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).

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.

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).

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“).

British Exploratory Land Archive

Speaking of the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, I’m thrilled to be an exhibitor this year in the UK pavilion, as part of a collaborative project undertaken with Mark Smout and Laura Allen of Smout Allen.

[Image: The British Exploratory Land Archive’s “capture blanket” in use on Hampstead Heath, London; photo by Mark Smout].

Smout Allen are the authors of Augmented Landscapes, easily one of my favorite installments in the Pamphlet Architecture series, as well as long-time instructors at the Bartlett School of Architecture—in fact, many of their students’ projects have been featured here on the blog over the last half-decade—and working with Mark and Laura on a project such as this has been fantastic.

Specifically, as part of the “Venice Takeaway” project curated by Vicky Richardson and Vanessa Norwood, Smout Allen and I have proposed what we call the British Exploratory Land Archive (or BELA).

The British Exploratory Land Archive is, in essence, a British version of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, albeit one defined as much by the use of unique instruments designed specifically for BELA as by its focus on sites of human land-use in the United Kingdom as by.

[Images: Going through the archives, maps, and files of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, including one of my favorite headlines of all time: “Emptiness welcomes entrepreneurs”; photos by Mark Smout].

In an essay for the Venice Takeaway book, we describe the inspiration, purpose, and future goals of the—still entirely hypothetical—British Exploratory Land Archive:

BELA is directly inspired by the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). It aims to unite the efforts of several existing bodies—English Heritage, Subterranea Britannica, the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust and even the Department for Transport, among dozens of others—in a project of national landscape taxonomy that will combine catalogues created by distinct organisations into one omnivorous, searchable archive of human-altered landscapes in Britain… From military bases to abandoned factories, from bonded warehouses to national parks, by way of private gardens, council estates, scientific laboratories and large-scale pieces of urban infrastructure, BELA’s listings are intended to serve as something of an ultimate guide to both familiar and esoteric sites of human land use throughout the United Kingdom.

In the end, a fully functioning BELA would offer architects, designers, historians, academics, enthusiasts, and members of the general public a comprehensive list of UK sites that have been used, built, unbuilt, altered, augmented and otherwise transformed by human beings, aiming to reveal what we might call the spatial footprint of human civilization in the British Isles.

Thanks to the generosity of the Venice Takeaway organizers, with funding from the British Council, Mark Smout and I had the pleasure of traveling to Los Angeles back in April 2012 specifically to meet with Matthew Coolidge, Sarah Simons, Ben Loescher, and Aurora Tang at the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Even better, we were able to take Matt, Ben, and Aurora out on a daylong road-trip through gravel pits, dry lake beds, Cold War radar-testing facilities, airplane crash sites, logistics airfields, rail yards, abandoned military base housing complexes, and much more orbiting the endlessly interesting universe of Greater Los Angeles.

[Images: Exploring Greater Los Angeles with Matthew Coolidge, Ben Loescher, and Aurora Tang; photos by Mark Smout].

That trip was documented in a series of photographs, in a (very) short film, and in the essay mentioned above, all of which will be available for perusal at the UK pavilion for the duration of this year’s Biennale.

I’ll also include here a few diagrams depicting one the instruments Smout Allen and I devised as part of our land-investigation tools—making BELA a kind of second-cousin to Venue—with the real objects, including a portable explorer’s hut, also on display in Venice.

[Images: Assembly diagrams for the BELA “clinometer,” a speculative device “for the measurement of variable slopes on sites such as scrap yards, landfills, slag heaps and other industrial dumping grounds… functioning as an easily readable survey tool and as a unique design object that calls public attention to the process of measuring artificial landscapes”].

Taken together, these are what we call, in the essay, “prototypical future survey instruments and experimental site-identification beacons.” They are “both semi-scientific and speculative, portable and permanently anchored.”

From telescopes to Geiger counters, from contact microphones to weather satellites, the devices and scales with which we measure and describe the landscapes around us determine, to a large extent, what we are able to see. BELA will thus work to pioneer the design, fabrication and expeditionary deployment of new landscape survey tools—instruments and devices both functional and speculative that will aid in the sensory cataloguing and interpretive analysis of specific locations.

While the British Exploratory Land Archive is, for now, merely a proposition, I think Mark, Laura, and I are all equally keen to see something come of that proposition, perhaps someday even launching BELA as a real, functioning resource through which the various human-altered landscapes of Britain can be catalogued and studied.

For now, those of you able to visit Venice, Italy, before the end of the 2012 Biennale can see our instruments, photos, drawings, and texts as they currently exist, and, in the process, learn more about the possibilities for a British Exploratory Land Archive.

(Thanks to Sandra Youkhana for her invaluable help with the project, and to Matthew Coolidge, Sarah Simons, Ben Loescher, and Aurora Tang at the Center for Land Use Interpretation for hosting us back in April).