I walked to Salmon Pastures. A. told me he went to school and did his apprenticeship there. He explained how his father’s funeral cortège had travelled slowly along Carlisle Street and the men came out of the steelworks, doffing their caps as it passed.
To get there, I travelled by tram to Nunnery Square – a patchwork of car parks and police buildings, hemmed in by security fencing. I walked under railway arches, past carwashes and small factories, before crossing Norfolk Bridge (built in 1856) and taking a sharp right along a small cobbled street to join the river.
An old man from Yemen was sitting on a bench watching the river crowfoot stream in long ribbons with the current. We talked for a few minutes and he told me how this is a good place. Quiet.
I walked with Daisy along the River Don from the Wardsend cemetery to Neepsend. At Wardsend, we started off a little way down the railway lines that run stark and clean through the undulating and overgrown cemetery, then veered off to follow the river itself, along the newly surfaced track that cuts through the vast mounds of debris – spolia from demolished works? – that loom either side. The electricity pylons hummed and crackled overhead and the thunderous engines of quad bikes rumbled and reverberated in an undefinable distance.
Everywhere we walk, waste. And amidst the waste, lilac and jack-in-the-hedge. The river bank is strewn with tyres and bottles and fast food wrappers, mattresses and plastic chairs, podgy black bin bags. A sign screwed to one of the metal kissing gates put there to stop the quad bikes : fly tippers – we are watching you.
At Wardsend, on the hill amidst the silver birch, there has been a fire. Graves squat in scorched earth, black tipped tendrils clasping shards of stone, displacing fragments of Victorian ironwork.
The Hillsborough playing fields are to our right. A man in a vermilion jersey sparks across the pitch. A sheep’s skull – or perhaps it is just a carrier bag – is revealed, briefly, as the river washes across it. Bottle-green, muddy mallards drift.
Neepsend. Eviscerated drag cars and deserted roads, leading to an empty, elevated horizon.
G03, Jessop West, 1 Upper Hanover Street, University of Sheffield
Scientific discourses on neuroplasticity abound with metaphors both of (neuronal) landscapes and (cortical) ‘real estate’. This cutting-edge symposium brings together speakers from across the disciplines to explore the ways in which recent advances in the understanding of neuroplasticity might be used to construct new models for negotiating urban landscapes and temporalities. Our discussions will include a consideration of how brain trauma and cerebral re-organisation can yield new understanding and insight regarding the complexity and resilience of the damaged topographies that punctuate the post-industrial, post-colonial and post-traumatic cityscape. Thinking through the sculptural dynamic of cerebral morphology will also open up a debate concerning the ways in which critical methodologies from the arts might find their place in the sculpting of new forms of stability within the contemporary built environment, participating in the ‘real life’ making of cities, at both grass roots and policy level. This symposium is open to all and will feature a digital exhibition by Stuart Wilson.
Speakers include Professor John Barrett, Luke Bennett, Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson,Professor Martin Jones, Chris Leffler, Sara Parratt-Halbert, Dr Tom Stafford, Dr Adam Stansbie, Dr Stuart Wilson
The event, which is part of the In the City programme organised by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sheffield, is jointly hosted by occursus and the School of Geography.
Furnace Park, which grew from the occursus project, is an associate pilot of the EU-funded SEEDS project and the symposium will include a presentation by the project manager, Sara Parratt-Halbert.
In August, I walked past a piece of wasteland on the edge of Rotherham town centre. The faded blue hoardings were overhung by buddleia the colour of purple velvet. Each vivid flower spike was bejewelled with a peacock butterfly. How many people looked up that day and witnessed this miracle of nature? How many people walk past this site every day, without really looking but smelling the honeyed, exotic perfume, like a scent wafting through a sultan’s harem?
Yesterday, on a hazy, early September afternoon, before the day-long downpour heralding autumn, white butterflies danced though my garden, alighting on the buddleia bushes; the royal purple and the creamy white, magically self-seeded in exactly the positions where I wished them. Most of the flowers are now brown, the fuse of summer burning out. I refuse to tidy my garden until the last spark of my blooms has been extinguished by the dying year.
The buddleia is the first thing I noticed about the Furnace Park, softening the metal perimeter fence, its tenacious roots clinging on to the crevices of the old Don Cutlery Works – the landscape of the Industrial Revolution softened into a Romantic ruin that Wordsworth might write an ode about. Buddleia glamorises and disguises derelict places, stitching together the random patchwork of abandoned Victorian works, pavements, car parks, office blocks and the odd corners of land that nature has borrowed for her own use again.
Walking around the post-industrial landscapes of Sheffield inspires a strange sense of melancholy, somewhere between sadness and grief for past glories, combined with excitement. In Sheffield, something new is always happening, low-key, under the radar and often temporary – a canal-side warehouse might become a nightclub or a gallery for one night, before fading away as if it never existed at all. We use our ruins and lost places as inspiration. There’s a richness in the lost worlds that have been demolished, built on and demolished again, the long-gone communities of factories and back-to-backs just as tantalising as peakland villages drowned by reservoirs and the legend of the ghostly bells of Dunwich churches echoing from deep under the waves, swept into the North Sea hundreds of years ago. The death of areas like Shalesmoor and Attercliffe is still within living memory, swept away by slum clearance programmes in the twentieth century. My grandparents lived in streets like these.
The courts and back-to-backs themselves weren’t mourned by their residents, but they missed the community spirit that came from living cheek-by-jowl. They moved to the luxury of new council houses with proper bathrooms and toilets – escaping from the shared latrines and outdoor standpipes and diseases of poverty such as cholera and TB. People lived next door to the factories and mills where they worked, unable to escape the smoke, noise and dirt. Would they find beauty in the overgrown dereliction?
In the 1930s, the River Don was dead. Black and toxic, the only living creatures were rats that lived from human waste. Now, the riverbanks are lush with alder and willow. Trout and grayling swim in the clean water. Mallards and coots nest in the safety of silted mid-stream islands. Wildlife returns, feral and multicultural.
I used to work in adult education in a converted railway building on Spital Hill, near the Wicker. Burngreave is one of the most diverse areas I know, with its Afro Caribbean barbers, Arabic kebab houses, traditional pubs, Somali groceries, Kurdish Restaurants and Pakistani curry houses. Our building was next to a derelict pub. There was a buddleia bush growing out of the chimney. I told my manager that I liked it, but he said that he preferred it when nature behaved itself and stayed in its proper place. This surprised me, because he was a great advocate of people being able to settle without barriers or boundaries.
Our wasteland wildlife tells the story of human migration and colonialism, just as much as the population of Burngreave. Sycamores came from central Europe; grey squirrels were brought from North America as a novelty for country house gardens and fat wood pigeons came from the English countryside for the rich pickings of bird tables. On a recent trip to Chedworth Roman Villas in the Cotswolds, the first thing I saw was a giant edible snail. Its ancestors had been brought over by the Romans. The snails lived for thousands of years after the villa crumbled into ruins.
Victorian explorers brought the seeds of Buddleja Davidii to the UK from China in the 1890s. Eventually, its wind-dispersed seeds escaped from gardens and germinated easily in stony wastelands and bomb-sites that resembled its mountainous native habitat. Buddleia is viewed by some as an invasive species, but wildlife experts view it as an important source of nectar for bees, butterflies and moths, filling an important gap when natural habitats have been destroyed.
And for many people, the buddleia is an emblem of summer in the city, beautiful, but a reminder that eventually, nature will reclaim everything like this. When the human race is long gone, having destroyed itself, Nature will have the last laugh.
Poor flowers in the flower beds of manicured gardens.
They look like they’re afraid of the police …
‘Alberto Caeiro’ from The Keeper of Sheep XXXIII
Feeling conscious of the absence of an introduction, I thought that it might be worthwhile to draft a short conclusion to the project reflections that I have written about the botany of the Upperthorpe, Netherthorpe, Shalesmoor, Neepsend and Wardsend edgelands (project reflections 1, 3, 4, 5, 14, 19, 20, 22, 24, 26 and 27 respectively).
The aim, in principle, was to create a tentative psycho-botany of the various weeds and invasive plants that thrive on “disturbed ground” around the edges of habitation; to not only describe these ‘flowers that grow in the wrong places’ in botanical terms but to examine – at least in brief – their cultural significance.
Also, last weekend, whilst in conversation with a botanist friend, I was reminded of the fragile precariousness of this urban weed-ecology. Essentially most of these transitional or pioneering plants (poppies, buddleja, Rosebay willowherb etc.) will propagate only in areas of vegetation clearance; in the course of natural habitat development they will soon be deprived of light by forest canopies and, given time, will simply cease to exist. It is a transitory, human-determined and human-dependent flora that has been created in these areas.
In terms of the way that we have become accustomed to contemplating nature, I’m therefore left with somewhat conflicted feelings – where’s the (cleansing) spiritual connection? This is – it would seem – a somewhat muddied, muddled, mitigated nature; perhaps a somewhat less than fully ‘natural’ nature – in comparison to what we might hope to see in a timeless, ‘pristine’ ecology – perhaps in Alaska, for example …
In terms of structuring the texts, I quite enjoyed the caprice of writing the introductory (in bold) paragraphs in the ‘voice’ of an nineteenth century naturalist – a voice that I hoped would contrast with the ‘thick description’ or fact-heavy content of the remainder (culled heavily from Wikipedia but also informed by other texts including The Unofficial Countryside by Richard Mabey – and by a few personal experiences).
I also enjoyed the way that, at times, the language of botanical description formed a dense, impenetrable ‘thicket’ – growing from Greek and Latin roots. This was particularly evident when the botanical description of the complex structure of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale – project reflection 22) lead to a baroque profusion of technical terms: bracts (modified or specialized leaves, especially associated with reproductive structures such as flowers, inflorescence axes, or cone scales – from the Latin bractea, thin metal plate, gold leaf variant of brattea … of obscure origin); glabrous (having no hairs or protrusions – from Latin glaber – bald): involucres (a series of bracts beneath or around a flower cluster – French from Latin involocrum – wrapper, envelope); pappi (a modified calyx composed of scales, bristles, or featherlike hairs, in plants of the composite family, such as the dandelion and the thistle – Latin, old man, down on certain seeds, from Greek pappos; calyx (the sepals of a flower collectively, forming the outer floral envelope that protects the developing flower bud – from Latin, from Greek – kalux shell, from kaluptein to cover, hide …
The reason for choosing Rosebay willowherb, bindweed, Japanese knotweed (donkey rhubarb) and dandelions was simple – they all feature on the weed control section of Sheffield City Council’s website. Poppies, bracken and briar, sycamore and buddleja were all chosen because they also fall within the categories of pioneering or invasive plants – and they all, on investigation, yielded surprising amounts of cultural – psycho-botanical – reference.