Wanders: The M53 Cavern (A Northern Concrete Island)

Dérive 1 – The M53 Cavern (A Northern Concrete Island) – 23/12/2015.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.

– Guy Debord, 1958, The Theory Of The Dérive.

N.B. This is the first in a continuous series of articles based around dérives, meanders, walks, and other forms of psychogeography.  Whilst there will often be a common thread as to the choice of the particular spaces explored, they – at least to me – still concur with the original Situationist ideals of the technique as it is rebelling the against the response to space and place through the strictly Capitalist ley-lines and guided routes laid out for the walker.   For example, in several planned walks for future months, the journeys around the specific spaces are to be dictated by their historical and cultural relations to certain artists, writers, and other figures rather than the nearest shopping centre.  They may not, therefore, be literal drifts as they are in some way researched; they have a starting point A and a finishing point B.  The route between those points, however, is still open to interpretation and the naming of these articles as dérives is to align the writing style, form, content, photography (which is, unless stated, all my own) and technique with a general psychogeography of landscape interaction.

A Northern Concrete Island.

Somewhere in this nexus of concrete and structural steel, this elaborately signalled landscape of traffic indicators and feeder roads, status and consumer goods, Vaughan moved like a messenger in his car…

– Crash, J.G. Ballard, 1973, p.107.


In the dead space before Christmas 2015, I found myself slowly meandering back towards my old secondary school in Wallasey upon The Wirral peninsula.  It was not the school that was my destination but the area that surrounds it which, for me, defines a very particular form of edgeland.  Walking along Mosslands Drive, a unnervingly straight suburban road whose name and history implies an apt transience, I began to have flashbacks of what this journey meant to a younger version of myself; forever on the look-out like a preyed-upon herbivore from the more aggressive variety of peers prevalent in my memory of the area.


Perhaps it was this fear that meant I would often withdraw to the desired concrete area in question, albeit rebelliously as it was strictly ordained by various teachers that it was dangerously out-of-bounds and punishable by detention if caught past its frontier.  Ironically, it felt safer than the rather flexible boundary of the school with its host of encircling wolves.  The place in question follows a footpath initially parallel to the school that gives the strange, Ballardian privilege of walking alongside (and then directly underneath) the M53 motorway.   This gives rise to an intensely dangerous feeling due chiefly to the speeds at which the passing cars hurtle by.  The vision of one flying over the edge and towards the walker on the pathway is believable and constant as the noise made from each vehicle’s passing is so tremendous and jolting.


This isn’t the only form of transport adding to the cacophony of the M53 labyrinth.  The New Brighton to Liverpool trainline also runs underneath the motorway as it stretches out into its various lanes.  As the path unwinds, it curves inwards and the walker is taken directly underneath the first slip-road of the motorway.  The noise at this point is dizzying.  Waiting for a passing train is essential for the desired woozy effect of standing within the arteries of both train and motor routes, like a transport synapse in the middle of a paraphrenic collapse.  If anything, it feels like the blood-rush before a fainting spell.  Perhaps it is, in fact, what extinction itself actually sounds like – a motorised vibration rising to the point of an unstoppable expiration; “The traffic drummed over his head, no more than twenty feet away, an unceasing medley of horns and engines” as J.G. Ballard himself writes in his novel, Concrete Island (1974).  At this point, the adjacent underworld beyond the rest of the motorway seems at first impenetrable due to the spiked fences that protect the train-track.  This illusion is broken when walking further on to a Brutalist bridge which crosses the railway lines and, in the opposite direction, the growing pools of murky water that lead to the radioactive greenery of Bidston Moss.


The area itself, especially when seen from the train on its way towards Birkenhead and Liverpool, allows sights of these submerged areas and railway tracks, recalling The Zone from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker (1979); all submerged train-tracks, overgrown fences and debris-littered edgelands.  A feeling of distance arises from these artefacts left by a more industrious, unsparing age, though created without the aid of a crashed meteorite and its subsequent fallout as in Tarkovsky’s film.  This was not, however, the chief destination of the walk which was through to the concrete island on the opposite side of the bridge.


Straight ahead lies a semi-functional business complex ruled over by the DIY warehouse, B&Q,  but it is almost entirely hidden by shrubbery of various forms, adding an amusing impression of desired secrecy to the building.  Trudging through a brief mire of mud and rubbish leads to what looks like a graveyard of roads from some forgotten past.  The layout of a ghost road is still remarkably defined; ” The damp earth was dark with waste oil leaking from the piles of refuse and broken metal drums on the far side of the fence”.  It may as well have had further signs detailing “Please give way, oncoming spectres”.  These were Ballard’s ghosts.  A pylon loomed over this dead pathway, protected by a skirt of nettles and bramble to stop more ambitious forms of anti-social behaviour. 


Ballard wrote Concrete Island as a response to both his own fetishisms growing around cars and consumerism, and how this new merging of materialism and sexuality had affected the topography of the outer London motorways and roadways.  It follows a man trapped in a space such as this, detailing his growing adaptation to the landscape.  I failed to find the punk and tramp inhabitants that Ballard’s own Robinson Crusoe, James Maitland, finds under the Westway, yet both could equally be sustained by this Northern equivalent.  Ballard himself suggests the ubiquity of these types of spaces anyway in the 1994 introduction he penned for the book:

As we drive across a motorway intersection, through the elaborately signalled landscape that seems to anticipate every possible hazard, we glimpse triangles of waste ground screened off by a steep embankment.


The many pillars, which when perceived from lower levels look like forms of uncompromising menhir, are scrawled with colourful graffiti.  The whole cavern feels like some sort of theological site designed for unspeakable rites; its emptiness was in juxtaposition to the feeling of its almost constant but unseen use.  This is heightened further by the level of debris lying scattered around like the remnants of an invisible warzone; “Below the overpass, at the eastern end of the island, a wire-mesh fence sealed off the triangle of waste ground from the area beyond, which had become an unofficial municipal dump”.  The motorway’s various slip-lanes rise together until the only patch of sky available is a small, thin sliver that is itself dominated by views of the paranoid signage reminding the drivers above of all of the rules and regulations which may (or may not) prevent them from becoming pulp on the concrete and mud below;  “In his aching head the concrete overpass and the system of motorways in which he was marooned had begun to assume an ever more threatening size.”



The darkness of the Winter day meant that the light was the sort of “sodium light” that Ballard describes in a number of his novels, emanating from a scattering of road lights.  He writes in Concrete Island that “The sodium lights shone down on the high span of the overpass, rising into the air like some disused back entrance to the sky”.  The space feels both grimy and antiseptic because of this.  The contrast finds a visual cue in the various medicinal litter germinating in between the healing leaves of dock.  There’s also a sense of tragedy but this is built upon an already embalmed tragedy; that of the grafting of such a structure onto The Wirral landscape in the first place.


This point hit home after the walk when researching pictures of older Wirral.  I had also made a brief detour to an ex-quarry behind my mother’s house known as The Breck; the place where noted climber Alan Rouse harnessed his skills.  My own grandmother’s house had backed onto it for many years, often recalling stories of boys from my school throwing rocks and breaking windows.  In other words, The Breck was a place to be feared, an antisocial edgeland to be wary of.  The Breck has its own strange menhir, known as Grannies Rock, though perhaps menhir is a little too polite a term as its origin is somewhat puzzling and character far more punk than the hippiness of its gentle Wiltshire cousins.  Having climbed the graffiti-strewn face of Grannies Rock a number of times when little, I stopped when  being told of a strange story about the rock.  There’s some debate as to whether the rock was simply left to stand because the stone was particularly hard or whether it was actually a block used to support one of the mining cranes itself.  But the story had nothing to do with that.  Instead I was told that a young man had hung himself from a nearby tree, using the stone as a platform.  The folklore goes that, on certain nights, if climbing the rock with a particular arrogance, his body can still be seen hanging and screaming the words “get down.”

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Postcard from History Of Wirral.

The high point of this neglected piece of brown-field allows views out to the motorway as it weaves outwards towards the south of The Wirral and eventually to the hills of North Wales.  I drank in this view, the motorway sprouting up like some urban growth upon a skin still attempting but failing to heal itself.  The older picture I later found of the same view showed a young girl staring out at a simple country road leading down to a Bidston which had yet to be properly developed.  If the caption did not tell of its location being the Bidston Footpath, I could have sworn it to be of somewhere more overtly rural such as East Anglia.  I could not mourn for the landscape in the image as the walk under the M53 and into its various caverns had produced a huge range of excitements and impressions, but some ineffable sadness did permeate from the photograph on comparing it to the vision of how the space had been developed; a punctured commercial zone, typical in its production of a natural detritus that forces all around it to adapt or perish under its blanket of concrete.  As Ballard suggests in an article for issue six of the magazine, Interzone (1987), “Homo sapiens has won his intelligence from the ordeal of surviving an extremely hostile environment”.  In this vein, my visit brought back one final memory which tied into this sense of survival.


On walking back with my father from the area some years ago, we came across an extremely angry looking purple caterpillar of the puss moth (Cerura vinula).  This caterpillar is a daunting and surprisingly aggressive larvae, blessed with what looks like the face of a high-level bureaucrat and a whipcord double tail, spending most of its life as a shade of neon green before turning a virulent purple when ready to pupate.  We took it back home and, learning that it built its own cocoon from bits of wood, it was supplied with various twigs with which it constructed a suitably Brutalist housing to metamorphose within.  For months afterwards I waited to see the moth emerge, famous for its bulky size and intensely fluffy persona.  Sometime later, after another walk back from the M53 zone, I arrived home to find the wooden cocoon open but, in place of the glam-rock moth, stood a huge parasitic wasp.  It was bigger than any I had ever seen and streamlined black like a fascist jack-boot, flying around the jar in aggressive, concentric circles.  The caterpillar had been a living incubator and food supply for the wasp’s own larvae.  We failed to identify it, as did the entomological department at the Museum of Liverpool, but it seemed an apt conclusion for something lifted from such a space; unforgiving just like the road by which its mother first laid her eggs within the caterpillar’s body.



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