‘‘MEMORY TERRAIN’’: WALKING, REMEMBERING, REPRESENTING THE ABANDONED RAILWAY LINES OF PARIS AND YORKSHIRE

 

The former coal fields of South Yorkshire are threaded through with thick skeins of disused and dismantled mineral lines. Connecting ironworks and collieries that have long since been erased from the landscape, replaced by retail parks, wildlife reserves and housing estates, these lines are now fragmented and overgrown. Only track beds, spoil heaps, the occasional run of sleepers and narrow corridors of skinny silver birch point to what was once here. Some of the lines have been co-opted into the newly fashioned, post-industrial landscape, transformed into heritage lines and rail trails for locals and tourists. Others, such as the Roundwood and Dalton colliery railway (the history of which is recounted by Thomas Spain elsewhere in this book), slipped through the net of the extensive re-wilding and redevelopment initiatives that followed the pit closures. They linger, instead, as stubborn ribbons of ‘the wrong kind of landscape’ (Matless 26), winding slivers of scrub that exert an inexorable pull on fly tippers, quad bikers and kids with airguns and spray paint cans. Buddleia and bramble provide scant cover for all the rubbish that’s discarded here. But it’s this marginality that makes the old colliery lines so valuable and interesting: not from a nostalgia or urban exploration perspective, but because they have the potential to get us thinking more critically about the status of the past in the post-industrial present.

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Andrew Conroy, Uncoupled, 2018.

There’s an extensive and well-known body of literature in French about the railways. The great nineteenth-century novelists spoke at length about the transformations wrought by the railways on landscape, labour and industry, as well as recording all the excitement and the great shifts in perception and sociality that the advent of rail travel engendered. In Émile Zola’s La Bête humaine (1890), the steam engine is a ‘prodigious and irresistible force that naught could now stay’ (Zola 410). Locomotives, ‘in a deafening rush of scalding steam’ (Zola 212), course through the landscape,borne away in the same breath that brought them. Not one had even slackened speed. They saw them dash ahead, fade in the distance, disappear, before they had time to learn anything about them. The whole world filed past; the human multitude carried along full steam, without them having knowledge of aught else than faces caught sight of in a flash – faces they were never more to set eyes on… (Zola 216)

The logistical complexity of the railways appears barely to contain these ‘metal muscles’ (Zola 212):

Trains flew along without intermission, in the increasing darkness, over the complicated network of rails, threading their way through lines of carriages standing motionless on the sidings. One started for Argenteuil, another for Saint Germain. A very long train arrived from Cherbourg. Signals succeeded one another, accompanied by whistles and blasts of the horn. Lights appeared on every side, one by one: red, green, yellow, white. There seemed to be a regular confusion at this troubled hour when day glides into night and it looked as if a tremendous smash would ensue. But everything passed on. The trains brushed by each other, detaching themselves from the entanglement… (Zola 25)

It’s not insignificant that Marcel Proust chooses to open the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu – a lengthy meditation on modernity, memory, consciousness and perception – with a reverie of rail travel. Here, the eponymous, insomniac narrator lies awake in his bed, listening to the distant whistles of trains and visualising

the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home. (Proust 7-8)

For both Zola and Proust, the railways are about the jolt of the unfamiliar. Each author, despite their differences in tone, conveys the sensorial turbulence produced by what Trachtenberg describes as the railways’ capacity to produce ‘novel experiences – of self, of fellow-travelers, of landscape (now seen as swiftly-passing panorama), of space and time’ (Schivelbusch xiv). The new railway technologies of the 19th century, he asserts, gave form to nothing less than a ‘revolutionary rupture with past forms of experience, of social order, of human relation’ (Schivelbusch xv). They exposed human beings to the strange, and to strangers, as they had never been exposed before. In the late 20th century, a number of writers including Jacques Réda, François Bon and François Maspero used journeys by rail as a starting point and structure for their experimental works of creative nonfiction. In this age of time-space compression, when ‘all journeys have been done. […] All travelogues have been written’ (Maspero, cited in Forsdick et al 167), these authors chose to take the train to destinations nearer to home in order to seek out the unfamiliar. The journey itself represented a surprising means, given its ubiquity in the landscape, of unsettling routine perception and expectations. Tactics such as travelling by commuter train to the suburbs (Maspero); repeatedly travelling the same line and writing in real time (Bon); or using trains as a ‘portable window’ on the world (Réda, Aller auxmirabelles 50) promoted a sense of productive estrangement that enabled the writers to re-experience and re-examine the everyday.

Paris

Jacques Réda’s works are shot through with meditations on the railways and rail travel. His most famous work, Les Ruines de Paris (The Ruins of Paris) was published in 1977, in the midst of the 5th Republic’s massive programme to transform Paris. Driven by the market, rather than by plan,

Real estate developers tore down small-town neighborhoods in the city’s outlying arrondissements and replaced them with towering blocks of offices and apartments. The city’s traffic flows changed as highways and automobiles colonized the sleepy quays of the Seine while the desertion of markets and factories for the suburbs turned bustling neighborhoods into ghost towns. (Clark)

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Construction of the Front de Seine complex, 1967.

Ruins is a series of extraordinary prose poems recounting the poet’s perambulations through various recently demolished and derelict sites, including the abandoned railway lines on the edges of the conurbation. In the second part of the book, he describes a series of journeys made by train, through landscapes where there is ‘nothing but an algebraic tangle of rails and catenaries for comfort’ (Ruins, 114). It’s from the vantage point of the capital’s ‘forbidden territory’ (Ruins, 107) that Réda observes the birth of the neoliberal city, with all its attendant violence, iniquities and erasures. He contemplates the evacuation of industry, and of the working classes and their homes, casting a deprecatory eye over the skyscrapers and luxury apartment blocks that are proliferating at the city’s western edge. Wandering along the track beds of la Petite Ceinture (a circular railway disused since 1934) and through other dilapidated sites, allowing his attention to be distracted by the inspiring minutiae of his environs, he toys with the idea of creating a Union for the Preservation of Waste Land (Ruins, 38). At least half of the derelict and vacant lots smashed out of the urban fabric by the voracious maws of the demolition excavators should, he argues, like the abandoned railways ‘be left to run wild, even with the danger that would come from these mounds of plank and plaster and the health risks of these piles of filth all over the place and the dirty water’ (Ruins, 38).

Ruins is a series of extraordinary prose poems recounting the poet’s perambulations through various recently demolished and derelict sites, including the abandoned railway lines on the edges of the conurbation. In the second part of the book, he describes a series of journeys made by train, through landscapes where there is ‘nothing but an algebraic tangle of rails and catenaries for comfort’ (Ruins, 114). It’s from the vantage point of the capital’s ‘forbidden territory’ (Ruins, 107) that Réda observes the birth of the neoliberal city, with all its attendant violence, iniquities and erasures. He contemplates the evacuation of industry, and of the working classes and their homes, casting a deprecatory eye over the skyscrapers and luxury apartment blocks that are proliferating at the city’s western edge. Wandering along the track beds of la Petite Ceinture (a circular railway disused since 1934) and through other dilapidated sites, allowing his attention to be distracted by the inspiring minutiae of his environs, he toys with the idea of creating a Union for the Preservation of Waste Land (Ruins, 38). At least half of the derelict and vacant lots smashed out of the urban fabric by the voracious maws of the demolition excavators should, he argues, like the abandoned railways ‘be left to run wild, even with the danger that would come from these mounds of plank and plaster and the health risks of these piles of filth all over the place and the dirty water’ (Ruins, 38).

Réda’s descriptions of the neoliberal city are starkly premonitory. He rails, for example, against the ‘cultural freelancers’ commissioned by the local authorities to decorate the hoardings that conceal the newly vacant lots. ‘Their phoney naïve paintings and their pink graffiti’ (Ruins, 39) ‘art wash’ the violent processes of gentrification. This is art put to the service of regeneration, driving an economy of signs through which urban value is created and measured, and where freedom is reduced to the choice of which readymade place to consume, providing, of course, you have the money. In contradistinction, the abandoned railway lines and other derelict sites represent a profoundly illegible space amidst the semiotic overdrive of the image-city. They’re a space in which meanings might still be made. Hidden away behind hoardings and set apart from the disciplined spaces of the increasingly privatised urban fabric, it is here that the railway flâneur recovers critical and creative ways of representing – and inhabiting – the city.

The ribbons of land and overgrown track beds that Réda describes are not so visually dissimilar from the abandoned lines we find in Yorkshire. In the ‘ferroscape’ (Bon) of la Petite Ceinture, ‘a dozen sickly birch trees are dying. They should simply have left the anarchic seeds from building sites to grow here; this desert would not be what it is now, a forest star-studded with tin cans and phosphorescent eyes’ (Ruins, 66). The ‘metallic and wooden objects among heaps of coal and bundles of papers, some obscure residue from the railway’, and this ‘polymorphic heap of oil drums, many of them – yellow, blue, green’ (Ruins,14) could describe the debris strewn along any of the lines we walked as we were researching our piece for this book.

Réda isn’t, however, nostalgic about trains: ‘Are we going to start crying our eyes out over a construction of pistons, wheels and a boiler? No, I don’t think so’ (Ruins, 116). His is a more critical engagement, which explores the capacity of rail travel and railway lines, both working and dismantled, to disrupt normative perception and recover the emancipatory potential of memory. It’s as though they afford him a kind of Claude glass, with which to reframe and rethink the naturalised ordinariness of space.

Yorkshire

The abandoned Yorkshire mineral lines cut through what is now a post-industrial mosaic, affording a critical prism, much like the one deployed by Réda, through which to de-naturalise the remediated landscapes that have become the taken-for- granted reality of our everyday lives. On either side of the track beds, more or less hidden by corridors of silver birch and successional scrub, there are steel-framed warehouses, busy retail parks and new houses. This is a landscape transformed by the closure of the pits. The former Yorkshire coalfields are what Iain Sinclair might call a ‘damaged topography’ (Sinclair, Ghost Milk 61), ‘bad turf’ with a ‘suppressed history’ (Sinclair, London Orbital 71). Land that belonged to the nationalised extractive industry passed into the hands of private sector property developers (Mingay) who, since the 1990s, have transformed recalcitrant extractive landscapes into neat residential developments, nature reserves, retail, manufacturing and business parks. This process continues apace today. Permission has been recently granted to construct a theme park on the site of the former Pithouse West colliery, near Rotherham. The BBC reported that the complex will include an ‘adventure centre, “glamping” woodland lodges, a hotel and holiday village’ (BBC, ‘£37m Theme Park Plan’).

In these ‘acres of new space, clawed out of old space’ (Lewis, Open to the Sky), there are few reminders of the recent past. We followed the Roundwood and Dalton colliery line to the site of what used to be the Silverwood colliery, closed down on Christmas Eve, 1994. This privately-owned land, managed by the Woodland Trust, has been reclaimed and transformed into a vast nature reserve. The former slurry pond is now a freshwater lake and more than 120,000 new trees have been planted. For nature enthusiasts, there are now plovers, lapwings, wagtails and short-eared owls to be seen – species that were introduced to increase the site’s biodiversity. A large visitors’ information panel at the entrance to the site summarises key moments in the colliery’s history, but focuses for the most part on telling the story of the site’s remediation and re-wilding. We’re informed, for example, that the first deep mine shafts were sunk in 1900 and that the Queen and Prince Philip visited Silverwood in 1975. Then, without mention of the miners strike of 1984-1985, the text describes how, in 1985-86, with a workforce of just 1342 men, the colliery produced over a million tonnes of coal, ‘holding the second highest profit in the area’. There are pieces on landscape restoration and wildlife management, as well as the new village of Woodlaithes, constructed at the eastern edge of the site, which has its own village ‘pond’ (and here I retain the unwittingly incisive quotation marks used in the panel text). Finally, there’s a short section explaining that the old colliery winding wheel, sunk into a commemorative plinth at the entrance to the site, was installed ‘as an interesting heritage feature’. There’s no mention of the distinctive methane vents that have been installed just behind it, betraying a residual subterranean past that could not be washed away.

Silverwood Colliery, 2018. Ph. Amanda Crawley Jackson.
Silverwood Colliery, 2018. Photograph by Amanda Crawley Jackson.

For artist Karl Hurst, the regeneration of the South Yorkshire coalfields has been structured by a ‘deliberate depoliticisation’, the result of which is ‘geopolitical dysmorphia, a fantasy world’. Orgreave has been detoxified and rebranded as ‘Waverley’ and, where the Rossington colliery once stood, there’s now an Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’. Glossy hoardings sell ‘fictional styles of life and imaginary behaviors’ (Christine Boyer, cited in Crinson 4). Local developers promise clean, sustainable jobs and futures, set amidst a bucolic ‘countryside’ that’s modelled on a wholly imagined pre-industrial past. The authorised historical narrative of coal mining in the area is hewn through a process of selective curation, which excludes painful and subaltern memories of the strike, the pit closures and ‘the recent trauma of de-industrialisation’ (Mingay).

The geology of the extractive landscapes and nostalgic accounts of hardship and hard graft are visually and discursively prioritised over more painful (and proximate) living memory. Martha Mingay has drawn attention to the extensive use, for example, of anodyne ‘regional material motifs’, such as the dry-stone walls at the entrance to the Waverley residential development, featuring ‘corten steel fins, their weathered rust colour chosen to embody iron ore’. ‘Amid the stones’, she writes, ‘lies a darker solid band, to represent the coal seam’.

This is precisely the kind of thing geographer Mark Crinson is referring to when he talks about nostalgie de la boue (the ‘nostalgia for mud’): it’s ‘memory with the pain taken out’ (Crinson xi). At Orgreave/Waverley, there’s an official plaque remembering all the miners who worked at the colliery until its closure in 1981.

The dates do not account for the memory of the coking plant, which didn’t close until 1990 and was the site of the 1984 ‘Battle of Orgreave’. It’s the same at Silverwood. The plaque on the winding wheel formally remembers the men who worked and died in the pit during its 89-year history, and yet this striking ‘memory-prompt’ (Sinclair, Hackney 24) bears no mention of the very history that triggered the reclamation and re-wilding of the site it was chosen to emblematise: de-industrialisation, changing labour relations and Thatcher’s imposition of a neoliberal economy. Perhaps Sinclair is right to assert that today, ‘history isn’t the province of memory-men, it belongs to the speculators’ (Sinclair, Hackney 15).

It’s extraordinarily difficult, however, to contain the living past in the sarcophagus of the post-industrial present. The old colliery lines, in all their stubborn persistence and difficult materiality, are a good example of how memory leaks. Another is the site of the former Hatfield Main colliery, a striking anomaly in the regenerated landscape. At its edge, there’s a small plinth with a plaque bearing the words: ‘Here stood the miners and families of Hatfield N.U.M. in defence of their jobs, communities & against industrial genocide. Loyal, Proud & True. NEVER FORGET – NEVER FORGIVE’.

Two sets of headstocks stand as distinctive anachronisms in a landscape that has been largely divested of the mining apparatus that sculpted it. They were saved from demolition in November 2015 when, following a campaign by the Hatfield Main Colliery Community Heritage Association, DCMS listed the structures on the basis of their rarity and historical and technological interest (Historic England). The listing had been opposed by Doncaster City Council, who argued that while the local authorities were ‘immensely proud of Doncaster’s coal mining heritage’, the headstocks were nothing but ‘an accident waiting to happen’, and would undoubtedly ‘cost taxpayers millions over the coming years’ (BBC, ‘Hatfield Colliery’).

The headstocks – ‘the most readily recognisable structure of the coal industry, an industry of the very highest historical significance nationally’ (Historic England) – are also a potent symbol of that same industry’s destruction and erasure. This ambivalence is reinforced by their use as an icon – interestingly, alongside that of a mineral wagon – in the N.U.M. logo. Today, they’re fenced off and patrolled by security guards; half a dozen terrifying Canary mastiffs ensure that no one comes too close. The rest of the extensive site is much more loosely managed: flocks of dirt bikes roar across the black sludge and greasy spoil heaps. It seems the history of Hatfield Main will not be easily ‘decontaminated’ (Mingay).

Hurst has noted that ‘rarely in the former coalfields has land been left to naturalise as a post-industrial site’. In fact, the abandoned colliery lines, too extensive and expensive to contain within security fences, afford a good example. The animal tracks are an indication of the ecological succession that has taken place here. Criss-crossed with desire lines as complex and entangled as the railway lines described by Zola, there’s plenty of evidence of non-sanctioned place-making going on along the trackbeds. There are tents in which people are camping, or maybe even living; blackened circles of ash where fires have been lit; and, in the trees, myriad tin cans like those seen by Réda, that have been used for target practice. Graffiti adorns the bridges and lineside ruins: ‘Tories out!’, ‘RIP Lee Bob’, ‘Shell is a slag’, ‘Scargill’… Here, memory is an open work. There’s a vital sense that the meaning of past and present are still to be negotiated; that neither has yet been set in stone. It’s in the shock afforded by this unruly ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far’ (Massey 12) that the disruptive and creative potential of today’s abandoned railways inheres.

Amanda Crawley Jackson & Andrew Conroy

This article was originally published in Railway Cultures, edited by Chris Leffler & Amanda Crawley Jackson (2018).

Works Cited

Anon. “South Yorkshire Historic Environment Characterisation.” Extractive | South Yorkshire Historic Environment Characterisation, http://www.sytimescapes.org.uk/zones/ rotherham/R17.

BBC, “£37m Theme Park Plan for Rotherham Pithouse West Colliery Site.” BBC News, 10 Sept. 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-34200100.

—. “Hatfield Colliery: £1m Warning after Listing Move.” BBC News, 11 Nov. 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-34785700.

Bon, François. Paysage fer. Verdier, 2000.

Clark, Catherine E. “‘C’était Paris en 1970’: Amateur photography, urbanism and photographic history.” Etudes photographiques, 31, Spring 2014, http://journals.openedition.org/etudesphotographiques/3407#bodyftn14.

Crinson, Mark. Urban Memory. Routledge, 2005.

Farley, Paul & Symmons Roberts, Michael. Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness. Jonathan Cape, 2011.

Forsdick, Charles, Feroza Basu and Siobhán Shilton. New Approaches to Twentieth-Century Travel Literature in French. Genre, History, Theory. Peter Lang, 2006.

Graham, Brian J., et al. A Geography of Heritage: Power, Culture and Economy. Arnold, 2004.

Historic England. “Numbers 1 and 2 Headstocks at the Former Hatfield Main Colliery, Stainforth – 1430590.” Historic England, 2018. http://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1430590.

Hurst, Karl. “In Praise of the Ordinary.” Longbarrow Blog, 30 April 2016, http://longbarrowblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/30/in-praise-of-the-ordinary-karl-hurst/.

Lewis, Brian. “Open to the Sky.” Longbarrow Blog, 27 Feb. 2018, http://longbarrowblog. wordpress.com/2018/02/26/open-to-the-sky-brian-lewis/.

—. “Ground Work.” Longbarrow Blog, 30 April 2017, http://longbarrowblog.wordpress. com/2017/04/30/ground-work-brian-lewis/.

Maspero, François. Les Passagers du Roissy-Express. Éditions du Seuil, 1990. Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

Matless, David. Landscape and Englishness. Reaktion Books, 2016.

Mingay, Martha. “Orgreave 30 Years On: An Uncontaminated Name?” Failed Architecture, 17 March 2015, http://www.failedarchitecture.com/orgreave-30-years-on-an-uncontaminated-name/.

Moshenska, Gabriel. “Charred Churches or Iron Harvests?” Journal of Social Archaeology, vol. 10, no. 1, 2010, pp. 5–27.

Olivier, Laurent. The Dark Abyss of Time. Archaeology and Memory. Trans. Arthur Greenspan. Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.

Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 1. Trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1922. Project Gutenberg Ebook, 21 March 2009. http://www.gutenberg.org

Réda, Jacques. Aller aux mirabelles. Gallimard, Coll. L’un et l’autre, 1991.

—. The Ruins of Paris. Trans. Mark Treharne. Reaktion Books, 1996.

Roth, Michael. Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living with the Past. Columbia University Press, 2012.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey. The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. University of California Press, 2014 [1977].

Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital. Penguin, 2003.

—. Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report. Penguin, 2010.

—. Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project. Penguin, 2011.

Zola, Émile. The Monomaniac [La Bête humaine]. Trans. Edward Vizetelly. Hutchinson & Co., 1901

 

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