For centuries, city-explorers have found themselves drawn to the edgelands, the zones that lies between a city and the land that lies beyond it. In the edgelands, the inner workings of the city are exposed. There you’ll find sewerage farms, electricity substations, landfill sites, areas of “waste” ground. Waterways that further into the city are channelled through invisible concrete culverts are, in the edgelands, open to the sky.
These explorers often use the word “liminal” to describe these places. Liminal is the adjectival form of the word “limen”, a word usually used to describe the threshold of consciousness. It’s easy to see how the word came to be so overused. In a sense, when we enter a city, we enter a waking dream. However, as we pass through the edgelands, we can see the machinery of the city, the means by which it induces the dream-state, exposed. The substations of the edgelands channel the power that illuminates the streetlights and the plasma screens that in turn illuminate the dream. The substations are fascinating in their own right but they do not beguile us the way the plasma screens set out to. When we look at the pylons and the transformers, we’re invited see the things themselves. The same goes for all the machinery that exists in the edgelands to fire up the spectacle in the city. The edgelands are like the perimeter of a travelling fairground, where the engines that drive the generators roar and the workers’ caravans are drawn up in the dark, out of sight of the brightly-lit illusions of the centre.
Whenever I read accounts of urban wanderings I feel the urge to go and explore a city for myself. This is a little difficult for me right now, “locked down” as we are in the middle of an epidemic. We live in a village, down an unmetalled road by the side of a beck. A few yards past our house, this road crosses the beck and turns into an even rougher farm-track. Here, the houses end and the fields begin. I went for a walk that way the other night. I found myself thinking about urban exploration and it struck me how villages, too, have their edgelands. They don’t sprawl for a mile or so like the edgelands of cities – in fact, blink and you might miss them. As I walked away from our house I realised I was walking through ours.
When the road turns into a track, the verge widens into a small area of “waste” ground. At the moment, it’s merely overgrown (I say merely, but it’s good to see it that way) but for several years it was used to store a number of huge concrete pipes intended for a land-drainage project. When they were finally taken away, it acquired a mound of hardcore that resembled a miniature Silbury Hill. I have to admit I played a small part in building it. Over the years the heap got used up. You can still see a low mound there, in the winter, when all the vegetation’s died back. Over the years, people have also dumped garden waste in the undergrowth hereabouts. A few yards beyond the remains of Silbury Hill I spotted a lone daffodil growing on the bank of the beck. Not far from it stood a large-leafed, exotic looking plant I couldn’t name. Fortunately, no-one has dumped anything invasive. I think people here know better than to shit in their own backyard. The daffodil marks the end of the edgelands here. Beyond this point, everything is farmland.
Back home from my walk, I’m sat writing this in our conservatory – a grand word for a lean-to structure built on one end of the house. Boiler-room would have been more accurate, had the boiler not been taken away. There are no hot-house plants here. This is a place to keep bicycles, wellington boots, a tumble dryer, the odd piece of garden furniture which might be taken outside on warm days. The wall opposite the windows is the stone wall of the house It’s built of irregular-shaped pieces of stone and roughly pointed. Part of it has been plastered at one time and there are traces of green paint on one of the stones. An elaborate system of copper pipes which once connected to the boiler still run down the wall. I often sit staring at all this. Anyone attuned to the Japanese concept of wabi sabi (of seeing aesthetic value in imperfection and decay) can sit here for hours. The point I’m getting round to here is that this space is our “edgeland”. One door (the window in which is filled with a piece of salvaged stained glass which, like the wall, can hold one’s attention for quite a while) leads to the outside world. Another leads to the carpeted, centrally-heated world of the kitchen. Wherever we establish ourselves, on whatever scale, we create some sort of liminal space around us. Such spaces serve to sustain the illusions we create within their borders.
We live not far from an Iron Age hill fort. Fortunately, it’s quite remote and rarely visited. Finding it is a test of map-reading ability and many visitors to the area complain that they failed to find it. Being local, I’ve been there many times and so far I’ve always had it to myself. It strikes me now that what remains of it –the mound and the ditch- probably marked the edgelands of the community that settled within it. It seems that the thresholds we create are often the most enduring part of what we leave behind.
(c) Sackerson, 2020