a local smuggling accident in 1801.

And that smuggling – our guide told us – also still resonated within the culture of the local village and of its underground quarry. Brandy from France, Port from Spain and Portugal, hidden in the darkness sought out by customs men, deadly skirmishes and all. And to this day, the fisherman of the village chide our guide that he is the descendant of a customs man. There is then – via our evocative guide and his story-telling – a sense of a lingering symbiotic connection between the caves and the local village, and that there is much that is left behind in the caves, sedimented there:  discarded tools, voids, relations, attitudes, grievances and their attendant affects. And quarrying phrases too, now hovering – decontextualized – in everyday speech: ‘To broach’ – to prick, indent or furrow the surface of stone with a narrow-pointed stone chisel. ‘Stone deaf’ – occupational deafness from the thunderous echo of constant blows, iron against stone. ‘Worth a candle’ – each quarryman having to buy five animal tallow candles per day, and decide whether an area of rock was worth the effort – and cost – of the meagre lighting to be brought to its working.

Visiting the past?

Norman working area Beer Quarry

And so, we stand as an audience listening to these stories – but are we communing with stone, with the quarrymen or just with our narrator? Standing in the spot of the 1758 roof collapse we know – and feel – nothing of this incident until told of it. We walk Roman to Saxon to Norman in the space of a few strides. The arch work changes, that is our only sign, the stone is uniform throughout. This area’s substance is its void. This place is a curation of absence.

High and Lewis (2007) in their attack upon urban exploration, reject industrial experiential tourism, asserting that “Spelunking can be read as akin to dancing on a grave” (29). For them such spectatorship completes an insensitivity twice meted out by the non-working class, first in bringing about closure, second in the spectatorship of a “post-industrial necrology.” (29). But High and Lewis’ attack on urban explorers for a decontextualized appropriation, of generic – disconnected – fetishized images, assumes that no attempt is being made to connect with the specificity of a former workplace, its tasks and histories. Strangleman (2013), defends modern attempts to construct an engagement with sites of past labour – and sees in short-term engagement with them – each generation making its methods, finding its own way to take something from the past, and pursue (each generation for its own reasons) a ‘remembrance of lost work’ – there are indeed many ways of remembering.

A trip to Beer Quarry Caves shows that a good guide, using the time and space of passage through a place and a deft unfurling of its stories, can animate even the darkest, emptiest subterranean void.

But, in our journey back towards the mouth of this mine there is a spectre to meet, the (as Derrida styled it) ‘spectre of Marx’. Our guide frames this place in the conventional politico-materialist language of people actualising through work, through actions upon matter, socio-economic relations of production and the progressive movement of distinct historical epochs – all the raison d’etre of amateur industrial archaeology. As such this framing alludes to “concrete political forms” (Cheah, 2010: 89) flowing back to Marx’s dialectical materialism (that history is headed somewhere, that it embodies conflict between distinct social groupings, that history is driven by relations with matter and power). Edensor’s materialism is more vitalist, and in seeking to speak the alterity of urban stone (its flux over time, ungovernability of matter, its otherness and resistance to human dominion). Given that the human-labour-achievement-over-matter frame remains so dominant it is perhaps no surprise that ‘new’ materialists get accused of forgetting the toils of labouring people. New materialists would point out – perhaps – that human labour is not being denied, but rather shown alongside a much wider constellation of factors and forces. But that does result in a de-emphasis, the moral-political implications of which perhaps need working through more.

We leave our guide now, he’s back at the entrance, gathering the next tour group, getting them in the mood by passing around a Roman coin found recently near the entrance. Our guide knows both what he will say, and how to pace it for maximum effect. Whether in the bravura of performance or genuine ancestral angst, he will once again take the opportunity to colourfully re-assert the quarryman over the masons, the cathedral, the sky and the surface world.  He will once again weave thing and story in a way that activates some slight – but compelling – sense of others’ (and our own) material relations.

Sources

Beer Quarry Caves Ltd (n.d.) Beer Quarry Caves – www.beerquarrycaves.co.uk

Cahill, K. (2008) Beer Quarry Caves – Global & Western Media Productions at: http://www.jurassiccoast.org/downloads/news/beer_quarry_caves.pdf‎

Cheah, P. (2010) ‘Non-Dialectical Materialism’ in Coole, D. & Frost, S.A. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics, Duke University Press: London.

Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Vital urban materiality and its multiple absences: the building stone of central Manchester’ Cultural Geographies, 20, 447-465.

High, S & Lewis, D.W. (2007) Corporate Wasteland: The Landscape and Memory of De-Industrialisation, New York.

Knoop, D. & Jones, J.P. (1938) ‘The English Medieval Quarry’ The Economic History Review, 9 (1), 17-37.

Scott, J. & Gray, G. (n.d.) Out of the Darkness: A brief history and description of the Old Stone Quarry, Beer, Axminster Printing co. Ltd

Strangleman, T. (2013) ‘“Smokestack Nostalgia”, “Ruin Porn” or Working-Class Obituary: The role and meaning of deindustrialised representation’ International Labour and Working Class History, 84, 23-37.

Images:

www.beerquarrycaves.co.uk

www.englishcathedrals.co.uk/cathedral/exeter-cathedral/

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Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return. Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

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As a great proof of the merits of  ‘follow your instincts’ and see what happens, I’ve now been invited to give a presentation – as part of a symposium at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 15 May 2014 – about the legal aspect of doing Land Art in abandoned quarries. This nicely adds to the symposium work I’ve done on law and abandoned quarries elsewhere in the last 18 months for the British Mountaineering Council (climbing in them), the National Water Safety Forum (swimming in them) and the Mineral Products Association (not dying in them). It also marks another step in the strange convergence of what once seemed a very dichotomous project: the occupiers’ liability stuff on one hand vs the urban exploration/psychogeography/bunkerology stuff on the other. This is both, in a single event!

So here’s the organisers’ promo for the event, followed by my abstract…

Revisiting the Quarry: Excavation, Legacy, Return 
Approaches to the histories and sites of Land Art

This one-day symposium, led by artists Charles Danby and Rob Smith, in conjunction with the exhibition ‘Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979’ (5 April – 15 June 2014), has been organised in collaboration with the Arts Council Collection, Northumbria University and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The symposium explores Land Art in relation to contemporary practices and historical precedents. It investigates the quarry as an active physical site for the production of new artworks and for the re-visiting of past works. Bringing together theoretical and practical positions in relation to chalk and limestone quarries, it focuses on approaches leading to the making of works, films, documents, field recordings and archives.

In the anthropocene the quarry becomes a site of new relations, that connects historical, material, technological and social revision through changing land use and post-industrial / post-ecological occupation. The day will examine the status of these quarry sites, the removal of materials, their social and physical reparation and the negotiation of their borders and thresholds in physical, legal and artistic frameworks, through to what Robert Smithson characterised as ‘an expensive non-site’ in 1969, the moon, as a speculative quarry.

Details of the speakers

Joy Sleeman – Senior Lecturer at Slade School of Art, University College London, and co-curator of Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979 http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/people/academic/profile/ASLEE78

Luke Bennett – Senior Lecturer in the Department of Natural & Built Environment at Sheffield Hallum University and researcher into owner and climber attitudes to recreational access to abandoned quarries
http://www.shu.ac.uk/faculties/ds/built-environment/staff/luke-bennett.html
http://www.lukebennett13.wordpress.com

Charles Danby – Artist, writer, curator & Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, Northumbria University
http://charliedanby.co.uk/
http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/about/arts/staff/charlesdanby

Rob Smith – Artist and co-director of Field Broadcast
http://robsmith.me.uk
http://fieldbroadcast.org

Onya McCausland – Artist and co-researcher of Turning Landscape into Colour
http://turninglandscape.com/

Mark Peter Wright – Artist and editor of Ear Room and researcher with CRIASP, London College of Communication
http://www.crisap.org/index.php?id=40,393,0,0,1,0
http://mpwright.wordpress.com

Rob La Frenais – Critic and curator at Art Catalyst, and founder of Performance Magazine
http://www.artscatalyst.org

Neal White (video screening)- Artist and Associate Professor in Art and Media Practice at Bournemouth University, Director of Emerge – Experimental Media Research Group, and founder of the Office of Experiments
http://www.nealwhite.org
http://staffprofiles.bournemouth.ac.uk/display/whiten

For booking visit: www.thequarry.org.uk

And my abstract:

Encountering law and land art in abandoned quarries – excavation, legacy, return

My research work focuses upon the intersection of legal, aesthetic and pragmatic site management practices in the stewardship and re-valorisation of abandoned and/or physically damaged places such as quarries, derelict factories and decommissioned military sites. My presentation will explore the (feint) intertwined presence of law, proprietors and enthusiastic  ‘re-energisers’ within abandoned quarries. In doing so it will draw from my former experiences as an environmental lawyer advising on the decommissioning and safeguarding of extractive industry sites, as an academic now teaching land managers and as an active researcher of enthusiast groups who seek access to derelict spaces for recreational, creative or illicit purposes. My research work on quarries is  characterised by a desire to understand both how these places are forgotten, and how they are re-activated by enthusiasts finding new uses for them (and of the ‘challenges’ this may pose for their owners). This ongoing research project is ‘multi-stakeholder’ and opportunistic in nature, with me seeking to explore and understand each perspective and its processes of meaning making, within specific sites of occurrence. My project thus has at times been deeply ‘managerial’ in focus and at other points has explored the affective dimension. Thus at various points my project has seen interest and support from key stakeholder groups, including the Forestry Commission, the British Mountaineering Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Mineral Products Association and also a small commission in 2013 from the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund to research and write Scree, a deep topographical assay (with photographer Katja Hock – Nottingham Trent University) of the mine and wastescape of an excavated industrial hillside in the heart of Sheffield. In addition to giving an account of my various investigations, my presentation will also sketch out the key legal drivers that shape managers’ and regulators perceptions (and anxieties) about these voids, in doing so touching on the legal-materialities of spoil-spreading waste disposal scams, restoration and instability, contamination, re-mining and how the proximity of humans alters the legal status of excavated rock faces and abandoned mineshafts.

Uninhabited and En-habited spaces: thoughts on private law’s public space

The following piece has been written as a teaser for my paper entitled “Old habits die hard: owners, liability anxiety and accidental territoriality” which I’ve been invited to present at an ESRC symposium at Warwick University later this month. The theme of the conference is ‘Private Law’s Public Face’ and my paper’s argument will run somewhat against the grain of the  event’s likely focus on resistance, ‘right to the city’ and private law’s role in urban enclosure processes.

Essentially my concern is with more mundane – abandoned – spaces and whether (and if so in what sense) we can meaningfully say that law’s territorial effects subsist there even when no-one is present and/or after an owner or use has vanished.  The only thing left to encounter in these spaces is the remnant fences and faded signage. But is law within that remainder, or are the signs only activated when someone is looking at them? (yes – I know – that’s getting a bit like ‘if a tree falls in the empty forest does it make a sound?‘).

Anyway, I quite like this idea of ‘en-habited’ uninhabited space – space with habit written materially onto it, a space controlled dead-hand like by its material arrangement and ordering…

31 Dec 2010 (3)

The signs just sit there, flapping in the wind held fast by now rusting drawing pins, their texts  becoming indistinct as their home-printed inks are bleached by the monotonous daily succession of the harsh summer suns passing overhead year upon year. Along this fence lie aging signifiers of a stale something. But the fence itself is crumbling now, a structure collapsing in upon itself. Eventually these messages will self erase, fully succumbing to the elements, but until then they continue to send out their signals – weak now and indistinct, vague messages of warning, deterrence, liability aversion. Like a dying radio beacon, carrying on long after the ship has sunk, marking out a vestige, a ghost territoriality of the orders and arrangements that once were intended here.

I’ve been keeping an eye on this signage for over 10 years, intently so for the last six. I’ve seen the pub that the signs relate to pass through a succession of ownerships, then finally close and be redeveloped as apartments. I’ve seen each incoming publican – amidst buoyant commercial talk of ‘turning over a new leaf’, perpetuate this signage – perhaps reprinting it with his new logo – but keeping all else the same as before. The base text of these signs is silently handed down between the parade line of owners, and replicated by their own sign-affixing actions.

Even now, the remnant signs greet the passer by with exclusionary intent. Why would you enter a field festooned with lots of dense, textual messages? Why would you even go up to them and read them, engage with their specificity?

In the above description I’m seeking to raise a challenge to a rationalist belief that legal signage is deployed by place owners for reasons of clear purpose, and that whenever encountered it will still be valid, intended and territorial in intent.

Clearly there will be instances where space is conspicuously under control – and where the facilities of private law (ownership, trespass) are actively being invoked in order to enclose space and/or to channel possible (or permissible) uses within it. But scholarship must not just seek out and dwell upon those extreme spaces, it should also have a way of understanding invocations of private law in more mundane, more ambivalent spatial settings.

Also (in my view) we need to be careful in how much intentionality (and legal sophistication) we impute to the managers of everyday spaces. They are busy people, they have many things to mediate – suppliers, customers, neighbours, lenders, councillors, spouses, children, friends – they do not have time to dwell on the finer points of legal detail (unless locked into the disproportionate attentiveness of a spatial dispute of some sort). For most commercial place managers the signification of their property is an incidental – a tick line on a checklist of place managing rather than an entree to a grand scheme of territorial dominion.

My presentation will outline research that I have been doing in recent years, looking at small case studies of how place managers formulate a pragmatic understanding of what occupiers’ liability law requires of them – and work out (individually and via professional networks) what is a reasonable safety provision for visitors and trespassers who may pass through their spaces. These studies have explored occupiers’ anxieties attached to unstable tombstones in municipal cemeteries, street trees, derelict buildings and open bodies of waters, working variously in conjunction with RoSPA, the Forestry Commission, the Arboricultural Association, the British Mountaineering Council and the Mineral Products Association. In each instance the law (and legal duties) appear in the minds and hands of these lay actors as understood through wider frameworks of task orientation, organizational purpose, and short-hand stereotypes of visitors and the likely behavior of them. Yes, at times their spatial management behavior can betray a quest for privacy or territorial dominion, but at others apparently territorial behavior has appeared – on closer inspection – inchoate, habitual and/or related to received rules of thumb about how properties of a particular type ‘should’ be managed.

And thus, we return to the aging fence. My presentation will draw out provocations from my longitudinal study of this fence, and its material traces of occupier engagement with private law: in this case disclaimers of liability for any customers who might choose to enter this occasional ‘beer garden’ area at the periphery of this pub. I will show how, having watched this accretion of cautionary signage I approached the then owner and enquired of the motivations behind this ranked mobilisation of the liability restricting principles of private law – of its ‘story’ – only to find that there was no story and that this sign affixing behavior was a ritual practice. How this pub ‘should’ be operated – including the refreshing of the fence’s signage – was encoded into the fabric and deportment of the pub itself, acting back upon the succession of owners, the pub presenting as an unwritten user’s manual on how to run it. The publican could not account for his signage, the best he could do was link to a notion of performing (and perpetuating) the proper ways of doing and being within this urban fringe pub:

“…Here you’ve got to be kid friendly where we are, in like the Tap Room you’ve got to be dog friendly: because that’s how it’s always been…so it’s easy for me to come and say “I’m not having any dogs in there” – but it’s not; its part and parcel of this, the history of the pub I suppose”

Here we confront a strange dead-hand effect, a force of habit – the permeation of approximate, sufficient and workable approaches to place management, decisions and actions implemented in thousands of establishments day by day, hour by hour based not upon deep, lawyer aided deliberation on how to control space, but instead replicating – as part of a dull facilities management performativity – generalized, materially sedimented practices which may only incidentally have any connection to a notion of ‘legal’ aspects of the world.