This is an edited version of the paper given at Spirits Of Place in Calderstones Park, Liverpool 02/04/2016. My thanks to John Reppion and Leah Moore for organising the event and for to the other excellent speakers (Gill Hoffs, David Southwell, Gary Budden, Kenneth Brophy, Richard Macdonald, Ian “Cat” Vincent and Ramsey Campbell). Here’s to the next one.
There is strange landmass on the opposite side of the Mersey where I grew up. It is the peninsula of The Wirral, so named from the old English for place of myrtle because of the proliferation of bog myrtle when it was a bit more swampy. Before delving into some of the stranger aspects of this place, the culture that has sprouted from it and its history, I think it is worth putting into context my own interests in research and what exactly I was looking for within my home turf, so to speak, before going into detail about its own eccentricities. My main preoccupations outside of my official academic research is in the multitude of relationships that an emphasis on landscape can bring to all forms of art and media. The study of this emphasis can have many names, dependent upon the examples in question, whether it be named pyschogeography, landscapism, the English Eerie or, the area that I most align myself and my own filmmaking practice in, that of Folk Horror; where landscape and folklore contrive together to produce unnerving and uncanny forms of terror. All of these areas and movements look at landscape in differing ways (as well as looking at differing landscapes), but the connections I want to show in the context of The Wirral is in the uncannily ancient character of this realm, how this character is formed, and what examples seem to tap into the place as a whole. The Wirral is far from being the bland Merseyside enclave for rich footballers or other such assumptions but that it is a place of the weird and the ancient.
To start with, it is worth exploring The Wirral in the context of psychogeography in the academic realm. One word in particular haunts the writing of landscapism and psychogeography as well as being shoe-horned into general academia as a whole. The word is Liminal. Definitions of the term from the Oxford English Dictionary consist of:
1) Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2) occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.
One of the earliest accounts of the joining of these two words are, as far as I can tell are to be found in Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital (2003); a book where the writer walks the orbital circuit of the M25 motorway. The term was later used as theme in a Routledge compendium looking at such landscapes, of course put together by scholars from both John Moores University and the University of Liverpool. The fact that Sinclair finds landscapes that are “liminal” in the heartland of edge-lands suggests that Liminal landscapes as a description is one often defined by boundaries that are more than physical but psychological and relating to human characteristics of place designed through interactions. How does The Wirral therefore relate to this term? The peninsula is in itself full of the typical blurred boundary lines that create such spaces but there is more to it than just in the socio-topographical sense. For The Wirral is physically liminal, in between a number of strongly solidified cultures and places, almost polar in their physicality and character. This sense of being pulled in all different directions is what gives The Wirral its sense of ethereal liminality; it is very earnestly on a number of thresholds through both its surrounding by the River Dee and the River Mersey. The Wirral’s identity is fragmented, its history schizophrenic and its character in flux. For The Wirral is not as a whole urban enough or Scouse enough to be considered wholly part of Liverpool, it is not rural or Welsh enough to be considered part of North Wales and it is certainly not posh enough or Roman enough to be considered part of Cheshire, contrary to its postcode. The Wirral is a ghost place, built from many identities; an ancientness abounds as the top-layer of modernity confusingly continues to be at odds with itself.
The reason for highlighting The Wirral’s liminalness is relatively simple; to present it in a context that shows how baffling its absence is from general Folk Horror, Pyschogeography, and other landscape discussions. If liminality is in vogue, then The Wirral deserves to be much higher up within such discussions. Of course, certain places in the British Isles and elsewhere dominate such analysis. London is an obvious choice in the context of psychogeography whilst places with such obvious Neolithic character such as Glastonbury and Avebury or clear Ballardian/Sebaldian character as Orford Ness in Suffolk are usual suspects in such forms. Their character is overt as well as obviously interesting and so their Mecca-like draw for artists and thinkers is to be expected. The Wirral has no real prime draw for such a way of thinking in spite of its liminality; it has no famous menhir akin to Avebury and no abandoned nuclear testing facility. Yet The Wirral does have an ancientness, an eeriness and a character that does fit into these moulds. It does not, however, present itself; such elements are beneath the top-layer and require some metaphorical digging which takes time. It was only in going back to my own experience of the place that I began to realise that these atmospheres were actually present; an ancientness that dates back to a Viking heritage and before, Ballardian concrete-scapes to explore almost perfect built for the Iain Sinclair type of landscape interaction, a fragmented but present relationship to the history of the weird arts, especially Folk Horror, and a folkloric character all of its own.
I first became aware of this when researching into one particular landscape that I had almost taken for granted in terms of my own research for my whole life. I grew up in front of a piece of land in Wallasey Village – a name that belies its own liminal, anti-village character – known as The Breck. My own grandmother’s house had backed onto it for many years, often recalling stories of boys from my local school throwing rocks and breaking windows; in other words The Breck was a place to be feared, an antisocial edge-land to be wary of. But, apart from this character being somewhat of a fallacy (i.e. if you psychologically treat a place as a no-go zone, it’ll become a no-go zone), it contains my earliest memory of folklore, but not simply a folk tale related to me but one that genuinely terrified me and provided my earliest memory of fear.
For, as will be seen in the film, The Breck does have its own strange menhir, known as Grannies Rock; perhaps menhir is a little too polite a term for Grannies Rock whose origin is somewhat puzzling and character far more punk than the polite hippiness of its Wiltshire cousins. The Breck itself was a sandstone quarry, mined for its stone which was partly used as the bedrock for the coastal road of Leasowe a brief detour down the coast. The mining has lead to a wealth of rock faces, some of which the climber Alan Rouse is purported to have practiced his early climbing techniques on and perhaps even fellow Birkenheader and Everest victim Andrew Irvine could have potentially visited the place to climb as well. Having climbed the graffitied face of Grannies Rock a number of times when little, I stopped when being told 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”. Whether this was simply a tale to stop us climbing the, admittedly dangerous, obstacle is debatable but it was my own first encounter with a very particular type of folklore; one that mixed with the horrific. For someone whose chief subject of writing is Folk Horror, this is an essential starting point.
But The Wirral has a surprising wealth of Folk Horror connections to its shores, many of which will not be so obvious. With this month seeing the long awaited season of work by director, Alan Clarke, at the BFI, there has never been a better time to shout his name from rooftops as a director from The Wirral. Being born in Seacome, Clarke lived there for several years, briefly attending Wallasey Grammar School which now lies on the very road made up from The Breck’s stone as well as living in a road off it before emigrating to Canada. It perhaps needs little suggesting that Clarke’s hugely impressive episode of Play For Today, Penda’s Fen, a collaboration with playwright, David Rudkin, is one of the stalwarts of the Folk Horror canon and portrays that same oddness that, in spite of being set in the Elgar country in Worcestshire, still seems to me be to quintessentially Wirral-esque in many ways; its dreamlike relationship with the landscape which is in itself portrayed as being endlessly liminal between country roads and dangerous, experimental urbanity.
Yet the Folk Horror connections do not cease here. It would perhaps be a little too easy to bring in the writing of Alan Garner, the Cheshire-based fantasy writer whose place in Folk Horror is all too clear. His geography puts him, at least for pendency, a little too far out of the region but his work does enter The Wirral in other ways. When his 1967 novel ,The Owl Service, was adapted by ITV in 1969, the first and most obvious choice for filming its folkloric weirdness was in its original setting of Wales, specifically Bryn Hall in Mawddwy Valley, but, for whatever reason, the house that was eventually used is one situated in Bromborough, namely Poulton Hall.
It’s intriguing now to see the location of such a house, the isolating valley’s of the novel disappearing into a suburban estate on one side and a retail park on the other. Perhaps most interestingly is that the house was owned by the writer Roger Lancelyn Green, most famous for translating and updating Arthurian legend into new editions as well as work on the folk tales of Robin Hood, various Greek legends and a handful of biographies including editions on C.S. Lewis and J.M. Barrie. The connection to Garner, a man haunted by Alderley Edge and its own Arthurian connections, is enjoyably palpable. The link to The Wirral is even more pertinent when considering how often Garner ties his own use of language to that of the “Gawain” poet, the writer of the old English tale, Sir Gawain And The Green Knight. The poem famously and explicitly features The Wirral in its odyssey:
All the isles of Anglesey on his left side he holds,
And fares over the ford by the forelands,
Over by the Holy Head, until he again had the shore.
In the wilderness of Wirral dwelt there but few
That either God or man with good heart loved.
Perhaps most interestingly is Roger L. Green’s work on Norse mythology, Myths Of The Norsemen, which opens up other areas of wyrd Wirral. The writer was perfectly situated in this sense, The Wirral having a strong connection with Viking history. Looking briefly at Bromborough, it is now commonly argued that the famous Battle of Brunanburh, a huge battle in 937AD involving factions of Æthelstan, then King of England, and the Norseman tribes now ruling over the domains of Dublin, Alba and Strathclyde, lead in large by the King of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithson III, happened near the house of The Owl Service. An extract of the poem detailing the battle follows.
In this year King Aethelstan, Lord of warriors,
ring-giver to men, and his brother also,
Prince Eadmund, won eternal glory
in battle with sword edges
around Brunanburh. They split the shield-wall,
they hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers.
Though there is still some debate regarding the area of this battle, many scholars now agree that it took place upon the peninsula with Stephen Harding concluding after extensive research that:
In summary, on the premise that Brunanburh in the contemporary Old English poem is the same place as the modern Bromborough, and with the recent identification of Dingesmere in the poem with the “the wetland or marshland of the Thing,” we can make informed suggestions as to possible sites for the battle and the place of escape for the marauding forces. Bearing in mind the large scale of the conflict and the likelihood the fighting would have taken place over a wide area, two possible sites for the battle – or at least the main part of the fighting – have emerged: Wargraves and Bebington Heath.
That Bromborough, home of The Owl Service‘s false vision of Wales and endless concrete shopping vistas and office spaces, is itself a name diluted down from one of the biggest single battles in the history of the country, is in itself haunting, especially as the aforementioned retail park has now removed most of this ancient character from the surface perception. Yet the name remains, evoking a past memory of some forgotten calamity; images of Nigel Kneale-esque ghosts haunting the unwary shopper in the gigantic Asda and Carpet World abounds. The Viking influence continues all around the peninsula, especially around the area of Thurstaston, its name falling away from Thor’s Stone, itself another monument of the area. The coastline at Thurstaston is in itself quite an eerie place, the setting of Ramsey Campbell’s ghost story Thieving Fear (2008) as well as one my own ghost story shorts, The Coastal Path.
Perhaps most intriguing is the connection between this place and music of Forest Swords aka Matthew Barnes. An experimental electronic musician based in West Kirby, Barnes’ first album, Engravings, was mixed almost entirely on a laptop whilst sat upon the paths and cliff-top coasts of the area, working for as long as his battery would last. In an interview with The Quietus, Barnes discusses The Wirral in regards to his general practice, saying of Thurstaston that:
It’s quite an iconic place on The Wirral. It’s got some heavy significance in terms of its history, and when you grow up here you’re always aware of it. You always pass through it. It’s always there in some form. (2013).
Apart from this influence manifesting in song titles such as Lljoss, hinting at Icelandic Norse, and Irby Tremor, named after the town which, according to his interviewer, Joe Clay, is itself “…a moniker of Viking origin meaning “the settlement of the Irish””, the album is replete with eeriness and folkloric moments of horror. The fact that he is signed to the record label Tri-Angle, whose most prominent artist is Haxan Cloak as well as fellow Wirral resident, Evian Christ, should contextualise his work; the ancient past bleeding back in through the cracks with almost hauntological intention. The same oddness can be found in other music from the area such as music by local band, The Coral, whether they’re singing songs named after M.R. James stories (A Warning To The Curious) or filming oddly esoteric music videos in the area such as the visuals for Don’t Think You’re The First or Secret Kiss. The band even recreated the final scenes of The Wicker Man (1973) using costumes from the original film for the video for Goodbye. Perhaps most strangely is their first video for the single Skeleton Key, filmed largely around the monument of Leasowe Lighthouse; a battered monument built in 1763. Though the area it resides in has acquired the urban folkloric character as being a popular spot for dogging, the lighthouse sits at the end of the road built from the soul of The Breck; again the rock seems to add eeriness to the stretch unto which it was laid.
I would like to finish today by moving things back towards the context of urbanity and somewhere nearer to my own turf in Wallasey. The view from The Breck down into the valley is an intriguing one, but one dominated in large by the M53 motorway. The area surrounding this structure is where this presentation shall finish. In 1974, J.G. Ballard wrote his phenomenal short novel, Concrete Island, a story of a man who becomes trapped under the orbital motorway with no means of escape. Ballard goes into great detail regarding this topography and, on recent visit to the M53, which is adjacent to the secondary school where I spent 8 years largely messing around, I found a genuine connection between his work and this environment. The area around it was even used as a makeshift form of The Zone from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, in an arts project created by Close & Remote for an exhibition at FACT in the city centre; such is the strange, dystopian-ness of its landscape. It is a northern concrete island, requiring a nut tied into a handkerchief for safe navigation. Realising this was the final contrast needed just to show how much variety The Wirral landscape offered; not one of its rather bland and indifferent reputation, but one that is crammed with history, detail, and hyperactive fluctuation in character. In other words, it is the ultimate of liminal landscapes.