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: www.parkwood-springs.btck.co.uk)
Sheffield History Forum: http://www.sheffieldhistory.co.uk/
Sheffield Forum: http://www.sheffieldforum.co.uk