In Unofficial Britain, a journey through the decaying margins of the UK’s built environment, Gareth E Rees seeks to uncover how myths build up around seemingly mundane places. His focus is on the factories, motorways, canals and industrial estates that were the backbone of modern development. Overturning French anthropologist Marc Augé’s notion of “non-places”, we see how sites that are in parlous states of dysfunction enter local folklore.
In Glasgow, exploring a map marking an abandoned ring road plan, he cites archaeologists who claimed the city’s development follows sacred geometric lines and notes the anticlockwise or “widdershins” subway system, a direction of travel considered unlucky in Celtic and pagan folklore.
In Grimsby, paranormal events on housing estates are analysed in relation to the fishing port’s decline. His thoughts switch to places haunted by deprivation and “the loss of a future”. A Scottish port’s downturn also gives us the “Greenock catman” — reputedly a former dockworker gone feral who lives off rats by a nearby industrial estate, places which “conceal as much as they reveal”. In Harlow, Essex, the conversion of office blocks into inadequate housing has an “inherent creepiness”.
We move on to the lost world of industrial output from toxic but weirdly comforting and familiar sites. Rees traces secret ICI bomb factories in the Welsh mountains, and believes he encounters mythical black dogs by the disused steelworks near Wrexham where his grandfather worked. Here, personal connections have powerful resonance. He also finds “rich spiritual life” under motorways. In Bristol, close to the M32, the urban park that was once a no-go area is a “thrumming nexus of concrete, vegetation, humans and machines”. As the artist Mark Leckey recently illustrated with an exhibition centred on a life-sized replica of the Wirral’s M53 flyover, such spaces allow mischief, dancing and delirium, especially for the young.
On occasions the quest for discovery falls flat. At a Midlands service station, he offers a fanciful take on a roundabout’s standing stones but doesn’t disclose the real reason for their presence. A wander around a working hospital also feels like the targeted walks had strayed too far into directionless dérives.
Rees does acknowledge, however, that emblems of modernity are problematic for different reasons. Pylons “bring excitement to the topography” but oil or gas-fired power represents a plundering of the earth’s resources. He loves to witness “the ballet of metal machines” on motorways and the “series of unfolding views” it allows him of the Lake District, but realises all those gas guzzlers are becoming ever guiltier pleasures. Multistorey car parks, too, are an “old solution to an outdated problem” of how towns and cities function.
It’s this awareness that makes the book more than a compendium of strange Britain. In the wake of the pandemic, the abandoned office blocks, retail complexes and residential units of the near future could well prove fertile ground for urban explorers.
Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places, by Gareth E Rees, Elliott & Thompson, RRP£14.99, 288 pages
Murray Withers is the FT’s Assistant Analysis Editor
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