The fuse of summer is burning out
Buddleia and its place in the wasteland
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.
Anne Grange, 2013