Scree is here

scree end

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

Bennett & Hock (2013) Scree

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

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

Starting out

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

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

What is a hill?

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

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

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

A note on style

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

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

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

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

Style and substance

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

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

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

         the stories of local tramps

                                                                         gravitating to

                                                                                                                        the  Neepsend   brick    works

                                                                                                                        at night, to sleep in the warm

                                                                                                                        shadow  of the massive kilns.


Parkwood Scree: the shimmering hillside tip


For over a decade I’ve seen it every morning from my sitting room. Pulling open the curtains it looms large before me, the Parkwood tip fills my field of view, it is my horizon. It’s a dependable background, not a conventionally pretty scene but a shared familiar vista for thousands of Sheffield houses. for years it was a place known known to me, but at a distance. A canvas on which the seasons would play themselves out on that brutal bald hillside: grey hue in autumn, dusting of snow in wintertime, a brighter tinge to the scrubby green in the spring.

Glimpsed from different vantage points around the city the tip gives up very different profiles to its spectators. Seen from above, from the heights of Crookes, one can look down into the void. From here the tip is wide, muddy, sparsely populated by a handful of diggers. It looks like a child’s sandpit scene: Tonka-land at lunchtime. Viewed from the valley bottom around lower Walkley the hillside has a caldera like form – an erupted earth crater, whose edge-on view entices with what it does not reveal, offset by the off-white scratch marks of the adjacent dry ski slopes.  Approached via the foothills of Neepsend, it is (like any ‘normal’ steep hill) a trickstery succession of false summits.

Parkwood Landfill sounds like the kind of oxymoron dreamt up by a PR company to reposition an eyesore. But the name actually precedes the tip. Old Park Wood in its day was a deer park, a hillside covered by ancient woodland. But even in this era it was a working place – a zone of extraction and resource management. Within their coppiced woodland charcoal burners felled trees roasting it to produce optimum fuel for the iron works in the valley below. Over time this hillside became deforested as industrial exploitation of the woodland resource intensified. Meanwhile mining set in, the adjacent ward of Pittsmoor talking its name from the abundance of iron ore and coal pits being worked there. The sandstone and underlying shale measures in the escarpment yielded workable stone, fireclays and coal. This hillside was gouged successively, and it was filled successively too. Ash wastes from the valley’s gas works, brick works, foundries and its power station were all deposited up on the hillside, with spoil from the mines spread upon the surface too. Holes appeared and were filled. Matter – like the demolition rubble from air raid reconstruction and slum clearance – rose up out of the city. This is how the hillside grew.

The naming of parts

Now, newly built hilltop houses (the resolutely named Standish Gardens) crowd right up to the edge of the tip site, a source of tension for all concerned. An earth bund was recently built to shield these houses from the sight of the active tipping area. The earth for the bund was excavated from a flank of the site. The hole that was created was then named, Cell 4.

Everything is assigned its place and productivity up here on waste mountain. Plans show the phasing of infilling, names are ascribed to amorphous zones of earth, mud, scrub and air. An empty surface is depicted vertically as active in a distinctly more-than-human way. We scratch at the surface and just below it, but our processes of shallow engagement require a wider network of deeper remote surveillance – a monitoring of the geologic through boreholes, a nervous apprehension of pollutant presence and migration through conceptualising the trafficking properties of subterranean space and the synergistic toxic potentialities of the intermixing of waste matter, with all of this to be managed across greater-than-a-single-lifetime durations.

It wasn’t always this way. Time was when tipping was an incidental and truly temporary activity – carried purely in the present, with no regard to the future. It was pure expediency. Matter to be got rid of and a convenient empty surface nearby to accommodate that. Getting rid required some transport engineering (gantries, buckets, loading bays) at the point of departure from the productive site down in the valley, but little at the point of disposal. It was just tipped out in smouldering heaps.  Mapping from the 1930s shows Parkwood’s ash tips as conical piles along the course of the ropeways, acne on the hillside. Progressively the hill’s many quarries came to be in-filled too and later the mapping shows vast curling landforms as the mountain slowly rises through the cumulative action of an uncoordinated array of tips across the hillside:

                  different times;

                                different reasons;

                                                different owners;

                                                                different operators;

                                                                                different matter;

                                                                                                different speeds;

                                                                                                                different effects upon the hill.

The current operators acquired this extensive tipping land in 2002, and a few years later submitted plans to consolidate the planning permission and environmental permits under which the site would complete its operational life. That process spewed a wealth of paperwork: maps, engineering cross sections, geomembrane liner specifications, leachate and gas extraction schemes. Much of this engineering and premediation is mandated by law. I could take you through it if you had the time or the inclination, but I sense that you would soon fall asleep. No, instead let me summarise without the citations and footnotes.

Layers of learning

I spent a number of years advising on waste management law, and in part my career as an environmental lawyer was based upon the sudden eruption of legal control over tipping. Until relatively recently the law had little interest in where rubbish went, as long as it didn’t affect public health. The potential for illness and pestilence from waste matter has pre Biblical provenance. But it was urbanization that increased the attentiveness to the potential hazards of waste disposal. Waste disposal in the heyday of the industrial era had largely been a localised, often ‘on-site’ affair – with much matter consumed nearby in the process of making firm ground for further urbanization (the so-called ‘made ground’ underlying much of our settlements, as our contribution to the anthropocene). But as urban expansion slowed, as industrial waste producers consolidated in scale, as foundation building techniques changed and as the problem of differential settlement became better known (the danger of building on heterogeneous matter)  waste matter increasingly came to be evacuated out of the productive / dwelling areas. Hillsides often seemed the most logical candidate destinations: nearby and too steep for development. So, as with Parkwood, the hillside became the conveniently located tipping space.

The wisdom of uncontrolled tipping on steep hillsides was challenged by the Aberfan disaster of 1966. The tipping of colliery spoil onto the steep hillsides above that South Wales mining village produced vast man-made heaps. Weakened by rain and underlying water courses that drained the mountainside, at 9.15am on Friday, 21st October 1966 one of these heaps failed, slumping down, avalanche like upon the village below. 144 people were killed, 116 of them children inundated at their primary school. After Aberfan conical tipping from aerial ropeways no longer felt a sophisticated evacuation of matter from valley bottoms. From the ensuing inquiries and compensation cases new technical understanding emerged of how heaps behave on hillsides. Specific legislation was enacted to regulate the disposal of mineral spoil, with landform design, stability monitoring and record keeping as central components.

Meanwhile the frugal Victorian approach to material efficiencies (the world of rag and bone men, collectors of night soil, toshers and the like that Henry Mayhew chronicled in London) and the early Twentieth century vogue for waste incineration,  gave way to a vigorous embrace of former quarries as disposal sites. There was a modernist fascination with ‘hole-filling’ a neatness evident in the erasure of urban quarries and brick pits (something I also write about in Scree, with particular focus on the former excavation site at what is now Kilner Way Retail Park and its surrounding 1970s housing estates). English Law is littered with cases arising from subsidence damage suffered by rash 1960s and 1970s new build on such eagerly infilled voids.

And then a bungalow exploded early one morning in Loscoe, Derbyshire. The date was 24 March 1986. The time was 6.30am. We know this precisely because that was the time set by the elderly occupants for the central heating to come on. That morning the boiler ignited, but encountered a build up of methane gas that had seeped into the basement of this bungalow. The gas had come from the nearby rubbish tip, a former brick pit. Up until that point the English approach to tip design was one of ‘dilute and disperse’, put the rubbish in the ground and let its gaseous and liquid emanations seep into the surroundings. But with the new found awareness that stuff could escape from such sites, as liquid, gas, odour or litter and afflict surrounding land and its inhabitants. Tips were no longer simply a matter of physical (land stability) hazards, there was a return to health concerns – but not just those of humans, but also of the wider environment.

This environmental heath focus was accelerated by the Love Canal site in upstate New York, a housing estate and school built on top of a former canal strip infilled with industrial waste by Hooker Chemical Co in the 1950s. Medical studies showed elevated levels of congenital and other disease. The estate was abandoned in 1978, under federal declaration of a State of Emergency. Waste was excavated and an new industry launched – environmental consultants, environmental (as distinct from  planning) regulators, environmental lawyers. A tidal wave of regulation and litigation ensued. Tips would never look (or be looked at) the same.

Then in the late 1990s the European Union jumped in, setting harmonised design standards for landfill engineering. Increasingly landfill became framed around a containment model. Tips would be repositories, sites from which no matter should escape. Waste cells would be lined with impermeable barriers and all liquid and gas would be contained within them, being sucked up into pipes and shunted to technology to manage those arisings. But an anxiety remains amongst the designers. No barrier is truly impermeable, no system is failsafe. Thus perimeter monitoring wells stationed like mute prison camp guards to detect signs of escape.

Figuring tips

In my old job I would trawl through consultants’ fat reports compiled as part of licensing processes. I was always captivated by the images within, massive fold out maps and cross sections of landfill sites. The cross-sections read like a security diagram, layer upon layer of barrier, arrestment and monitoring devices. The maps showed expanses of empty space, blank white zones of future filling. The action in these maps always took place at the periphery, these deserts were edged with thick coloured lines, then rows of enumerated dots in the no-man’s land beyond: the sentinel boreholes guarding against a re-run of Loscoe.

Then there were the hydrogeological monitoring reports – replete with their complex mathematical models predicting migration pathways and outfall timings for hypothetical jail-breaking pollutants. If the modelling showed that any spill would took thousands of years to hit water resources then that was ok, it satisfied a workable notion of ‘impermeable’.

These maps, and their white voids bear little relation to the muddy, undulating three dimensional reality of the actual landforms. Mappers struggle to know how to capture such features, particularly as quarry and tip sites are dynamic, changing local typology day after day in a cycle of opening up voids, then erasing them, each phase unlikely to act upon the face of the earth in a nice neat urban-like linear form. Quarries and tips are all curves, sprinkles, jagged edges on mapping. They also lack a sense of scale, few human reference points (or humans) are there to help ground the observer in time or in space.

The hill’s lone beacon

Parkwood is a rare and extreme case. A void in the centre of a city. A massive tip on a hillside looked upon daily by many thousands of city dwellers. Little that happens there is out of sight, and yet the tip feels apart from the life of the city that feeds it.

On opening my sitting room curtains some mornings I see a lone amber light winking at me from the desolate hillside across the valley. This is the compactor dozer. It drives upon the freshly tipped waste, ploughing it into the day’s plateaux. This is one man against the waste-mass, almost a modern Sisiphys: as soon as the waste is flattened another batch arrives to disrupt and unsmooth the tip-face.

There are probably fewer than 10 members of staff at work at the tip site at any one moment. The driver of the dozer, a wheel wash attendant, a few orderlies on the tip face spotting for oddities in the deposited material, and perhaps a handful of portacabin office workers. That’s it. This is sparce, post-human almost. So much human activity is embodied in the truck loads of waste matter brought to this site each day, yet so few are involved in its interment.

The swelling of this hill requires few humans on the ground, but embodies so much of human action elsewhere, and not just in waste generation but also all of the abstract works to enable the act of tipping itself. If I stare at the hill I see many ghosts, including those of structures, frameworks, arrangements that leave faint traces upon the surface of the land. This hill is the way that it is, this tipping is the way that it is (and not any other way), because of incidents and lessons learnt elsewhere, events distant in space and time but connected via regulatory, ownership, engineering and other immaterial frameworks to the daily conduct of tipping at this place and to the undulating to and fro motion of this compactor, this driver, this flashing red light on the hillside across the valley from my home.


Beck, E.C. (1979) ‘The Love Canal Tragedy’  EPA Journal, US Environmental Protection Agency, January (at:

McLean, I & Johnes, M. (2005) The Aberfan Disaster:  (The Aberfan image is from this site)

Milne, R. (1988) ‘Methane menace seeps to the surface’ The New Scientist, 25 February, 27

Williams, G.M. & Aitkenhead, N. (1991) ‘Lessons from Loscoe: the uncontrolled migration of landfill gas’ Quarterly Journal of Engineering, Geology & Hydrogeology 24 191-207

Photograph: Aberfan after the 1966 tip collapse, from Mclean & Johnes (2005)

Parkwood Scree: the stuff of war, the comfort of rubber

repair inside barrage balloon

Ok, so this week’s blog essay was going to be another extract from Scree, my and Katja Hock’s collaboration about the Parkwood hillside. But in chewing over which snippet to post-up, my mind started wandering and I find myself compelled to overlay rubber, bombs and the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, as I picture the hillside’s landfill site.

Circling the tip

The Parkwood hillside has had municipal tipping taking place upon it for over 100 years. The current operations are due to be concluded within the next decade. As I gaze down upon the as yet unused Cell 4, it appears that beneath the shallow earthen skin of the hill lies a shell of black rubber. The birds are the only occupants at the moment, basking in the warm east facing flanks of the cell’s impermeable liner. The cell looks like a vast garden pond waiting for its hose-water.

The first time I came to the tip I was ‘killing time’. I had dropped off one of my kids at the Ski Centre for a friend’s birthday party. I had 90 minutes to waste and decided to circumnavigate the tip, to see whether that was even possible. It was.

It was a grey, wet day and my dog and I squelched off up the fence line away from the habitation of the then buoyant Ski Centre.  It was a Saturday morning but I saw no-one else on my wander. Reaching the summit I cut through a ravine of dark, dank shale rock, a fissure that felt quite disturbing to encounter. My thoughts turned to an ailing elderly family member and by the time I came upon the open Cell 4 my head was already in a gloomy place. Looking down upon the vast expanse of black liner, patiently awaiting its fill this place took on a special meaning which I still find difficult to shake off.

Here was where I came to terms with my grandmother’s mortality, and it’s a place I now return to as a way of continuing to grasp that sense. Cell 4 has the connotation for me of a grave, waiting to be reunited with its content.

            Ashes to ashes,

                                    dust to dust.

                                                All of it finds its way

                                                                        up onto this hillside.

Behind me there was a strange stone pad, a remnant of an anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Nearby Burngreave had suffered casualties in a Zeppelin raid in the First World War, the dense industrial use of the Don Valley prompted early co-option of the hilltop as an Anti-Aircraft post, and by December 1940 there were heavy AA guns at Shirecliffe. Later the site became a rocket based emplacement (a Z battery) manned by the Home Guard. Rumour has it that this hilltop also flew barrage balloons, extending the effective height of the hill by up to 6,000 feet in defence of the attractive target of the power station, gas works and foundries at the foot of the hill.

Unsurprisingly the war brought matériel (as military matter is known) to the hill. The AA battery brought bunkers, shells, metal and munitions. Enemy bombers brought bullets and bombs. On the night of 11th December 1940 a parachute bomb targeted at the AA battery destroyed houses in nearby Musgrave Terrace. Meanwhile on other occasions bombs and incendiaries fell onto the hillside. 25% of the houses in Parkwood Springs were damaged.

I pause. Most of the above text is taken straight from Scree. But as I recall what I have previously written, I find myself thinking again about the exposed liner of Cell 4.

On our last visit to the hillside, Katja and I stood there, she captivated by the photographic potential of this expanse of stretched blackness. I stood and looked also, as she arranged various shots and angles. The liner was bulbous, shimmering, undulating. It was larger than life, mundane and yet mesmerising. It was also sensuous. I nervously blurted out this impression, fully aware of the stock seedy connection between PVC and erotica. But my gaze wasn’t a lustful one, if there was a body part emerging from the heap of this rubberised mountainside it was a maternal, nurturing bosom.

The assembly room

A similar sensation hit me one evening, towards the end of my career as a lawyer. I’d been working on some projects involving the redevelopment of some former munitions factory sites. A client had passed me a copy of 1942 training film relating to a once secret site and its production processes. I’d had a bad day, week, month. I put the film on to block out the doubts preying in my mind about the suitability of my then career. A woman appeared on screen, arriving for her shift in the assembly room. The camera followed her to the changing area, she started to undress and the camera cut away through ranks of lockers and benches. In the next scene she was clothed, shrouded in what looked like a very heavy rubber apron, gloves and boots. She strode off to the production line.

That image of an ordinary woman from the ’40s, transformed via wartime exigencies to rubberised worker haunts me – set, as it was, in the context of my gloomy mood that evening.

I lived with my grandmother for most of my childhood years. For some of that time my great grandfather also lived with us. I grew up with the accounts of his gassing on Passchendaele Ridge and her close scrapes with air-raids in the Second World War. I came to know these stories by heart, but never tired of hearing them. My own kids would hear them too, and did three days before my Nan died peacefully last Spring. But to them they were just abstract stories from an old lady they occasionally spent a few hours with. I doubt whether they will inculcate a strong, strange association between bombs, rubber and the dignity of female war-labour.

My grandmother had spent her pre-war years working in local shoe-shops, but was steered towards war related work in the run up to D-Day. Each day she would cycle to a motor garage at the other end of town and change into overalls, before sitting down to clean disassembled torpedo boat engine parts day in, day out. It was wartime contingency that placed her in this strange role, she never learnt to drive, had little mechanical interest or knowledge and – after the war – had no cause to ever again coat her hands with grease, oil or to ponder the intricacies of grooves, recesses, and other articulations of these alien mechanical components.

One day a messenger came to the garage, calling her home as a matter of urgency. Arriving there she found a telegram curtly advising her of her husband’s death on 11 June 1944. A machine gun had cut him down amidst the clatter of his encampment’s Sunday breakfast. My Nan resolved that that was the end of her war work. She had given enough. She never went back to the garage, the grease or the engines.

What made rubber matter?

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This rhyme is first recorded in John Gower’s Confesio Amantis of 1390. It playfully attests to the vital role of small things in the success or failure of greater things that – whether we realise it or not – depend upon them. A missing nail could bring down a horse and a kingdom, a defective rubber seal (D ring) brought down the Challenger space shuttle in 1986.

Something similar could have happened during the Second World War with rubber. The rapid advance of the Japanese forces across East Asia had by 1942 withdrawn 90% of the world’s natural rubber production from Allied grasp. Only Ceylon (Sri Lanka) remained under Allied control. The material consequences of rise of Japanese power in the late 1930s had been noticed, and the US authorities had set up an option agreement whereby 500,000 bales of cotton would be traded for 90,000 tons of British Empire rubber in the event of war. However the fall of British Malaya and the Netherlands Indies undermined this careful planning: if Ceylon had fallen to the Japanese the Allies would have been left with access to only two weeks supply (via small sources in Africa, South America and Mexico) for the then burgeoning war economy.

In the face of this the US Office of Economic Warfare took control of rubber supply, stockpiling and rationing and sought to promote an expansion in rubber production in Latin America and in California, and an acceleration of the development of synthetic rubber production (from oil). As the war progressed a plethora of market (and resource) controlling agencies appeared: the Rubber Director, the Rubber Branch, the Rubber Reserve Company and the Rubber Research Board

As a recyclable material rubber also became the subject of collection-drives, gathering up hosepipes, old tires, raincoats and gloves for the war effort. A statement published by the U.S. War Production Board in April 1942 illustrates the sense of urgency behind the attempts to accelerate the extraction of material and its co-option into the production of matériel:

“The rubber situation is also critical.  In spite of the recent rubber drive, there is a continuing need for large quantities of scrap rubber.  We are collecting every possible pound from the factories, arsenals and shipyards; we are speeding up the flow of material from automobile graveyards; we are tearing up abandoned railroad tracks and bridges, but unless we dig out an additional 6,000,000 tons of steel and great quantities of rubber, copper, brass, zinc and tin, our boys may not get all the fighting weapons they need in time…  Even one old shovel will help make 4 hand grenades.”

Bringing things to the surface

My grandmother never talked about her bike and the rubber tyres on which she rode to and from the garage. By the time that I met her that portion of her wartime stories had faded back into the mundane, unnoticed, layer of ‘everyday items’, yet at the time the near-impossibility of obtaining a replacement tyre or inner tube would have been a pressing concern, with strategies devised to ‘make do and mend’, to elongate the working life of everyday components made of this material. In the US restrictions on mileage (and fuel allowances) were targeted both at preserving oil resources, and the effective life of tires.


Wartime brings a strange focus to the existence and flow of commodities, and of their centrality within the greater, more complex and/or more evident assemblages of which they are seemingly but a small part. But wartime rationing and redirection of labour jumbles up these priorities, expectations and familiarities. Mundane materials like rubber become foregrounded, and our material dependencies – and their vulnerabilities – are revealed, and both my grandmother and I come to encounter those materials with an intimacy and an association that might otherwise have never come upon us.



Wendt, P. (1947) ‘The Control of Rubber in World War II’ The Southern Economic Journal, XIII (3) 203-227

Tyre/Tire poster –

Cecil Beaton barrage balloon picture –

Parkwood Scree: making matter mountain


This essay is an early draft of what is likely to be the closing piece in my and Katja Hock’s photography and text collaboration exploring the Upper Don valley escarpment in northern Sheffield. The preceding pieces will reflect on the areas of scrub, scar and dross-scape that we visited. This piece however steps back a little from the act of walking this terrain, and instead recounts one portion of it (the area of Parkwood / Shirecliffe) through the experiences of others as found by me on various community forum sites.

This hill is not a mountain, at 175m (575 feet) at its highest point it falls short on that score. But it still looms over the valley beneath it. The occupants of a wide plain of valley houses look up at this vast seemingly empty hillside, a dull swathe of scrub and broken earth, a wasteland as big as London’s Hyde Park. In what follows, using the online testimonies of others, I will show how this hillside is actually rich in both matter and meaning, for it is both an extraction space and a projection space: a venue for visceral engagement with the stuff of this hill and a canvass for diverse practices of meaning making.

Working with scree

This hill is partly made by people, and their lives in turn are partly shaped by their interaction with it. The place names in this area attest to the longstanding human engagement with this hillside, and of the matter that can be made to matter here – Neepsend, derived from Hnip Old English for steep hill. Shirecliffe, a bright or gleaming steep hillside in old English, and two ancient remnant woodlands Rawson Spring and Scraith Wood, the latter echoing Screith, a  boulder-strewn slope in Old Norse.

This place has a long history of systematic exploitation of its natural resources. In 1392 Sir Thomas de Mounteney was given a licence by King Richard II to make a deer park on this hillside, a woodland area to be farmed for venison, hares, rabbits, game birds, fish in fishponds, plus cattle and sheep in launds, cleared heath/pasture areas. By the end of 16th century the park had been reoriented towards coppicing, in particular by charcoal burners and 18th century records show sophisticated woodland management here, including bark harvesting from oak trees to make a liquor from which leather was tanned, alongside increasing timber felling  to build and power the water mills down in the Don valley.

But still, much of the hillside remained wooded, with the Old Park Wood, described by Joseph Hunter in 1819 as “beautifully clothed with a forest verdue…the ground declining to the River Don” whilst John Holland could still write in 1836 of its “sylvan ornament of the neighbourhood of Sheffield”. But as industrialization took firm hold down in the valley, deforestation increased at an increasingly aggressive pace – partly due to demand for timber and charcoal to build and power the furnaces, but also to clear space for rock quarrying, brick pits and ganister mining. By the early 20th century most of the woodland at the centre of the site had fallen, with roads and mineral tramways appearing on the hillside. But not all work was productive, with rumor of a parish-pit type scheme in operation near the then present piggeries, a field pointlessly dug over backwards and forwards in return for parish assistance.

The hill’s ganister mine operated between 1936 and 1963, its 28 miners and a pit pony named Tommy extracting 200 tons of the silica rich hard rock and 40 tons of coal each week. The coal went down the hill to the power station and the ganister was processed into refractory linings for local furnaces. By 1954 this drift mine stretched half a mile into the hillside, capillaries reaching out within the mountain in search of this locally valuable rock. Stories abound of the miners accidentally driving their tunnels into the daylight of the railway embankment or the allotments, and then hastily filling the surface eruption before anyone noticed, like an errant mole, or a wayward escape committee. Upon closure of the mine, Tommy the pony, now blind after a lifetime underground, was put out to pasture on the hillside.

The mining and quarrying up on this hillside also created many intentional holes and spoil banks, and in the early 20th century the landowner the Duke of Norfolk, granted tipping rights to Neepsend power station for the disposal of ash from the power station upon the hillside, a system of gantries, aerial ropeways and buckets carrying the hot ash up the hillside, and then tipping it in smouldering heaps.  Mapping from the 1930s shows these tips as conical piles along the course of the ropeways, acne on the hillside. Progressively the hill’s many quarries came to be in-filled too and the mapping shows vast curling landforms as the hillside slowly rose.

But this was not the first use of the hillside for disposal of matter. That accolade went to burial of the dead, for Wardsend cemetery had opened in 1857, interring 20,000 of Sheffield’s citizens in the lower reaches of the hillside over the following 120 years.

The present tipping of municipal waste by Viridor plc will conclude by 2020 and the plan is then to restore the tip’s presently occupied central area to country park use. Attempts to restore previous portions of the site have faced mixed fortunes. Nature (in its scrub form at least) has already returned to the former Parkwood Springs housing settlement. Whilst the gouged hillside zone of the former Neepsend Brickpit (closed 1978) is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest, to protect   the flora and geology of its exposed outcrops of the Lower Coal Measures, formed amidst Carboniferous sandstone 290 – 354 million years ago when the British Isles were in an equatorial location, swathed in tropical forest.

The stuff brought onto this hillside has shaped the way that nature ‘returns’ here. Japanese knotweed and Himalayan Balsam are prevalent along the river, whilst upland heather is spreading in the dry acid conditions of the ash tipped zone, in place of the woodland bluebells for which Old Park Woods was renowned, where they once grew now lies 30 feet under graphite dust tipped from the former Union Carbide factory down in the valley.

Living with scree

In reading through reminiscences of the area on the local community bulletin-board, Sheffield Forum, what has struck me most is how residents of this part of Sheffield remember their material encounters with this place – they don’t just write about where they went on the hillside, but also what they did there and the significant role given to stuff found and used there. This recollection captures the point well:

The best den I ever saw was made by best pal … it was in the old derelict allotments at Parkwood. It was built on the foundations of an old bombed in greenhouse. He obtained bricks, timber, sheeting and old glass window frames from the tip.”

In their accounts, this hillside is recalled as a place of play, exploration and abundance of material for co-option. The stories tell of fossil hunting amidst the ganister mine’s shale heap, gathering tadpoles from the quarry ponds, rabbiting, pilfering coal, gathering scrap, searching out discarded knives from the local bowie knife factory, making braziers from gathered clay in which to burn “oil wop” (fabric soaked in oil) given to kids by the local foundry workers, digging bullets out of the firing range embankment, hunting for dynamite in the quarries, gathering bricks and stones as ammunition for the hill’s so-called ‘brick wars’ – in a battlespace betwixt rival gang territories. They also tell of co-option of the typography of the hillside – the slope for sledging, rolling old tyres, riding bikes down perilous courses. The river for rafting using found materials: crates, drums.

Then there are the tales of the hillside’s structures – whether derelict or active – being co-opted into new playful possibilities, the quarries, the mine, the engine shed and of the ruins of the hilltop anti-aircraft battery’s bunkers being a place of deep dark exploration and optimistic rooftop leaps.

It is particularly notable in the following reminiscence how the hillside is remembered as simultaneously abject, and a delight:

“The sulphur from the Electricity Power Station used to smell unpleasant, rot the curtains and kill privet hedges. As children we used to climb the massive spoil heaps of black ash at the Power Station, jump into the empty buckets going up the hillside and jump off at the next heap.”

It is also interesting to look at how the forum posts engage with the past and present ‘state’ of the hillside. The deforestation is noted and frequently linked to a recurrent fable of workers in the 1926 General Strike harvesting the central woods. Given the amount of trees that disappear from the map between the 1920s and 1930s this suggests an unfeasibly intensive locust swarm of felling during the nine day strike and its aftermath. But the story resonates, through the popular accounts of this hill. It is part of its history, whether true or not. The effect is to ennoble the felling – oddly keying into the dignity of labour, rather than the avarice of landowners.

Likewise, the ganister mine and the hill’s quarries and brickpits attract a positive recollection, and even the tipping is seen as an inevitable part of a ‘natural history’ of this site. That is not to suggest that the present tip is without its opponents – there are action groups, concerned residents and a swirl of anxieties about what may have been tipped. Interestingly though the arrival of suppositional stories about the tipping of radioactive waste from Windscale is challenged by forum elders. As one commentator notes: there is a tension between drawing attention to the tip as a way of opposing expansion (and/or pressing for its early closure) and a risk of adding to blight for properties and the poor fortunes of the area by foregrounding the tip and its conjectured hazards.

This hill is also haunted by a folktale of bodysnatching at Wardsend Cemetery. The truth is slightly more prosaic but the more emotive version continues to circulate. In 1862 a labourer living above the cemetery’s coach house complained of unpleasant odour. His complaint triggered a riotious assembly at the cemetery and the destruction of the cemetery manager’s house by the angry mob. The odour trail had revealed dissected corpses buried in an unmarked grave. The manager and the local vicar were prosecuted for falsifying of burial records and sentenced to brief imprisonment. The court had found that the bodies had come from the local workhouse, they had been lawfully dissected but re-interred without coffins in the mass grave. As it turned out this was more a case of fraud (the manager re-selling grave space) than the supply of bodies from the cemetery for illegal dissection.

What haunts the forums (and oddly echoes the dominant conventions of psychogeography and urban exploration) is a fascination with the seemingly mundane, and a desire to re-energise it with (in the case of the forums) reminiscence and attesting to the practical engagement with this place and its matter. Indeed such rumination was in play even before the mountain was stripped of its trees. In 1836 John Holland stood at the foothills of the hill and its verdant vista. But his attention was drawn first to two (then state of the art) foundries beside the Don: Old Rolling Mill and Club Flour Mill. Reflecting on the strange lure of these structures, Holland signaled a proto-urbex sensibility:

“at no great distance from each other, stand two buildings, both in reverse of elegant certainty, but respectively interesting to a person who is apt to make visible objects, not always in themselves striking, the nuclei of thoughts and feelings depending in a peculiar manner on the association of ideas”

Meanwhile in 1936 George Orwell stood at the same spot, figuring it in his diary rather differently (but still foregrounding a mundane structure in order to make his point):

In front, across the piece of waste ground, a cubical building of dingy red and yellow brick, with the sign, ‘John Grocock, Haulage Contractor’. Other memories of Sheffield: stone walls blackened by smoke, a shallow river yellow with chemicals, serrated flames, like circular saws, coming out from the cowls of the foundry chimneys, thump and scream of steam hammers (the iron seems to scream under the blow), smell of sulphur, yellow clay….”

On the Sheffield History Forum site I find research striving to trace Mr Grocock, as if to bring his cubical building of dingy red and yellow brick into the foreground. The research finds the Grococks to have been a dynasty of fruiterers in this area, that business spawning – via coal and furniture shipments – a more generalised transportation services in due course. The researcher trawls trade directories to map this dynasty.

This reassembly process plays itself out with a multiple cast of participants on Sheffield Forum, in the collaborative reconstruction of the ‘lost’ community of Parkwood Springs. In reminiscence, posters to this site swap names, dates of remembered residents, at times working towards clarification of misremembered points (establishing the ownership history of the local chip shop for example), at others swapping colourful stories at others simply telling where their lives took them after they left Parkwood Springs, an enclave of around 200 back to backs and houses with small back yards, five shops, two pubs, a chapel and a windswept playground, an

“island village flanked by the Manchester railway, quarries, earthworks and a vast tipping area On all sides the land rises so steeply that the only entry by road is through steelworks under a low, narrow railway bridge” (Sheffield Star 1970).

For George Orwell (he stayed here, with Gilbert and Kate Searle in 154 Wallace Road, in 2-4 March 1936 as part of his research for The Road to Wigan Pier) it was habitation at the limit of habitability. With a southerner’s disdainful eye, Orwell noted the offset cobbles needed to give grip to horses and the wobble of womens’ bottoms as they pushed prams up the (to his eye) unfeasible slopes of Parkwood Springs’ streets.

By the early 1970s this area was depopulated. The houses boarded up and this streetscape erased by demolition in 1977. The roadways remain vaguely evident on maps and on the ground but this settlement remains firmly etched in the minds of those who once lived or visited here.

We are scree

To wander this hillside attentively by foot or via internet forums, alerts us to the richness of this place’s history, use and significance for those attached to it. If we look closely we find plenty of material on and about this hillside. It is not empty, it is not meaningless. This hillside is riddled with scree, both matter strewn across this hillside, AND the memories and meaning making actively projected onto this surface and its matter.

Select sources (future publication will list them in more detail):

Holland, J. (1836) The Tour of the Don, extempore sketches Made During A Pedestrian Ramble Along The Banks Of That River, And Its Principal Tributaries. The Sheffield Mercury: Sheffield.

Orwell, G. (1984) ‘The Road to Wigan Pier Diary’ – Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1: An Age Like This 1920-1940, Penguin Books: Harmondsworth

Jones, M & Jones, J (n.d.) Parkwood Springs – from Deer Park to Country Park?, Sheffield City Council: Sheffield (available via:

Sheffield History Forum:

Sheffield Forum

Tracework – a forthcoming collaboration with Katja Hock


I’m very pleased to announce that photographer Katja Hock and I are planning to collaborate on some ‘tracework’ projects. Each of us are interested in tracing ‘absent presences’ in our own disciplines and practices and we thought it would be interesting to have a go at hunting these ‘ghosts of place’ in parallel.

Our first collaboration is likely to centre around the (almost) invisible former quarries and brickpits of northern Sheffield. The surrounding city was built from these small, local sources of brick and stone. But these workings are now all but erased – partly because extraction creates emptiness, and partly through subsequent uses of these resultant voids, for many of these holes were subsequently infilled by the city’s waste and rubble. In the municipal valleyside recreation grounds, retail parks and not-quite natural looking cliff faces we will hunt our quarry.

For me the project will be an interesting adjunct to my currently ongoing study of how abandoned quarries are perceived by their owners and recreational users. It will also give me an opportunity to revive and reflect upon some professional skills that I once used daily as a jobbing environmental lawyer in order to ‘know’ such places as these. For the physical past of deceptively now-flat sites matters greatly in a development context. To the ‘manager’ maps, geological reports and trade directories shed valuable light on the hidden features – the sometimes problematic legacy left by former use. Meanwhile legal documents create an invisible layer of obligation, restriction and risk allocation for these places. I will also hunt others’ traces and readings of these places – the workers, the techniques, the dependencies and the material significance of these ‘local’ sites.

We will seek to depict such traces, each in our own way. To notice the unnoticed. To counterpoint artistic and managerial representations. We will each explore the liminality of these places – neither natural nor entirely man-made; neither indoor nor truly outdoor; neither populated nor entirely unpopulated; neither present nor entirely absent.

Katja is a senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University and characterises her approach thus:

“As a practising artist I am interested in the relationship between what is shown and what might only be suggested in the photograph. I explore how photography, in its representation of architectural space and landscape, frames and refers both to human presence and to transience. Focusing on institutional sites and woodlands, my photographs do not show any people, leaving only the memory of activity. Through this apparent emptiness I intend to prompt the viewer to reflect on their experiences with such sites, allowing space for the viewer’s imagination to enter the photographic field.”

The pictures below are from Katja’s doctoral project, Hospital and are reproduced by permission:

Setting off down Quarry Lane: early thoughts on my forthcoming study of access management to ubiquitous voids

This blog gives a glimpse of my forthcoming study of how current and former quarry sites are physically managed from the point of view of their owner’s liability concerns about recreational users.

Noticing quarries

“If you went too near the edge of the chalk pit the ground would give way. Barney had been told that often enough. Everybody told him…Barney had a feeling, somewhere in his middle, that it was probably true…[but] today was one of those grey days when there was nothing to do, nothing to play, and nowhere to go. Except the chalk pit. The dump.  Barney got through the rickety fence and went to the edge of the pit. This had been the side of the hill once…men had come to dig away chalk and left this huge hole in the earth…and then they got tired of digging, or somebody had told them to stop before they dug away all the hill. And now they didn’t know what to do with this empty hole and they were trying to fill it up again. Anything people didn’t want they threw into the bottom of the pit.” (from the opening scene from Clive King’s children’s story Stig of the Dump (1993) first published in 1963.)

According to there are 64 “Quarry Lanes” across the length and breadth of the UK. To be honest, I thought there would be more. Look closely at any Ordnance Survey map and you will find recorded active and disused quarries, chalk, gravel & brick pits, adits and deep mineworkings scattered liberally across the landscape from remote rural, to coastal to urban areas.

Quarries made cities

Our cities were built from these mineral excavations. In my adopted home city of Sheffield, a 1905 map of the urban/rural fringe of the city shows eight active quarries within a one square mile sample area at the brink of the city. Many of these quarries are no longer apparent in my local landscape, but some still are, either as fenced off, abandoned  ‘broken’ zones, or as commons and playing fields littered with the occasional discarded off-spec stone slab or the sudden precipice of the quarry’s former ‘highwall’. Sheffield, at the gateway to the Peak District and its world-class (to climbers and millers) gritstone and limestone outcrops may have slightly more of these features than normal, but only slightly.

Meanwhile, a 1903 map of the city centre shows me two brick works (and attendant clay pits) and two quarries within what was then already a very densely urbanised area. Many of such historic workings have since been infilled as convenient sites for waste disposal and/or developed into out of town shopping centres, like Bluewater in Kent (a former chalk quarry). But that erasure is becoming less common – as the UK’s waste disposal habits are wrenched away from landfill by the EU Landfill Directive 1999 (99/31/EU). But quarries are ‘wasting assets’. They are valuable during their working lives, but often fail to find after-uses due to awkward geology, contamination or location. Operators may in the future (as in the past) struggle to find the financial resources, or inclination to erase the ‘quarry-ness’ of the site. With the decline in waste-disposal as afteruse, we may see more quarry sites ‘restored’ in ways that preserve their man-made voids and precipices.

Studying quarry management

I’m in the early stages of a research project that will foreground mineral voids (both abandoned and active) and seek to examine how the owners and managers of those sites perceive and manage them. In particular, I want to explore the relationship between the managers’ perceptions of liabilities and what the law may require of them in terms of safety and site access control, and the embodied, physical arrangement of these places.

The Occupiers Liability Acts of 1957 and 1984, which in turn impose certain duties of care towards invited visitors and trespassers, hold occupiers responsible for providing (in summary) a level of safety that is ‘reasonable in the circumstances’. I’m interested in how quarry owners work out, on a day to day level, what is reasonable provision, and what experiences and networks help shape the practical interpretation and implementation of what the law (in abstract) seeks.

I also want to examine the practical effect (if any) of the distinctions that the law draws between the level of safety provision required for ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ structures. Quarries seem to be a hybrid. Quarrying creates man-made cliffs and man-made lakes. Does the law require more careful custodianship of such facsimile cliffs and lakes even if the level of danger posed by them is the same as their equivalents formed by glaciation or other natural processes? If so, how does the law explain this distinction? And what do the quarry managers think about it?

Studying quarry owners & recreational access

My study will look at the interaction between physical site management practices (site access rules, security, fencing, signage, landscaping) and owners’ and managers’ interpretations of their legal duties towards those visiting quarries with or without their permission.

Such visitors might include: dog walkers, ramblers, bird watchers, fell runners, archaeologists, geologists, fossil hunters, Dr Who fans, film makers, pagans, school parties, climbers, free swimmers, tomb stoners, divers, climbers, abseilers, pot-holers, mountain bikers, trail bikers, quad bikers, children at play, urban explorers, protestors, vandals, fly-tippers, thieves and/or terrorists…

My study will seek to understand how quarry owners and managers find, frame and circulate practical ways of implementing an ‘acceptable’ level of safety provision for such ‘visitors’, how residual risks are regarded, whether notions of blame and participant-responsibility are invoked, and how their attitudes and practices differ across the diverse range of individuals and groups who might wish to gain access to their sites.

I’m anticipating that the study will take about three years (I’m doing this in an occasional basis), with the following phases and outputs:

  • Phase 1 – Spring 2012 to Summer 2015– desk study review of case law, legislation, existing research, accident data.
  • Phase 2 – Summer 2012 – case study review of climb sites in former quarries owned or managed by the British Mountaineering Council.
  • Phase 3 – Autumn 2013 to Summer 2015 – engagement with a diversity of owners and managers of active and disused quarries across the UK, reporting thereafter.

The project is ‘non-aligned’ in the sense that it seeks to encourage engagement from across the stakeholder groups. It is grounded in my own practical experience of having advised mine, quarry and landfill site owners upon the self-evident physical dangers that exist on these sites when I was a practicing environmental lawyer, together with my experiences over the last five years in researching the motives and methods of a variety of enthusiast groups seeking access to similar  ‘interesting’ (but also potentially dangerous) places.

Therefore it is a continuation of my work on case-study based investigation of the role of ‘interpretive communities’ in framing how the law’s requirement for a ‘reasonable’ level of safety provision is constructed locally and collaboratively. My previous studies have explored this in the following situations:

  • Cemetery managers, the bereaved and gravestone stability testing
  • Tree owners and the contentious evolution of tree safety inspection standards
  • Countryside landowners’ anxieties about recreational access
  • The role of tradition and inherited signage in the management of a public house’s grounds
  • The evolution of judges’ attitudes towards child trespassers over the last 100 years
  • The motives and patterns of metal theft inflicted upon premises and infrastructure
  • The role of practical risk-benefit appraisal of derelict site management by built environment students
  • The means, motives and methods of urban explorers (with particular reference to abandoned Royal Observer Corps monitoring bunkers)

Details of these studies and of my collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders are available at

I am not in a position to publically name the Government agencies, mining and quarrying and industrial companies that I advised on quarry related matters whilst working at Morgan Cole (1990-2000) or Nabarro Nathanson (2000-2007), suffice to say that during my career in practice as an environmental lawyer I had involvement in coal privatisation, appraisal of quarry sites in receivership, selling operational mines and waste sites, advising on quarry and landfill operation and after-use schemes and on mining subsidence issues.

Organisations I have collaborated with since joining Sheffield Hallam University in 2007 have included the Countryside Recreation Network (specifically the Forestry Commission, Sport Northern Ireland and Scottish Natural Heritage); the Arboricultural Association; the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; the Chartered Institute of Wastes Management; the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the British Mountaineering Council.

Why am I blogging this now?

This is an initial announcement, aimed at starting to create a profile for this project (and to clarify its aim). In due course I will be seeking out stakeholders in the hope that they will be prepared to share their views (and some of their sites) with me (particularly at Phase 3). All expressions of interest, curiosity or concern can be directed to me at

My study is relatively small scale in aim and design. It will take 18 to 24 months because I will be undertaking it alongside my ‘day job’ teaching built environment law to construction, surveying and environmental management students at Sheffield Hallam University.