Friday, March 13, 2009

From A Morning Train

Last week I attempted (or at least contemplated) the highly complex and technically ambitious project of twittering a photo essay from the train via Twitpic. Not being very technically savvy I soon gave up and read Private Eye instead. Here are the photos I took (from my phone hence the outrageously poor quality /what I like to think of as a Gerhard Richter-esque painterly quality) as the landscape flashed by, together with requisite mordant observations.

The English countryside is in a mess. It is neither green nor that pleasant on the whole. Generally understood to be charmingly unspoilt, it is in fact unnatural and being redeveloped all the time. The best place to view it is from a train window. Trains pass through the back end of everywhere, giving you the worst, most interesting viewpoint.

Very little open countryside is actually countryside. Vast pylons march across it. Reservoirs are sunk into it. Piles of debris, bricks and old agricultural equipment lie abandoned in it. As do burnt out cars, coaches infested with weeds, strange shacks, empty warehouses, tarpaulins covering mysterious bundles of materials, slag heaps and soil tips. Red and white candy striped tape flaps between timber poles, marking out the lines of new roads.

Trains pass through this liminal zone, a not quite there space between cities and villages. Houses march relentlessly out into it, their higgledy piggledy outlines forming an advance party into the green belt.

Motorways, canals, bridges, B-roads and adhoc car parks collide on the edges of towns as if designed by an insane Hornby model maker. Something about the view from a train, - elevated above the usual eye level - removes the landscape from reality. Tiny cars inch along country lanes. A tractor plods across a field. A 4x4 stops at a level crossing.

Huge sheds loom out of the middle distance guarding their mysterious contents. Small farm houses sit dwarfed by groups of crinkly tin barns containing piles of grain or thousands of chickens. Patches of concrete suggest where other buildings might once have been, structures phased out by advances in agribusiness. A bent piece of corrugated iron held down by bricks is home to a pig.

Power stations, factories and warehouses all follow the railway. Loading bay numbers flash by from a distribution centre. Pallets of blue circle cement are moved from one place to another. A skip is filled up with copper tubing.

Just outside Stevenage an advertising mast looms into view. TK Maxx, Old Orlean's, a Vue cinema, Halfords, Tesco and the conference centre. A business park appears like a pleasant oasis.

A van sits on a patch of concrete by a town's edge. Ubiquitous cheap apartment blocks, clad in brick and pressed metal look out over a landscape frequented by teenagers and others excluded from mainstream leisure activities. Scraps of torn up pornography get caught in the branches of a tree.

Electricity pylons are quite beautiful and mostly go unnoticed. Above the ploughed fields there is the constant hum of electricity. If you are lucky, you get to see a wind turbine too.


Blaize said...

Before I even read your description, I thought of the photos as "painterly." And the description is poetic, and makes the unlovely compelling.

I am going to Tajikistan in May, and will keep your description style here in mind, as a way to try to write about space and place.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks Blaize. Very kind of you to say so.

Kosmograd said...

I've long thought that the vast majority of the built environment goes completely ignored by the mainstream architectural press and the profession in general. Yet these spaces shape people's lives to a much greater extent than the latest starchitectural icon, or the sensitive public buildings by respected practices that fill the trade journals.

From a train window you will see Britain as it really is.

BTW, an essential 'from-a-train' video is the Chemical Brothers' Star Guitar.

Charles Holland said...

absolutely kosmo...

btw where is that video do you think? Spain?

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