Knee-deep snow has meant that I’ve been able to get on with preparing a third album of images based on my experiences of going home. This time I’ve experimented with creating a record of my route around the town that is based on an Australian Aboriginal approach where maps are created without any written reference points such as street names or grid references. The idea is to create a pictorial record of familiar childhood places merged with my present day experiences of the town. This is a small part of the story behind the image …
Although I’d regularly gone home until the late 1990s, I hadn’t been in the town centre itself for around 20 years. I knew the town had benefitted from recent investment via Channel 4’s Kevin McCloud and the Big Town Plan – a project intended to set the Arts at the centre of regeneration - and so I was curious to see the results of this. So, I parked the car and decided to head off towards the river using a route I’d walked hundreds of times as a child. Well, that was the plan! A quick glance to the left and I was immediately disorientated. The old railway underpass (dark, damp, perpetually smelling of urine, yet capable of generating a deep, reverberating thunder as trains rolled over) has been replaced by a contemporary red and white structure proudly sporting a plaque bearing the name ‘Tickle Cock Bridge’. Yes, you did read that correctly. And no, this isn’t a reference to poultry! Apparently this was a well-established local nickname for this underpass indicative of its somewhat dodgy Victorian past. What? How come I missed this? You’d expect that at least one of my peers would have homed in on this epithet as something risqué for use to snigger at amongst ourselves (in private of course, lest we incur the wrath of puritanical parents). Is this a joke adults kept firmly to themselves? If so, I feel cheated out of a childhood coup! Yet, there’s also a part of me that wonders if the locals have actually pulled one over on the developers here. Anyway, whatever the reasoning behind the name, it appealed to my sense of the ridiculous and so I moved on with a smile … only to encounter a dead end. Hmm … my usual path to the town centre is now a large shopping centre! It’s going to be one of those days.
On finding a route through to the town centre, I entered a precinct that was familiar and yet different. It’s interesting to see how places evolve over time; what’s gone, what’s been relocated, what’s new. Although many shops are still as I remember, I was quite stunned to discover that the old indoor market is now just a façade concealing a gutted shell. The indoor market had been central to every shopping trip as a child. It used to be a bustling place, alive with activity, noise and colour. My uncle had been trader there for years and I clearly remember his name above the stall and the distinctive smell of the leather goods he made and sold. Yet, now there is absolutely nothing left to mark its existence. Today the building is just empty space; its life force relocated to a new position beside the shopping centre. A closer look revealed two large murals attached to the white, ceramic tiled walls, so I guess this might be part of the town’s heritage trail. If so, the space is probably still used in some capacity during the week. Yet, this morning the building just seemed dark and abandoned. I was itching to get inside with the camera, but the entrance was locked and I didn’t fancy playing Russian roulette with the alarm system. So, instead, I walked down the adjacent ginnel (not used that term in years) to see if I might get a better view from behind. Careful what you wish for! The whole of the back of the market has gone and the area which used to be filled with rows of outdoor stalls is now tarmac and fresh air. The result is a clear view of Queen’s Mill and the new footbridge across the river. Not quite the view I anticipated, but technically it is a better one!
I decided to give up on the market and homed in on the new footbridge. I stayed there for most of the morning taking photographs and chatting to passers by, before eventually moving off towards the Parish Church. I wanted to see if what had once been Great Aunt Liza’s bijou sweet shop was still there. En route, I crossed the site of the Roman fort. This is one of Castleford’s big claims to fame. Yet, there’s little evidence of its existence above ground. Archaeologists are given small windows of time to get in, record what they can, and get out again before developers sink the evidence beneath concrete, brick and tarmac. I find it hugely ironic that the Romans taught us how to build the roads that we now build over them. Perhaps our latent Brigantine genes just can’t resist an opportunity for revenge! However, match this approach against ways in which other historic sites are managed, and I think someone’s buried a potential a goldmine here. Ah well, the fort isn’t going anywhere so perhaps future generations will see things differently. I digress! Aunt Liza’s sweet shop is now a cab firm. What? Arghhh! There’s nothing mouth-wateringly delicious about a taxi! (On the other hand, you can’t rely on a Pontefract Cake to get you home at midnight!) It’s strange how events play out over time. As a child I heard tales of ruthless competition surrounding these premises; veiled allusion to family skulduggery as unscrupulous siblings parcelled off Aunt Liza to an asylum so they could get their hands on the shop (or at least the takings) and then rumours of her death from a broken heart. I’m not sure how true this is. It all happened (allegedly) a very long time ago. Yet, I do remember seeing her name above the shop window and, if she was dispossessed of the family silver, then I’m really sorry that this final vestige of everything she worked for has now been erased from the town.
The rest of the walk will be documented in more detail elsewhere as part of the project. So, I’ll only make one other observation before summing up my thoughts on today’s experiences. This relates to the seemingly timeless nature of Castleford’s signature rows of terraced houses. These streets remain relatively unchanged except for a noticeable increase in UPVC and hardwood uniformity. Prior to this, the colour of exterior paintwork offered some insight into the personality of the occupants, and sprucing up the paintwork was a community event in that the choice of colour inevitably attracted interest and critical review from all who passed. Conformists chose shades which complemented neighbouring properties. Nonconformists did their own thing and ignored the gossip. I remember the appearance of Shocking Pink in a nearby street which scandalised the neighbourhood. Now that was rebellion writ large! Sadly, this property, like many of its neighbours, is now unequivocally white. These terraces are far better insulated, and probably more secure, but definitely less colourful. Yet, whilst in other towns much of the terraced housing has been demolished, I found it reassuring to find continuity within these very familiar streets. So much so that I had to suppress a ridiculous urge to sprint up the street to my parents’ door like I'd always done as a child.
As I reflect on my visits, two things really strike me: Firstly, the clear evidence of the town’s economic decline over the past 20 years. The town centre seems to have been pared down to its bones and I find it hard to accept that those who drive change refuse to acknowledge, or take responsibility for, its negative effects on communities. I’m not saying that progress is a bad thing, I just think that the raison d’être for change ought to be as much people-centred as economic and political. However, on a more positive note, the town’s regeneration partnership is clearly working to turn things round and, if future investment in the town centre matches the vision and standard of the new footbridge, then things could become very different. Could an Arts-centred approach to regeneration prove successful here? I guess only time will tell.
Secondly, I really noticed that the specific places that had once signified home and connected me to my father’s side of the family, are now either gone, or occupied by strangers. This is largely indicative of time and the fact that fewer people choose to live their whole lives in the same place. Yet, despite living within this community as a child and retaining a connection long into adulthood, it is no longer possible for me to go home or visit relatives here. Thus, my relationship with this town has evolved into something more distant and transient. I have now become an observer rather than a participant.
It is this changing nature of places, and the effects of change on personal connections to place, that I want to explore further. How do my experiences and perceptions compare with those of others? I also want to experiment with a more cross-cultural approach to image making. I’m not entirely sure how all this might unfold yet, so I’ll keep you posted.
Many experiences in and around my home town of Castleford in West Yorkshire have contributed to making me the person I am today. So, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks exploring this place-based connection through three sets of images which will inform my first trip to the darkroom to produce some photograms. The countryside surrounding the Aire and Calder Navigation was my favourite childhood playground and one landmark en route that has always fascinated me is the weir next to the flour mill. The River Calder joins the River Aire just to the North of Castleford and since the early 12th Century there have been references to mills downstream of this confluence. Queen’s Mill dates from around 1822 and was the largest flour mill of its type - originally powered by a 20ft waterwheel. The adjacent weir pool is huge since the river at this point is somewhere in the region of 130 metres across.
My childhood memory of this section of river is of a bizarre, gigantic bubble bath … but not one you’d be eager to pamper yourself in! The water was heavily polluted by industrial effluent and gave off a distinctive, astringent smell as scouring agents from upstream textile manufacturing were churned into monstrous soapsuds by the weir. These suds regularly spilled over to carpet the lower reaches of the town in ‘snow’ and, when the wind was in the right direction, they would even appear in the garden of our home on the other side of town! The water today still carries undertones of that characteristic smell, yet much has been done in recent years to clean the river up and restore its former wildlife. Also, thanks to Kevin McCloud’s Big Town Plan, the river is now spanned by Renato Benedetti’s spectacular footbridge which opened to the public in July 2008. The contemporary design of the bridge follows the S-shaped contours of the weir and the resulting structure is a fine addition to the landscape. Judging by the number of locals who stopped to talk to me, the residents are proud of their footbridge and what it means to them in terms of investment and regeneration.
The footbridge allowed me my first ever opportunity to get up really close and personal with the river as it crosses the weir. It’s one thing to view it from the banks. It’s an entirely different experience to stand over the top of this torrent and watch/hear/feel it flow beneath your feet. There are many photographs of the bridge already out there and so I didn’t want to create more of the same. Instead, I have chosen to characterise the many experiences of the day through a series of multiple-image, multi-layered montages. After experiments with colour and monochrome effects, I have mainly used black and white images as these best convey the linear qualities of the bridge contrasted against the textural qualities of immediate landscape. The river rises fairly rapidly in response to rainfall in its upper catchment and water crossing the weir at the time of the photoshoot was relatively deep and fast-flowing. What these images cannot convey is the sheer speed and power of this river and its relentless, deep roar as it flows downstream. This is perhaps something I need to think about as a possible further development of ideas.