‘In Ruins’: Thursday, 6 July 2023, 7-9pm – Exploration#1 in SHU SPG’s new online seminar series

“These wall-stones are wondrous —
calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants
corrupted. The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.
Ice at the joints has unroofed the barred-gates, sheared
the scarred storm-walls have disappeared—
the years have gnawed them from beneath. A grave-grip holds
the master-crafters, decrepit and departed, in the ground’s harsh
grasp, until one hundred generations of human-nations have
trod past. Subsequently this wall, lichen-grey and rust-stained,
often experiencing one kingdom after another,
standing still under storms, high and wide—
it failed”

Excerpt from ‘The Ruin’ – 10th Century Anglo-Saxon poem fragment from The Exeter Book – author unknown

(trans. Aaron Hostetter, https://oldenglishpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-ruin/)

A ruin of sorts itself, the incomplete text of this Old English poem exists in only one surviving form, and even there it is incomplete. So, a ruined text gives a glimpse of an Anglo Saxon gazing upon the ruins of (it is believed) the Roman baths, at Bath over 1000 years ago.

There’s an interesting take on the poem in this short film (found on You Tube and created by Stuart Lee (@stulee2), as it takes the text and applies it to an industrial ruin. It’s surprisingly effectively. Sort of, urbex in a tunic and cloak, melding two pasts.

How we should ‘accurately’ read this text and assume its tone and purpose is open to debate. The temptation is to read it in a post-Renaissance way, in that ruins give us a nostalgic vision of a better past, and of the entropy in all things. Others suggest that it should be read – more literally – as an early Christian castigation of heathen destruction of more sophisticated (and therefore aligned to god) things. In the spirit of Augustine’s 5th century castigation of De civitate Dei contra paganos (‘On the City of God Against the Pagans’). Whichever may be the case, the text has a resonance with our contemporary orientation to ruins, in that in certain circumstances, and in certain ways, we valorise broken bits of the built environment and ascribe to them a variety of aesthetic and/or other cultural value.

I’m delighted to announce details of the first event in Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group’s new series of events: Exploring. For Exploring #1: In Ruins we will be looking at the action and meanings of close-to-home exploration of broken portions of the built environment. 

For our second session (which will be on 26 October 2023) we will be ‘Going Underground’ (and this event will include a launch of Kevin Bingham’s new book, Exploring the Natural Underground: A New Sociology of Caving (Routledge, 2023)). I’d then like to round off 2023 with a third event, ‘On the Rocks’, in December, looking at quarry lurking and rock climbing. The roster of presenters is already set for ‘In Ruins’ and ‘Going Underground’ but anyone would like to propose anything on engagements with rocks and stones for that third event then please do drop me a line at l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk.

The events will be online, and free to attend – but booking will be required. Here’s the link for In Ruins:

Here’s some further detail on In Ruins:

Our presenters will be:

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University)

Chair & Introduction: Serious play and meaning-making in knackered buildings

Denzil Watson (Sheffield Hallam University)

Urban Exploration: the motivations behind documenting buildings in decay

When I talk to people about the type of photography I do, the reactions are often quite polarised. Some people completely get it and understand why while others are a little more perplexed. I’ve often asked myself what the motivations are behind what I do. Like most hobbies, it is not without its dangers, but with an awareness of the risks the pastimes can sometimes expose you to, these in the main can be managed and minimised. The urbex landscape has undergone a number of changes and developments in recent years. One of the less welcome developments the hobby has attracted is the attentions from YouTubers, Instagrammers and Facebookers who appear more concerned by the likes and subs they are generating than the history of the places they explore. Despite this, there remains a dedicated community of explorers who are more concerned with the history of the buildings they are documenting before it is lost for good. It is this aspect of urban exploring that I will tap into when explaining the motivations behind why I engage in this fascinating pastime and recently culminated in the publication of my first book in this area, “Sheffield in Ruins”, late last year by Revelations 23 Press.

Ines Moreira (Lab2PT, Universidade do Minh, Portugal)

Post-Nostalgic Knowings: curatorial actions in deindustrialized areas

How to embrace the present conditions of former industrial territories? Cultural, political and economic conditions define different approaches towards the past, filtering it as heritage, as legacy, as evidence, or as property. In-between deindustrialization and post-industrialism, I visit our notion of “Post-Nostalgic Knowings” after a research project, a book, and a course documenting tentative strategies for curatorial and artistic intervention in former industrial areas under transformation. By looking at curatorial and artistic projects, in two European borders, the Baltic and the Atlantic Southwest, I identify different conditions and positions – if the Portuguese word for nostalgia, saudade, mostly celebrates memory, the Russian toska enunciates an extreme anguish. How does politics and culture resonate with action in former industrial territories?

Harry Willis Fleming (Architectural Historian) & Jane Wildgoose (Artist)

Stoneham Revisited: inspiration, creativity, and alternative value found in a country house’s destruction

For almost 20 years, historian Harry Willis Fleming and artist Jane Wildgoose have explored the ambivalent history and afterlife of North Stoneham House, Harry’s family’s ancestral mansion in Hampshire. This enormous neoclassical country house was built by the fashionable architect Thomas Hopper for John Willis Fleming MP between 1818-1842. The building was never completed, and after being repeatedly abandoned and repurposed, Stoneham was demolished in 1939. In late 2022, the remaining foundations and materials were crushed and levelled for an upcoming housing development. Soon afterwards, Harry and Jane received the vast array of finds from the developer’s archaeological dig, ranging from fragments of ornamental marble to rusty bed springs. Stoneham’s trajectory clearly speaks to Marx’s observation that everything built in bourgeois society is designed to be torn down, broken, recycled, and replaced. However, capitalist value is only one type of value, and the tension and friction between alternative values can be highly creative – and potentially challenge and enrich the system. The focus of this presentation will be on the nature and processes of Harry and Jane’s collaboration, and the inspiration they have drawn from Stoneham’s story deployed as a seedbed of ideas, themes, and associations. In complementary sections, Harry and Jane will each describe the Stoneham project as a creative nexus between their individual practices. They will outline their joint approach to experiential fieldwork, including interviewing former residents (including the children’s author Ursula Moray Williams), the creation of a temporary tented museum on the house’s site, and other entanglements with the landscape and local community. They will conclude by reflecting on the insights and experiences they have gained from investigating together – through a ludic, creative dialogue – the ruination, fragmentation, and erasure of Stoneham; and ask where this might take them next.

Recordings of previous Sheffield Hallam University Space & Place Group events can be viewed on our You Tube channel, here: https://www.youtube.com/@sheffieldhallamuniversitys5219/videos

Image Credit: Denzil Watson