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[About me] About the author

Touring Britain bit by bit with a pair of boots, a few bicycles, a lot of trains and a bag of lenses. I take pictures and then I write about them.

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abandoned places and things architecture bristol coastal cumbria dorset events highlands history industrial lake district lakes london mountains not the uk photo essays photography politics protests rural rural decay scotland somerset structures the north uk urban urban decay wales westcountryall tags

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Mon, 31 May 2010

This is Cincinnati

Mill Creek Valley

You've probably heard the name, but unless you're American, you won't really know where it is. It's in Ohio, the Mid-West, but it spills out into Kentucky and Indiana. It's where the Rust Belt meets the Bible Belt to the south, and the Prairies of the West. A city of two million sprawled over an area the size of London.

Danger! Pool Closed

I lived there, for a year, nearly five years ago. While I was there, I wanted to find out what the city was like, to document it through photography. I didn't set out to tell this specific story. I didn't seek out these specific places. They mostly found me, and right from the start. Still jetlagged, we walked up our street, West Clifton Avenue. It was the second day of August, not long after 8am, the heatwave had already set in for the day, and the senses were largely overpowered by the uncollected garbage. Pausing for water at the Starbucks at the top of the hill, two men with shotguns held up the savings-and-loans opposite, before being chased by a pistol-wielding cop down our street. Down the path we had been walking five minutes earlier.

Cincinnati Cincinnati

That was our neighbourhood, Clifton Heights. Somebody had put a lot of effort into it, once, laying out streets around the hillside, with parks on promontories overlooking the city. People had bought their own plots and filled them with huge three-story homes, each one unique, a mashup of American, German, and Italian architectural styles. That was a hundred years ago, though. Now the houses crumbled, the sidewalks cracked. People had paved over the gardens with parking lots, but now those were cracked and crumbling too, often pleasantly overgrown.


Nobody cared for the neighbourhood by now. Not the students, whose near futures they knew did not belong there; or their neighbours, whose crack-den might get picked on, packed up, and moved on next time the mayor or police chief was under pressure to look busy. Not the Mexicans in the corner shop, who just wanted to blend in and not be noticed. Not the crazy people, the shell-shocked and schizophrenic, who wandered the streets unsupervised, day and night, stealing from the Mexicans, and sleeping in the doorway of the Catholic church, where the wind raced down the empty rubble-strewn plots along Calhoun and McMillan. This was a third-world neighbourhood, now; a neighbourhood that people didn't have time to care for, because it was already enough work just to survive. And everywhere there were third world neighbourhoods.

Smokestacks spewing black smoke...

This was a third-world city, a city full of crime and poverty, dereliction and shanty towns, houses not fit for habitation. Streets that looked like the poorer parts of South America and industry that looked like the decline of the Soviet Union. And its most starkly third-world feature of all was its corrupt, dysfunctional, divided, and deeply racist police force. In 2001, Cincinnati Police shot and killed 19 year old Timothy Thomas, father of a one-year old. Sorry, Police shot one unarmed black male. Sparking what were, at the time that I was there, America's most recent race riots.


Cincinnati was a town of casual conversational racism and deadly daily racism. Each morning the newspaper reported on what the black male was up to. The police department erected memorials to their fallen in the war with the black male. It was normal to talk that way.

And it was a third-world city where the minimum wage was $2.80. an hour.

There were signs of the developed world, though. Shining high-rise office blocks downtown and shining high-tech laboratories in the hills; expensive hospitals, and most of all, expensive cars.

Cincinnati Cincinnati

Cincinnati is a third-world city because five great interstate freeways cut through its historic neighbourhoods to converge on the heart of the city, allowing its first-world residents to flee from any sign of poverty and decay out to shining white houses scattered in gated "communities" amongst the forests and farms and shopping malls, thirty miles from the bearded sixty-something black male who would shout and slur and stumble at them in the street, smashing bottles on the sidewalk; from the forty-something threadbare-suited black male who would stop them to beg for money, tell a half-plausible story claiming to be a pastor, a refugee from New Orleans; from the eighteen-year old black male who would punch them in the face for a dollar. The inhabitants of the first world don't need to see the crumbling houses, cracked side-walks, or corrupt police; the scruffy cinderblock churches that take the little money that communities have, the silent ivy-covered factories, the guy with the hot shotgun and bag of cash, fleeing the cops through the children's playground.


From nine to five, Cincinnati pretends to be a first-world city, paying first-world wages and providing first-world services with a first-world infrastructure. When there's a ball-game on, the first-world rolls into downtown Cincinnati and hands over ten dollars a head. Downtown Cincinnati is an enclave of first-world skyscrapers and stadia, whose first-world workforce drive their trucks down first-world freeways, past the third-world neighbourhoods; third-world neighbourhoods that they can't see, that aren't their fault, aren't their problem anymore.

The car gave middle-class Americans the freedom to travel, to go where they want, to live wherever they like. The freedom to organise themselves, to segregate themselves, to flee to the suburbs and forget the problems of the aging city.

Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati
Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati
Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati Cincinnati

[Tag] Tags: abandoned, cincinnati, derelict, midwest, not the uk, ohio, photo essays, poverty, urban decay, urban, usa

Sun, 16 May 2010

15 May, 2004

I bought a cheap digital camera. The cheapest compact digital camera a first year student loan could buy. Must have been September 2003. I felt guilty at having spent over sixty pounds on a single luxury item, and even more at the schoolboy error of throwing out all of the packaging, receipt and warranty only for the screen to stop working by Christmas. So I told people that I'd bought it that way, second hand, for next to nothing. That made things seem better. Covering up the crime.

It was fine without the screen. That just meant that when the batteries ran out there was no way to re-set the date and time, or adjust the settings from the obviously sensible default of 1MP to the excitingly extravagant 3MP maximum. It still happily took appalling pictures of harshly lit and unflatteringly inebriated students around kitchen tables laid out with the cheapest bottles of own-brand vodka at parties that seemed fun at the time. What more did anyone need?

So one friday night in May, after weeks of ever later starts and ever later stops, and a few too many drinks mixed with red bull, something strange happened. Something that had never happened to a student before. The sun rose.

Bristol Bridge

It rose over the Bristol Bridge, where we would feed the ducks outside the halls of residence.

St Peter's Church

Over the bombed shell of St Peter's Church, in a once — before the war — bustling Bristol city centre. Now a scruffy corner of grass and seventies low-rise offices.

Castle Park

And the old Courage Brewery, since demolished.

Bristol Harbour

Where the floating harbour meanders around through the Castle Park.

St Peter's Church Valentine's Bridge

Over Valentine's Bridge.

Morning Train

And the first train from London.

And I started taking pictures of all the places all around. And didn't stop. Even though that cheap compact camera did, just two months later, before it had even passed its warranty.

More photos from 15 May 2004 in this flickr set.

Continue reading under the fold...

[Tag] Tags: bristol harbour, bristol, photo essays, photography, sunrise, uk, urban, westcountry

Wed, 12 May 2010

Landslide victory

Mam Tor

Mam Tor, the shivering mountain, stands at the head of the Hope Valley in the High Peak District of Derbyshire. Though not a small hill, standing 60 metres over the valley (and 500 above sea level), it stands out for its unusually sheer eastern face in a region of rolling green hills and limestone gorges. This bare rock cliff could at first be mistaken for a long abandoned example of the many quarries in the area, but it doesn't quite have the mark of man. Rather, in a land of tame weather and gentle geology, it's the finest example of man's rare concession of the landscape to nature.

Continue reading under the fold...

[Tag] Tags: abandoned places and things, bleak locations, derbyshire, end of the road, geology, history, mam tor, peak district, photo essays, rural decay, rural, the midlands, uk

Mon, 3 May 2010

May Day

May Day is a day of traditions, a day of marching with banners and dancing around the May Pole, dressing up as trees and casting adrift flower boats. It's a day of looking silly and causing a disturbance. A day of village fêtes, called off when it rains.

Morris dancing

Morris dancing. The Wikipedia entry for morris dancing has a very major omission, and is a good example of the unfortunate systemic bias that necessarily plagues a collection of articles written only by those with a close interest in the subject of the article: the entry entirely overlooks the fact that morris dancing is the archetypal relic of England's embarrassing traditional "culture", synonymous in contemporary song and film with the uncool, collectively understood as shorthand for the depressingly detestable pastimes of weirdy beardy lonely old men.

That's not a comment on whether the stereotype is true, just an observation on the omission of an encyclopaedic cultural reference.

Morris dancing

The image problem of these bizarre cultural fossils is perhaps in part down to their perception as isolated provincial expressions of defiance against modernity, at times appearing as explicit as the Padstow Darkie Day tradition, where residents of the small Cornish town dance through the streets in black face singing minstrel songs — a tradition they staunchly defend against accusations that it's just a tad racist. Keeping alive our festival traditions keeps alive in some the perceived possibility of a long passed past, a reassuring fantasy of a golden age, where men were men, women were women, crop yields were in the capable hands of devastating local fugal plagues instead of the distant faceless bureaucrats of the European Union, and the politically correct nanny state didn't make laws against good clean fun like the fox hunt or splat the rat.

Splat the rat

And so it seems thoroughly appropriate that the same day as is allocated to keeping alive our national traditions should also be a traditional day of politics, of solidarity, and of progressive causes.

Splat the rat

Look at this filthy ugly rat getting whacked.

Folk against Fascism's village fête at the Southbank Centre mixed it all very nicely. The fête against hate (I don't know why they didn't call it that. Their marketing department needs to be sacked.) reclaimed great English cultural traditions from singing and dancing to hoopla and a good clean mystical fortune telling, turning them against those who claim to represent the English and claim ownership of English culture and identity. A celebration of the English united against the petty parochial hate of moronic flag-waving thugs.

Fortune telling

And best of all, it had the traditional May Day downpour, forcing everyone to pack it away inside, and keeping the bloody morris dancing to a minimum.

Fortune telling

[Tag] Tags: british culture, events, history, london, photo essays, politics, protests, traditions, uk

Sun, 25 Apr 2010

Neighbourhood II

...continued from last week.

Or else stay on the south bank, follow the river around through North Greenwich, and enter the realm of the last remaining real industry, even as it falls to the rolling redevelopment.


And you're forced away from the river onto the Blackwall Tunnel road where cars rush through the windswept wastes to better places to be.

Footbridge   That.

Through the crushed remains of the peninsula's past, piled on the flattened plots that surround the Millennium Dome, not yet all concreted over for extra ever empty unused parking spaces.


Overlooked by the brave new world of east London.


As the ferry boats that almost emptied at Greenwich keep sailing back and forth, past A Slice of Reality.

And the high tides keep bringing in the dredgers loaded with the sands of the estuary, the cargo ships of unrefined sugar, the emptied refuse barges returning to their riverside boroughs.

Silvertown + North Greenwich

And the river just keeps flowing.


Until somebody tells it to stop.

[Tag] Tags: east london, greenwich, industrial, london, river thames, uk, urban decay, urban

Sun, 18 Apr 2010


It's spring. It's the first chance for evening walks in a neighbourhood new to me since november. You can walk behind your shadow down the New Cross Road, over the cracked and crumbling paving, past the hand car wash and the scruffy old shops and pubs.

The Little Crown

Turn into Deptford High Street, past the Saturday market, the butchers and fishmongers and the street stalls of greengrocers, the pigeons under the railway station spooked by the dealers revving their beamers as they dash through the street narrowed by parked cars. Over the zebra crossing, turn right.

Deptford ChurchDeptford Churchyard

Through the churchyard, a strip of silence between main roads, unlocked until 7, when the falling sun lights up the bright Portland Stone of St Paul's baroque west face. Through to Creek Road. You can go up river, through the unrecognisably regenerated Rotherhithe, around the old Surrey Commercial Docks, to the once great Greenland Dock, now besieged by luxury apartments and mock victorian railings; polluted with floating gardens and duck islands.



Or down river, over the lifting bridge where the river barges lie stranded in the Deptford Creek, the mouth of the Ravensbourne on the Thames Tideway.

the creek

To the Thames Path where it winds through narrow roads, still shot apart from the winter weather and wear, past more scruffy pubs and fenced off riverside plots, neatly cleared of unsightly industry before the property market crashed and the anticipated apartments evaporated, through the riverside council estate into Greenwich.

Abandoned apartmentsScruffy pub

Where the Thames turns on a great meander, from the city in the north west, around the Isle of Dogs and up around to Blackwall Point to the north east.


At the Cutty Sark, you can descend the old spiral staircase, heavy bounces on the steel steps echoing on the glazed white tiles and cast iron sections.

Greenwich TunnelGreenwich Tunnel

To the north bank, the Isle of Dogs, first the parks and terraced houses around Island Gardens, under the DLR at Mudchute and up to the Millwall Dock.


Where the buildings begin to rise, first four stories, then ten, soon thirty, forty, fifty, all the same grey steel and glass boxes, rising from the sanitised dockside where the dockers and sailors have been kicked out by sharp suited bankers who carefully preserve a selection of bollards and cranes, to add interest to the view.

1 Canada SquareCranes

to be continued: next up, down river from Greenwich...

[Tag] Tags: deptford, docklands, east london, greenwich, london, river thames, south east london, spring, uk, urban

Mon, 5 Apr 2010

From here to a promontory

The rocks that rebuilt London


were pulled from a distant limestone island

Pulpit Rock

where the wastes from once great quarries

Pulpit Rock

now give way to stormy seas


where the racing tides of the Shambles bank are kept safe and shipwreck free

Portland Bill

by Portland Bill.

A True Story.

More pictures in the Portland gallery...

[Tag] Tags: coastal, dorset, history, industry, jurassic coast, lighthouses, portland, rural, south coast, uk, westcountry

Sat, 27 Mar 2010

Battersea, in all its desolation

So Beautiful Britain magazine — a magazine that I could find no evidence of anybody having ever heard of — is putting out press releases about their latest "survey". It's a survey of Britain's worst eyesores and best loved buildings. But wait, doesn't that press release get a little bit, er, weird?

Beautiful Britain magazine stresses need for more red tape and launches e-petition.

some PR bollocks


Turns out that the purpose of the survey is not entirely to attract publicity for the magazine that nobody has heard of. Rather it's a chance for some poor provincial nimbys with money enough for a PR company to push their grudge against the planning laws. Their meaningless survey has come up with some brilliantly bizarre and entertaining "facts", though.

  1. Three quarters of Britons live within six miles of an eyesore. FACT.
  2. "A staggering 68% of Brits want to see more red tape."
  3. "Most Brits (82%) claim that wind farms are noisy and destroy the countryside" — another reminder that ignorance should be no barrier to having an opinion.
  4. Three quarters of Brits prefer "old-style buildings" to "run-down industrial estates". Presumably the other quarter are quite fond of the nation's run-down industrial estates.

The main purpose of the press release then is to promote Beautiful Britain's publicity stunt petition to the prime-minister:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to defend, encourage and enhance local democracy in the planning process, ensuring that everyone has a voice in decisions about large-scale and significant developments that affect them, and so deliver urban and rural communities that people can live and work in and enjoy.

Submitted by Rob Yarham of Beautiful Britain Magazine

Number of signatures? Five.

I hesitate to make fun of absurd press releases and publicity flops like this because the hyperactive children in PR will, on cue, claim that the fact that somebody is making fun of it means that it must have been a PR triumph. But by that meaningless metric, this one has already been a triumph: everyone is already making fun of the parochial nimbys at Beautiful Britain for including two of Britain's best loved landmarks in the list of eyesores: Antony Gormley's Angel of the North, and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Battersea Power Station:

Battersea Power Station

Europe's largest brick building, a great art deco cathedral of industry and progress, literally the source of our power, the light that lit our homes for fifty years.

Battersea Power Station

A cavernous hall hung with golden brown bricks that light up each time the sun goes down over Chelsea Bridge.

Battersea Power Station

It is true that Battersea Power Station makes the eyes sore.

Battersea Power Station

And it makes the heart ache.

Battersea Power Station

A building that is such a part of the nation's history and heritage and culture — from its fundamental position in the development of the modern city infrastructure, through the iconic films and album artwork that defined an era, to the time that it decided to catch fire and have a blackout on the day that they had wanted to launch BBC Two.

Battersea Power Station

Now roofless and rotting, surrounded by rubble in a neglected neighbourhood.

Battersea Power Station

Empty inside, where once there were great panels of art deco controls for early electronics, quietly keeping the city moving through every shift and surge.

Battersea Power Station

Paint peeling on crumbling chimney stacks supported by scaffolding that could fall in the next storm, already too late to save.

Battersea Power Station

It is in this desolate state of destruction because nimbys and greedy developers have pissed around for thirty years with toy models and red tape. Beautiful Britain have cited this "eyesore" as evidence that planning laws need reform to give more power to local people to block modern eyesores in favour of the good old fashioned "old-style" old buildings from the good olden days, which three quarters of Brits would prefer to see in place of run-down industrial estates. Meanwhile, the actual local people of Battersea fight tirelessly to save their monument of maturing modernity from the red tape of the councils and the bullshit of the developers who calmly stand by watching the clock count down the remaining days before it simply topples over in the wind and washes away into the river.

Planning laws, corrupt councils and ineffective politicians really do alienate local people. They make it difficult for local people to improve their homes and communities, and easy for outside companies to come in and mess up. That makes people feel helpless, ignored, oppressed, and angry. There is a productive reaction to this: to organise and fight for the right progress and the right improvement. And there is a counter productive reaction: to oppose modernity whatever its individual merit, and hide away in a sickly-sweet mock-tudor facade of "Beautiful" Britain.

Battersea Power Station

Catch it while you can. "The ruins of Battersea Power Station" are exhibited on the south bank of the River Thames from now until their collapse. Nearest tube: Pimlico.

[Tag] Tags: architecture, art deco, battersea power station, derelict, good locations, industry, locations, london, nimbyism, photo essays, pr, structures, uk, urban decay, urban

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