Apologies firstly for the lack of recent posts, deadlines and yadda yadda. Happily, my most recent is just past, so I rewarded myself by taking the dog for a walk on the cansl (or as it’s properly said, tekkin’ the wammel up the cut).
I lived in London for nearly ten years. If there’s one thing London’s good at, people will say, it’s parks: the centre of the city is blessed with more green spaces than almost any other equivalent capital. There’s a great deal of literature on both the Foucauldian, class-disciplinary nature of parks as public space, and problems of accessibility in the present day that shows you can make too much of a city’s amenities. But my heart lies in the Black Country – an unorthodox urbanism here, where villages and ancient sites of industry persist despite the conglomerising nature of modern society. Turn off the bypasses and ring roads, and you’ll find a tremendous amount of publicly accessible green space, much of it semi-wild and less subject to the tyranny of the parkie that the Beano taught me about.
If you refer to Warren’s Hall, Windmill End or Bumble Hole, most locals will know what you’re talking about. It’s a re-purposed mining site, like much of the Black Country, and to say it would have looked different 100 years ago is something of an understatement. Let me take you on a tour. Starting at the car park on New Rowley Road, we head through patches of trees and past reedy ponds until we reach Bullfield Bridge. 130 years ago I couldn’t have done the same. The ponds may have been there, as stagnant waste pools perhaps, but to get to the Dudley No. 2 Canal I’d have had to negotiate Warrens Hall Colliery Pit No. 2 and its tramway incline, then Pit No.1. Walking today, it’s amazing how small the space is. You can see how small – the famous Cobb’s Engine House is there, the pumping engine for Pit No.3, and it’s just not huge. Even though it housed a mighty Newcomen engine, it was nothing compared to other famous Black Country landmarks like the Bilston Steelworks.
Crossing the bridge (where I learnt that it’s customary to blow your horn because of the steepness of the hump) and turning onto the towpath I’d have seen on the opposite bank the colliery, its basin (now gone) and various coke ovens, before reaching the station. Yes a station – very close to the canal junction now there was a stop on the Bumble Hole branch from Old Hill to Dudley. No trace at all of that now. You can keep going on the canal all the way to Dudley – I went as far as Lodge Farm Rezzer – and you would have walked past furnaces, collieries, a spade and shovel works, the famous Atlas tube works and Marine anchor works. I’d recommend heading up the Bumble Hole Branch – it’s what was cut off by the Netherton Tunnel branch – for a slightly overwhelming collection of canalophilia of the sort that would delight Umberto Eco. There’s no sign of the boilerworks, the ironworks, the furnaces, shafts or kilns.
I had a go at plotting street layouts over time in the area, but actually found it unhelpful, at least on this basic level. We tend to assume that city growth is organic and that you can trace a history quite well by walking the roads of your neighbourhood. But often, as discussed elsewhere, the palimpsest falls down. I think this is especially true around here, and you’d probably find it in other forming mining communities. By means of comparison, London is an ancient city – it’s tough to argue with the vast weight of spatial history if you want to change the internal structure of London. Railways had a go, but otherwise London tended to sprawl, and by the time it sprawled, people were starting to think that a bit of parkland is a good thing – and might turn those uppity working types into more civilized citizens.
In the Black Country though, there’s much more evidence of overhaul after overhaul. Once it was fields, of course, but that was sprawled over by the foul waste of extractive industry. By the end of the nineteenth century, Warrens Hall, Windmillend and Withymoor collieries were closed and much of the formerly industrial land was returning to waste. By the 1930s almost everything had gone except for some decaying industrial buildings and the unkempt little hamlet of Windmill End. The era of large new estates, filled with semi-detached homes fit for heroes had not made its way this far yet, although Rowley and Netherton nearby were starting to swell.
From the sixties, large blocks start appearing on the map, then later estates of privately-built new houses, until today, the typical Black Country industrial village that the Black Country Museum will show you, is completely re-drawn. Sure, there’s traces if you dig for them, but there’s not the weight of history in industrial towns that ancient cities command, and as such it seems fair game to build without too much thought. It’s pretty wonderful though, that in a seemingly-unloved little corner of the Black Country, between towns and centres, the space has been seized back from development and allowed to be beautiful in a natural kind of way.