People accessing “In Search of Unusual Destinations” have noticed that there are times when I feel drawn to places that are a little odd and not necessarily pretty, but which, nonetheless, have an appeal, perhaps even a beauty, all of their own. I have been found out. Hence this longer-than-usual post to explain my fascination with such places.
I live in an area of the United Kingdom that once formed part of County Durham (which, long ago, was called the Land of the Prince Bishops). The 1951 County Durham Development Plan classified villages and small towns as an A, B, C or D settlement. Category D settlements were usually coal-mining villages where it was known that mining would eventually conclude. In such settlements, no further development would be permitted and property would be acquired and demolished. The local inhabitants would be relocated to new housing elsewhere. 114 category D settlements were listed in the 1951 plan, but the figure rose to 121 in the revised County Durham Development Plan of 1964. Only three settlements were completely demolished by 1969, and in 1977 the County Council category D policy officially ended.
The end of the policy in 1977 did not mean that category D settlements no longer suffered neglect. Neglect persisted because of the rapid contraction of coal-mining and other industries, and because of under-investment in amenities and resources to meet the needs and aspirations of the local people. As you can imagine, many category D settlements, in common with a large number of other settlements across the industrial heartlands of the United Kingdom, became mere shadows of their former selves, so much so that even local people began to allege that they lived in the land that time forgot.
Of course, it goes without saying that just about every other country on the planet has had problems associated with the decline, whether terminal or otherwise, of once-thriving settlements. A book entitled “Days of Destruction and Revolt” (2012) by Hedges and Sacco provides an insight into the phenomenon in the USA, where places similar to the category D settlements are known as sacrifice zones, a term which has been in use for about forty years. Hedges and Sacco describe sacrifice zones in the following way. A sacrifice zone has “been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress and technological advancement.“ Sacrifice zones exist “where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit.” Their remarkable book focuses on four such zones, Pine Ridge in South Dakota, Camden in New Jersey, Welch in West Virginia and Immokalee in Florida.
I confess: I find such places endlessly fascinating and, on trips from home, feel drawn to them wherever they may be encountered (in fact, my work in North-East England takes me to many one-time category D settlements, and settlements outside County Durham just as damaged by the effects of economic decline). I find decay and dereliction and blighted environments, but also many remarkable people who live with dignity and optimism despite all the barriers that deny them fairness and justice. I also find views, buildings, unexpected juxtapositions, temporary structures, pasture, muddy water, peeling paintwork and snow under grey skies that possess considerable beauty, the odds notwithstanding.
However, there is a related, but slightly different, environment that also appeals to me, an environment best described by perhaps the UK’s foremost contemporary analyst of place, Jonathan Meades. Meades feels drawn to those parts of place he calls edgelands. In his recent collection of articles, occasional pieces and scripts entitled “Museum without Walls” (2012), Meades says that edgelands are “where underfed horses freeze between interchanges and reservoirs, sewage outfalls, trails of rusty dereliction.” He confesses to “a fondness for pitted former rolling stock dumped in fields and for abandoned filling stations.” Later in the same book he says that “these scapes with their breeze-block piggeries are precious. Corrugated iron – which is to be found in abundance (in edgelands) – was, a century ago, the material of the future. Sheds and byres built of it are as deserving of protection as limestone dovecotes and cob walls. Britain’s edgelands – the ungainly epithet is planning-speak – are disappearing fast. They are unloved save by topophiliac perverts and amateurs of the ad-hoc, among whom, I obviously include myself.” I guess the last sentence also says who/what I am!
In early 2013, BBC4 broadcast “Jonathan Meades: the joy of Essex”. This astounding portrait of the much-derided county of Essex has segments devoted to edgelands. Watch the programme and you will instantly realize why edgelands, sacrifice zones, category D settlements and other rundown, marginal or shunned places deserve to be taken more seriously. I guess it is time to book a flight to Detroit.
Below are a few photos of localities which, in my estimation at least, qualify as edgelands, sacrifice zones or rundown, marginal or shunned places. The photos necessarily lack prettiness, something which, in common with Meades, I tend to distrust. But it is just possible that some of the photos have a raw and unanticipated beauty.
The following photos are of Darlington, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Shiremoor, South Bank, Sunderland (all in North-East England), Erzincan, Erzurum, Gole, Kayseri (all in Turkey), Malaga (Spain) and a small town in Arkansas (USA) between Van Buren and Little Rock. I have a feeling a similar post will materialize in the fullness of time, provided people respond positively to this one.