“These are landscapes not considered to be ‘proper’ countryside, yet they harbour an array of life and can have as much beauty as the postcard rural Britain of common imagination.”
Unofficial Britain: Journeys Through Unexpected Places, by Gareth E. Rees, explores the ‘magic, mythology and folklore of urban space’. The author travels the length and breadth of Britain seeking out places many would overlook as they pass through. He delves into the history of structures that at first glance are ubiquitous but on closer inspection may harbour unique stories and features.
Time imbues what has gone before with nostalgia. A Victorian mill may now be regarded as worthy of preservation while a motorway flyover is hailed an eyesore, new roads widely protested against. Fields razed to make way for yet another housing estate are mourned for the cost to nature, with people forgetting that man has always used his surrounds in this way.
“By the seventeenth century the great forests that covered the land had been largely plundered for houses, ships and fuel, while fields had been enclosed for agriculture and ownership by those pretty hedgerows we sentimentalise today. The entirety of the lowland country had been reconfigured for the benefit of humans.”
Chapters are divided by the structure or place on which the author is focusing. The first of these is the electricity pylon.
“To attack the ugliness of electricity pylons, on which we rely for our daily lives, is to deny the truth of the state we live in, the civilisation we have built and the price we must pay for it.”
As well as considering the varying reactions to these ‘modern invaders’, the author shares tales of darkness – hauntings and suicides – and also the art they have inspired. To some a pylon is a thing of awe and beauty, to others it is a blot on the landscape.
Next comes an investigation of ring roads and roundabouts. Underneath a flyover on Glasgow’s incomplete ring road can be found ‘a hotchpotch underworld of cobbled slopes, pathways, stone plinths and steps’. Just as archaeologists sift through ancient remains to try to ascertain how our ancestors lived, so Rees examines more modern design and detritus to see if he can make sense of purpose or possible messages left. A surprising amount of lore is uncovered along with evidence of the illicit – attracted to spaces that go largely unseen.
Hauntings in housing estates are probed, along with stories of poltergeists and local ghostbusting teams.
Buildings such as factories and power stations become iconic as time passes. What may once have been complained of as ugly can quickly become venerated when steeped in local memory. Land use has always been modified to suit the now.
“the latest aspect of the biography of this location”
In delving into the spaces behind or beneath a place, the author opines that fear induced – such as monstrous creatures glimpsed in shadows – is not the result of an overactive imagination but rather a survival instinct that humans have experienced for centuries.
“A place is made of stories you read and rumours you hear. It is made of prejudices and anxieties, shaped by your past experiences. It is an atmosphere”
Graffiti is art to some. Shrines can exist without sanctified spaces.
Whatever the beauty, or otherwise, of the roads and buildings that fall under the author’s gaze, his musings are fascinating to consider. It is not just the particular stories that he shares but also what can be learned about people’s perceptions – their reaction to change.
“After each new manifestation replaces the old, it too becomes worn, decayed and saturated with nostalgia, to the point where some mourn its passing as much as others once lamented its coming. So the circle turns.”
Rees writes with a very particular style. He harnesses the personal and philosophical, offering thoughts that are penetrating yet always entertaining. He has an eye for the surreal and the skill to present this as worthy of consideration.
I wasn’t convinced by the poems that conclude each chapter, although they do offer a kind of nursery rhyme coda – perhaps of the darker variety – to the preceding narrative.
Unofficial Britain is a study of aspects of the isle from a rarely viewed perspective. It will encourage the reader to look more closely at surrounds not typically regarded as of interest. It offers a fresh take on vistas some may too readily dismiss.
“Whatever changes come, let us never fall prey to the delusion of a halcyon past and convince ourselves that any single period of history is more authentic than another”
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott & Thompson.