Empty space

Derelict remains, not far from Canal Street, Stourbridge.
Derelict remains, not far from Canal Street, Stourbridge.

Warning again: I’m going to be talking Black Country history a little further down, but I’ve been interested in what maps do and don’t show, so the preamble is a bit… vague and theoretical.

Maps are complex beasts. They show what they show, for reasons their makers choose, and the inclusions and omissions can define a district. Denis Woods’ rather wonderful The Power Of Maps is recommended reading here: “every map shows this… but not that, and every map shows what it shows this way… but not the other.” And why? Because a map is a tool, and as any handyman will tell you, no two tools are alike. Just like an ‘ommer (or Brumagen screwdriver if you prefer) it’s produced for a job and by a particular maker, and represents what’s best for the interests of that maker, and what that maker thinks will maximize desirability of that tool.

Any trip through the Black Country will reveal a great deal of derelict land. I remember being amazed at this on moving up from London, where every square foot of land is snaffled up by developers to build high-density, green-striped apartments. But London is different to anywhere else: around here, there remains a difference between housing need, the shortage of affordable, comfortable places to live; and effective economic demand for housing, which encourages developers to meet that demand. Hence, a housing shortage and tons of what’s euphemistically called ‘brownfield’. When I walk the dog along the Stourbridge Canal I pass exactly this: a swathe of derelict land with some tumble-down buildings and undergrowth. I’ll go into what it once was in a bit, but first I want to look at how it’s shown on maps.

We turn to Ordnance Survey maps as one of the most respected and thorough mapping agencies in the world and they appear as ultimate symbols of authority, guiding walkers and drivers but also dictating routes and accessibility. I tend towards cowardice when out exploring and don’t often take paths not marked as rights-of-way on my OS Explorer map, so the map is dictating my local spatial practice, from the high viewpoint of the specialist (I’m harking back to Henri Lefebvre here, if you recall). Prohibition, or the absence of permission, is one way in which power can be exerted over a space. It’s true of this derelict land in Stourbridge which is not waymarked. I’ve marked the area on three different scales of OS map, each of which gives a different impression. MasterMap, the highest resolution plan that OS do differentiates between land apparently in its natural state and man-made land, whereas the others don’t – they just note a couple of small buildings and the river.

Ordnance Survey MasterMap view, accessed 30/4/15
Ordnance Survey MasterMap view, accessed 30/4/15
Ordnance Survey VectorMap view, accessed 30/4/15
Ordnance Survey VectorMap view, accessed 30/4/15
Ordnance Survey Explorer view, accessed 30/4/15
Ordnance Survey Explorer view, accessed 30/4/15

On the surface, OS exudes a bland, scientific objectivity, but no such thing exists in map form. By marking an area as ‘manmade’ it could be a car-park, a yard – a suggestion, at least, of private space. Even a government agency has a profit (or not-loss) motive, so why are they showing what they show, and not what they don’t? If OS represents some sort of technocratic power, the ability of administrators to control space by choosing between presence and absence, how much can we learn about the space itself from a map?

Perhaps a clearer motive may help – those in favour of a free market suggest that the profit motive is the purest there is. Private enterprise has always had an interest in maps, and the biggest player right now is Google. Google maps are a different sort of thing, geared towards Google’s search function: it’s important to be able to use these to find an address, a business, to see a front door, to find a road, and as ever with Google, it’s pretty good at it (although it can never seem to find train stations, have you noticed?). Google plays to business – firms locate themselves into Google-space to become findable to someone with limited on-the-ground spatial knowledge. It doesn’t purport to present reality – the image below shows just a big gap across this land, an assumption of nothing of value. It tells me nothing. Google Earth’s satellite imagery is Google’s attempt at ‘truth’ in mapping: the camera never lies, or so they say. Here’s a discourse on space, as Henri would say, and I’ve included the full data citation below as evidence – see how many hands the imagery has gone through before it reaches you. It’s worth reading Woods’ chapter on Tom Van Sant’s satellite map of earth for the most elegant demolition job of the satellite photo that you could hope for. It certainly reveals much more of what’s there than any other map so far; or at least, what was there. Photos are a snapshot of the past, even the recent past – it’s difficult to work out what’s under the vegetation, what exactly the ‘man-made’ section is. More pertinently perhaps, can I go there? Is it safe? What, or who, will I see? What is this so-called objective view of the earth for, if it can’t answer my questions?

Google Maps, accessed 30/4/15
Google Maps, accessed 30/4/15
Google Maps satellite view, accessed 30/4/15
Google Maps satellite view, accessed 30/4/15. Imagery (c) 2015 Bluesky, DigitalGlobe, GetMapping plc, Infoterra Ltd and Bluesky. The GeoInformation Group, Map data (c) 2015 Google.

A final approach is OpenStreetMap, a crowdsourced project which has become an effective and important source of local knowledge. The date accessed is a key piece of information on all these maps, because when and how do they change? Who decides? On OpenStreetMap it’s particularly pertinent because anyone can go in and edit, like Wikipedia. This is interesting, because – bearing in mind the fragility of ‘amateur’ data – it can tell me a lot more than some of the official maps. Here there’s a differentiation not between natural and man-made (because those are a blurry spectrum at best) but between industrial, retail, , brownfield, woods and a lot more- and the division is not the same as the OS. People have used their own spatial knowledge to inform this map, which is why it remains more accurate and often more helpful than Google, which pulls in data via algorithm. I can see where I can park, for instance, where there are gates; even bridges over the River Stour in land I’d have thought inaccessible looking at the ‘official’ maps. These are things someone has considered important.

Open Street Map, accessed 30/4/15
Open Street Map, accessed 30/4/15

Our conceptions of space are mediated by what Woods called “interests”, whether it’s the technological tyranny of the OS (I love the Ordnance Survey, don’t get me wrong), the business interest of Google or the mass of individual interests, knowledges and ignorances of the crowd. All are some sort of conceptualisation and all affect, and are affected by spatial practice. As Lefebvre noted though, this binary doesn’t tell the whole story of spaces: they are also the location of memory, meaning, fears and hopes, emotions. Lefebvre called that overlay of things which mean something, representational space. A few years after he wrote this, Michel de Certeau wrote a wonderful essay entitled Walking In The City, in which he argued that only by getting onto the ground and experiencing space can we know it and use it; the mediating influences of the outside can be put into their correct places by the meaning we find in spaces ourselves. If you go to this empty space, as the maps would have it, you find all sorts of evidence that this is exactly what happens: remains of bonfires, litter, fences and gates left swinging open. For a newcomer like me I can project my own representations onto here: I counter my worries about who might have been here with the reassurance of seeing dog walkers in there. For a long-time Stourbridge resident, this picture is much more complex.

I didn’t set out to argue this, but it seems that only through the practice of history can we fully experience the meaning of a space, so that perhaps we can better start referring to it as a “place”. The canal is of central importance: today’s terminus is not the original – it used to continue round to Mill Race Lane, stopping where Chilly Kiddy’s is now. At the time of the 1885 OS map, it was surrounded by rail branches which linked the Stourbridge branch of the GWR with the various works around this area. Walking along Canal Street, we see the Bonded Warehouse, built in 1779 and itself derelict until restoration in the 1970s. The warehouses beyond were the site of Joseph Young’s works, manufacturing steel from as early as 1835. Opposite, the derelict white building is on the site of James Dovey’s glassworks, founded 1790; this building was part of the vast Stourbridge Rolling Mills site, and its this that left the scarred foundations and broken-down buildings that make up the section marked ‘man-made’ on the OS MasterMap. It clearly was man-made, but I’m always cheered by nature doing its level best at reclamation.

Stourbridge Rolling Mills, by Gareth Edwards
Stourbridge Rolling Mills, by Gareth Edwards

The rolling mills were built in 1908 and eventually extended all over this area. Its closure in 1982, the last of over 300 Black Country hand rolling mills, is symbolic of the deindustrialisation of the region, and must have been a tragic loss to Stourbridge. The site covered much of the River Stour, which explains its ‘cut-up’ look on the maps.

Further along, the section marked ‘natural’ by the OS was actually the site of Stourbridge Ironworks. It looks natural – this isn’t concrete foundations underfoot, but dirt, grass and riverbank. But there was a foundry on this site for nearly 200 years since John Bradley founded the company in 1802. The later “new foundry” set up to the rear by Foster, Rastrick and Co. (a related company) in 1821 survives still, only recently converted from glorious dilapidation into even-more-glorious use as the new Lion Health Centre – it’s beautiful. Here’s where the famous Stourbridge Lion (first train to run in America) and Agenoria (now housed in the railway museum in York) locomotives were built. The original foundry was served by two canal basins, and you walk over the humps on the towpath to this day.

© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1885
© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1885

My explorations through the ironworks site took me around the rear of a derelict house – this was Riverside, built for the manager of the foundry early in the nineteenth century. To get around the back – although you wouldn’t know it – you cross the path of the private railway from the foundries to the canal. Look on the towpath and you can see some embedded rails and the base of a rotating crane as proof.

Continue through the woods and you’ll come to a little stream – but of course, it’s not. It’s part of the self-levelling system of the canal, draining down to a wonderfully-tranquil (now) Stour, next to a canal company drydock that seems now to be marked by a discarded bath.

Map of the derelict area, taken from Stourbridge.com (original source Dudley MBC)
Map of the derelict area, taken from Stourbridge.com (original source Dudley MBC)

Instead of just ‘derelict ground’ we have industry of massive importance, internationally and locally. Stourbridge is famous for glass, but a much more significant industry in terms of employment in the town were these massive iron and steel works. So, the empty space is not empty at all, whatever the maps tell us. It’s used by people (not to mention animals, birds, insects…) and it’s chock-full of memory and meaning.

Reading: I recommend Graham Fisher’s narrated walk along the ‘Crystal Mile

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