Etching floodlines on the valley – tracing the scriptural legacies of the 1864 Great Sheffield Flood

This essay is further rumination on the materiality of memory and the ways in which landscape is physically written upon. Recently I’ve written about how people trace out lines onto landscape by their thoughts and actions. Here I extend the analysis to look at an exceptional situation in which people, water, stone, brick and timber all made their orderly and disorderly marks upon a landscape. I consider the extent to which each set of traces can still be read today.

Written by stone onto water, land and timber

My family and I live within walking distance of eight impounding reservoirs, and the same number of covered, hilltop service reservoirs. We live in the flood plain of five of them. But we don’t give them that much thought. We happily accept the water that these colossal water stores – these stonework manifestations of human dominion over valleys and their natural drainage and ecosystems – pump and gravity feed into our home. Water? It’s harmless, it’s the stuff of life.

And yet…

No roar

No whistle or scream

Just smack like a hammer

A black hole

Where the house had been

[an excerpt from Rob Hindle’s (2006) poetry collection, Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864]

Written by water onto stone, land and timber

On a cold Friday night in March 1864, one of these reservoirs gave way and 650 million gallons of water (weighing some 2 million tons) came rushing down the steep sided Loxley Valley inundating the northern Sheffield suburb of Malin Bridge where we now live. Travelling at an estimated speed of 18 miles per hour (that’s 30 feet per second, faster than a man can run) the wall of water destroyed 50 dwellings and claimed 100 lives here and then hurtled on towards central Sheffield leaving devastation in its wake.  Over 238 would die across Sheffield that night, over 400 buildings destroyed or seriously damaged and with resultant claims for material damage against the Sheffield Waterworks Company by over 6,000 owners and occupiers, and 20,537 paid destitution claims by the Mayor’s relief committee.

As Joseph Ibbotson, owner of a corn mill in the first village to be struck by the reservoir-wave put it:

“It seemed as if the bowels of the earth were being torn up, or as if some unheard-of monster were rushing down the valley, lashing the hillside with scaly folds, crunching up buildings between his jaws and filing the air with his wrathful hiss.” (Amey 1974: 28).

The inundation scoured its way along the Loxley Valley, erasing hamlets, mills, trees and bridges at great speed (the whole dam had disgorged within 47 minutes of the breach).

“The wave, which according to one eye-witness reached a height of 50 feet in some parts, roared on with unabated fury. More bridges were torn away and flipped aside, mills were erased or ruined and hundreds of trees bobbed along like matchsticks.” (Amey, 1974: 30)

And when the wall of water reached Malin Bridge, the destruction amplified, as depicted in a contemporary account in the London Illustrated News (LIN 1864):

“Here there were mills and forges, and on each side of the river rows of cottages to accommodate the workpeople. Everything gave way before the roaring torrent. The immense mass of water, filled with debris, razed the ground along its track as easily, and almost as instantaneously, as a cannon-ball makes for itself a lane deep into the ranks of living men. Whole families — buried in sleep or, perchance, startled from it by the rushing roar — were literally hurled into eternity.”

In the era of the Hollywood CGI disaster movie we are somewhat blasé about such imagery nowadays. But – remember – this was real. A valley formed by millennia of fluvial erosion, thousands of years of glacial action, and hundreds of years of human settlement was, in a matter of seconds, scoured by a racing wall of escaped reservoir water.

Written by stone and timber onto land and water

Gathering up everything friable in its path the flood waters snatched up and sped onward an assemblage of animal, mineral and vegetable matter until eventually arrested by stronger obstacles or released by subsiding waters many miles downstream. The Sheffield Telegraph, reported accumulated material – once possessions, now dross – entrained against the resolute flanks of Lady’s Bridge in the centre of the city:

“fearful heaps of timber mixed with straw and other debris were piled up by the flood against the masonwork of the bridge. The immense quantity of rafters, flooring, joists, planks, and miscellaneous articles heaped to within a few feet of the top of the bridge told a portentous story of buildings destroyed . . . There seemed wood enough to build a village.”

Yet this debris was a reduction, not a multiplication. This was the shattered wood of many villages. These pieces could not be put back together to re-make what had been before. The flood waters passed through, clearing in a matter of minutes. The debris settled out, accumulated and briefly wrote its own story upon the valley.

Eventually this extreme flotsam would be cleared away, ruined possessions and abstract building elements alike. Each put beyond use or salvation by the flood waters, and rendered via the act of their disposal (if the owner remained alive to claim them) grounds for a compensation claim against the Sheffield Waterworks Company, the owner of the collapsed dam.

Written by hand onto pulped timber

Geoffrey Amey’s masterful account of the collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam and its aftermath has been my prompt for writing this piece. With all the depictive and forensic skill that a time served local newspaper reporter could gather, Amey’s account of that night first sets the scene – the appearance of the small crack in the 95 feet high dam wall and the staff stood there, pondering it. Next he emotively follows the path of the water as it floods down the valley, meeting the places and people at the moment of their inundation.

Then his book turns to matters of committees, compensation claims and technical appraisal of dam construction. Each stage of his interpretive journey is well paced, and this trajectory echoes something of the modern way of dealing with disasters – that there must first be a human-interest angle, an experiential scale treatment anchored in a tangible narrative of human experience of ‘the event’. But then ‘the event’ must be quantified, aggregated, abstracted and subjected to a dispassionate inquiry – all in order for it to be tamed and become known and understood. And this is primarily achieved via the writing of words, first the accounts of survivors and journalists, thereafter the more remote synoptic processing of the historian or lawyer.

In recent years, the Sheffield Flood of 1864 has attained a (slightly) higher profile within Sheffield via local historians, poets and other memorialists. However, measured in words expended, the inquiry reports, proofs of evidence, subsequent legislation, council minutes and other bureaucratic ‘processing’ of the event still dominates by sheer volume of its flood writing. Yet these texts are largely invisible. They have to be tracked down in the archive by the dogged researcher, dusted off and pulled back into the light of day.

Amey’s book details the ensuing processing of this disaster in thorough detail. Simpson (1996) takes this yet further, situating this dam failure within a jurisprudence of burst reservoirs and consequent litigation and legislating that came to shape the development of what we may here (for convenience) call ‘disaster law’ and the design and regulation of reservoirs across the world. The inquiries, compensation cases, parliamentary debates and forensic technical investigation are important stories, and tell us much of the interplay between ‘events’ and the evolution of law and technology. Events have their human stories, but they also have these structural contributions to expert bodies of knowledge. They run deep, but in a way that quickly decouples such ripples from a clear sense of the origin events that set the evolution in hand in the first place.

One window into this arcane world has been made available by the reproduction of the Sheffield Flood Claims Archive, an on-line search friendly version of the register of over 6000 claims made against the Waterworks Company in the aftermath of the flood (SFCA 2006). The original register, and its itemised ledger of claims for lost possessions, damaged structures, bodily injury and loss of trade has in recent decades provided a fruitful resource for researchers seeking to understand the industrial complextion of the array of small cutlery mills and iron works that inhabited the valley before the flood, and for studying the book-owning patterns and practices of the mid-Victorians. In a manner reminiscent of the ‘sudden’ ruination of Pompeii the archive gives a fascinating insight into the material life of the inhabitants of north western Sheffield, as at the moment of their inundation. Without this disaster no-one would have taken the trouble of surveying the material minutiae of daily life and work that this claims register brought into being. The flood wrote a unique account of possessions and people’s orientation towards (and dependency upon) the objects of their everyday lives.

Written by hand onto land and stone

Amey published his book in 1974 and noted in it that there was a surprising lack of any memorial to the flood and its victims.  At the end of his book, he recounts a trip to the now-empty site of the original dam wall. All he found there were:

“Weather beaten marker stones, about four hundred yards apart on either side of the valley. Bear[ing] the inscription ‘CLOB’ (Centre Line Old Bank)” (203)

Amey could find physical testimony to this disaster only in those modest remnants and in the cemetery headstones of the perished. Since 1974 the position has changed somewhat, although this disaster – one of the largest of the nineteenth century – still has a surprisingly low profile even in the city of its affliction.

A modest memorialisation of the flood has been achieved in recent years via the dogged efforts of local academics (in particular Armitage, 2001) and amateurs, who have circulated their findings, accounts and interpretations of the flood via on-line websites, local history presses and ‘home-made’ initiatives such as an interpretative geocache placed near to Malin Bridge.

But the signposting of the flood’s passage through the valley is still a subtle one. A few days ago I set out to find those memorial traces. The photos below show what I found walking the course of the river from Malin Bridge to Lady’s Bridge in the centre of the city. Over the course of three miles, this was it:  pubs co-opting the history of the flood to add to their ‘authenticity’; a hole where a Victorian plaque recording the water level (10 feet above the pavement) has recently been removed along with the adjacent street sign; cryptic municipal trail symbols probably launched with fanfare on the occasion of an anniversary or the summit of an individual crusade; and most recently a stone memorial, sitting amidst the sleek office buildings of the regenerated ‘riverside’ quarter in the vicinity of Lady’s Bridge.

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This disparate medley of markers sits here for the curious. But they are nodal points, dots left for the walker to join, feint approximations to a sheer mass of water that once hurtled down this valley throwing the city into disarray. How do you capture that? How can the ghost of an inundation be held in the city? The water passed through in horrific fashion, but it passed through quickly. In time the destruction was erased – new buildings and new people came and went.

Life went on, water and all.



Amey, G. (1974) The Collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam, Cassell: London

Armitage, M. (2001) Sheffield Flood website:

Hindle, R. (2006) Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood 1864, Templar Poetry:

ILN (1864)

Simpson, A.W.B. (1996) “Bursting Reservoirs and Victorian Tort Law: Rylands and Horrocks –v- Fletcher (1868)” in Leading Cases in the Common Law, Oxford University Press:  Oxford

SFCA (2006): Sheffield Flood Claims Archive at


Writing lines on landscape: anyone for parkour, bmx, buildering and bunkers?

[a.k.a New uses for old bunkers #20: Danny, champion of the world, rides the crumbling concrete walls of death]

“An existing space may outlive its original purpose and the reason d’etre which determines its forms, functions and structures; it may thus become vacant, and susceptible of being diverted, re-appropriated and put to a use quite different from its initial one.” (Lefebvre 1994)

This blog essay is about the 2010 short film Way Back Home in which the bmx stunt rider Danny MacAskill stages a montage of jumps of jeopardy, perilous rides and brave balancing upon a handful of metal and concrete surfaces on a journey from Edinburgh to his birthplace on the Isle of Skye.


MacAskill’s use of ‘found’ built environment courses for his bmx stunt riding aligns his performance to parkour and to urbex. It is MacAskill’s inclusion of the abandoned South Queensferry coastal naval battery, and other unidentified defensive structures, that qualifies this post for inclusion in the NUFOB series. What I want to examine here is how these bunkers are rendered so anonymous and abstract by MacAskill’s dare devil riding. For he finds yet another way to use old bunkers: purely (and very effectively) as available surfaces for movement.  Indeed, the identity of the ‘ridden-on’ venues is not mentioned in the film, and the places are inter-cut (I identified the abandoned South Queensferry coastal battery via Google Earth, the adjacent distinctive red-box matrix of the Forth (rail) Bridge as my clue). Such details are simply not relevant. It is the generic geometry and texture of these structures that matters, their ride-ability and challenge. Although, watching the film I also felt at times that an ancillary urbex aesthetic was present somewhere in the background  – the military ruins, the reservoir, and some stunning natural scenery beyond.

The film is great, every second a testimony to the tactical (as De Certeau would style it) re-appropriation of these places, and the fullness of their three dimensionality via an anti-gravity ethic, a notion captured in a free-runner quoted by Daskalaki, Stara, & Imas:

“Society looks upon what we do as a bad thing, but they built up this concrete jungle around us. Concrete, roofs, whatever.  And we’re told we can only walk in a certain way, we can only move in a certain way. Mankind has struggled for centuries to be free. The pursuit of parkour for us is a pursuit of freedom. The first big high I got from parkour was when I was sitting on a rooftop in central London. A pigeon sat with us. We were where the birds were and I suddenly felt free.” (2008: 53)

What struck me most was how the ‘stunts’ flow in the film, presenting a graceful balletic performance staged with the Romantic aesthetic of ruins (and quaint island villages) and their serene natural scenery backdrops. This film presents a celebration of the places and movement through them. Here, there is no pause, drum roll, ‘bigging up’ preamble about how hard the stunt will be. There is just the smooth execution of the movement and the onward flow to the next. In the understated achievement of such manoeuvres the truly spectacular is revealed.

Yes, there are choices of framing, camera angle, scene selection, moody (but uplifting) musical score and thus this presentation is as manufactured as any film, but I like it – and it seems very truthful to the parkour ethic of flowing through space, and in doing so seeing structural spaces differently.

This vision – this alternative (and enhanced) reading of these spaces of movement is captured well by Edwards (2012) writing in an article on Parkour website,

“Walls, railings, buildings, barriers…structures of every shape and size cease to be seen as they were intended to be seen, and become instead components of a vast, almost limitless playground that one has hitherto referred to as ‘the city’…everywhere becomes an opportunity for movement, everything a training apparatus…the focus of parkour is the development of the individual , through learning to utilise the body in an effective manner so as not to be held back or hindered by his surroundings…in fact the terrain, the space being re-appropriated, is entirely irrelevant!…”

Edwards helpfully shows us here how the built environment and its structures are read as generic surfaces, as ramps, ledges, drops and landing strips. The history and purposes of the places through which the free runner (or MacAskill) flows is not relevant (except to the extent to which – in visual genres they may be presented as interesting backdrops to action, or places of incursion).

But whilst this kinetic reading of place renders them generic in one sense (eradicating that historic or contextual local knowledge which the archaeologist or architectural enthusiast might be seeking) the recorded act of riding, jumping and balancing seems to trace out the lines and form of the structures that are travelled over. This struck me most in the reservoir section of the film. As MacAskill rides along narrow lines of concrete or metal railings my attention is draw to them, they are mapped out before my eyes by his travel. Just as walking gives a sense of direct knowledge of a place that car travel over the same ground cannot, so MacAskill’s perilous performance upon these structures (for me) manages to communicate this physical essence in some way. He traces these lines for me, and by that tracing I feel that I too know them intimately.

In some strange way I’m reminded of decorating – by painting a room you get to fully know it: because your hand has guided a brush over every square inch. By that close attention and procession across the surface, space is claimed.

MacAskill’s appropriation of the coastal battery ruins as a three dimensional performance space maps out those structures for me, via his physical ‘reading’ of the concrete surfaces of those bunkers.

N.B. My previous post on quarry climbing as writing lines on stone, explores similar issues:

Daskalaki, M., Stara, A. & Imas, M. (2008) ‘The Parkour Organisation: inhabitation of corporate spaces’, Culture & Organization, 14 (1) 49-64.

Edwards, D. (2012) ‘Parkour Visions’ article at

Lefebvre, H. (1994) The Production of Space, Blackwell: London.

Virtually on the ledge at El Camino del Rey – sublime wondering and the wandering semantic.

A few years ago an elderly (but sprightly) uncle sent me a link to Daniel Ahnen’s famous POV (first person point-of-view) video of his perilous wander along the perishing elevated pathway at El Camino del Rey near Malaga, Spain.  I’m not sure why he sent it to me, as he didn’t know about my – at that stage half formed – interest in studying urban exploration and access/liability issues. Perhaps he felt I needed to get out more.

Actually, I think he sent it to all his contacts, perhaps it struck a cord with him, for over the years he had dabbled with home movies, once directing a spoof cliff top rescue with his family one idle Sunday afternoon (artfully turning the Super 8 camera at an angle to turn a gentle slope into the appearance of a steep cliff). Or perhaps it was the affinity with his more recent adventures filming inside new sewer tunnels as a favour for the local fire service. Whatever it was, that email brought Ahnen’s You Tube clip to my attention for the first time.

In this post I want to think about how it is that this walkway (and the act of walking it) is framed as an aesthetic endeavour, and how it is that this place and Ahnen’s video have each been co-opted by a variety of users and viewers. In short, to think about the ‘sublime’ importance of perilous heights as formulated by Immanuel Kant and others and also of ‘the wandering semantic’ as conceptualised by Michel de Certeau.

I will say something of the path itself along the way. But what I assemble here is compiled from other sources. I have never been there and don’t have a stomach for heights. Mine therefore is an indirect – a virtual – engagement with this place and its peril. And that’s my point…


As Ahnen’s video shows, the walkway is a dilapidated narrow concrete path clinging, at height, to the side of steep hillsides via rusty brackets. The pathway was opened in 1905 as a route for workman passing between hydroelectric plants in the area. It was upgraded soon after it was commissioned, in order that King Alfonso could inaugurate the new dams in 1921. El Camino del Rey means ‘the King’s little path’. The path fell into disrepair over the decades that followed, but in that state became a destination of choice for those eager to test their nerve there. Some of those who have ventured there have fallen to their deaths and in 2000 the path was ‘closed’ to the public. It was announced a few years ago that the path is to be comprehensively rebuilt by the local council at a cost of Euro 9million. The plan, therefore being to create a tourist attraction by 2015 – and improve safety there.

Sublime wondering

The notion of the explorer communing with perilous nature is a relatively recent cultural development. It was the Romantics at the turn of the Nineteenth century who popularised the purity, authenticity and enriching power to be found in ‘the wild’. But the poetry of William Wordsworth and his ilk was popularising a notion developed by thinkers during the previous century, a century in which a nostalgia for nature (and a reduced fear of it as ‘other’ and imperfect) came into ascendancy (in the face of the shock waves of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation).

The renaissance had helped to popularise the notion of the beauty of nature – but this was a beauty to be found in calm, ordered and gentle gardens. But in the early 1700s Immanuel Kant deduced that for a notion of beauty to make sense, it needed a counter-part. That a name was needed for uncalm, disordered and perilous natural places. And the name he gave to this was ‘the sublime’ (reviving and adapting long lapsed Ancient Greek concept). For Kant (1764: 46), both the beautiful and the sublime could raise pleasure in the beholder, but in different ways, for “the sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds, the description of a raging storm…arouse enjoyment but with horror.” Thus a new aesthetic was formed, for “Romantics wanted their entire beings to be thrilled with a delicious terror” (Coates, 1998: 133) in the face of ‘the Wild’.

This theme was reflected in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s [1792] influential declaration of Romantic sentiment: “I must have torrents, fir trees, black woods, mountains to climb or descend, and rugged roads with precipices on either side to alarm me”.

But, the Romantics didn’t want to be taken over the edge (either literally or figuratively). The confrontation with the sublime forces of nature needed to be tantalising, but also safe and (as Coates notes) Rousseau caveated his adventurous declaration with precise prescription about how that rugged road should be presented:

“The road has been hedged by a parapet to prevent accidents, and I was thus enabled to contemplate the whole descent, and gain vertigoes at pleasure; for a great part of my amusement in these steep rocks is [that] they cause a giddiness and swimming in my head which I am particularly fond of, provided I am in safety.”

And Edmund Burke [1757: 42], theorising the sublime in similar vein, had declared that “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close.”

Contemporary writers on cultures of extreme adventure like  Ilundáin-Augurruza (2007) and Laviolette (2011) point out that ‘the extreme’ faced in situations such as a walk along the ledge at El Camino del Rey takes matters to the outer limits of the sublime, because it entails a step beyond Rousseau’s carefully installed parapet, but there is still a safety-urge within such activities. Those who walk the pathway and survive are likely to have prepared hard for the task, with intimate awareness of their skills, balance and physical limitations. As Ilundáin-Augurruza (2007: 157) puts it: “The extreme demands that we get as close  to danger as possible while staying right on the edge of safety, barely holding the temptation to take one more step”, a fine balance that Lyng (2005) has conceptualised as ‘edgework’.

Ilundáin-Augurruza also reminds us that the sublime was not meant to denote a restful state of contemplation. That the pathos of the sublime lies in the conflict between imagination and reason when confronted with the ‘terror’ of nature. Rousseau may have prescribed a protective parapet, but this device is there to provide eventual safety (as in something to stop you should the gusting winds at the cliff edge suddenly prove too fierce). To experience the sublime does require some feeling of peril (but wrapped within an ultimate safety net).

This leads me to the virtual dimension. I’m interested in how the El Camino del Rey path walkers plan, perform and report their walk, but I’m also interested in how ‘armchair’ viewers (and others) have used Ahnern’s video to perform their own, safer, performance of the sublime.

Reading through some of the many thousand comments appended to the You Tube page for Ahnern’s video I was struck in particular by the following:


My first reaction was that that seems a rather impolite way to respond to Ahnern’s video (particularly as Ahnern died in the Himalayas in 2011 and – as other comment posters note – his video lives on as a memorial). But then when I acclimatised more to the abrupt register of many of the comments in this forum, it seemed to point to a more profound insight: that to this audience their familiarity with living life through a display screen and the athletic, perilous tropes of ‘computer’ games presented this POV video as unnervingly ‘real’ to the viewer. This was backed up by many posters remarking that Ahnern’s performance reminded them of a particular video game (and many different ones were mentioned). It didn’t matter that the viewers were sitting comfortably at home – in viewing Ahnern’s video they had felt genuinely exposed to the safe-terror of the sublime. And the safety was ‘backgrounded’, even though perfectly safe as viewers, they hadn’t felt safe. They had tasted the sublime.

The wandering semantic

These viewers were reacting in the way that Ahnern intended – in accordance with the ‘rules’ of the sublime. The other thing that struck me as I flitted between web sites trying to find out a little about El Camino del Rey, was how a variety of websites co-opted his video, and/or the pathway each for their own purpose.

I found holiday companies listing the site alongside more sedate ‘things to do’, climbing forums exchanging access information, meditations on the industrial history of this structure and a teaching resource pack designed by the Red Cross. There was also an article from the Daily Mail – marvelling at the checky otherness of people who might feel up to the challenge of this place.

In each of these sites a handful of ‘factoids’ about this place and the video were circulating. Often phrases recurred, suggesting ‘cut and paste’ across sources. Many sites told me that accessing the walkway was “technically unlawful but enforcement is minimal”. Some sites (particularly those written by climbers) pointed out that actually it is accessing the walkway via railway and other tunnels that is unlawful, and that climbing up the cliff face onto the walkway is not prohibited. Whether this is any more true that the more common interpretations of this place’s ‘banned’ status I do not know.

The one voice that was missing was that of the Spanish authorities themselves. Whether this is a language issue (as I only searched and read sites in English I cannot tell). But it emphasised to me that if you wish to prevent use of a dangerous structure that is cherished by an international audience then somehow the reasons for and terms of that prohibition need to be injected into the online community by which this place is ‘known’. There seemed something strange about reading about the perceived weekend only patrol roster of the ‘hi-viz’ guard at the railway tunnel entrance in another country. But the circulation of this practical information is precisely what the internet is both good and bad at.

Reading through the peer produced chatter about this place, I was reminded of Michel de Certeau’s conceptualisation of the ‘wandering semantic’. In his essay, Walking in the city, Michel de Certeau (1984:102) celebrates the “wandering of the semantic produced by masses that make some parts of the city disappear and exaggerate others, distorting it, fragmenting it, and diverting it from its immobile order.” At El Camino del Rey we see the wandering first, as a mundane dam workers’ pathway is ‘re-discovered’ and valorised by climbers and explorers (with the help of sublime sensibilities), then as the idea of this place proliferates with the aid of the internet and its forums accounts of visits, rumours of fatalities, hints of redevelopment and tips on security arrangements circulate freely and internationally, all with little sight of an ‘official’ (or as de Certeau would style it ‘strategic’) version of this place.


Burke, E. [1757] (1958) A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, ed. Boulton, J.T.

Coates, P. (1998) Nature: Western attitudes since ancient times, Polity Press: Cambridge.

De Certeau M, 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life translated by S Rendall (University of California: London)

Ilundáin-Augurruza, J. (2007) “Kant goes skydiving; understanding the extreme by way of the sublime” in McNamee, M. (ed) Philosophy, Risk and Adventure Sports, Routledge: London.

Kant, I. [1764] (1960) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, University of California Press: Berkeley, trans. Goldthwait, J.T.

Laviolette, P. (2010) Extreme Landscapes of Leisure – not a hap-hazardous sport, Ashgate: Farnham.

Lyng, S. (2005) Edgework – the sociology of risk taking, Routledge: London

Rousseau, J.J. [1792](1953) Confessions (Book 4) William Glaisher: London, trans. Cohen, J.M.

Photos used by kind permission of, there are many more from this spectacular set at:

Other links:

And with thanks to Uncle Jim.

What are hilltops for? – a short walk with Michel de Certeau to the land beyond pavements

A family bereavement unexpectedly brought me back to Torquay this week, and gave me the chance to revisit some of my old childhood haunts. This essay describes a walk that I undertook one evening, and presents it as a reflection upon the creative meaning-making practice of walking and exploring edgeland hills and humps.

Here, I will be presenting (and acknowledging) a form of ‘urban exploration’ that nods towards  rambling, local history and psychogeography, but in which incursion and any physical endeavour was incidental and truly pedestrian.

Two views from the park

In the morning I had an hour free between various arrangement-making appointments and set off to reacquaint myself with a much loved childhood park. Strolling the hillside I climbed to a highpoint to take in a sea view that I knew would open up for me there. I’d spent many happy afternoons at the park with school friends searching with equal measures of enthusiasm and self-referential irony for UFOs and for farmers who might have spare buildings that we might be invited to build dens in. We found neither (and never really expected to). I’d also come to this vantage point with my (now recently deceased) grandmother, many times to watch firework displays over the bay.

As I wandered around recalling these happy memories and their embededness in this place, I remembered that if I turned 180 degrees, to look away from the sea and towards the extremely rolling hills that undulated inland from this point, I would see a building on the horizon that had always captivated me, and which possibly is the origin point of the bunkerological urges that have (re) surfaced in my research activities in recent years.

What I searched momentarily for, and then re-found, was a mile-distant hilltop structure comprising a large door, sheltered by dull grey revetments, flanked on either side by steep grassed banks. Standing thus on the far hilltop horizon the structure looks like a decapitated Mayan pyramid crossed with a Neolithic burial mound. To my once young mind, it had always looked like a bunker, specifically a Greenham Common-like hardened cruise missile silo.

As a child I’d been fascinated by this place sitting at the edge of my known world. I had freedom to roam the suburban fields beyond this park, but not as far as this structure – for it sat amidst the dual carriageway of the town’s ring-road, an area beyond the realm of pavements.

But now, as an adult, I was free to make my way there and finally meet this structure.

Beyond the realm of pavements

Planning for my evening expedition, the most obvious route towards this structure was to follow the arterial road out west towards the ring-road. The sun was already low in the sky. Following the road I soon reached the end of pavement, precariously continuing onward on along the verge, past makeshift accident-shrines (the cars were whizzing along this stretch) and toward the din of the dual carriageway.

And soon, there it was. The humped bunker, and its door section, all fenced off from access and replete with security signs, barbed wire and overgrown remnants of previous boundary technologies (walls, ditches, pre-fencing and anti-personnel shrubbery).

By the time of my arrival the sun was low (but still quite strong), the door now in shade. Rubbish conditions for getting a classy urbex shot. But I duly snooped around, clambered up a prickly bank and tried to see any sign of what these structures (for now I could see that there was more than one mound) actually were. But, I couldn’t get through.

As I stumbled back down to the verge I was conscious of being the only person at large in this auto-world. Cars sped past, I avoided eye contact with the humans inside, trying to make my verge wandering as innocuous as possible.

The building and its signs didn’t tell me this, but these ‘bunkers’ are actually covered service reservoirs, supplying the town’s water needs. They are covered because the water has already been treated to drinking water standard and needs to be protected against contamination. But if they are covered why the evident physical concern with preventing unauthorised access at the perimeter?  Is Torquay really at risk of ‘fifth columnists’ with evil intent to poison the water supply?

The uses of hilltops

The reservoir is here, on Torquay’s highest hilltop for simple practical infrastructural reasons. Much as a ‘header’ tank needs to be at the top of a house so that gravity can give the supply sufficient pressure, so a settlement’s water ‘tank’ needs to have the best ‘head’. Just as upland valleys present themselves for catchment reservoirs, high flat hills are the best locations for these service reservoirs, these water bunkers.

Thinking about this imperative got me on to the civic uses of hilltops generally. Across the road I found a cluster of notices directing me to the layered role and civic uses of the surrounding lay-by area. An island of human habitation. This place is variously a picnic zone, a scenic viewpoint, a car boot sale field, fly tipping blackspot, a dog walkers field and a recently added ‘woodland burial’ area. All of these uses (and their attendant signage) compete here for attention and dominance. Inside the burial field I encountered clear signs of tensions between the burial authority and the dog walkers.  Freshly installed barbed wire fencing to the perimeter of the burial field suggested tensions too with the neighbouring farmer. There were many instances of ‘well beaten paths’ abruptly truncated by these fresh, bitter (and sharp) interventions. South Devon’s rich red earth screams out such pathways particularly loudly.

The name of this hilltop is ‘Gallows Gate’. A civic plaque in the picnic area proudly commemorates the places at which the boundaries of four boroughs formerly met, prior to the formation Torquay Borough Council in 1892. The plaque snootily pours scorn on the local folklore that has it that the hilltop is named after an unfortunate sheep rustler who became entangled whilst carrying his stolen sheep over a local gate and lay there hung by his own greed. Instead the sober civic story is that of the site as the historic location of the local ‘hundred’ (ancient council and judicial forum).

The plaque does acknowledge though that gallows were often to be found at the boundary of civic territories, adjacent to well travelled road or trackways and up high – all so that the fateful warning message of the condemned could signal widely the virtue of conformity to the law, and to the locality’s stomach for law enforcement (see Nixon 2012 for a fascinating account of the hill in this context).

Meanwhile, South Devon’s hilltops also presented opportunities for message transmission networks – thus nearby ‘Beacon Hill’, part of an Elizabethan fire based signalling network (and now site of the local TV and police transmitter aerials). Elsewhere in South Devon ‘Telegraph Hill’ speaks to another iteration of hill-signalling – the Admiralty’s Napoleonic semaphone telegraph, based on a system of large moveable wooden panels capable, similar to old railway signals.

This mundane hilltop has a quiet, but key infrastructural  role in the water supply – life giving – cycle. And it, and hills like it, have been co-opted into abstract civic processes of war and peacetime communication, governance and punishment, commerce and leisure.

So, where was Michel de Certeau that day then?

Michel de Certeau died in 1986, so he was only with me in spirit on my walk to Gallows Gate. In his book, The Practice of Everday Life (1984) De Certeau writes of the role of ‘ghosts of the city’ – the power of physical and cultural fragments of the past to irrupt into everyday life and its places. But these ghosts are not confined to the city, indeed – as Dixon ably reminds us – such hilltops were places of execution and burial precisely so that the ghosts could be confined beyond the town (and its pavements).

De Certeau’s book (in the words of the book’s sales blurb):

“Considers the uses to which social representation and modes of social behaviour are put by individuals and groups, and describes the tactics available to the ordinary person  for reclaiming autonomy from the all pervasive forces of commerce, politics and culture [and] understanding  the public meaning of ingeniously defended private meanings”

Whilst de Certeau and I may differ around the edges as the relative scope for the creation and defence of ‘private meanings’ I will park those issues for today. What I wish to draw upon are de Certeau’s optimism about the individual’s ability to enrich life and places via an active approach to the creation of sense and purpose. A key distinction drawn in his book is between the ‘strategic’  approach of systems and their planners in their attempts to order and direct life and place (e.g. making, running and defending reservoirs, roads and burial grounds) versus the subverting, adaptive and lived ‘tactical’ performance of life and place by individuals.

Thus, this hilltop and its infrastructural features – whilst mundane in appearance to conventional aesthetics – can be actively imbued with rich meaning by a variety of individuals and groups through their chosen engagements with, and signification of things at it. Thus a web search tells me of trig point hunters and their collaborative desires to get into the reservoir compound and of the local historian keen to recall the grizzly layers of history of this place. Meanwhile my own visit reveals walking there as memorial enacted alongside dog walkers tracing their individual circuits around the burial field, the short-cut takers and their trails etched into red earth now frustrated by the freshly erected fencing. All of these are tactical engagements with this place.

Indeed, my journey back from Gallows Gate was tactical in this final sense. Having eventually found a way over the fencing I set myself a challenge of finding my way home in as much of a straight line as I could devise from my childhood knowledge of the fields, pathways, lanes and settlements comprising the outskirts of this town. This modest dérive required me to walk perpendicular to the prevailing east-west valleys and their roads and pavements running towards the bay, and the centre of the town. This required active memory work (to recognise and remember the places I walked through) and spatial planning (to join those places together as a route).

These tasks alerted me to something else that de Certeau (and I) have written about: the ‘erotics of knowledge’. The simple joy of mastering a thing, situation or a task through knowledge. As I cast my mind ahead yomping through these half-remembered fields and lanes I experienced momentary waves of satisfaction (and sometimes relief) that I had found a way through to the next stage of my journey home. Any wayfinder can recall this sensation. It’s the feeling of a plan coming together, of a task achieved, of a life presently and actively lived through knowledge and its pragmatic deployment.

Dedicated in loving memory of my grandmother,

Mollie Germain (1918 – 2012).

A Torquay resident all her life, the Twentieth Century delivered the

best and the worst of the world directly to her door.

De Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. S. Rendall, University of California Press, London.

Dixon, K. (2012) ‘Torquay’s Other History: Gallows Gate: Death in the Landscape’, blog essay on, available at:

Trig Pointing UK (n.d.) at