A field, a bunker, a field again: The fate of place and the prosaics of place-making and unmaking.

Markyate Montage

“On top of the hill… I met an insurance agent and a radio salesman, wearing badges and armlets. Their oldest clothes and huge smiles. Theirs is a job that would drive schoolboys mad with envy. Any healthy-minded lad would give all his pocket-money to take a turn in this observation post, with its sandbagged watching place, its dug-out and camouflaged hut. Here is sentry work of a new and exciting kind.”

                J.B. Priestley, News Chronicle 17 Oct 1939

This is an abridged version of a paper that I wrote for an academic journal special issue on ‘Cold War Places’. I wanted to foreground the rise and fall of a prosaic wartime place-type, the aerial observation post and chose to stitch together a semi-fictionalised account of one site’s passage through time. This seemed the best way to give life to the fragments of stories that I had found for a variety of such posts in the National Archives. My aim was to show the ebb and flow of a place-formation, and how it is an unstable local-national constellation of people, environment, paperwork and policy. But in the end the editors didn’t feel my unconventional approach suitable for their history journal. So, rather than leave it in a drawer I’m presenting it here…

2017

We are at the verge of a country lane in the Hertfordshire countryside just outside the village of Wasnott, 30 miles north of London. Beyond a gap in the hedge a field gently rises to its brow on the horizon. Other than the stubble of an arable crop this field is empty; there is nothing to see here.

1979

We are at the same location, looking into the same field. A man wearing a dark beret and blue serge uniform is crouched over a portable petrol-electric generator trying to get it started. Around him stand three other men. One wearing a blue trench coat, another standing by a raised concrete hatch, into which the third man is about to descend. Two of the men are smiling, caught in the act of playfully chiding the generator attendant for his ineffective motor-starting technique. The men have brought with them an assortment of other bags and cases. The men and the concrete structures are surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire, forming a compound within which a sign stands, declaring:

“Royal Observer Post

7/P2

Wasnott”

The men are ROC volunteers getting ready for a weekend exercise that will see them stationed within their post’s underground bunker. Here they will open a succession of manila envelopes at allotted times and act upon the simulated detonation and fallout readings contained within, reporting that data through to their ROC Group HQ.

1933

Four men are standing in the field: the head of the Observer Corps, the Clerk of the Parish Council, Wasnott’s police constable and an engineer from the General Post Office (GPO). The Clerk is present because the field is managed by the Parish Council, the western part of it having recently been turned into a recreation ground. The constable is here because his Chief Constable has been instructed via a “confidential” standard form letter issued by the Home Office to arrange recruitment of local men as special constables to man an observation post to be established at this spot for the purpose of detecting, plotting and reporting aircraft movements as part of the air defence system. The procurement of both men and physical sites for the Observer Corps has become standardised through experience and repetition since the Corps was established as a volunteer force in 1924 in Kent and Sussex, and then slowly expanded across the counties of Southern England. This field has been identified as suited to a post because it affords a good clear view towards London. However, the GPO Engineer is in attendance because this location is only feasible if a telephone connection can be run to it. The men agree a suitable position and a stake is driven into the ground.

As the Home Office’s letter assures the Council, this stake is the post’s only enduring physical element, for:

“as the [observation] equipment is portable, nothing remains on the site when not in use, nor is there anything to be seen, except, in some cases, a peg driven in flush with the ground to mark the exact site, e.g. in a field… A telephone pole may be erected close to the site, if no convenient pole already exists … no damage of any sort occurs, and it may perhaps be mentioned that the men manning the post are always local men, known probably to you, and that in the quite large number of posts already established, no difficulties with Landlords or Tenants have been found to occur”.

Accordingly, the Home Office’s letter offers no rental payment for the post’s use of the site, which it states will be used for annual exercises not exceeding seven days (or nights) per year.

1942

The Chief Observer is hauling a bundle of advertising hoardings from his delivery van and taking them into the post hut. For the first five years of the Wasnott post’s existence the observers continued to bring all of their equipment to the site for each exercise. Experience of bitter winds on this hillside encouraged them to also bring thick clothing and canvas windbreaks. However the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1938 changed things. For two weeks at the height of the crisis the observers manned the post permanently and it became clear that for continuous operation these posts would need to provide sheltered facilities to enable observers to cook, rest and simply get warm. Deciding upon the suitability of having each post served by a wooden shed, the Air Ministry issued designs for “Standard Pattern Huts” and provided £5 for materials by which shelter and welfare facilities could be locally sourced and erected. But in the face of rationing of building materials the roll-out of this solution was slow to bear fruit. In the meantime at Wasnott the Chief Observer scrounged around and improvised with sandbags “quite a good little fort around the spotting position”. But that proved unsatisfactory as a long-term shelter as after a hard winter the “bags gradually rotted and the sand swirled about in the breeze and got into eyes, cups of tea and everything”. As interim measures a tent and then a caravan were placed at the site and then at the height of the Battle of Britain, amidst fears of imminent invasion, two members of the Home Guard camped out near the post in an old car they had dragged onto the site.

At Wasnott the Chief Observer kept pressing for tools to do the job – and a wooden hut was eventually created, replete with a “cubby hole” featuring stove, small desk and shelves adjacent to open platform with removable glass windshields. But winter chill penetrated even that shelter, prompting the Chief Observer to now bring cardboard display adverts from a local tailor’s shop, to line his hut’s walls.

1946

The scavenger wrenches the corrugated steel shutter from Wasnott post’s now-abandoned observation platform and drags it to his van parked at the edge of the site.

By the end of the war the ROC had 40,000 observers, 40 reporting centres, and approx. 1,500 posts spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain. But within a couple of weeks of the end of the European campaign in May 1945, the ROC was stood down and its posts quickly abandoned. Already in a tired condition by the cessation of hostilities, posts’ physical structures quickly fell into dereliction – a process accelerated by the post-war steel shortage and its ensuing scrap hunting. Some posts also became improvised homes for squatters: citizens or demobilised military personnel, adding further to their “eyesore” reputation.

However, in the Autumn of 1946, in the face of deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union it was decided that the ROC should be reactivated, and in December of that year, the Air Ministry wrote to Wasnott Parish Council proposing a year to year tenancy to formalise its resumption of occupation of the site. In the face of some resistance by the Council to the standard lease presented to them (but which the Air Ministry asserted had been accepted without amendment by many landowners), the Air Ministry eventually agreed a 15/- rent and to providing a more particularised definition of the post’s 3 yards by 3 yards plot.

But the revival of individual posts didn’t automatically revive the observation network for the wartime ROC reporting centres had closed, the radar system was barely operable and few fighter squadrons remained. Plans were put in hand to address this, but this investment would not see fruit until 1953 (by which time the evolution of military technology had rendered both the new reporting centres and the new ROTOR’ radar bunkers obsolete). Derek Wood, recalling his own experience of starting out as an ROC member in 1947, portrays the parlous conditions faced by the post-war observer, stood on site contemplating the emergent Cold War tensions in:

“their ill-fitting uniforms [which] were soaked through, post structure and hut were non-existent and the rickety wooden tripod legs of the instrument often fell to pieces, depositing the heavy metal table on the luckless observer’s feet. Telephones had a habit of emitting loud screams and crackling noises, or they cut out altogether. Where lines had not been laid on the observers solemnly wrote the [aircraft] plots down and put them in the mail the next day.”

1954

The pre-formed concrete panels are unloaded from the lorry and carried across to the site. The Council had anticipated this moment back in 1951 when they agreed to increase the site plot to 7 yards by 7 yards, and to increase the annual rent to 40/-. The Air Ministry’s plans to improve the physical condition of its observer posts had seen Orlit Ltd commissioned in 1952 to supply 400 sites with prefabricated concrete lookout posts in two variants: on-ground (Type A) or raised on stilts (Type B). But Wasnott’s new observation platform is of doubtful merit, for jets have now started to supersede human plotting capability. In recent Air Ministry trials it was acknowledged that the days of the ROC’s aircraft spotting role are numbered. Wasnott’s Orlit platform will indeed soon lie derelict, aircraft observation supplanted by the ROC’s new role inspired by the Hydrogen Bomb and the new type of accommodation required for it.

1956

The Chief Observer is sitting in his car, writing a letter to the Council thanking the councillors for their permission to bring cars onto the recreation ground for the duration of the one week summer exercise. The Chief Observer’s letter assures the Council that the rest of year’s training will be held in the function room of a local pub, The Lucky Duck.

Following the previous year’s exercise a spat had ensued between the Air Ministry and the Council. The Council had notified the Air Ministry of new bylaws prohibiting vehicles from the recreation ground and in turn the Chief Observer had alerted the Air Ministry to the prospect that this restriction could “considerably dampened the enthusiasm of our Post Instructor and Observers” adding that “it is no wonder that the ROC is struggling to attract volunteers”. After further correspondence a temporary concession was granted to permit the ROC volunteers to park their cars upon the site during their summer exercise.

The subject matter of the post’s training activity will soon change (although, out of these volunteers’ choice, aircraft spotting will remain a staple of the crew’s gatherings in The Lucky Duck for many years to come). In June of 1955 the Home Secretary had announced to the House of Commons that steps were being taken for the ROC – given its network of observation sites spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain – to give warning of and to measure radioactivity in the event of air attacks in a future war. Henceforth, instead of plotting aircraft the ROC would be plotting nuclear explosions and fallout. At Wasnott there were some resignations when the post’s new duties had been announced. These volunteers had joined the ROC because they wanted to be aircraft spotters and they enjoyed being outdoors, sky watching. They did not want to hide underground like moles.

Results from US and UK testing in the mid 1950s had emphasised the importance of shelter in the face of not only blast, but also the ensuing fallout. Accordingly, in support of the ROC’s new role the Government had authorised funding for the ROC Posts to receive subterranean “protected accommodation”. The first designs for this had been settled in July 1955, and the resulting underground bunkers would be built by local contractors using “cut and cover” techniques to form in poured reinforced concrete a 19ft x 8ft 6in x 7ft 6in buried concrete box, its roof slab overlain by three feet of earth. Accessed via a hatch, a ladder leading down 15ft into the bunker gave access to its main room with desk, two sets of bunk beds and small anteroom with an Eltex chemical toilet. Ventilation was provided by two wooden or steel louvred ventilation shafts. Each post cost around the price of a modest terrace house, but inside the conditions were far from homely: the bulk of that expense being absorbed in the cost of excavating and building below ground. The ROC’s bunkers featured no heating and only dim lighting from a single 12V battery pack. Home Office habitation trials in 1956 found the subterranean posts fit for purpose, but their design and dwelling circumstances continued the ROC’s experience of abjection, with Wood recalling that “despite the monitoring room temperature of 60oF the insidious cold of the concrete floor crept through flesh and bone.”

1960

The local contractors are clearing the site, packing away the wooden shuttering planks used to form the Wasnott bunker’s poured concrete walls. The shuttering will be used again at the next site. As they drive out of the field they are keen to do so quickly, before the tenant farmer reappears. There has been recent correspondence between all parties about the mud churned up by the contractor’s to-ing and fro-ing, one more instalment in a long line of correspondence associated with this post’s latest phase of rudimentary development.

Completed in early 1960, the building of Wasnott post’s protected accommodation was the culmination of a protracted legal process that rather belies the urgencies of the first Cold War. Back in 1954 the Air Ministry had asked the Council to sell it the existing plot, but the Council had declined. After that, the Air Ministry has reconciled itself to meeting its needs by taking a 21 year lease of the site. Thereafter from early 1955 until March 1959 a succession of correspondence teased out mundane conveyancing matters concerning the nature of the Council’s ownership interest in the site variously under the Wasnott Inclosure Act 1842, the need for Ministry of Education authorisation due to the recreation ground’s educational endowment, negotiation of rent and fencing arrangements and steps to clarify the first names of all required signatories to the lease. Eventually, the lease was completed, regularising the Ministry’s occupation of the site (now increased to 136 square yards) for 21 years at an annual rental of £5 and, at the Air Ministry’s insistence, imposing a 50 foot radius safeguarded area ringing the protected accommodation within which the landlord agreed not to build any obstructions.

1962

The Chief Observer, visiting the site to tidy up after a recent fallout plotting exercise, finds that the entrance has been blocked by the tenant farmer who grazes cattle on the pasture adjacent to the recreation ground. With some difficulty, she manoeuvres herself around the obstacle and approaches the hatch, descending thereafter into the bunker. There she attempts with some difficulty to fit a piece of equipment, in the course of which she falls onto the post’s table causing a “splintering crash that reverberated round the walls, just as we are told the nuclear blast will do”. Gathering herself together she climbs back to the surface and once out of the hatch notices a bull amongst the herd of docile jersey cows. The bull starts towards her and she runs at full pelt towards the blocked exit. To her relief she manages to squeeze her way back to the safety of the lane and emphatically concludes: “to me a bull with a ring in his nose, is far more of a potential hazard than a nuclear bomb. This is a case of the evil that we know being ‘worse’ than that which we do not”.

With such naivety or bravado, Wasnott’s crew were slowly coming to terms with their new role, a process aided by their involvement in blast and fallout monitoring exercises, like the recent Fallex 62 national fallout plotting exercise. Such exercises could be monotonous however.  Fallex 62 had featured only a single simulated strike, meaning that only the eastern part of the country was substantively affected. Accordingly, Wasnott crew’s participation had been “limited to ‘monotonous’ fall out readings or ‘no reading’ for hours on end”, accompanied by the constant “blip – blip” chirping of the post’s Carrier Warning Receiver, a soundtrack relieved only by occasional chatter with the crews of the other posts in Wasnott’s cluster.

1980

The new recruit is being introduced to the post. In the face of rising tensions between the superpowers over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan recruitment to the ROC has doubled over the last year. The Chief Observer tells the recruit that his prospects for a long and enjoyable role in the ROC are buoyed by the Thatcher Government’s stated commitment to reviving civil defence. The Chief Observer does not mention his nagging concern that eventually the need for monitoring posts staffed by humans will be overtaken by remote sensing devices given everything that seems to be happening with the boom of electronic devices in the household. For the time being he will take comfort in the works in hand to convert the Wasnott post’s landline links to dedicated private wires and to replace its old terminal with a new loud-speaking Teletalk telephone.

But despite the recent rise in recruits the ROC retains its perennial anxiety about recruitment and at Wasnott this anxiety colours the Chief Observer’s stance around renewal of the Wasnott Post’s lease which is set to expire this year. The PSA (who have now taken over the management of civil assets from the Defence Land Agent) have advised that the ROC can rely upon standard continuation of tenancy rights set down in the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954 which mean that the 1959 lease will be deemed to simply continue on its old terms. The UKWMO’s HQ staff have become involved, and they share the Chief Observer’s discomfort with this passive approach. Ultimately UKWMO will insist that the PSA enter into negotiations with the landowner to secure the active grant of a new 21 year lease because “we know from experience that any uncertainty about the long-term future of a post will have an adverse effect upon the morale of its crew.”

1992

The Chief Observer places equipment removed from the post into the back of the hired van, it is now sixth months after the formal standing down of the ROC. The van is driven by full time ROC officers who have been instructed to liaise with ROC Post crews around the country so that they may arrange to collect equipment from their posts and take it to central stores. In July 1991 Kenneth Baker, the Home Secretary, had suddenly announced that following review of the defence requirements in the light of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Home Office could no longer justify the continued use of the ROC volunteers for the nuclear monitoring role, and that this responsibility would in future be met by a mixture of local authorities and the military. The news had been received with shock by the ROC. At Wasnott Post the observers had gathered at the site for the last time and written their names, and the date, upon the wall of their post. Their sector’s commanding officer had exhorted his volunteers to “maintain our image to the end” and that they should “stand down with dignity…there is nothing to be gained from emotive statements to the media, petitions, demonstrations etc”. However, at many posts it had proved difficult to get the now disbanded post members engaged with the clear-out task. The van’s drivers will themselves be redundant by the end of March 1992. This attempted clearance of posts and gathering together of their records will therefore prove to be only partially successful.

1999

Accompanied by the bemused farmer, the man with the expensive looking camera climbs down into the Wasnott post. The photographs that he takes there will form part of a survey which will present on-line an account of the location and physical state of every traceable ROC post. The farmer acquired this field from the Council after the recreation ground was sold for housing development in 1967. He had never paid much attention to it prior to the ROC stand-down. In 1992 he had accepted surrender of the lease and a payment of £50 in lieu of the reinstatement liability. Shortly afterwards he took the post’s fencing down, and cleared away the collapsed Orlit post after it blew over in a heavy storm. But otherwise he had left things alone.

A few years later he had been approached by a businessman who said that he would like to rent the bunker as a weekend retreat. The farmer had seen the man on site a few times, cutting the grass around the post or sitting on the hatch admiring the view of London. One time in conversation the man had declared: “this place was originally built so the Royal Observer Corps could monitor London being wiped off the map. Sometimes that’s easy to forget” and the farmer felt that the man was trying somehow to resist that forgetting. But the man’s attendance had tailed off after a while and he eventually stopped paying the rent.

There had also been some approaches from former members of the ROC Post’s crew, with talk of preserving the post as a historic relic of the Cold War, and seeking funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to do so. But nothing had come of this and the farmer had found all that rather hard to fathom – this place was surely too recent to be archaeological. The photographer assured him that the post had historic interest – and that hundreds of amateur investigators have been working since 1995 on a project to catalogue the twentieth century’s “Defence of Britain” sites across the UK.

2007

Using now-readily available locational data the bunkerologist has programmed his sat-nav to alert him of proximity to any ROC post. Having detected one here, on the outskirts of Wasnott, he strolls across the field and down into the bunker. Inside he finds a burnt out shell. The polystyrene tiles combusted well, coating the underground room in a thick layer of soot, into which recent visitors have written their names and a few faux apocalyptic slogans, echoing the Half Life Video game.  The man takes some photos which he later uploads to an urban exploration forum website, describing his visit thus: “close to minor road and OPEN. As previously reported – empty and burned. Nasty. The site is overgrown and is being undermined by rabbits.”

2013

The farmer has decided to clear away the Wasnott post’s surface features, having heard recently that English Heritage had listed a ROC Post in Yorkshire, he wants to ensure that his site doesn’t attract any restrictive heritage designations. His insurance broker has also worried him by pointing out that he would be liable if anyone were to be injured with the post.

Erasure of the post is easy. The turrets fall with the aid of a towrope and a tractor, and he then grubs out the near-surface remains of the hatch, tumbling the masonry into the ladder well and then overfilling with soil to leave no trace of the ROC’s former presence in this now empty field.

Picture credit: A montage combining a 1979 view of Markyate ROC Post overlayed onto the site’s 2015 Google Earth form. The 1979 photograph is reproduced courtesy of Roland Carr.

Note: Wasnott is not a real place, but all of the quotes are taken from primary sources concerning various ROC Post sites and events at them. References for the quotes are available from me, if desired.

 

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Here’s a chance to work as a post doc with me and others on our study of the St Peter’s, Kilmahew modern ruin project

“You have been warned”
A photo of the seminary gates with asbestos warning signs, May 2013.

Back in December 2015 I announced here that I was part of an AHRC bid for a large project to study the re-activation of the modernist ruins of former seminary, St Peter’s, Kilmahew, details here . That bid got through to the final round but ultimately wasn’t granted. So, we picked  ourselves up and dusted our ideas off and I’m please to report that we have now secured a smaller grant from The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland that will enable a more modest study of the project to now go ahead.

The key element enabled by this funding is a 14 months post-doc post (based at the University of Glasgow) to provide the embedded eyes and ears of our study. Here’s the summary of the post that’s been circulating via other channels this week…

“Research Assistant

‘Re-Placing Risk and Ruination: Experimental Approaches to Access, Design and Engagement in Transitional Heritage Sites’

RA Grade 7, Part-Time (0.8 FTE) for 14 months

Full details and job specification (post reference: 018433) available at:

https://udcf.gla.ac.uk/it/iframe/jobs/

This position is part of a research project funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, entitled:

‘Re-Placing Risk and Ruination: Experimental Approaches to Access, Design and Engagement in Transitional Heritage Sites’.

The post-holder will enable the research project to address three research questions:

– How do you activate a modern ruin safely?

– How do you activate a modern ruin creatively?

– How do you activate a modern ruin collaboratively?

Responses and findings will be drawn from an interdisciplinary study that investigates the on-going transformation of a Scottish site of international architectural significance and its surrounding historic landscape, Kilmahew-St. Peters (Argyll & Bute). Studying the novel and experimental approach to heritage site presentation and management being taken by artists, architects and designers at Kilmahew-St. Peters, will be the means to produce novel research findings with widespread relevance and applicability. Nationally and internationally, there are a multitude of valued heritage landscapes, in a ruinous, vulnerable, degraded state, requiring equivalent levels of creative intervention for the purposes of rehabilitation and to safeguard cultural legacies for the future. See: http://nva.org.uk/artwork/kilmahew-st-peters/ The post-holder will gather original data through a combination of critical literature review, stakeholder interviewing, and immersive, participatory fieldwork activity in the site under investigation.

Data gathering undertaken by the Research Assistant will be managed and supported by the Principal Investigators: Professor Hayden Lorimer (University of Glasgow), Professor Ed Hollis (University of Edinburgh) and collaborators Dr Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University) and Angus Farquhar (NVA).

The project team will produce high-quality academic outputs, complemented by a range of dissemination activities.

Applications are sought from candidates with an awarded PhD in one of the following subject areas: Cultural Geography, Landscape Architecture, Landscape Studies, Architecture and Design, Heritage Studies, Creative Arts.

Closing date for applications: Monday July 31st 2017.

Applicants should note that interviews for the post are due to be held at University of Glasgow on Monday 21st August 2017.

Projected start date for post: 1st October 2017.

The appointed researcher will be based at University of Glasgow, in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, and will be a member of the Human Geography Research Group:

http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/

http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/researchandimpact/humangeographyresearch/

 

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ianrobertson63/8959128176/lightbox/

The Politics of Place – the 2017 SHU Space & Place Group Workshop, 28 June 2017

hyde-park-speakers-corner-09

This year the SHU Space & Place Group’s workshop day is themed around “The Politics of Place”. Drawing across an array of disciplinary traditions and perspectives, our presenters will invite participants to explore the ways in which (subtly and explictly) politics permeates place, and place frames politics. Our event will take an expansive definition of “the political”, but with a particular interest in the political character of seemingly prosaic, everyday spaces.

The event is free to attend. We are currently seeking funding for refreshments and a light lunch and will advise delegates nearer the time on whether these will be provided as part of the event. If they are not, there will be opportunity for you to ‘buy your own’ in our venue’s cafe.

SHU SPG events are open to all, and whether SHU staff or beyond our institution. A physical limit is set for by the capacity of the venue, thus registration will be on a ‘first come first served’ basis. Please register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-politics-of-place-the-2017-shu-space-place-group-workshop-tickets-34284938173

WHEN?

9am-4.45pm, Wednesday, 28 June 2017.

WHERE?

The Moot Suite (Heart of the Campus, HC.0.03), Sheffield Hallam University, Collegiate Campus, Sheffield S10 2BP.

THE PROGRAMME

9.00-9.30: Arrival

9.30-9.35: Intro and welcome by session chair – Luke Bennett (Built Environment), SHU

9.35-10.00: Co-designing a trans-European pedagogical mapping tool for solidarity economies

Julia Udall (Architecture), SHU

10.00-10.25: De Stoep: The role of order in enabling socio-spatial expansion in the Dutch public private interface

Kaeren Harrison (Landscape Architecture), SHU

10.25-10.50: Essaying litter: affect, language, place

Joanne Lee (Visual Communication), SHU

10.50-11.15: Looking after freedom: politics, performance and place in Cape Town (via Skype)

Danielle Abulhawa (Performance), SHU & Sarah Spies (Performance), University of Chester

11.15-11.35: REFRESHMENT BREAK

11.35-11.45: Saved for the Nation? Politics, protests and preservation.

Carolyn Gibbeson (Real Estate), SHU

11.45-12.05: ‘I think you need confidence to look in there’: women, sex shopping and the sexual self

Rachel Wood (Sociology & Politics), SHU

12.05-12.25: The power of charity spaces

Jon Dean (Sociology & Politics), SHU

12.25-12.45: Going to the (super)market: how might we research food and place?

Beth W. Kamunge (Geography), University of Sheffield

12.45-1.15: Panel discussion led by session chair – Carol Taylor (Education), SHU

1.15-2.00: LUNCH

2.00-3.15: Inside, Outside (an activity)

James Corazzo (Graphic Design), Jerome Harrington (Fine Art), Becky Shaw (Fine Art), SHU

3.15 – 3.30: REFRESHMENT BREAK

3.30 – 4.45: Presencing power: how can we use interdisciplinary methods to illuminate and/or confront the politics of place?

Luke Bennett (Built Environment), SHU & Morag Rose (Urban Studies and Planning), University of Sheffield

4.45: Close

A copy of the programme, complete with abstracts, is available here: SHU Space & Place workshop June 2017 – programme & abstracts

About the SHU SPG

The interdisciplinary SHU Space and Place Group was set up in 2012 by Jenny Blain (Sociology), Luke Bennett (Natural & Built Environment), Cathy Burnett and Carol Taylor (Education) to explore the common ground between our various interests in space and place. It meets 2-3 times a year to discuss conceptual, methodological and practical issues around the question “how do we make sense of the spaces and places within which stuff of interest to us happens?”. We are always keen to welcome new voices into our conversation, both within SHU and beyond. Please contact Luke Bennett if you’d like to be added to our mailing list: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk.

Accessability

There are no car parks and extremely limited on-street parking near Collegiate Campus. We recommend parking in the city and walking or travelling by public transport to the campus. If you’re a blue badge holder, you can arrange parking at either campus by phoning 0114 225 3868. The HOTC building has several blue badge specific parking spaces right next to the main entrances. The Moot Suite has two entrances, one upper and one lower; access to the former is on the regular ground level, the latter has a wheelchair-specific lift to negate the few steps.

IMAGE CREDIT: A Lazy Day At Speaker’s Corner, http://www.urban75.org/blog/images/hyde-park-speakers-corner-09.jpg

Ruinphobia, the New Ruins and the anti-ruination reflex – my newly published chapter is out

1988 ruined shop

“The problems associated with empty properties are considerable. They attract vandalism and increase insecurity and fear. And this all reduces the value of surrounding businesses and homes. So the decision to leave a property empty is not just a private matter for the landlord. It affects us all.”

Mary Portas, The Portas Review: The Future of Our High Streets, 2011, p 35.

Portas here reveals that any discussion of transience and permanence in urban development engages deeply embedded cultural assumptions about utility and progress. I explore the origins and effects of this anxiety in a contribution to a recently published collection of essays on the theme of temporary re-uses of vacant urban property. In my chapter I show how an underlying ruinphobia quitely but powerfully shapes the fate of abandoned buildings, regardless of how some might more loudly valorise them through a ruinphiliac (or ruin lusty) gaze.

In my chapter I place recent (largely ruinphiliac) ruin studies scholarship in the arts and humanities alongside insights from both critical urban studies and the more professionally focused concerns of real estate practitioners in order to see what happens when ruinphobia and ruinphilia try to inhabit the same space. As a taster here’s a snippet, in which I set up the juxtaposition by taking Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher off for a walk in a direction he didn’t intend:

“The ruin is a provocative mix of time and matter – it shows us simultaneously the longevity and the ephemeral nature of both buildings and their uses. It also holds a mirror up to our relationship with their constituent matter, destabilising our perception of and reaction to the building as a whole, and the building as an assemblage. It is also paradoxically both a lawless prospect – and yet strangely of the law. To pursue these points let us dwell for a moment at the threshold of The House of Usher. Let us imagine that we are standing there with Edgar Allan Poe’s unidentified narrator as he looks upon the bleak vista, scrutinising the building before him and searching out its sublime import:

“more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity […] yet all of this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts and, the crumbling condition of the individual stones” (Poe, 2003, p 94)

But what if we re-contextualise the scene, replacing Poe’s intimated ruinphiliac frisson with a workaday ruinphobia? Then – perhaps – our unidentified narrator becomes the occupant’s tax adviser, come to advise the decrepit titular owner upon demolition or a creative ruination ruse to avoid Business Rates. Perhaps he has come to disassemble the building, totting up as he looks on, how many stone blocks, lead pipes and copper cupolas the House of Usher will yield when levelled. Perhaps he has come from the local council and will shortly serve legal notice upon the owner, commanding corrective works under the Building Act 1984. Perhaps he has come from next door, alleging recourse against Usher under the common law principles of Private Nuisance, for damage sustained by his own property caused by this decaying structure. Perhaps he is a local councillor concerned about the adverse effects of this dereliction upon the amenity of the neighbourhood, and is contemplating the scene with a view to producing a report to his Council’s cabinet in favour of action being ordered under Section 215 Town & Country Planning Act 1990. Perhaps he is the local crime prevention officer attending to warn the owner that the degenerating condition of his place is a magnet to crime. Perhaps he is an insurance broker, steeling his nerve before breaking the news to his client that policy premiums are now prohibitively expensive, on account of the recent decline of this once stately house.

The Fall of the House of Usher is fiction, it is just a story. It is presented as an entertainment – predicated on the assumption that there is a willing audience for tales that summon the prospect of standing, contemplating the degeneration of a ruinous building, and getting some unsettling thrill from vicariously doing so, whilst reading the story in the safety of our own warm, cosy and familiar homes.  But, much as we might enjoy TV crime shows and their grizzly exceptionality, we do so only from a safe distance: we only want ruination in controllable amounts, too much or its occurrence at a time and place not of our choosing is cause for a different type of unsettling – one that calls for action, intervention and eradication of the ruin.”

The edited collection in which my essay appears is Transience & Change in Urban Development (ed. John Henneberry, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), and its rather pricey (more details here). But there’s an early version of what eventually became my chapter here, worked up with some initial help from my SHU colleague Jill Dickinson. The book’s chapters derive from an international EU funded workshop convened by John Henneberry in January 2015.

Image credit:

Abandoned shop front, 1988: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/414190496956316175/

 

Programme announced for a Legal Geography Workshop, at the University of Bristol, Tuesday 25 April 2017

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A few months ago we issued a CFP for our forthcoming informal Legal Geography Workshop. We have been delighted with the response and can now announce the programme for the day (NB: programme now shown as expanded on 4 April 2017):

Legal Geography Workshop: Bristol

Tuesday, 25th April 2017

8-10 Berkeley Square, Bristol, BS8 1HH

10am   WELCOME

  1. 10-10.35am Phil Hubbard – Right to Return
  2. 35-11.00am Sophie Elsmore – Governing by Contract
  3. 00-11.25am Melisa Vazquez – Spatialising Food

11.25-11.40am COFFEE

  1. 40-12.05pm Mario Ricca – Ghostly Condominiums
  2. 05-12.30pm Tayanah O’Donnell – Built by the Sea

12.30-1pm LUNCH

  1. 1-1.25pm Katherine Brickell – Feminist Geolegalities
  2. 25-1.50pm Louise Sarsfield Collins – Reproductive Rights
  3. 50-2.15pm Paige Patchin – Legal Geographies of the Zika Virus

2.15-3.45pm COFFEE

  1. 30-2.55pm Kevin Raleigh – LGBT rights
  2. 55-3.20pm Nick Gill – Courts
  3. 20-3.45pm Antonia Layard – Scales of Brexit

3.45-3.55pm COMFORT BREAK

3.55-4.50pm   CLOSING THOUGHTS & DISCUSSION

  1. 3.55-4.20pm Luke Bennett – Law’s Absence & Closure
  2. 4.20-4.50pm Closing discussion.

The attached Legal Geography Workshop 2017 Bristol Programme and Abstracts is a document setting out the abstracts for each paper.

Non-presenting delegates are welcome at this free event but in order to help us keep an eye on numbers please email me if you’d like to attend: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk

This event is a collaboration between:

  • Antonia Layard (Law – University of Bristol);
  • Nick Gill (Geography – University of Exeter);
  • Luke Bennett (Natural & Built Environment – Sheffield Hallam University) and
  • Tayanah O’Donnell (Geography & Built Environment – University of Canberra).

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Image credit: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/law/images/optomised-images/moot-court-studio-37-interiors_opt.png

“The House that Legal Geography Built: People, Places & Law”: CFP for a legal geography workshop at the University of Bristol on 25 April 2017*

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Call For Papers

For a one-day Legal Geography Workshop at the University of Bristol, UK

On Tuesday 25 April 2017

“The House that Legal Geography Built: Exploring the Imbrication of People, Places and Law”

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*[NB: the date of this event has been changed to Tuesday 25 April 2017 since the original version of this post] 

Legal geographers often describe their field of enquiry as studying the imbrication of people, places and law. We tend to think of imbrication as meaning braiding (following Braverman et al, 2014) or co-constitution (Delaney, 2016). But is this what imbrication actually means? In its OED definition, imbrication is not defined in the way legal geographers generally use the term today. Instead, imbrication’s 17th century origin, (in the sense of being ‘shaped like a pantile’): comes from the Latin imbricat-, covered with roof tiles.

This then is our starting point for this call for papers. How does this imbrication in legal geography actually work? How do the realms of law, spatiality and society fit together, for what purpose and in what circumstances? For while we presume that co-constitution (between people, place and law) is legal geography’s core premise, we also suggest that legal geography is still very much an inchoate cross-discipline, extending, one rooftile at a time. Envisaging legal geography as a project of interlacing, this workshop now aims to focus on the adjacent edges and overlaps. In particular, we are interested in any aspect of legal geography, including work on networks, materialities, affect, gender, race as well as scale, pluralism and performativity (Bennett and Layard, 2015). Of course, this is a relational connection, individual tiles come together to shelter the building as a whole but are also inter-related.

One purpose of this call for (15 mins) papers is to develop a network of all those interested in legal geography. It invites scholars working in human, urban, political geography and law, to offer empirical or theoretical contributions relating to legal geographies. Focusing on linkages, and extensions, papers will demonstrate how their connection illustrates the co-constitution of law, space and place by way of performative or relational significance to the chosen subject matter. In a collaborative setting, can we build legal geography still further? And if we do, what will the roof look like? We invite you to join us to find out.

If you would like to present a paper – or a sketch of a paper – please submit a title and abstract to antonia.layard@bristol.ac.uk by 15 March 2017.

This event is being organised by:

  • Antonia Layard (Law – University of Bristol);
  • Nick Gill (Geography – University of Exeter);
  • Luke Bennett (Natural & Built Environment – Sheffield Hallam University) and
  • Tayanah O’Donnell (Geography & Built Environment – University of Canberra).

The workshop is free to attend (we will announce the finalised programme and booking arrangements in the early April). We are not able to cover any travel or subsistence costs for speakers or delegates but hope for coffee and cake at the very least. If you are interested in legal geography but cannot make the workshop do let us know, we will compile a mailing list for anyone interested in the field.

Image credit:  Zola aka. Zhou Shuguang (http://zola.fotolog.com.cn/1671942.html) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D. The owners of this Chongqing “nail house” refused to leave it, thwarting plans for a shopping mall.

Making Common Ground at Furnace Park: place, purpose and familiarisation

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I’ve been increasingly exploring the stabilities of place. In recent years writers on place have tended to emphasise place’s flux: the way in which it is a momentary, fragile assemblage of the varied intentions, actions and desires of those who happen to be present in (or otherwise having influence over) any seemingly coherent action-space. I get this kick against formalism, but I think that it tends to present place as too fluid. My recent projects have been examining various ways by which places become stabilised (and replicated). My recent article (details here) on the role of law in shaping the form and proliferation of the ‘classic’ cotton mill published in Geoforum earlier this year is an early outing on this. And now – after three years of gestation, my article co-written with Amanda Crawley Jackson of the University of Sheffield has been published in Social and Cultural Geography. At the end of 2012 I was invited to observe the site assembly process for the experimental Furnace Park project, and specifically to think about how the project came together in that first phase – how ‘common ground’ came about both amongst the diverse range of stakeholders (all with their own orientation on what this prospective place would be) and also how those (human) protagonists made common ground with the ground itself. Amanda and I then set out to write our joint paper, and to find our own disciplinary common ground (and once we’d found it, then reconcile it with the differing views of our article’s peer reviewers and editors). In due course our text – and its various iterations – took on much of the machinations of the place-making and its pressures towards attunement and accommodation.

Our article is available to view here for free (for the first 50 uses of this link). I’m not going to re-write the article here, but here’s the abstract as a taster, which explains that it was written as part of a special issue on the ‘geographies of strangers and strange encounters’:

“In this article we seek to widen the debate about the sites and processes of encounter with strangers by examining the ways in which ‘strangeness’ necessarily fades within the familiarisation processes at play in any sustained and situated place-making. Our analysis draws upon our experiences of encountering strangers – and of our familiarisation with them – in the initial, year-long, site acquisition and preparation phase of a project to create Furnace Park, an experimental urban space in a run-down backwater of central Sheffield. We show the tensions between a project commitment to the formation of a loose, open place and the pressures (which arose from our encounters with the urban development system) to render both the project and the site certain, bounded and less-than-strange. Furthermore, at Furnace Park the site itself presented to us as a non-human stranger, which we were urged to render familiar but which kept eluding that capture. We therefore show how the geographies of strange encounters could productively be widened to embrace both recent scholarship on the material-affective strangeness of ground itself, and a greater attentiveness to the familiarisation effects born of the intersection of diverse communities of practices within place-making projects.”

The first iteration of our joint paper was presented at the ‘geographies of strangers’ session at the 2013 Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference, and we were subsequently invited aboard this special issue project. I think we are the only article that regards ground itself as a stranger, which considers place-making (and in particular professional interactions) as anything to do with strangers, and which emphasises that strangeness (and familiarity) are both unstable, perhaps necessarily so in place-making.

Our claim to novelty is perhaps also captured in the following paragraph (taken from our article):

“Our aim in this article is to present a case study examination of how the unknown – or strange to us – was encountered and how it was familiarised within our place-making endeavours. Our article broadens the place-making-by-encounter-and-familiarisation scholarship in three ways: first by being an ‘insider’ account – a reflexive examination by us as academics implicated in the making of a place; secondly, by our concern to focus not upon the transformative (or otherwise) effects of human to human encounter, but instead upon our human encounters with the unknown materiality of the case study site, thus figuring the site itself as a stranger; thirdly, by our concern to show  the directive, shaping role of pre-existing cultural expectations brought to our site, and our project, by the myriad (human) stakeholders who needed to come together to make the project happen. Here we seek to show how these expectations drove forward an attempted (but never fully realised) elimination of the unknown and of how a restless surplus of strangeness remained.”

Amanda is the director of the Furnace Park. It is now an up-and-running project, with details of the site’s many past and future events, alongside Amanda’s wider projects with the occursus collective showcased here. My involvement ended after site assembly, but the insights from working on this paper have certainly influenced my subsequent projects, such as the prospective St Peter’s, Kilmahew stabilisation project (details here) and work that I’m currently doing on the peculiarities of contingent places (yes, that’s more bunkers).