Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2011): Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness: London: Vintage Books
J.A.P.Alexander(2015):Perspectives on Place:London:Bloomsbury
Robert MacFarlane:”Edgelands” review
In “Power” Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts make mention of Didcot power station. This is a landmark I have known for most of my life; the return journey from any trip south would bring this into view when coming over the Berkshire Downs and we knew that we would soon be home. This was a common response; many of my friends have described the same feeling on seeing the six cooling towers. Mostly we only saw them from afar though; I didn’t live in Didcot and did not go there much at all when younger. Seeing them from close-up is a very different experience though. The sheer size and scale is hard to appreciate from a distance even though they stand out so distinctively from many miles away. However there are now only three towers, and in the next year or so the remaining ones will go as well.
Reading “Wire” and “Power” together does suggest that there is not really a fixed idea of what is meant here by “Edgelands”. J.A.P. Alexander says perhaps the enchantment is “because they make up the least well-documented and most ignored bits of the country”. This is true of out of the way industrial or military establishments but how can a power station be said to be ignored? Something so huge is always going to dominate any view within many miles. It isn’t then just the visual aspect that distinguishes them. These are places we are not supposed to go, and – open days apart – generally have no ready access to either. Places like this are easier to ignore if we know we have no right or reason to go any closer. As scenery it is so all-encompassing that we forget it is there. Is that what we mean here? In “Power” Farley and Symmons Roberts note John Davies’ photograph of Agecroft power station, and that a football match is taking place right next to the four cooling towers. As they say, “life goes on, even in the shadow of the epic and monumental”.
Perhaps another aspect of how to categorise places as edgelands is that they should be out of the way, places that are not straightforward to get at. I took this on a minor road leading out of Oxford, showing the far side of the BMW Mini Factory.
The land in the foreground has been unused for some time but the fencing and barriers around it are fairly new. The newness of these immediately makes the open space less forgettable than it would be without the fencing. It does seem to me that forgetting is a definite aspect of edgelands. There should be something about a place that suggests it is being ignored, either physically because it has been that way for a long time, or psychologically because we get so used to it that we can almost pretend it isn’t there.
As time goes by these forgotten spaces get reused, tidied up, and are no longer forgotten. I am old enough to remember from my childhood that there were still a few bomb sites left over from the second world war. Places that had been that way for so long that they had become part of the furniture, permanent fixtures in the urban landscape. Maybe they weren’t actual bomb sites but that was what we believed at the time. They still had the feeling of forgotten permanence though. But nothing remains forgotten for long and even though “Edgelands” was published in 2011, I suspect a few or more of the places they describe have already changed appearance.
Robert MacFarlane in reviewing “Edgelands” in The Guardian suggests the authors are over-romanticizing the places they describe. The descriptions they give in both “Wire” and “Power” do rather reinforce his view but that does not negate their aims entirely. These are interesting places, because they do lead us into awareness of places that are otherwise ignored, and especially because they will not always be there. How often do we look at a new building and think ‘I wonder what used to be there?’