In ruins in 2014


“For [Walter] Benjamin, the truth content of a thing is released only when the context in which it originally existed has disappeared, when the surfaces of the object have crumbled away and it lingers precariously on the brink of extinction.”

Gilloch, G. (1996) Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, Polity: Cambridge

Oddly, it’s suddenly become very unfashionable to talk or write about ruins. So, it’s probably not good timing that I’m set to use the ‘R’ word copiously in at least three conference sessions this year. Ho hum…

Here are my abstracts.

Fragment 1 – ‘Big Ruins’ Conference – University of Manchester, 14 May 2014

The ruin of ruins – image, utility and materiality in the fate of broken places

We see the hilltop castle ruin as frozen, rather than continuing to crumble. ‘Ruin’ is both a noun and a verb, yet we tend to talk only of ruins as static, certain and final end points of a building’s life.  In this presentation I will consider the human and other processes by which ruins are denied a stable, final identity. I will look at how ruination is ultimately an irresistible process, its pace can be retarded but not halted – and ultimately ruination becomes self-erasing. As a disease-like entropic force ruination permeates the built environment revealing itself via culturally and materially inflected manifestations in local sites of rupture. This paper will illustrate the diversity of these manifestations ranging across the shifting fates of different corners of the economy and their structures, the demolition urge of contemporary business rates taxation, the anxieties of owners and their insurers, the powerful material effects of ideas of ‘dereliction’, ‘regeneration’, utility, safety and the marauding of scavengers.  It will also consider the non-human material factors and processes – the building pathologies – that assail the body of the ruin and drive it onwards towards disassembly, degeneration and desiccation. In keeping with the ‘big ruin’ focus of the conference, this paper will work outwards from the single building level scale of the Romantic ruin trope, first by following Edgar Allen Poe in peering up close into the materiality of the decaying sub-elements of the House of Usher, and then zooming out to figure degenerating urban terrain as a resource-scape, a field of matter intermixed with ideas, values and utilities each propelling ruination as a destabilizing flux   channeling matter out of the city, and summoning in an urge-to-change, in the face of a perennial fear of disuse and abandonment.

NB: more details of this FREE conference here:

Fragment 2 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Legal Geographies session), 26-29 August 2014

The law in ruins: co-production, nomic traces and the sedimented taskscapes of the world’s first factory

The Legal Geography canon rests on a principle of co-production: namely that the social, the spatial and the legal act upon each other to form the ‘nomosphere’ (Delaney, 2010) and/or a ‘splice’ (Blomley, 2003). This paper will seek – through application of such thinking to a case study – to reframe the co-productive triumvirate, as matter, discourse and practice, and thereby align the co-production model towards a more processual and relational understanding of ‘worlding’ (Massey, 2005), pointing in particular to the generative role of human purpose, context and contingency in local instances of pragmatic co-production: Ingold’s (1993) notion of ‘taskscape’. Specifically, the presentation will advance its argument by examining the ‘entanglement’ (Hodder, 2012) of matter, purpose and normativity (which I take to include – but be wider than – legal discourse) in the founding, expansion, decline and ‘rescue’ of the world’s first factory scale cotton mill, at Cromford in Derbyshire, UK. If Legal Geography’s co-production model is right we should expect not just to find material traces of law in the physical world, but also evidence of the accommodation of law to site specific and circumstantial effects of topography, geology, commercial conventions and social mores. The presentation will thus focus upon explicating the physical sedimentation of a variety of taskscapes across the site’s 250 year life, and their attendant socio-spatial normativities, within the fabric and layout of the Mill complex.

Fragment 3 – Royal Geographical Society Conference (Cold War Bunkers session), 26-29 August 2014

Cold War bunkers as a post traumatic landscape

This presentation will set the scene for the Cold War Bunkers strand by situating my work on ‘bunkerology’ alongside a wider interpretation of the psycho-cultural drivers for ‘bunker gazing’. It will seek to show that just as Paul Virilio’s Atlantikwall bunker hunting in the late 1950s / early 1960s was rooted in his desire to make sense of the “geostrategic and geopolitical foundations of the total war I had lived through in Nantes, not far from the submarine base of Saint-Nazaire” (Virilio & Parent 1996: 11), so Cold War bunker hunting can be seen as an ongoing processing of the trauma of an ‘ultimate’ war that never happened, but which none the less left spatial and psycho-cultural scars. The paper will follow the sublimation of this trauma, through Peter Laurie’s 1970s attempts to read the materialisation of power in the Cold War’s landscape, W.S. Sebald standing before the ‘Pagodas’ of Orford ness contemplating the post-traumatic landscape before him shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Sarah Vowell writing in 2004 of the potency of ruined bunkers for the last Cold War generation, and of their validation of the apocalyptic anxiety that suddenly vanished with adulthood, but yet still haunts. This investigation will be pursued by reference to the testimony of bunker hunters, my own journey to bunker gazing and by drawing upon the anxieties of Cold War era psychologists and their concerns for the effects that apocalyptic anxiety might (and perhaps did) have upon children raised in the era of the Cold War bunker building.

Moving forward with Legal Geographies at RGS 2014


We have been delighted with the response to our recent Legal Geography call for papers for RGS 2014, with submissions coming from the UK, France, Italy, Australia, Brazil, the United States (3), covering empirical work in Nauru, Estonia, Cambodia as well as the US, UK and Europe. We have submissions from disciplines including law, geography and politics. As a result we’ve got 15 great papers for our session, and this is a very positive response rate, which bodes very well for this (re)emergent hybrid field.

Antonia Layard (University of Bristol) and I have had to secure special permission from the RGS to run a three-part session to fit all of these papers in. We’re delighted to have heard back this morning that this permission has been granted. The breadth of coverage and strength of the proposed papers have helped us to secure this dispensation. The RGS’ conference is focused upon ‘co-production’ this year, and so our array of topics, scales of analysis and the global reach of the papers has helped to press the right buttons. We’ve decided on the session title ‘Moving forward with Legal Geographies’ - the plural here reflecting the wonderful variety of legal geographic endeavour and concern that the papers attest to, and the ‘moving forward’ bit pointing to the way that the papers show the boundaries of legal geography being stretched both methodologically and theoretically.

We don’t yet know which day (27, 28 or 29th August) our session will run. That will be notified to us around April. There are more details about the conference here:

Antonia and I are collaborating to promote Legal Geography and to develop a UK community with active links to the established LG communities in Australia and Northern America, but also to help spread the focus out from its Anglo-Saxon predominance. To that end anyone who’s interested can join our open conversations at our (very basic but workable) wiki site:

We are also currently guest editing a Legal Geography special edition of the International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, to be published towards the end of the year (papers currently in review), and are working upon our own LG outputs (jointly and individually).

As a taster of our session’s content, here’s the overarching session description from our proposal document:

This legal geography stream proceeds from the assumption (which appears to be widely accepted, though critiques are always welcome) that space, society and law are co-constituted, that there is a nexus, which ebbs and flows, co-producing the legal, spatial and social everyday. Legal geography has, in other words, been ‘born’. Given this assumption, this stream aims to consider how the cross-discipline is being applied and extended, presenting papers that identify new and ongoing lines of spatio-legal inquiry, research and theory.

The first session, Legal productions of spaces and environments, focuses on the co-production of legal, economic and political practices and principles across space. By examining diverse examples ranging across the judicial imagination’s regard for Brazilian environments, the Severnscape and the relational networks formed through contract law in West Midlands engineering supply chains, it asks how legal discourse and practices contribute to the making and control of identities, relationships and sites of encounter at multiple scales. Reaching back through an American reading of E.P. Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters and considering Italian constructions of ‘security’, the session also investigates how scale is used as a framing device to govern across social and spatial distances.

The second session, Interrogating assumptions of legal closure, investigates the critique of legal practice, that it is enclosed, which lies at the heart of legal geography. The session begins with two papers, drawing on material from UK/European legal decisions and empirical legal work in New Mexico, which demonstrate the effect that legal closure still has in governing space. However, papers investigating legal pluralism, in domestic violence in Cambodia, ‘Indian country’ in the United States and constructions of families in Ghana and the United States, illustrate the slippage, and discretion, in formal legal rules when studied as ‘laws in action’.

The third session, Legal materialities, asks how spaces and places are themselves co-produced – legally and politically as well as socially and spatially. It emphasises the importance of materiality, asking how the spatio-legal is implicated in managing places (including the International Court in the Hague, the island of Nauru, a Derbyshire cotton mill and an Estonian car park) as well as troublesome resources such as phosphate, dye and nuclear wastes. The session considers, in particular, how the spatio-legal frames and marshalls the arrangements of things in space and constellates the environments of which they form part. It also considers how law is translated into flows of matter, giving rise to resultant assemblages of materials, provisions and practices and their resultant landscapes.

As the conference approaches I will post more details here, identifying the speakers and more about their papers.

In closing, here’s a glance across to ‘where next’ visions offered up by two recent synoptic reviews of the Legal Geography field, one from Australia and one from North America/Israel:

“Legal geography would benefit from deepening its connections with posthuman and critical animal studies scholarship and from studies of the vibrancy of matter (Jane Bennett 2010), and its science and entanglements (Karen Barad 2007) in particular. Such explorations will ground legal geography in corporal matters, moving us away from abstract notions of space into “more-than-human” (Sarah Whatmore 2006) legal geographies…. Although legal geographers are already actively engaged with postcolonial theory, science studies, poststructuralism, thing theory, performativity and many other fields, we should be engaging with still more fields, such as the humanities and posthumanities, physical geography, economics, psychology and psychoanalysis, material culture, architecture, organizational studies, and visual culture.”

(Braverman et al 2013: 20-21)


 “…By situating law in space, that is, within its physical conditions and limits, legal geography encourages place based knowledge to form law’s basis. We are advocating for a paradigmatic shift, from the alienation of people and place in law and geography to their necessary connection. In this way legal geography provides both intellectual insight and real-world application: it can produce work of practical policy relevance as well as speak truth to power.”

(Bartel et al, 2013: 349)

The array of presentations at RGS 2014 respond very positively to those pointers to new areas of a relational and materiality focussed legal geographic enquiry, they also embrace other territories of investigation called for by Braverman et al (2013) variously addressing rural legalities, spatio-temporal effects, pragmatism, legal pluralism, the relationality of power and purpose, variation of scale and comparison across jurisdictions alongside that interrogation of the materiality of law’s objects, law’s spaces and law’s habits.



Bartel R, Graham N, Jackson S, Prior J.H, Robinson D.F, Sherval M and Williams S (2013) ‘Legal Geography: An Australian Perspective’, Geographical Research, 51(4), 339-353.

Braverman I, Blomley J, Delaney D and Kedar A (2013) The Expanding Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography, Buffalo Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Paper No. 2013-032, SUNY Buffalo Law School, New York.

Image source: Vellum parchment at UK parliamentary archives via photo by Peter Twist.


Lost in the fens, a shortsighted man writes feverishly of shadows


I’m sitting here. In a hotel room somewhere in the Fenlands. I’ve just arrived. I’ve just walked to the middle of nowhere from  the cold heart of somewhere. It was dark in that town and here it’s darker still, except for the arc lights guarding the shiny executive cars in the showroom at the turn into this business park.

My hotel room is pleasantly warm, certainly clean and my companions are the gentle rumble of air conditioning pumps and vents. In the distance a helicopter is wandering the sky, its beams teasing the evacuated gravel pits and flat fields surrounding this building.

In situations like this  I stubbornly walk, but I’m getting too old for this ‘find the ring road hotel in the dark’ game. I’ve played it too many times before. Everywhere starts to look the same behind each railway station. It’s the same old mud, tarmac and pot holes as I bisect the suburbs in search of my bed.

Will Self, writing about his compulsive walking at the start of his book Psychogeography depicts urban walkers of his ilk as middle aged men incubating slowly swelling prostates. I have no idea how swollen mine is, but the onset of myopia is certainly making it harder for me to search for clues about where I am as the light starts to fade. This liminal world beyond the city fringe and beyond daylight is getting hard to fathom. As I trudge along the road, I see shadows, splays of light, I hear muffled sounds (my hearing’s not so good these days either). Some of the apparitions thus encountered are fanciful things-out-of-place, but many are likely things but wrong. I tend to mis-see things that could readily be here, but – it just so happens – as I peer closer, are actually not. Phantom petrol stations, shimmering lakes that turn out to the loading bays of distribution sheds, that kind of thing. Maybe they lie in real form around the next bend in the road, just over the brow of the next hill.


And so now I sit.

I’m meant to be reading. I’m supposed to be on a self-imposed break from blogging. 

And I sit.

Really, I’m not supposed to be doing this kind of stuff at the moment.

I sit back.

Nice sturdy chair, gentle carpet beneath my feet, a strong floor, the reception desk below all marble effect and welcoming smiles, the concrete foundation slab beneath, then engineered clay, geotextile matting, capillary drainage runs and thereafter tonnes and tonnes of still rotting rubbish, quietly gurgling in a pitch beyond my failing earshot, the remains of long forgotten meals, long lost toys, accidents and incidents of daily lives all slumbering in the heap beneath my feet as the air conditioning lulls me gently to sleep.

Scree is here

scree end

Later this month I will be receiving some of the limited edition print run of Scree, my collaboration with landscape photographer Katja Hock. These will be rubber bound artefacts, the significance of the scuffed matt industrial covers being explained here. But in advance of this, and because we’d like to share our work beyond the confines of those who might normally want a ‘coffee table’ art book, here’s a link to a free pdf copy of the main part of our publication:

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

Scree was kindly commissioned by Amanda Crawley Jackson (Occursus) via the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise Fund, and is published as part of the ‘TRACT’ series of collaborations between text and other media.

The unspoken question that haunts Scree is ‘what happens if we dwell on wasteland?’. Here ‘dwell’ can be taken in a number of directions: ponder, linger, inhabit, exist. Here’s the opening text to Scree to set the scene…

Starting out

The Wadsley Bridge to Neepsend escarpment runs along the northern edge of the upper Don valley. To the geologist this ridgeline is made up of coal measures and shales overlain by sandstone. To the local residents of north western Sheffield it is comprised of scrub, dereliction, pylons and a landfill tip. To the local historian it is an area rich in industrial and urban history.  To my kitchen refuse it is a final resting place.

To me it is all of these things, and more. In the pages that follow, Katja I and I set out to traverse this ridgeline and to depict in words and images what we find there. We can’t claim that what we find are essences – for the truth of this place is infinitely multifaceted – but what I do hope that we’ve brought closer to surface is the richness of materiality and meaning that can be found even on this steep scrubby hillside.

What is a hill?

The topography under examination here is a hybrid: pre-human geological processes sculpted this landform, but human activity added to it (and took away from it). This place may seem a grubby backwater now, but it was not always thus. The hill came to be a dynamic human-geologic assemblage, particularly in the heyday of the industrial era. Successive attempts were made to colonise this area and turn it to a variety of productive purposes. These have all left their marks. They have shaped this place, and they in turn have been shaped by it.

In a modest way we seek to give a sense of the hillside’s agency. It is not a passive, dumb brute. It has the ability to shape how humans and other creatures engage with it, and yet it is not a singular thing. It is a collection of materials, each resting on the other. The hill is a set of layers, craters and fill plus a surface crust of living and dead things that – in the main – are just passing through.

The capacity of this landform to absorb, flex and channel human activity is what has struck us most. These, like many of the city’s other hills, are rich outcrops, worked for hundreds of years for their stone, earth, water, timber, iron and game. Over recorded time these hills have been gouged by mine workings, slashed by deforestation, riven by roadways and confected by settlement. Yet each successive engagement has brought a process of human-hillside accommodation. Schemes adapted to fit geology; local topology yielded to enable temporary slithers of human incursion.

A note on style

The style of writing and reflection that follows is broadly in step with contemporary psychogeography, specifically a variant defined by Nick Papadimitriou as ‘deep topography’. In this form attention to everything is important – but in a way that avoids the crowding in of dominant (or expert) accounts of the place, as Papadimitriou puts it:

“But while knowledge of structure or nomenclature can foreground discreet aspects of a place, it can also occlude. Sensory properties of locations encountered while visiting or passed through – a particular moist wind that flaps about the face like a flannel, a singular quality of light remembered but seldom encountered – are screened out all too easily if the primary purpose is on the type of cornicing found on a building passed or the names of the building companies that transmitted field parcels into batches of housing back in the 1930s”

This approach celebrates the subjective affective response to the hillside and its human-material form. But it also (as Papadimitriou does in his work) weaves in this place’s equivalent of cornicing and the names of building companies. All are part of this hillside. Thus the end result is wantonly promiscuous, a mix of both cornicing-detail and impressionistic revere: a hybrid approach that revels, as Mike Parker has put it:

“in the connections made, the eye for the rusty and rotting, the sometimes haughty disregard for over-hyped landmarks, the comprehensive sweep that fuses politics, history and topography through observation and trenchant supposition.”

Style and substance

What follows adheres to that pattern, but if this style of landscape enquiry is to be anything other than competent word plays and an antiquarian’s eye for quirky detail, it must add some character and some insight – something that rises above the mechanical formulae by which such mix-and-match accounts can be assembled. For my part I would hope that what we present here goes that extra step in attempting to give a voice to the ‘stuff’ and ‘processes’ of the hillside by foregrounding matter – the brute ‘stuff’ of this hill – and consequential human encounters with this materiality.

In the final section I step back from my own direct experience of this place, and try to show the rich interaction with the ‘stuff’ of this hillside by people who have lived, worked or visited there and contributed their memories and enthusiasm to on-line community forums like Sheffield Forum. There is an unexpected richness in the way in which former denizens write of their experiences on (and with) the hillside.  They did not just visit or live there, they stood, dug, searched out, picked up, played upon and made and/or threw away things there. And in doing so they projected meaning and significance onto this matter, and onto the hillside.

The word ‘matter’ conjures both senses of what I’m pursuing here. How is matter made to matter? If we approach the hillside from this question we find a rich symbiotic relationship: the hill, its matter, its (only ever partial) colonisation for industry and dwelling and the daily interaction with human bodies entailed in all of that. This was evocatively struck home for me in one recollection I came across:

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.

Announcing: ‘plastiCities: re-thinking the past, present and future of damaged topographies in urban environments’

FP montage

We are very excited to announce that an occursus led post-disciplinary bid for a major 5 year funded research project to investigate urban plasticity has been submitted this week. The bid is led by occursus director Amanda Crawley Jackson (French Studies, University of Sheffield), with  Luke Bennett (Built Environment – Sheffield Hallam University), Katja Hock (Fine Art – Nottingham Trent University), Tom Stafford (Psychology, University of Sheffield), John Barrett (Archaeology, University of Sheffield), Cristina Cerulli (SSoA), Vanessa Toulmin (University Head of Engagement) and Sophie Watt (French Studies, University of Sheffield). The bid is grounded upon the existing collaborations and explorations already catalysed by occursus and the Furnace park project, such as Scree (Bennett & Hock) and academic papers reflecting upon the site assembly phase of the Furnace Park Project (Bennett & Crawley Jackson).

We have set out the summary below that was submitted with the bid. We will know at the start of 2014 whether our bid has been shortlisted, and if successful in the process will commence this exciting project in October 2014. Fingers crossed!

plastiCities is a project about the damaged topographies that litter our contemporary urban environments – brownfield, neglected and abandoned sites; wastelands and tipping grounds; and the post-traumatic, post-industrial sites that are awkwardly left over in the gaps between regeneration and housing projects. A post-disciplinary team of researchers will investigate the ways in which recent advances in understanding the plasticity of the brain might help us repair and re-purpose such sites, evolve new futures for them and connect them to wider urban recovery. Through an innovative live project, Furnace Park in Sheffield, and through widening engagement with other similar projects, we will develop and disseminate effective and innovative practice through case studies, workshops, guidance notes and a variety of other resources (including extensive online media). Our concern in this project is to examine both how ‘wasteland’ sites have adaptive potential and to understand also those material and other resistive factors that retard change – for example, contamination, structural remnants, liability and powerful narratives of perceived risk, redundancy, blight and danger.

The fate of the places we are concerned with is wrapped up in their pasts, but there is an urgent need for these pasts to be considered in a more holistic way. It is precisely for this reason that the project engages voices from the arts and humanities in order to disrupt and re-cast perceptions, putting forward other visions and narratives of damaged topographies drawn from literature, art and film, in order to release and expose alternative futures. This will be complemented by the work of artists in residence and other creative practitioners who are embedded in the research team, alongside lawyers, geographers, archaeologists, psychologists, architects and literary and cultural theorists. Voices and expertise from the arts will therefore play a part in developing creative but also pragmatic responses to caring for the future of damaged topographies, acknowledging the resistance of the past while at the same time refusing to remain bound by it.

We will explore the idea that the past is multi-layered and multi-populated (by humans, animals and other things). We will suggest that it is as important to consider the materiality of the past as it is its human spectres. This stubborn materiality, we will argue, radiates out into our future, creating constraints and strange knock-on effects that we often struggle to understand within conventional forms of urbanism. The resonance of the past in the present and future is not always understood, but it is tangible nonetheless. The past piles up and forms the made ground of the sites humanity occupies, abandons and passes through.

This is what we mean by plasticity: first, it recognises the ways in which past, present and future are enfolded in and impact on each other. Secondly, it affords both the possibility of change and, in its appreciation of the vibrant agency of the ground itself (the site in which the past is barely contained), an acknowledgement of both contingency and constraint.

The ethos of our project is one of learning and reflecting through doing, as the gardener learns how to work her site through her hands-on engagement with it. From this vantage point, which characterises, critiques and builds on traditional and established practices within urbanism, we will develop novel ways of seeing, defining and managing damaged urban topographies in order to contribute tangibly to their future repair, recovery and resilience. We aim, finally, through this research, its dissemination and a series of spatial interventions, to improve community well being and show how other groups of practitioners, enthusiasts and citizens might reconsider and reconnect with  these ‘dead’ spaces, which have hitherto been assumed to exist outside of community purview.

‘Fixing a hole where the rain gets in’: everyday inundation and the assault of objects

“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in,

And stops my mind from wandering”

The Beatles (1967) ‘Fixing a hole’

So, I pick up the phone. It’s my mother calling to tell me how the first day of having her hallway and landing redecorated has gone.

So, I listen to the radio and Paul McCartney is trying to stop his mind wandering.

So, Twitter talk gets me thinking about Thomas Dolby’s 1982 LP, The Golden Age of Wireless.

So, I’m skim reading Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and I’m beguiled by its wild talk of poromechanics and Tellurian lubes.

So, I’m sitting in a class listening to student presentations. A colleague, urges the participants – next time – to take a note of the weather on the date of inspection. One fresh faced youth asks me why this is needed.

I’m not sure.

But my colleague explains:

“You see how the building works when it rains.

You notice whether the gutters manage to channel water,

you see how it encounters the exposed surfaces,

and whether they are watertight.

And in the wet air and its collision with cold zones

you see condensation saturating window panes.”

In the occurrence of wetness, a dynamic is revealed. A creeping wave of action – staged upon an event surface – rises to prominence and material finishes and conduits alike are subjected to a trial by ordeal. This is an inundation battle-space.

My colleague’s calm but confident acknowledgement of the revelatory agency of occasional precipitation leaves me slightly stunned. All the books I’ve been reading recently about object oriented ontology and vibrant matter tell me – in theoretical terms – that nature should be seen in this way, as agentive. But my colleague already gets this, and doesn’t need theory to guide her there. For her, buildings sit exposed to the elemental. They can be abstractified by the designer’s plans, marshalled for utilisation and valued using sophisticated techniques. But their properties are put to proof by a humble, universal (and unpredictable) visitor: rain.

“The copper cables all rust in the acid rain”

So sings Thomas Dolby in an album saturated with brooding wetness. I’ve known these songs for 30 years. Certain phrases – like this one – hang eternally in my mind, hummed mantra like in idle moments. These images of metal or flesh succumbing to a surfeit of hydration. Drowning, flood, clouds of enveloping damp air, all rolling into the scenes affecting the surfaces that they inundate. Wetness assailing human agency, curbing or ending life or co-opted as metaphor to the spent exhaustion of a liquid-like love:

“End of our summer

Your body weightless in condensation

My heart learned to swim

And the feeling was gone again”

I’m back in the phone call from my mother. She has great powers of recall, taking me through – blow by blow – the occurrence of her day. The story is dominated by surfaces and their disturbance; of the spatial and material disruption of re-decoration and specifically of the unsettling of her smoke detector, a sealed unit with no access to the battery inside.

The decorator had spent the day removing the existing wallpaper, exposing the raw poured concrete of this house’s walls, walls that bend any nail that you attempt to drive into them. The stairwell had filled with steam, tiny airborne particles of wallpaper and cement dust and an attendant sulphurous smell – so my mother curtly describes it – “of vomit”.

All of this has proved to be too much for the isotope encased in the smoke detector, steadily degenerating in the tick-tick of its half-life. This device works on the principle that smoke will disrupt that steady decay and the local ionisation that it will charge the air with, and the perturbation causes the alarm to go off.

This device has become spooked today. It has – my mother tells me, with jaded weariness in her voice – been intermittently going off every few minutes for the past 12 hours. She has improvised a paddle with which to waft the soiled air away and calm the nerves of this sentry, but the miasma now permeating the hallway, hanging as stale fetid damp air, keeps goading this sensor. The air and the sensor are locked in a quarrelsome dialogue, within the hallway of this now unsettled house, and there is little that she – as human bystander – can do about it.

A telephone call to the manufacturer’s helpline elicits a blank response – indeterminate advice on the theme of opening windows, repeated air-wafting and a polite chiding of

“well, we always recommend

that fire alarms are removed before any decorating works,

our alarms have very sensitive sensors you know”.

Bit late to tell me that now, my mother mouths through gritted teeth as she stares up at the agitated flying saucer pinned to her ceiling.

Reflecting on my mother’s account of her day, what struck me was how the entire event had been a narration of thing-led events, with her playing catch-up to the awkward interconnections and knock-on effects unleashed in the house by disturbing its equilibrium. This was description of an everyday encounter with matter, and a description of the rich challenge of simply facing matter – this was not things standing as symbols of ideas, positions or activities elsewhere. This was a description of an event in itself, born of an encounter with things themselves (walls, air, dust, an isotope). In the account the smoke alarm and its random bleeping was the story, there was nothing beyond the sheer irksomeness (and loss of control) experienced in this encounter.

As I thought about this I recalled something Daniel Miller wrote about the inherent experience of sari wearing in his book Stuff: that accounting for human relationships with saris should not just seek to characterise the symbolic role of sari wearing within cultures to which that apparel is indigenous, but rather also seek to explore the direct relationship of the wearer to the ‘thing itself’ – to give an account of the wrappings, the weight, the shaping of movement of the wearer: the embodied experience of the act of wearing this garment.

The weight of the sari should be heard for and of itself.

The smoke alarm in my mother’s hallway found a way to make itself heard today. Tomorrow it will fall silent. It will be wrenched from the ceiling, taken outside by my uncle, and rudely put to death with a brick. As he carries the disc to its point of brutal disassembly, a waft of fuggy air will no doubt follow out in his wake, stale air drawn inexorably towards the cooler outdoors with the opening of the door. The house will exhale, and – as it wafts past – the tendril of fetid house-breath will perhaps look down disdainfully at the now-vanquished smoke detector lying like a crushed insect in the yard, its battery and isotope now leaking their modest wet danger into the gaps between the paving slabs beneath.


Dolby, T (1982) The Golden Age of Wireless, Venice in Peril/EMI (LP):

Miller, D. (2009) Stuff, Polity: Cambridge

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia  - complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne

Image source:

On Three Outcrops: Granite – trial and ordeal

“A rock, an event, a past, cannot write itself…and yet it does” (Schlunke, 2005)

I now close this outcrop trilogy with a multi-site rumination on the imperviousness of granite.



Granite always involved a journey inland, and a negotiation too. Growing up in a household without a car it was always a convoluted trek to Dartmoor to commune with its stout grey sentinels. It would entail finding a spare seat on the extended family’s convoy into those hills. But the relative difficultly of reaching these rocks added to their lure. To be there, amongst them was to be somewhere made meaningful through its relative unattainability; special through a (modest) trial and ordeal. Whilst barely 30 miles from my town, these bulbous grey mica flecked outcrops felt regional, rather than local. I hold cherished memories of actual visits, but the yearning to visit was always stronger than the specific memories of actually being there. In melancholic moments the image of being up amongst these windswept peaks was a strong one. A wished for recuperative:  something to blow the cobwebs away, to recharge the batteries, to fill a hole.

Granite sits and broods, squat and strong, its forms asking to be clambered upon, pored, investigated. But it doesn’t give much away. It leaves you to speculate. Unlike the perishing, unstable and ubiquitous rocks of Torquay, granite has a resolute firmness and mystery. And there is something sinister in granite’s sly Easter Island faces: a silent leeching of radon from its radioactive pores, that gas seeping into basements, slowly poisoning unventilated air and bringing 1,200 lung cancer related deaths each year in the granite zones across the UK (Laurance 2010). A slow, silent-but-deadly, rock fart.

Bluff Rock

“Bluff Rock sits. Bluff Rock towers. It is the silent main character in this crime cum ghost story – it is always there, it always remains.”

Bluff Rock

Kristina Schlunke’s Bluff Rock (2005) is an account of her attempt to investigate an 1844 massacre of aborigines atop a local granite outcrop close to her Australian outback childhood home.  Schlunke ‘s research ranges across contemporary accounts, wider cultural context and the material conditions of the event-space. The rock itself is offered up as a mute witness to whatever happened there. For Schlunke preoccupations of the present inevitably seek to project onto any attempt to interpret the past. She sees the urge to order and make sense via selection and narrative as something to be – if not resisted – then at least laid bare. In that sense her investigation becomes resolutely autobiographical and deconstructive. The outcrop itself is presented as resistant to this ordering, resistant to the writing (or revealing) of the ‘truth’ of the event. In the swirl of interpretations, Schlunke clambers to the top of Bluff Rock and finds there no plateau, no clearly defined edge from which the cornered aborigines could have been ‘thrown’ (as in the testimony of the perpetrators). Schlunke is not seeking to deny the atrocities of colonialists and their actions against those already inhabiting the supposed Terra Nullis, but she finds threads that cannot be neatly assimilated into any of the circulating accounts. She concludes that the massacre probably did take place – once amongst many in this locality – but probably not at this landmark, that scenery having been added later, as though the event required geological ‘sexing-up’, bringing in a dramatic staging point, a crescendo for the endemic casual violence of such frontier encounters.

Bluff Rock passes no clue other than its own topography and density of thicket. It is impervious to rapid travel and interrogation alike. A material synonymous with memorials and headstones gives up little testimony of this past. Instead meaning comes from that projected onto this outcrop by its passersby:

“To drive past Bluff Rock is to see nothing but rock. To stop at the viewing place is to acquire a name and some history. To go to the Visitors’ Centre and ask for a leaflet is to be given a story of omnipotent white power.”

Cave Rock

Schlunke notes the instability of the very naming of Bluff Rock (and of the colonial urge-to-name as part of territorial conquest). An early – rain soaked – explorer came upon the outcrop in a wet July  and declared it ‘St Swithin’s Bluff’. That name didn’t stick, but – as for Schlunke – “This combination of rain and rock and the figure of a man’s body open to the elements and the effect of other men, creates a very nuanced image of that first ‘owner’”.

Cave Rock

Likewise Matthew & Michael Makley find something similar in Cave Rock (2010), their account of the disputed use of a Nevada lakeside granite mass, the remnant of a volcano that erupted there three million years ago. To the local native American Washoe tribes this outcrop is “De’ek wadapush” (Rock Standing Grey), to the white explorers who then sought to style a name for this landmark, it was variously “Rocky Point” then “Indian Rock” and then “Cave Rock”.

The Washoe detoured to avoid this place. It was a potent place, to be visited only by shamen and at which secret rituals of re-powering would be performed, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. But then in 1859 the white man’s gold rush saw a plank bridge-road skirt the edge of the mass. Then in 1931 engineers blasted a road tunnel straight through it (with a second tunnel added in 1957). The Washoe were not consulted.

Granite comes in many shapes and textures, but is often notable for its sheerness. As Schlunke puts it: “only straight, downward fissures and the simple immensity of granite”. Cave Rock was of a formation not well suited to traditional crack system based climbing, but the pioneering of bolt enabled sport climbing in the 1980s opened up the possibility of sheer rock faces to climbing. You don’t need cracks, seams and crevasses if you have runs of metal bolts fixed into a face.

In 1987 the first sport climbing route was pioneered at Cave Rock. Sports climbers bolted this vertical landscape and – in their view – improved the place by tidying up the litter and tunnel debris they found there, and paving the cave base. Ultimately 325 anchors marking the 47 distinct high-challenge routes written onto the face of Cave Rock by the scrutiny of the pioneering climbers who attentively read this vertical place and its route-potential, portraying this engagement with the rock in ecstatic, semi-spiritual terms, for example route pioneer Dan Osman:

“When I finished ‘Psycho Monkey’, I looked to the right and saw the line of ‘Phantom Lord’, which was harder [5.13b]. When I finished that, I looked to the right again and saw…the line of ‘Slayer’…I yelled to my belayer to lower me, and ran over to start working on it.” (quoted in Makley & Makley, 2010).

The climbers’ interest in Cave Rock coincided with emergence of a (slightly) greater attentiveness to Native American affairs in US Federal policy, sparking long debate amidst Cave Rock’s custodians, the US Forestry Service, about how the seemingly incompatible uses could be reconciled. The Washoe wanted all non Washoe use of Cave Rock to be banned. In retort the climbers developed a triple pronged argument, first that US constitutional law prohibited the Forestry Service from acting in a way that promoted the interests of a religion. Secondly, that the spiritual integrity of Cave Rock had already been erased by the road tunnels and thirdly, that Cave Rock now held a rich spiritual meaning for climbers too (hinting at an equivalence to that of the Washoe).  Meanwhile – to add to the messy reality and multiple meaning making in play at this site – Cave Rock had been designated as a Federal heritage site due to its historic transportation significance: the road tunnels!

Sadly, the dispute remained one largely polarised between the climbers and the Washoe, the vision of a march upon Cave Rock by an enraged mob of access defending road tunnel enthusiasts never materialised. Ultimately, after some extensive to-ing and fro-ing the Federal Appeal court decided that it was lawful for the US Forestry Service to ban climbing at Cave Rock without falling foul of the US constitution. The rock’s heritage value for the Washoe (and the general population of the area) could be acknowledged , and climbing upon this publically owned land could be prohibited as of deleterious character to the integrity of the rock itself.

Subsequently, the climbers bolts were removed, their holes plugged and the climbers flooring works taken away too. But Cave Rock remains publicly owned land, it has not been repatriated to the Washoe, and traffic still streams through the tunnels.

What the granite thinks of all this is not known.




Laurance, J. (2010) ‘Radon Gas: the silent killer in the countryside’, The Independent, 10 August.

Makley, M.S. & Makley, M.J. (2010) Cave Rock – climbers, courts and a Washoe Indian sacred place, University of Nevada Press: Reno.

Schlunke, K.M. (2005) Bluff Rock – autobiography of a massacre, Curtin University Books: Fremantle.

Image Sources

Haytor, Dartmoor –

Bluff Rock, New South Wales –

Cave Rock, Nevada –

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: 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

“This is not a place of honour, you should not have come here” – nuclear waste repositories and their messages for the future


In the 1960 cold war sci fi classic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr, a post apocalyptic history is charted through the eyes and research of an order of desert dwelling monks who preserve the last vestiges of pre-doomsday culture. They problem is they can’t decipher the documentary fragments that they are dedicating their lives to transmit through successive generations. In this future dark age, the monks operate in a similar fashion to those of the pre-medieval Dark Ages. In both cases they are withdrawn into their remote redoubts, praying, contemplating and seeking to extract meaning from the ancient cultural fragments in their care. The irony in Canticle is that the fragment venerated by these monks yet to be, is actually a mundane shopping list.

This blog post is about the difficulties of transmitting messages into the future, specifically warning messages about high level nuclear waste burial sites. This essay is a companion piece to my short article for here on the limits of human contemplation of deep-time in connection with such sites. That other piece is entitled Why it’s very hard to think like a mountain, and links its rumination on the limits of human temporality to the ‘geologic turn’ heralded recently by Ellsworth & Kruse (2013) and the notion of the anthropocene, the man-made strata being laid down in the current epoch. This blog post does not pre-tread the steps of that other piece. Instead it will contemplate how time affects the transmissibility of key messages about such places, into the deep future.

There are over 250,000 million tonnes of high level radioactive waste in the world today. It is presently held in surface (or shallow) interim storage facilities, solutions that depend upon human management and power systems. ’Permanent’ disposal will see this material buried within purpose built deep rock repositories. None of these places of ‘final’ disposal have yet been commissioned, but construction has commenced in Scandinavia (and is currently stalled in the US and the UK). Finland’s repository, Onkalo, is most advanced, and over the coming decades over 6km of roadways will be driven deep underground there, with a network of disposal chambers then fanning out from the subterranean terminus.

These facilities will take over 100 years to design, authorise, build and fill with waste. But sometime in the 22nd century they will be sealed, the wastes inside entombed to remain isolated from future people and their environment for 100,000 years (in the US Congress has recently revised this required period of confinement to 1 Million years, and there are signs of other national law makers following suit). But how do you ensure than an abandoned underground repository will remain undisturbed by future generations?

Here we come closest to the monks of A Canticle for Leibowitz, for experts commissioned to think through how best to project the information needed to understand this toxic legacy into the deep future consider that this task might require – amongst other things – a trans-generational  nuclear priesthood  to raise up this technical information to religious-like veneration so that it has best chance of persisting through the centuries ahead. How one would go about founding a religion for this timescale, and energising its sacred knowledge in this way, has not – to date – been mapped out. But the talk, within these otherwise sober circles, is of the greater power and durability of myth, legend, faith and ritual than of science. Indeed, this call for a sect-like focus on preserving nuclear knowledge into future generations has even been seriously advocated as a way of addressing the feared nuclear trade-skills shortage that may otherwise arise later this century and jeopardise future nuclear decommissioning and/or new build.

Onkalo means ‘hiding place’ in Finnish. At the heart of nuclear waste repository programmes is an unresolved tension between those who counsel that that non-disturbance will best be attained by erasing all surface indications that the facility exists at that location, and those who argue that future generations can only be protected against inadvertent encounter with these waste by provision of ‘future proof’ warning markers and related technical archives.

Legislators have decided that steps must be taken to ensure that future generations will be warned of these places and their properties, and that the information needed to understand the hazards there will be transmitted through culture. At the US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, an underground repository for low level waste that has been in development since the 1970s, that site is to be physically signified as hostile using ‘forbidding blocks’, ‘hostile markers’ and ‘menacing earthworks’. There will be text warnings written in the six main UN languages, plus the local Navajo language, but aversion will be courted also through hostile symbolic architecture-sculptures. These proposed landscape features will aim at triggering affective – pre (or post) linguistic stimuli based upon an assumed universal human instinctual aesthetic reflex. The aim is that the site itself signals its message – following Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message”, in words of the expert report, that “the most emphatically delivered message is the meaning-bonded-to-form in the site itself” (Sandia National Laboratories, 1993: para 2.1). According to the US Department of Energy (2004) the final plan for the WIPP site markers is due to be submitted to the U.S. Government around 2033 (yes time moves very slowly on these deep-time projects).

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Alongside the proposed landscapes of thorns, spike fields and forbidding blocks, the WIPP site will also feature a text based warning not to drill or dig at the site before A.D. 12,000 augmented by drawings of human faces modelled on Edvard Munch’s The Scream it seems that the international experts regard Munch’s potent image as a universal expression of terror. But, if Munch’s painting always carries that allusion, if it can be a timeless synonym for ‘go away from this place’, could it not equally be interpreted by a slightly misinformed future traveller as the advertising hording announcing the concealed treasures of some ancient funky underground art gallery? Conversely, should a visitor to the National Gallery of Norway flee that place upon sight of that painting, due to an instinctive reaction that lingering in that place would be to expose him or herself to the invisible danger of an odourless, tasteless and delayed action dose of radiation?


The image above is an internationally agreed symbol (ISO 21482) for warning the public about radiation dangers. Jointly developed by the International Atomic Energy Authority and The International Organization for Standardisation it is intended to intuitively communicate hazard warning to a non-technical audience. It is the outcome of a five year project conducted in Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Poland, Ukraine and the United States. Yet it’s meaning still rests upon a host of cultural assumptions: that red is danger, that a trefoil is a hazard indicator, that a skull and crossed bones is bad, and that the stick figure is fleeing. Equally the sign could be read as a welcome to a splendid festival zone at which there is a fantastic sound-system, free food (served off the bone) and a charity fun run in the right-hand corner of the auditorium. I’m reminded of Grossberg et al’s (1998) retelling of the fate of an anti-malarial programme conducted by the US Army in the far east during the Second World War. The ‘natives’ were shown posters with blown-up images of mosquitoes and spray equipment for insecticide. Upon later enquiring why there technologies had not been put into use, the clan chief replied: “because we do not have any mosquitoes that big”. In that culture there was no notion of the ‘blown up’ image – that increasing an item beyond its natural size will draw attention to it.

In his haunting documentary on the Finnish Onkalo repository, Into Eternity (2010), director Michael Madsen sets his narrator to address an imagined deep future audience for his film, vocalising the intended aversion thus: ”this is not a place of honour. No esteemed deeds are commemorated here. You should not have come here”. But any attempt to deter attention to a site, particularly one based upon monumental scale artificial markers, portentous images and tablets on stone all serve to attract the attention of future generations to such places, sparking their curiosity. In reality, the only effective warning marker will be the radiation itself. Exposure will send the most compelling message to the community from which the irradiated tomb raiders hail.

There must be the distinct possibility that we may not be understood by the future – especially the distant future. History shows that knowledge, and civilisation itself can be lost – future civilisations may regress, lose a central fixation with science and technology. And even if the markers, nuclear-priests and distributed archives work to transmit a sense of aversion to these places, that very knowledge of their contents may spur some to seek to burrow into these places, whether for copper, plutonium or motivations that we cannot yet comprehend. Warnings appended to the entrance to the pyramids and to Viking tombs have each proven to be of little or no effect in deterring intrepid explorers or looters alike.

The post is a.k.a. Avoiding New Uses For Old Bunkers #29


Ellsworth, E. & Kruse, J. Eds. (2013) Making the Geologic Now – responses to material conditions of contemporary life, punctum books: New York, available for free at:

Grossberg, L., Wartella, E. & Whitney, D.C. (1998) Media Making – mass media in popular culture, SAGE: Lomdon.

IAEA (2007) ‘New symbol launched to warn public about radiation dangers’

Madsen, M. (dir) (2010) Into Eternity, Magic Hours Films

Sandia National Laboratories (1993) Expert Judgement on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (ref: SAND92-1382/UC-721, p. F-49) excerpts at:

US Department of Energy (2004) Permanent Markers Implementation Plan, WIPP (rev.1)(DOE/WIPP 04-3302) Carlsbad, New Mexico:

Photos / drawings: Sandia National Laboratories (1993) and IAEA (2007).


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