The Doomway

[Image: The beginning of the Broomway path, at Wakering Stairs].

One of my favorite chapters in Robert Macfarlane’s recent book, The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, has been excerpted over at the BBC—and, although the excerpt itself is well worth reading in full, it only reminds me of how good the entire chapter really is (note, as well, that the following quotations come from Macfarlane’s book, not from the BBC excerpt, lest there be variations in text).

The chapter documents a hike along the Broomway, an eerie coastal path across tidally exposed sands out where the Thames meets the North Sea.

The satellite photo, above, shows the Broomway’s launching point, at a place called Wakering Stairs. From there it heads into a shifting marine landscape of tidal flats—a “vast revealed world,” in Macfarlane’s words, of mud, half-buried guideposts, and omnipresent quicksand.

The path is also known as the Doomway: it is a path that leads “straight out to sea.”

[Image: One possible end-point—not the furthest—of the “Doomway” path].

The Broomway is “allegedly ‘the deadliest’ path in Britain,” Macfarlane writes, “and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked.”

It only exists at low tide, for starters, and it can often be followed only with the visual help of unstable wooden poles driven into the ground to mark its route across the landscape. Its unusual name, in fact, comes from “the 400 or so ‘brooms’ that were formerly placed at intervals of between thirty and sixty yards on either side of the track, thereby indicating the safe passage on the hard sand that lay between them.”

Without those brooms, the path—and not just where it’s heading, but the route you’ve already walked to get there–would disappear from view entirely, in effect stranding you at sea.

That might sound easy enough to account for, if you have a good sense of direction. “When the tide comes back in, though,” Macfarlane warns, “it comes fast—galloping over the sands quicker than a human can run.”

[Image: The endpoint of the Broomway tidal path].

A sense of how difficult the Broomway can be to follow is revealed by Macfarlane’s description of how people used to walk it in bad weather. “Until hand-held compasses became available to walkers, the safest way of navigating in bad conditions, when it was impossible to see from broom to broom, was with stone and thread. Walkers carried a 200-foot length of linen thread, with one end tied to a small stone. They would place the stone next to a broom and then walk away in what they believed to be the right direction, unspooling the thread as they went, until they could see the next broom.”

They would then either haul the stone up to their current position and start the process all over again, or they would search back through the mist and darkness for the correct route forward.

The path “is thought to have killed more than a hundred people over the centuries,” and what an utterly lost and disoriented death it must have been.

If you’re tempted to hike it—as am I—please take the necessary precautions; consider reading Macfarlane’s book the first necessary step.

(On a side note, it is very much not the same thing, but Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel The Loney takes place in a coastal British landscape that has its own disappearing footpath across the tidal sands; it can be, at times, uneven, but it is a good read for any fellow fans of Gothic horror).

Amidst the Ruins of Military Replicas

[Image: The Atlantic Wall at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

After blogging two years ago about the ruins of a simulated fragment of the WWII Atlantic Wall—the notorious Nazi coastal defensive system—now slowly crumbling in the woods of Surrey, I finally had an opportunity to go hike it in person with my wife and in-laws.

[Image: The Atlantic Wall at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The ruins themselves are both larger than you’d expect and quite compact, forming a ridge of lichen-covered concrete, jagged with rebar, nearly hidden in the vegetation.

A Dutch family was also there climbing over the ruins, and as we headed slightly further up the hillside into the trees smaller test-obstacles emerged, including “dragon’s teeth” and monolithic cuboids of stained concrete.

[Image: The Atlantic Wall at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

We arrived during a live Ministry of Defence training exercise, with soldiers wandering out across the terrain, speaking to one another on radio headsets, their movements interrupted here and there by Sunday hikers out for an afternoon stroll.

[Image: A soldier at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

This led to the surreal scene of seeing fully outfitted military figures crouched down behind shrubbery, holding machine guns, while kids, their dogs, and their grandparents noisily ambled by. It felt like some sort of stage play gone wrong.

[Image: Hiking at Hankley Common, Surrey, UK; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Then the soldiers disappeared again over the next ridge and we were left looking out over an empty landscape of heather and gorse, the ruins now behind us somewhere in the thicket waiting for next weekend’s hikers to come by.

Supergrass, or the Anthropocene is Local

lawn
[Image: Artificial grass stretches onto a sidewalk in Somerville, MA; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

While reading that “land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” possibly setting the stage for an irreversible decline in biological variety around the world, it’s worth recalling a somewhat tragicomic article published last week warning that Britain has so many artificial lawns, these so-called permanent botanicals are now considered a threat to wildlife.

From the Guardian:

From local authorities who purchase in bulk for use in street scaping, to primary schools for children’s play areas and in the gardens of ordinary suburban family homes, the sight of pristine, green artificial grass is becoming a familiar sight. One company has registered a 220% year-on-year increase in trade of the lawns.
But as families, councils and schools take to turfing over their open spaces with a product which is most often made from a mix of plastics—polypropylene, polyurethane and polyethylene—there is growing alarm amongst conservationists and green groups.
They say the easy fix of a fake lawn is threatening the habitat of wildlife, including butterflies, bees and garden birds as well as creating waste which will never biodegrade.

I’m reminded of the artificial gardens of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, where plastic trees and flowers tremble lifelessly in an air-conditioned breeze, installed as part of a remote desert complex devoted to human immortality.

Only here, it’s the everyday landscape of Britain, slowly but surely being plasticized, replaced by a chemical surrogate for living matter, this ubiquitous manufactured stand-in for the picturesque English gardens of an earlier generation.

Lost butterflies flutter over plastic lawns, smelling nothing but petrochemicals. Bees land on the petals of polyester flowers and pick up the dust of industrial dyes rather than pollen. Excess drops of translucent glue glow in the afternoon sunlight.

The anthropocene is not only a global transformation; it takes place in—it takes the place of—your own backyard.

(Vaguely related: In the Garden of 3D Printers).

The Voids Beneath

sinkhole[Image: Drone footage of a Cornwall garden sinkhole, via the BBC].

One of the peculiar pleasures of reading Subterranea, a magazine published by Subterranea Britannica, is catching up on British sinkhole news.

In more or less every issue, there will be tales of such things as “a mysterious collapse in a garden behind a 19th-century house,” that turns out to be a shaft leading down into a forgotten sand mine, or of “abandoned chalk mine sites” heavily eroding in winter rain storms, “resulting in roof-falls.”

“As most chalk mines are at relatively shallow depth,” Subterranea reports, “these roof-falls migrate upwards to break [the] surface as ‘crown holes’ or craters, which in the said winter [of 2013/2014] have been appearing in lawns and driveways, and even under houses, newly built in chalk districts.”

The earth deceptively hollow, the landscape around you actually a ceiling for spaces beneath.

Worryingly, many of these mines and underground quarries are difficult, if not impossible, to locate, as insufficient regulation combined with shabby documentation practices mean that there could be abandoned underground workings you might never be aware of hiding beneath your own property—until next winter’s rains kick in, that is, or the next, when you can look forward to staring out at the grass and shrubbery, with growing angst, waiting for sinkholes to appear. Rain becomes a kind of cave-finding technology.

Even in the heart of London, the underworld beckons. Last Spring, Subterranea reminds us, “a woman and her shopping trolley rather suddenly disappeared into a four metres deep hole in North End Road, Fulham.” The culprit? It “appears to have been a disused under-street coal cellar.”

Perhaps the most incredible recent example, however, comes from the town of Scorrier, in Cornwall.

shaft[Image: Photo courtesy The Sun].

There, a “deep mine shaft has appeared” beneath the patio of a house in the process of being prepped for sale. “The shaft drops approximately 300 feet deep to water but could be four or five times deeper [!] below that,” Subterranea reports. It “is a remnant of Cornwall’s tin mining industry in the 18th century.”

It is a straight vertical shaft, more like a rectangular well, yawning open behind the house.

And there are many more of these mines and quarries, still waiting to be discovered: “As mines closed,” we read, “many [mining companies] put very large blocks of timber, often old railway sleepers, across shafts and backfilled them, thinking this would be safe. Gradually all evidence of the engine houses and covered shafts disappeared from view and memory and in the past builders assumed there was nothing there. Had they consulted old maps they would have known about the shaft. The timbers rotted over the years and collapses like this often happen after long periods of rain, which they have had in this area.”

There’s something both uncanny and compelling about the idea that, with seasons of increased rainfall due to climate change, the nation’s mining industry might stage an unsettling reappearance, bursting open in subterranean splendor to swallow the surface world whole.

Think of it as an industrial-historical variation on the El Niño rains in Los Angeles—where huge storms were suspected of “unearthing more skeletal human remains” in the parched hills outside the city—only here given the horror movie ambience of murderous voids opening up beneath houses, making their abyssal presence felt after long winter nights of darkness and endless rain.

In any case, consider joining Subterranea Britannica for a subscription to Subterranea for more sinkhole news.

Christmas Tree Beach

fionacroall1[Image: “Discarded Christmas trees were used to help rebuild the sand dunes around three years ago,” writes photographer Fiona Croall on her Instagram feed. “Now you can hardly see them!”].

While discarded Christmas trees here in New York City simply piled up on the sidewalks for more than two weeks after the holidays, forming strange—if still somewhat sadly picturesque—felled forests on the margins of the city, it turns out there’s an altogether more useful fate for those trees over in England.

There, the eroding beaches at Formby, just north of Liverpool, have been partially stabilized through Christmas tree donations.

formby[Image: The Christmas trees at Formby; photo courtesy National Trust/Robert Matthews].

“Our Rangers are asking people to bring their used real Christmas trees down to Formby so they can be used to help protect our internationally important sand dunes,” the National Trust explains.

The trees “help to mitigate [wind and erosion] by mimicking the action of the Marram grass, catching the sand blown on to the dunes from the beach and also dissipating the power of the wind as it blows across the surface of the dunes. Over time the trees become buried which helps to build up the dunes and they also help to partly stabilise the surface of the dunes which often allows the Marram grass to take hold again naturally.”

Below the beach, trees.

FionaCroall2[Image: The artificially stabilized beaches at Formby, with no sign of the displaced forest lurking below; photo by Fiona Croall].

Compare this approach, for example, to the widespread use of massive, industrially produced tetrapods for coastal erosion management—or even to the endless expense of so-called “beach nourishment”—and the idea of rebuilding the landscape using nothing more than linked chains of dead Christmas trees seems both tactically brilliant and cost-effective.

Not to mention archaeologically intriguing: it doesn’t take much to wonder how geotechnical assemblages such as these—huge arboreal lumps without a nearby forest to explain them—might appear to some distant researcher hoping to make sense of the stratigraphic record.

Like evidence of an ancient tsunami, the buried woods of Formby could surely sustain many a strange landscape theory to come.

(Huge thanks to photographer Fiona Croall who tweeted about the Christmas trees late last month).

Secret Tunnels of England

The London Fortean Society, of all people, will be hosting a talk called “Secret Tunnels of England: Folklore and Fact” by Antony Clayton, author of the fascinating book Subterranean City: Beneath the Streets of London, on March 9. “So-called secret tunnels are a subject of perennial interest,” we read. “Are there really labyrinths of hidden passageways under our ancient buildings, towns and cities, or are these tunnel tales another seam of England’s rich folklore?” See, for example, BLDGBLOG’s earlier look at the Peterborough tunnels. There is still time to get on a waiting list for tickets. For what it’s worth, I also referred to Clayton’s book in my recent essay for The Daily Beast about the Hatton Garden heist. (Event originally spotted via @urbigenous).

To roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course

The blog Landscapism takes a look at the “integral but largely uncharted topography” of the combe, the “amphitheatre-like landform that can be found at the head of a valley.” There, the post’s author writes, amidst lichen-covered rubble and interrupted creeks, “these watery starting lines disguised as cul-de-sacs are a gift to the rural flâneur; sheep tracks, streams, crags, ruined sheep folds—all encourage the curious visitor to roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course.”

Howl



I watched this video with the typical ennui of your average internet user—expecting to hear nothing at all, really, before going back to other forms of online procrastination—but holy Hannah. This is a pretty loud building.

Although I would be making surreptitious ambient field recordings—and rhapsodizing to my sleepless friends about the unrealized acoustic dimensions of contemporary architecture—I have to say I’d be pretty unenthused to have this thing howling all day, everyday, in my neighborhood.

It’s Manchester’s Beetham Tower. It cost £150 million to build, and its accidental sounds are apparently now “the stuff of legend.”

(Spotted via Justin Davidson. This actually reminds me of when my housemate in college taught himself to play the saw and I had no idea what was happening).

Subterranean Saxophony

[Image: Photo by Steve Stills, courtesy of the Guardian].

Over in London later today, the Guardian explains, composer Iain Chambers will premiere a new piece of music written for an unusual urban venue: “the caverns that contain the counterweights of [London’s Tower Bridge] when it’s raised.”

The space itself has “the acoustics of a small cathedral,” Sinclair told the newspaper, citing John Cage as an influence and urging readers “to listen to environmental sounds and treat them as music,” whether it’s the rumble of a bridge being raised or the sounds of boats on the river.

In fact, Chambers will be performing one of Cage’s pieces during the show tonight—but, alas, I suspect it is not this one:

It is rumored that the final, dying words of composer John Cage were: “Make sure they play my London piece… You have to hear my London piece…” He was referring, many now believe, to a piece written for the subterranean saxophony of London’s sewers.

Read much more at the Guardian—or, even better, stop by tonight for a live performance.

(Spotted via @nicolatwilley).

Bunker Simulations

[Image: A replica of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall defenses in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

The continent-spanning line of concrete bunkers built by the Nazis during WWII, known as the “Atlantic Wall,” was partially recreated in the United Kingdom—in more than one location—to assist with military training.

These simulated Nazi bunkers now survive as largely overlooked ruins amidst the fields, disquieting yet picturesque earth forms covered in plants and lichen, their internal rebar exposed to the weather and twisted by explosives, serving as quiet reminders of the European battlefield.

The various wall sites even include trenches, anti-tank ditches, and other defensive works carved into the ground, forming a kind of landscape garden of simulated fortification.

[Image: A replica of the Atlantic Wall in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

As the Herald Scotland reported the other day, one of these walls “was built at Sheriffmuir, in the hills above Dunblane, in 1943 as preparations were being made to invade Europe. The problem was the Nazis had built a formidable line of concrete defenses from Norway all the way to the Spanish border and if D-Day was to have any chance of success, the British and their allies would have to get over those defenses.”

This, of course, “is why the wall at Sheriffmuir was built: it was a way for the British forces to practise their plan of attack and understand what they would face. They shot at it, they smashed into it, and they blew it up as a way of testing the German defences ahead of D-Day.”

[Image: A replica of the Atlantic Wall in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

It would certainly be difficult to guess what these structures are at first glance, or why such behemoth constructions would have been built in these locations; stumbling upon them with no knowledge of their history would suggest some dark alternative history of WWII in which the Nazis had managed to at least partially conquer Britain, leaving behind these half-buried fortresses in their wake.

Indeed, the history of the walls remains relatively under-exposed, even in Britain, and a new archaeological effort to scan all of the defenses and mount an exhibition about them in the Dunblane Museum is thus now underway.

[Image: A replica of the Atlantic Wall in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

The story of the Scottish wall’s construction is also intriguingly odd. It revolves around an act of artistic espionage, courtesy of “a French painter and decorator called Rene Duchez.”

Duchez, the newspaper explains, “got his hands on the blueprints for the German defences while painting the offices of engineering group TODT, which [had been hired] to build the Atlantic walls. He hid the plans in a biscuit tin, which was smuggled to Britain and used as the blueprint for the wall at Sheriffmuir.”

But Scotland is not the only UK site of a simulated Nazi super-wall: there were also ersatz bunkers built in Surrey, Wales, and Suffolk. In fact, the one in Surrey, built on Hankley Common, is not all that far from my in-laws, so I’ll try to check it out in person next time I’m over in England.

[Images: An Atlantic Wall replica in Surrey; top photo by Shazz, bottom three photos via Wikipedia].

Attempts at archaeological preservation aside, these walls seem destined to fade into the landscape for the next several millennia, absorbed back into the forests and fields; along the way, they’ll join other ancient features like Hadrian’s Wall on the itinerary of future military history buffs, just another site to visit on a slow Sunday stroll, their original context all but forgotten.

(Spotted via Archaeology. Previously on BLDGBLOG: In the Box: A Tour Through The Simulated Battlefields of the U.S. National Training Center and Model Landscape].

The Peterborough Tunnels

A weird old story I came across in my bookmarks this morning tells a tale of tunnels under the town of Peterborough, England.

[Image: Gates in Holywell, Peterborough; photo by Rowland Hobson, courtesy of Peterborough Today].

The local newspaper, Peterborough Today, refers to a woman described simply as “a grandmother” who claims “that she crawled through a tunnel under Peterborough Cathedral as a schoolgirl.” That experience—organized as a school trip, of all things—was “terrifying”; in fact, it was “so scary that it gave her nightmares for weeks afterwards.”

About 25 of us went down into the tunnel, one at a time; none of the teachers came in. It was pitch black, had a stone floor and was about two feet high and three feet wide. We crawled along on our hands on knees. The girl in front of me stopped and started screaming, she was so scared. The tunnel started in the Cathedral and ended there too; we were down there for what seemed like ages. When I eventually got home I was in tears. Afterwards I had horrible nightmares for weeks about being buried alive underneath the Cathedral.

What’s fascinating about the story, though, is the fact that not everyone even agrees that these tunnels exist. A “city historian” quoted in the same article says that, while “there are small tunnels under the Cathedral,” they are most likely not tunnels at all, but simply “the ruins of foundations from earlier churches on the site, dating from Saxon times.” The girls would thus have been crawling around amongst the foundations of ruined churches, lost buildings that long predated the cathedral above them.

But local legends insist that the tunnels—or, perhaps, just one very large tunnel—might, in fact, be real. To this end, an amateur archaeologist named Jay Beecher, who works in a local bank by day, has “been intrigued by the legend of the tunnel ever since he was a young boy when he was regaled with tales that had been passed down the generations of a mysterious passageway under the city.” This “mysterious passageway under the city” would be nearly 800 years old, by his reckoning, and more than a mile in length. “Medieval monks may have used the tunnel as a safe route to visit a sacred spring at Holywell to bathe in its healing waters,” we read.

Although Beecher has found indications of the tunnel on city maps, not everyone is convinced, claiming the whole thing is just “folklore.” But it is oddly ubiquitous folklore. One former resident of town who contacted the newspaper “claimed that a series of tunnels ran between Peterborough and Thorney via a secret underground chapel.” Another “said that he recalled seeing part of a tunnel in the cellar at a home in Norfolk Street, Peterborough,” as if the tunnel flashes in and out of existence around town, from basement to basement, church cellar to pub storage room, more a portal or instance gate than an actual part of the built environment. And then, of course, there is the surreal childhood memory—or nightmare—recounted by the “grandmother” quoted above who once crawled beneath the town church with 25 of her schoolmates, worried that they’d all be buried alive in the center of town (surely the narrative premise of a childhood anxiety dream if there ever was one).

No word yet if Beecher has found his archaeological evidence, but the fact that this particular spatial feature makes an appearance in the dreams, memories, or confused geographic fantasies of the people who live there—as if their town can only be complete given this subterranean underside, a buried twin lost beneath churches—is in and of itself remarkable.

(If this interests you—or even if it doesn’t—take a quick look at BLDGBLOG’s tour through the tunnels and sand mines of Nottingham, or stop by this older post on the “undiscovered bedrooms of Manhattan“).