Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Strange Delight Of Lost Corners

This is another of those postings of me thinking back over quirky things that have caught my attention down the years and probably mean very little to anyone else.  However, perhaps I am wrong and my fascination with areas that I term 'lost corners' may intrigue others too.  When I was a boy at secondary school I was once on a school trip to London.  I was sitting in a coach somewhere like Wandsworth probably heading to the Imperial War Museum, maybe somewhere else.  Anyway I was on board a coach which was stuck in a traffic jam.  I was sat next to the window, uncommon for me as I generally sit in the aisle given the length of my legs and my concern about escaping from crashes.  Anyway, I looked down at a metal railing fence that enclosed the garden of a large house.  I was looking at the bit that came up to a post which marked the end of the wooden fence that surrounded the garden next door.  The garden with the railing fence was terribly overgrown, I remember.  Consequently I assumed that no-one ever went up to that corner of the fence, no-one picked up the litter there or did anything with the railings from that side let alone the concrete pole.  However, there had to have been some day when all of this had been important to someone.  Somebody had worked to erect the fence, to dig the hole and insert the concrete pole and yet now it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever set foot in that corner, perhaps for decades perhaps for even longer.  Of course, someone may have cut back the rhododendron and demolished the railings and removed the fence post later that day.  Even if they had, here was a space in which no human and probably few birds or other animals had been.

That was the day I realised that I had a fascination for spaces which were not invisible, but certainly lost to humanity for the foreseeable future.  It made me think that even in cities where we believe that every corner is jammed full of people, there are many areas which are untouched by people.  It reminded me of the UK as a whole.  We have some of the densest populations in Europe but there are large swathes of the country, vast areas of Scotland, Wales, the national parks, much of the South-West and the northern English counties, that are in fact almost empty of humans.  We are all jammed into quite restricted areas and there are these other spaces in which we do not go into.  I think it would be fascinating to map areas, particularly in London, where no-one goes.  I think this was one of the reasons why the Open House scheme has proven so popular.  Every year buildings to which the public and in fact very few people in general have access, are open for free.  I have been inside Marble Arch and down into Aldwych underground station plus various water pumping stations.  Typically those places for which you see a door but one that presents a blank face, a door as a wall in effect.

I have often thought this too about television and movie dramas when people come to London or some other great city trying to find someone.  Generally they do not experience how it is in reality.  Even if you manage to find the person among the teeming millions, you might reach their building and simply be faced with a door that will not open, through which no-one will let you.  So much of our cities are like this.  Wherever you walk you go passed location after location after location into which you could never gain access no matter how hard you tried.  I do wonder if one of the appeals of Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry's 'Neverwhere' (series & novelisation, 1996) was that there was an entire 'London Below' (in fact, often above as well) that could be accessed by forming doors in those very blanks walls.  I have a feeling that Gaiman and Henry saw such spaces, especially in London much as I have done, though saw a way through rather than for me, just feeling repeatedly rejected by them.

That silent rejection, I feel is different to the lost corners.  Of course, someone may have had the intention to close them off; fenced them around.  Yet, for me the best of them have become a lost corner because they have become overgrown or simply because they are no longer important.  In the house I currently rent a room in, from the kitchen I look at the back of another house, set at right-angles as it opens on another road.  I have never seen the residents, but the entirety of the back of the house, is overgrown and blocked from the side of my house by an old iron fence.  Once that space was important, part of a building site for the house, perhaps a location where children sneaked around the house as I used to go between my parents' house and my neighbours' down the narrow gap.  Certainly for many days people tramped around that space and at some time, maybe then, maybe later put and iron fence in, presumably along precisely defined lines.  The space is still there and plants inhabit it, and yet whilst I can see it, without great effort I could never be in that space.  It reminds me too, of the wonderful views you see while driving down the motorway knowing that however beautiful it is, there is no way you can capture that precise view certainly not without a severe risk of death and being arrested, perhaps in the reverse order.

I think it is that fact, 'so near, yet so far', like the eyots you see from the trains as you go over or alongside the Thames.  You would love to go on to them.  There would be very little on most of them and one or two are protected, but it would be that excitement of stepping somewhere no-one has been for so long.  Maybe I am wrong and they would be full of leftovers of drunken student parties.  I wonder if it is a little like what motivates people to climb mountains or explore jungles, to go into spaces which you feel are rather outside the flow of time.  Reflecting on this interest of mine, I know that it is not restrained to overgrown gardens or disused yards.  It also stems to those rooms you see on the top of old buildings, equipped with windows and yet with no-one to look out of them.  You see them all over old cities, London, Oxford, Bath particularly among them.  Does anyone go into those spaces and what do they contain, bar dust?

My feelings about lost corners is one of wistfulness, feeling perhaps because they are not entered and walked across, that they retain a small scoop of the past of some days when they were something that warranted the attention of people, even if just the workers sent to put in a fence.  A teacher of mine explained how when he had gone to Arizona and saw so much of it as it would have looked many centuries earlier, he felt unnerved.  Returning to Britain he realised it was the starkness of the American South West that alarmed him in the very fact that it was wild, it had not been softened, worked on by humans.  Britain, in contrast, is very different.  You can go almost everywhere in this country and see the trace of humans.  Many rural fields have tumuli dating back millenia; others have Roman roads or forts or banjo enclosures or filled in quarries or torn up railtracks.  As 'Time Team' has shown seemingly ever corner of Britain has been impacted upon directly by humans, not simply in terms of pollution but messing around with it.  Archaeology programmes show us that not only has our back garden been part of centuries of structures but even on remote Scottish islands the trace of humans is there; the rolling valleys of the Yorkshire Dales were deforested before there was a written language.  I have never been anywhere as untouched as my teacher, but I imagine I would feel as unnerved as him.  This is why, I guess I am fascinated by these corners that show human intervention, but unlike the average stretch of pavement or even garden, that intervention has ceased and it is as if we are walking past a snapshot from some particular time, not out of time, but somehow on a parallel rather than bisecting path to the spaces we habitually go into.  I have wondered whether to take photos of some of these places and put them up on this blog.  However, I guess that is taking being a nerd just that little too far and instead will confine myself to the wistful enjoyment of such forgotten corners whenever I see them.

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