Ghosts Everywhere

I was back up North recently to do a talk on Gothic writing. During the trip I found myself drawn, drawn, to an area I used to visit as a child: the Accrington – Blackburn stretch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. I’ve written about this waterway before. But this particular section, known semi-officially as Cycle Route 6, is the part I had in mind when going on about strange snake appearances.

Cycle Route 6:
complete with raindrops on the video camera lens
This spot marks out something of a borderland between open fields and dense industrial sites. Upstream, the canal moves past a series of small towns and remains largely hidden at their edges. Sometimes it will raise its head at a road bridge but it mainly seems content to meander beside fields and (now more likely) golf courses. But at this point, just before Church Kirk, the canal leaves a wide open expanse and begins to narrow as it moves alongside the flanking walls of Blythe Chemicals. I could make a cheap point and allude to Axis Chemicals from the 1989 Batman film which, to be honest, I always had in mind whenever I passed the factory site. But to draw on such a deliberately blighted image would entirely miss the point. There’s no binary tension here between the industrial and the rural, with the former as some kind of pox upon the latter. It’s easy to place canals with roads and railways as transportation systems that have encroached upon and negatively impacted the landscape. But like hedgerows, dry stone walls and towpaths, the canal represents another form of infrastructural cultivation that has scaped the land over successive generations of its working life, both agricultural and heavy-industrial.

You can see the traces of this intermingling all along the pathway. Before the canal meets the yards at Blythe's, you come across a set of submerged coke ovens: odd, brick igloos once used to carbonize coal. Most of them have been filled in and you can just about see the brick domes undulating under the scrub-land. In the late 1980s and early 90s though, they were much more exposed and lay like pit traps in the ground. I think someone once made the obvious link and used them as the backdrop for a film about the First World War. Part trenches and part mortar craters, they carry the archaeological resonances of the site, much like the imprinted caisson walls in J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1987).

Today it’s clear that the canal has moved away from its role in factory trade and transportation, but this specific stretch of waterway is not entirely post-industrial nor is it fully gentrified. Despite the occasional houseboat and despite being implicitly re-branded as a leisure site, Cycle Route 6 doesn’t seem to have fully shaken off the dust of its coal-charging past. It's redundant in the original sense of the word: the waters are still, but it feels active with industrial and chemical energy. Rammed somewhere between a chemical plant and the Nori brick works up at Whinney Hill; crossed with railway lines and in sight of garages and back-street scrap yards, it’s not particularly picturesque, it’s not particularly quiet and it’s always looked stagnant, like something straight out of John Barr’s Derelict Britain (1969). This, of course, is why I like it so much.

The House on the Borderland
I had been reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983) ahead of the trip. In addition to understanding the value of a carefully constructed framing device, Hill places her writing well within the tradition of M.R. James and horizontal, landscape gothic. Where James has his East Anglian beaches, Hill transplants wintered Suffolk to the imaginary marshlands of the north east, “a remote corner of England”. Crossing the Nine Lives Causeway to reach the notorious Eel Marsh House, Hills’s narrator Arthur Kipps describes the estuary plain as a space of sublime bleakness:

Today there were no clouds at all, but I could well imagine how magnificently the huge, brooding area of sky would look with grey, scudding rain and storm clouds lowering over the estuary, how it would be here in the floods of February time when the marshes turned to iron-grey and the sky seeped down into them, and in the high winds of March, when the light rippled, shadow chasing shadow across the ploughed fields.

The monochromatic colour-scheme, the rain, the flatness and the sly hints of agriculture and industry: all this matches my impressions of the Accrington-Blackburn canal. It matches my impressions but also, inevitably, my memories, complete with all the fabricated, simulated and nostalgic productivity that accompanies them.

Shortly after this description comes Kipps’s first encounter with Eel Marsh House itself:

It stood like some lighthouse or beacon or martello tower, facing the whole, wide expanse of marsh and estuary, the most astonishingly situated house I had ever seen or could ever have conceivably imagined, isolated, uncompromising but also, I thought, handsome. As we neared it, I saw the land on which it stood was raised up a little, surrounding it on every side for perhaps three or four hundred yards, of plain, salt-bleached grass, and then gravel. This little island extended in a southerly direction across an area of scrub and field towards what looked like the fragmentary ruins of some old church or chapel.

This is James’s preceptory rendered by way of Poe’s House of Usher. The marshland is another “singularly dreary tract of country” where Kipps ‘finds’ himself after travelling “the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day”. On Route 6 there’s a similar house that stands in the fields on the far side of the canal. It lies parallel with the verge of the railway elevation on a small valley floor. In my mind this tract was an open, barren plateau in which the single house stood as if on a parched island. As a child I remember passing by and feeling something like vertigo. You walk down a path that’s filled with vegetation, but as soon as the tree line breaks, the space opens out to this seemingly vast expanse and there’s this lone anchor embedded in the middle of it. Hill’s ground of “plain salt-bleached grass” brought all this back to me. As with the space she describes in her book, what I remember is an area utterly different from the surrounding fields. Punctuated by the brick domes of the coke ovens and no doubt blasted by years of their exhaust fumes, it felt flat, bleached and drained. There was also this long, serpentine chemical pipe running across the far side like some kind of zonal marker.

Heavy rain
When I went back there the whole place was smaller. It was compact, neat and even. Just a house beyond a fence. I doubt this difference came about due to the shaping and re-shaping of the landscape. In fact, I doubt that my earlier version ever physically existed. So where did it this ‘remembered’ area actually come from in the first place? It feels like an old memory rather than a recently mis-remembered veneer. The combined scene of factories, water and strange dereliction is one that I’ve often imaginatively returned to. And it’s been the connection – emotional, probably – to this set of images that has led me to certain texts, not the other way round. That’s to say, I don’t think reading James et al has embellished this place-memory. I’ve gravitated towards his texts and similar, in part, in order to further extend a type of psychic purchase in the memory of an area that was already heavily embellished.

I like these hinterlands precisely because they carry this generative effect: they prompt ideas and images. My home town and its environs is full of yards, quarries, canal paths and millponds. The train out of Accrington used to pass over all kinds of factory sites with their standing waters, holding areas and stockpiles. It was not unlike flying over an apocalyptic scene. Every time, the response was a series of questions: what is this place? Who works here? What happened here? The resonance they emit has little to do with a ‘past’ or any other original point. Instead, it’s more like a continuing oscillation. Now that the industrial and geographic landscape of Route 6 has changed, I don’t mourn the ‘loss’ of the canal side I knew as a child. I never knew it in this form. The weird vista I’ve had in my head for a couple of decades has always been in there. And I’m happy for it to stay in its dome and to continue to develop in whichever way it wants.

Hill knew all about this internal landscape. Here’s how she described Suffolk in “the Seventies”:

The blackened hull of a rotting boat lay low in the mud. The last geese squawked home in the darkening sky. I sensed ghosts everywhere, looked behind me as I walked faster. There was a strange, steely light glinting, and shadows. Easy to let your imagination run away with you there and the scene stayed with me, though it was another 10 years before I actually made use of it.

She made use of it when composing The Woman in Black. Imaginary Suffolk was transplanted to some indeterminate “corner” as part of Kipps’s journey “North”. Whatever haunted her about her daily walking route had little to do with the land itself. What stayed with her was the germ of the work to come.