Meeting with Incommunities (Part 1: fire safety)

Incommunities on the canal

Crosley Wood flats by the canal

This last Friday, August 11th, we had the opportunity of a very interesting and informative meeting at the Shipley headquarters of Incommunities – Bradford’s main social housing provider. As the pictures to the left show, their building sits right next to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, as indeed do the three tower blocks of the Crosley Wood estate, Bingley, which we were there to discuss.

“We” were myself (Steve Bottoms), Paul Barrett (community development director at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre), and Jenni Mynard – a resident at Crosley Wood who is the subject of our short film High Rise Damp, and of a blog post I wrote more recently, following the Grenfell tower disaster in London.

This meeting with the Chief Executive of Incommunities, Geraldine Howley, OBE, came about after I wrote to her – and to various members of the housing association’s board – with DVD copies of the film and a link to the blog. I am very grateful to Geraldine, and to her colleague Adrienne Reid (Assistant Chief Executive for Neighbourhood Services) for taking the time to speak with us, in the interests of building dialogue and understanding. Indeed, we were given considerably more than the hour initially timetabled, which was great.

I will confess to some disappointment on discovering that Geraldine (I hope it’s OK to use first names) had not had time to watch our short filmShe had been told about it, she said. That is, of course, perfectly reasonable: Chief Executives of large organisations are extremely busy people who often need to work from summaries rather than first-hand sources. My disappointment lies simply in the fact that, while Geraldine had clearly been briefed on Jenni’s case (and had a number of documents about it in front of her), she had not had the opportunity to consider Jenni’s story from her own point of view – as a tenant, as a parent, and as a citizen. That story is, I think, indicative of many people’s experiences, but it’s a perspective we don’t often hear.

That point aside, though, the meeting was a productive one, which I’m going to try to summarise my thoughts about in three, inter-linked posts. This first one (below) will look at fire safety questions, post-Grenfell. Part 2 will look at architectural problems and costs, and Part 3 at questions of shared responsibility.

Part 1. Fire safety

Although our film was not discussed, it became clear that my previous blog post had caused some concern at Incommunities — not least because of my use of a photo of the burning Grenfell tower at the start of the blog, underneath the title “Life in a Bradford tower block”. (I promised to look at this again, but on reflection I’m going to leave it as is: I do think it’s clear from the first paragraph that the image is of the London fire: there is no suggestion that one had taken place in Bradford.) There was also mention of inaccuracies in the blog, which I have promised to amend if they are pointed out to me – since I am genuinely concerned to be as accurate as possible.

One important correction that was discussed during the meeting was the suggestion at the end of my blog (based on comments from Jenni), that the central fire alarm system in the Crosley Wood flats was disabled a few years ago — leaving residents to rely upon individual smoke alarms, and their own judgement about whether to call the fire brigade, rather than on any centralised response. Adrienne pointed out that the central alarm system is, in fact, still operable. If triggered, for example, vents are opened at the top of the buildings to help release smoke. It is only the sounders in the blocks themselves (e.g. the red bell in the picture below) that have been silenced, in order to avoid alarming residents into rushing for the stairwells…

This is in line with of the current Stay Put Policy for tower block fires, as agreed with West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service. The idea is that it is generally safer for residents to stay put in their flats during a fire than to be seeking to escape down the single, narrow stairwells that exist in blocks like those at Crosley Wood — just as firemen might be seeking to come up. While that might sound dangerous to the uninitiated (surely you need to escape a fire?), these flats are all designed as self-contained concrete boxes (concrete walls, ceilings, floors). And concrete is of course fireproof. Provided that doors are kept properly closed, it should be a good hour before a fire can escape from the flat it starts in (or get into flats from communal areas, if that’s where it starts). Within that hour, the Stay Put Policy assumes, the fire service should have been able to respond and extinguish the fire.

This all makes a lot of sense, of course. The reason that this policy did not work at Grenfell tower was, of course, the flammable exterior cladding on the building, that allowed the fire to spread with alarming speed. Incommunities checked very swiftly, post-Grenfell, that their Bradford blocks do not use the same cladding that had cost so many lives in London. But they have also commissioned fully independent fire safety assessors (from Savills)  to conduct a review of all their properties, starting later this week (from August 18th).

This is all good news. One note of caution, though, is that the independent assessment will apparently be conducted on a block-by-block basis, rather than flat-by-flat. That’s understandable, given that Incommunities has over 1200 flats in 30 tower blocks around the city. Yet our own, cursory examination of two different, neighbouring flats at Crosley Wood — accompanied by an off-duty fire officer whose advice was given in an unofficial capacity — suggested that there may also be fire safety issues on a flat by flat basis.

Take for example this kitchen door, which is as closed in the picture on the left as it ever gets: it simply doesn’t fit the door-frame. As such, it compromises the principle that a kitchen (the most likely place for a fire to start) can be left to burn for around 20 minutes before it spreads to other parts of the flat (and beyond the flat after 60 minutes).  The tenant in question states that, in the twenty years she has lived in this flat, this door has never shut properly.

The same tenant does have a proper closing device on the front door of the flat… another important fire safety measure (below).

… but contrast that with the next picture, showing the inside of her neighbours’ front door. This one has no such closing device, and they don’t recall there ever being one in the 12 years they’ve lived there.

Notice in these pictures, also, the trunking adjacent to the ceiling, carrying various pieces of wiring. Because these flats have concrete ceilings and floors, wiring can’t be hidden within the walls as it would be in most homes, so has to be carried externally. That’s fine, from a safety point of view, if the trunking is metal (i.e. fireproof), but our fire officer pointed out several places in these flats where plastic trunking had been retrofit… as in the image below (where another wire has been casually taped to the trunking).

Apparently, such plastic trunking has proven very dangerous in fire situations, because it melts quickly in the heat, leaving wiring hanging down as a trip hazard for residents and firemen alike. And then there’s this:

Our fireman couldn’t be certain about this, but he said it appeared that this metal trunking — which carries wiring out of the flat into the corridor to connect with the mains trunk to the left — has been taken through the concrete wall. If so, this may compromise the integrity of the flat’s “concrete box”. The same might also be true of various bits of retrofit drilling we saw, like this (although this particular hole is so small it’s hard to imagine there’s a problem?):

I should emphasise the caution with which all these notes are made. Our fireman stressed that he is not a safety inspector. But what did seem clear is that years of rather patch-and-mend maintenance have left different flats with various different degrees of compromise on the ideal concrete box scenario. Isn’t this something that needs looking at flat by flat?

I also want to gently query the disabling of the alarm sounders, previously mentioned. Because while this makes good sense from an operational/managerial point of view (maximising the likelihood that people will “stay put” in event of fire; minimising the chances of panicked people running for the stairwells), it is rather less reassuring from the point of view of individual tenants, who are – in effect – being left deliberately under-informed about fires in their own blocks. This might help reduce risk, but it does not reduce anxiety: if you can see smoke billowing up from downstairs, for example, but no alarm is going off, what do you do – other than panic? Raise the alarm yourself? (Our fire officer said that, yes, if in doubt, always ring 999.) Jenni notes that her 12-year-old son Dylan, as a consequence of having seen fire engines outside their block on fairly regular occasions throughout his childhood, can become extremely distressed at any hint of fire in the building (this was true even before Grenfell).

I’m certainly not suggesting that the Stay Put Policy is wrong, but I suppose I am saying (just as I alluded to regarding our film) that we need to think carefully about people as well as policies. It seems clear, based on conversations with Jenni and her neighbours, that there is a better job of communication to be done with tenants around these issues, so as to minimise the potential for confusion and anxiety in situations of uncertainty. This means more than just putting safety notices in the mail (though that’s important too). When we took our volunteer fire officer to visit the flats, Jenni and her neighbours seemed considerably reassured simply by the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with him, about what they should and should not be concerned about…

[Continue to Part 2]

Life in a Bradford tower block: It’s about citizens, not cladding.

Two weeks on from the horrific fire at London’s Grenfell Tower, I feel angrier and more depressed than ever. Not only for the obvious reasons — the appalling and completely avoidable deaths of at least 79 residents, young and old — but also now because the public discussion seems to have descended into petty, buck-passing arguments over combustible insulation cladding. Central government blames local councils for not inspecting their housing stocks fast enough, while local councils blame building contractors for supplying substandard materials. And meanwhile, in those UK cities such as Bradford where there has so far been no sign of suspect cladding, we get to act like it’s somebody else’s problem entirely. Earlier this week, a report by the Telegraph and Argus confirmed the early reassurances from the city’s largest social housing provider, InCommunities, that “our high-rise blocks” use “non-combustible rock wool insulation which is not the same as that used in London.” Nothing to see here. Move along please…

And yet there is absolutely something to see here. Because while Grenfell tower’s flammable cladding seems to have been the immediate cause of this fire spreading so rapidly and lethally, there had long been concerns that any number of problems with that building were potentially life-threatening. The residents of Grenfell Tower had been well aware of this for years, but found that their concerns were repeatedly “brushed away” by the relevant authorities. So let’s not confuse the symptoms with the disease. This is not a story about cladding, it’s a story about ordinary people not being listened to. It’s a nationwide pathology, and one that is only perpetuated by the cat-fighting at governance level about who did (or didn’t) do what when. When you’re shouting, you’re not listening.

“Residents feel abandoned by those with the power,” London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has said of Grenfell tower: “They didn’t know where to go or what to do. Residents feel that they are neglected because they are poor.” That experience is certainly not unique to London. Khan’s comments immediately reminded me of the Crosley Wood estate in Bingley — three tower blocks troubled by a multitude of problems, where the residents I’ve encountered feel largely abandoned by both InCommunities and by Bradford Council (who seem powerless to enforce any accountability on the housing association). Last year, I made a short film, High Rise Damp, which tried to look at these issues through the eyes of one family living on the estate. Here it is:

This is Jenni Mynard. She and her family live on the eighth floor of ten in Peel House, one of the three Crosley Wood tower blocks. It stands right next to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, which is why our Multi-Story Water project – working alongside Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre – became involved in a community engagement process there. The canal, we’ve found, is experienced by residents as one of the few upsides to living on this estate. But residents at Crosley Wood also experience water in their lives in much more immediate and troublesome ways – in the form of persistent damp problems throughout the buildings, often manifesting as black mould. This poses serious health risks: as Jenni explains in the film, her son Dylan suffers from chronic asthma which is likely a consequence of the damp. Yet all her attempts to have the problem addressed or even taken seriously by InCommunities haveseemingly fallen on deaf ears. Making this film was my attempt to have her tell her story, for anyone who might be willing to listen, as simply and directly as possible.

There is, unfortunately, nothing unusual or exceptional about Jenni’s story. That’s sort of the point. As Emma Dent Coad, the new MP for Kensington and Chelsea MP (whose constituency includes Grenfell Tower) remarked during her maiden speech to Parliament in the wake of the fire disaster, “I’ve seen housing conditions that are shocking… Homes growing toxic black mould… Chronic health problems such as asthma, with children being carted off to hospital at night.” Dent Coad has accused Kensington council of presiding over the “deterioration and perhaps even deliberate managed decline of social housing” in that borough. Making a similar point, another London MP, David Lammy (who personally knew one of the victims of the Grenfell fire, the acclaimed photographer Khadija Saye) has gone so far as to call it a case of “corporate manslaughter” – avoidable deaths caused by neglect and a lack of care.

Now, I’m not going to accuse anyone in Bradford of doing anything criminal, but we only need to look as far as the comments thread on InCommunities’ own Facebook pages to see that a great many of the housing association’s residents have faced comparable difficulties with run-down, substandard housing stock — and with a perceived lack of concern from those responsible. At the time of writing this post, the most recent comment is one from June 21st, from a resident whose “house was a disgrace” from the day she moved in, with unsafe wiring: but when she “rang incommunities [they] were rude and arrogant”. “Some people that work here are dishonest”, writes another complainant: “they just lied they do what suits them”. And another: “Absolutely fed up! I moved into one of your houses 2 years ago and spent every bit of my savings on doing up the whole house as it was an absolute disaster.” I have not cherry-picked these quotes – they’re among the first things that come up on the feed, and are completely typical of what follows. In fact this thread is such a litany of horror that my colleague Lyze Dudley recently decided to run the entire comments chain through a software programme to identify the most insistent complaints. This is what she found, represented as a “word-cloud” visual:

This image sort of speaks for itself. The word “thanks” does come up, but so too do “disgusting” and “joke”. And notice just how prominent that word “water” is in the mix. Whether it be issues of damp or problems with water supplies, InCommunities tenants experience water as one of the big negatives of their living conditions. Thankfully, the word “fire” does not appear. Yet.

I should stress that I am not trying to say InCommunities does nothing right. Indeed early last week, a few days after the Grenfell fire, its Chief Executive Geraldine Howley (left) was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, “in recognition of her services to housing, young people and the local community.” To earn this accolade, I’ve no doubt that Ms. Howley has done things at governance level that have made positive differences in people’s lives. And yet there is also, clearly, a serious disconnect between the management perspective and the perspectives of residents. So there’s an urgent need — in Bradford as well as in London — for constructive, respectful dialogue between authorities and tenants.

Perhaps that is just what InCommunities have been attempting this spring/summer, through a series of events and “walkabouts” they’ve set up on Bradford estates. At Crosley Wood, they laid on a well-attended “Fun Day” for residents on June 1st, which featured lots of music and bunting, free food and drink for residents (up to a point – when you’d had your allocation you had to pay for any more), as well as a caving bus, face painting and other family activities. There was also an information marquee offering advice on debt management, ways to save on household energy bills, and so on. There seemed to be a real effort to engage with residents, particularly by the new housing officer Joanne, and lots of people clearly had a really enjoyable time.

I asked Jenni Mynard (pictured below) what she made of the Fun Day. She was very grateful for it, she said, and suggested that a lot of the credit for the event and its positivity should go to Joanne — who is friendly, personable, enthusiastic and clearly concerned for residents’ welfare. Even so, Jenni sounded a note of caution about whether a single housing officer could ultimately make any real difference in terms of the wider problems faced by residents. “We’ve had good officers before,” she told me, “and they all seem to get beaten down in the end.”

That rather bleak assessment, reflecting a wariness borne of experience, was echoed by others who attended the Fun Day. Lyze Dudley, who also took these photographs, spoke to numerous residents on the day, and while most were appreciative of what had been laid on, some of them also remarked that they didn’t understand what this event was for: were InCommunities really going to address their concerns, or was this just a PR exercise? “The feeling was”, Lyze wrote in her notes, “that this has happened in the past. There’s a nice event where free food and drink is given out, residents are asked for their opinions and then nothing changes. One resident informed me that she would rather they spent the money on repairs to the flats rather than a party.” Of course, repairs would cost a lot more than a party – and that’s exactly the problem. Social housing in this country has been chronically under-funded for decades.

Another resident reported to Lyze his fears for the future of Crosley Woods’ portacabin community centre (rather peculiarly referred to as “the Kabin” in publicity for this event): “Joanne has informed him that they plan to change the locks on the cabin, essentially putting a stop to any of the sessions that currently run from here and taking ownership away from the residents who are taking responsibility for the cabin and have done for the past two years. Unfortunately he cannot tell me why or when this may happen.” It may be that this fear proves unfounded – let’s hope so. But unfortunately, the experience of Crosley Woods residents has in the past been of things being taken away from them, rather than provided to them.

This was underlined most chillingly by Jenni, when I phoned her recently to see if she was concerned about fire safety, following the Grenfell disaster. “We used to have a really good fire safety system”, she told me: “We had heat detectors, smoke alarms, and a common alarm system for the entire block. So if a fire started somewhere, we all knew about it.” That system also sent an automatic alert to the fire brigade, who would then respond swiftly. However, after the building was renovated a few years ago (Jenni doesn’t recall the exact year, but the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition were in power), the alarm system was not replaced. Now, fire safety has simply become a private matter of residents’ individual responsibility. If your smoke alarm goes off, Jenni says, you have to decide for yourself whether to inform your neighbours or call the fire brigade. It’s all down to you. 

That about sums it up, doesn’t it? It’s an endemic problem in modern Britain that people are too often just left to fend for themselves. We are expected to be personally “resilient” in the face of crisis, and we shouldn’t necessarily expect any help from the authorities. The Grenfell fire exposed the murderous reality of what that means in practice, but it was — as the tower’s residents were well aware — an accident waiting to happen. As for Bradford, well… cladding problem or no cladding problem, attention must be paid. 

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My thanks to Ruth Bartlett and Lyze Dudley for assistance with this post.

We welcome comments, feedback and corrections.

Community Spirit beats Corporate Power? (Twice this week)

[note: this piece was originally posted on 12th May, but for technical reasons has had to be removed and reposted. The text remains as was.]

This blog post is about two seemingly unrelated events that have taken place within the last week:

  1. At the Lord Mayor’s Dragon Boat Festival, in Saltaire’s Roberts Park last Saturday 6th May, the HCR Dragons finished 7th out of the 41 competing crews.
  2. Yesterday, Bradford Council’s planning officerannounced publicly that the consortium proposing to build a University Innovation Centre on Green Belt land at Milner Farm, Bingley, had withdrawn its application. The public hearing about the plans scheduled for Monday 15th May will therefore not now take place.

Now you might think this is a rather gratuitous attempt to connect things that have nothing to do with each other, but bear with me. First off, here’s the top results of the boat race:

The eventual winners, Provi-ducks (up from third last year – well done them!), are presumably representatives of the Provident Building Society. You can’t always tell a lot from the names these crews choose to call themselves, but Dragon Boat Festivals are conventionally set up (this is true at the annual Leeds Waterfront Festival too) as opportunities for businesses to do a bit of “team building” among staff. For the privilege, they pay a hefty entry fee, which goes to the Lord Mayor’s charities and the organising company.

Last year, however, the newly set-up Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group argued the case for admission to the race as a community crew. They couldn’t necessarily raise the full entry fee, they acknowledged, but they would do their best to raise as much as they could through personal sponsorship. And the Lord Mayor, surely, ought to be allowing community groups to participate — not least a group representing Higher Coach Road estate, since it sits directly west of Roberts Park. The Dragon Boats race along a stretch of the Aire that is visible from some of the residents’ homes! In short, the argument was: it’s our river too.

Difficult to argue with, once the point is made. HCRRG’s case was accepted, and the “HCR Dragons” thus competed at last year’s races, finishing 16th out of 45 boats — as reported in this blog post from a year ago. But that was then. This year, the team had its own rendezvous tent, pictured above, at which they displayed the hand-painted T-shirts worn by last year’s team. A year on, the HCR team was bigger, more organised, more prepared, and better dressed:

Still, note that Jolly Roger flying on the HCR banner in the background… These guys still see themselves as the pirate team gatecrashing the corporate party, and they were justifiably proud of themselves for finishing right up in 7th this year (one place behind our friends at Saltaire Brewery…). As this year’s team organiser Vicky Christensen memorably remarked in a Facebook comment:

“just shows you don’t need corporate sponsorship or huge companies backing you….couldn’t afford training sessions for any of us but team spirit and a love of our area pulled us together! I’m so proud of HCRRG!”

 

And this is where I move seamlessly (?) on to the development application for Milner Farm — just west (upstream) of the Higher Coach Road estate. The Multi-Story Water team has a longstanding interest in this area: check out our downloadable audio guide Salt’s Waters — which takes listeners on a walking tour that literally loops all the way around Milner Farm (starting from Salts Mill, you go beside the Aire through Roberts Park and the HCR estate, before exploring the tributary streams Loadpit Beck and Little Beck, on a journey to the ruins of Titus Salt Junior’s Milner Field House… before heading down Primrose Lane to the canal and back east towards Saltaire…).

I wrote about the Milner Farm development plans in my last blog post, on the day that Bradford’s planning officer came out in opposition to the scheme. It seemed clear then that the writing was on the wall for the applicants — so it’s hardly surprising that they have indeed now withdrawn from the battle. Technically they could still resubmit a revised application, but after a public online consultation in which objectors outnumbered supporters of the proposals by 1370 to just 6, it seems likely that they will finally back down and walk away. The concerted opposition that has defeated the proposals was, I think, another local expression of what Vicky calls “team spirit and a love of our area.”

We shouldn’t under-estimate just how significant a victory this is. Because the applicants represented a consortium of quite powerful business interests. Powerful enough, at least, for them to presume that they could talk aggressively and dismissively about opposition to the plans when addressing Bradford Council’s executive officers. Just check out the wording, below, of an email written back on 17th March by David Halliday of Halliday Clark Architects — representing the applicants — to Julian Jackson, Bradford’s Assistant Director for Planning and Transport, and sits alongside key corporate partners on the Steering Group of the Bradford Property Forum):

“The applicants and the wider investment group are now extremely concerned at what appears to be . . . continual resistance to this planning application. . . . My Clients are finding it extremely frustrating that your Officers are stepping out of their remit as Statutory Consultees to question the financial stability, business acumen and business strategy with regard to the proposal for a Business & Innovation Centre on this site. The worldwide profile and status of the 3M Corporation is unquestionable as well as the support of Bradford University, Huddersfield University and the Hartley Property Group. We now believe that these U-turns and continual resistance to the application now need addressing at the most senior level with a meeting held between yourselves, the Case Officers, the Chief Executive of Bradford Council and the Leader of Bradford Council, together with representation from the Client Group and ourselves as Agent, to simply address the question as follows. ‘Do Bradford MDC encourage external investment in innovation and resultant job creation or not?'” 

The answer to this rhetorical question is of course intended to be “yes, obviously”. As far as the applicants are concerned, it should be self-evident that corporate investment needs to be gratefully welcomed by the local authorities. The council officers who are resistant are thus “stepping out of their remit” — so let’s go over their heads and talk to the headmaster! The arrogance here is self-evident. But it turns out that there is also a big fat fib in amongst the bluster. Dogged campaigner Les Brook went as far as contacting representatives of the 3M corporation, who confirmed that they had very little to do with the application and really shouldn’t be invoked as evidence of the consortium’s “business acumen”. As they explained: “3M has an indirect two per cent beneficial interest in the [Milner Field] project [but] is not involved in nor has any influence over day-to-day operations or decision making on this matter, and therefore our position on the proposal is one of neutrality.” Ouch.

The most spectacular case of the applicants shooting themselves in the foot, though, came with the small matter of Fisherman’s Bridge (and here’s my “water story” for today). Seen in the video pasted above, this is the single-lane bridge across the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, just west of Dowley Gap locks, at the bottom of Primrose Lane… Since the road entrance to Milner Farm is off Primrose Lane, just uphill from the canal, anyone trying to approach the farm from the south (i.e. from Bradford!) needs to cross the canal here. The new “Innovation Centre” development would, self-evidently, have added to the volume of traffic coming across this bridge (the name alone tells you that people would be coming and going a lot — researchers, inventors, investors, you name it…).

Now the developers, of course, tried to claim that the increase in traffic would only be minimal — a mere 3% increase on existing levels. It’s one of the many questionable claims of low-to-no environmental impact that they tried to put forward in defence of building on greenbelt land. But in support their own claims, they had a traffic consultancy (the beautifully named “Paragon Highways“) make a film of peak hour traffic flows across Fisherman’s Bridge. That’s the film pasted in above. And anyone viewing it objectively can immediately see just how potentially dangerous that bridge is! Droves of schoolchildren cross it, mere inches away from the traffic and with no elevated pavement to protect them… The fact that there have been no reported accidents on the bridge is surely more a matter of luck than judgement — it literally looks like an accident waiting to happen — and so Bradford’s Highways Officer opposed the Milner Farm plans simply on the grounds that the bridge is already dangerous enough. The consortium ignored that argument, with the Paragon report translating cars and pedestrians into a series of innocuous-sounding numbers and conveniently avoiding the glaring question of child safety on this bridge… Yet their own video is enough to set alarm bells ringing. In short, the applicants seem to have allowed personal business interests to blind them to the evidence of their own eyes…

The failure of the Milner Farm scheme is evidence, then, that concerted public action (driven by tireless campaigners such as Les Brook) really can make a difference in a world that so often seems to be dominated by an unholy alliance of political and business interests. And the success of this particular campaign, I think, lay in the fact that it drew together people from right across the political spectrum. The motives of the “no” campaign seem to have been many and various. Some wanted to support the interests of the Downs family — the working tenant farmers for whom Milner Farm is home. Some were concerned about conservation – in the small ‘c’ conservative sense of leaving the landscape exactly as we find it (an admirable position in some ways, but ultimately quite difficult to defend: for instance, the Higher Coach Road estate itself would never have been built if a concern to protect green fields was always the primary consideration in any planning decision). Others again simply distrusted the claims of the developers that their impact on the landscape would be minimal… and as an employee of a University I can certainly vouch for the fact that Universities will very rarely leave any land available to them untouched over the longer term…

In my own view, a development at Milner Farm could have been the thin end of a wedge that might ultimately have led to Coach Road itself being extended right through the farm’s landscape to connect up with Bingley … thereby bypassing the problem of Fisherman’s Bridge and creating another Aire valley road link of the sort the authorities so often seem to dream about… Bradford Council’s officers ultimately came out against the scheme on this occasion, but they were certainly encouraged to do so by the concerted public outcry.

It won’t have escaped your notice that Britain goes to the polls again in less than a month, for another general election. At times like this it’s as well to remember that — much as we might sometimes doubt it, we really can make a difference. Let’s all do our homework carefully, and — whichever way we vote — vote wisely…

This Island’s Mine – performing Dockfield

This was the scene just last night, in one of the flats at Amber Wharf. That’s the new-build properties next to the canal, in the Dockfield area of Shipley.

Sitting at the end of the table is Kat Martin, my co-performer in This Island’s Mine, the two-person play that we’ve devised and written about the history of Dockfield, and the close relationship that industry and residents have always had here with the River Aire, the Bradford Beck, and the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. This was the latest in a series of performances we’ve been giving in homes and pubs/clubs over the last week or so.

The other folk in the picture are last night’s audience (who prefer not to be identified by name, but were happy for me to share this pic), and strewn across their kitchen table is the “stage” of our drama — a map of Dockfield built up during the course of the play, using ordinary household objects from Kat’s shopping bags. Meanwhile, this was the view out of the window…

This particular flat overlooks what was once the junction of the Leeds-Liverpool and Bradford Canals. That’s Junction Bridge, built in 1774 at the same time as these sections of the canal network, to allow horses to get across from one tow-path to the other. This junction features prominently in our story, during the play, and it’s been one of the fun things, in performing it, to be able to point directly to where we are “on the map” as we speak. We’re talking about places and things that our audiences know well, but bringing a different perspective to them. So far, the reactions have been great!

One of the key locations on our map is Saltaire Brewery, whose main buildings were built as an electricity works for Shipley Council at the beginning of the 20th Century (later nationalised under Yorkshire Electricity Board). We were privileged last week to present a public performance of the play in the beer yard outside the Brewery Tap — on a gorgeous April evening in the setting sun (which kept everyone just warm enough!).

The picture above was snapped early in the performance (at a historical moment when the fields of Dockfield-to-be are farmers’ fields, yet to be built on… hence the animals) by Janet Wojtkow, one of our spectators… Janet is the partner of Tony Gartland, the Brewery’s founder and owner, so she took particular pride in snapping this picture…

… at the moment when we talk about how the former electricity works (represented by the light bulbs) is now the Brewery (represented by the bottle of Blonde). I actually had to pause mid-performance for a moment while Janet took the picture — much to everyone’s amusement. But that’s one of the nice things about the informal, round-the-table set-up for this play… there is a script we’re following, but people can also interrupt, ask questions, make observations, and we try to improvise satisfactory responses. It gives the show a lovely sense of liveness and one-off-ness every time we do it.

This conversational approach is also designed to elicit further contributions from the audience after we complete our story. The talking continues… At the Brewery, for instance, Janet shared the full story of why Saltaire Brewery is not in fact located in Saltaire but in Dockfield (it would have been in Salts Mill, it seems, but for the untimely death of its owner Jonathan Silver – and the subsequent hesitations of the interim manager). And this was just one of the additional tales we’ve been told… Take Geoff Roberts, for instance, pictured here in blue just behind my head on the right of the picture…

Geoff worked for decades in water quality control — for Yorkshire Water and its predecessors — and following our tales of Dockfield’s sewage works and plumbing, he told us how his very first work assignment, as a new employee in 1973, was to visit the pumping station next to the footbridge at the bottom of Dock Lane (again – very much part of our map!) in order to remedy a fault. It was quite the trip down memory lane. This performance at Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre was also attended by some with even longer memories, who told tales of Shipley and Bradford in childhoods before World War II.

Our most responsive and vocal audience so far was at Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club last week, where our audience was almost entirely made up of people who grew up in Dockfield itself, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Since the characters that Kat and I play — Barbara and Danny — are amalgams based on interviews with a number of folk of this sort of age (and also a bit younger… we’re deliberately vague about exactly how old the characters are), the performance sparked especially vivid memories from those watching. In the picture below, on the right, Tony Brannon is offering an observation, mid-performance…

… and you can tell its mid performance because the objects on the table are different from those we end up with at the end (see below!). Truth to tell, Tony had been one of my interview sources, and he’s also a regular at the club, so for him the performance really was like an extension of our previous conversations. He and the others became as much a part of the show as we were — in fact our 30 minute running time stretched to more like an hour, with all the interjections, observations, and debates prompted by our script! Personally, I loved the way that the line between ‘play’ and ‘audience’ became almost indistinguishable…

… and for all that they corrected — or at least disputed — some of our “facts” (as Tony said, everyone remembers things differently anyway), this audience was also especially appreciative of what we’d made. Mary (in the foreground on the left in the picture above) was especially keen, after the play, to know why we’d chosen to focus on Dockfield. She seemed delighted by the thought that the place she grew up in — the landscape of her own childhood, if you like —  was being celebrated and remembered in  a play (however low-key and informal it might be as a play). I had the sense that her own sense of pride in the specialness of that place was somehow being confirmed by this outside intervention. And she had a few additional stories to tell of her own — like the way that the railings along Dockfield Terrace had been cut down during the war, to feed the urgent need for metal for the war effort…

What I’m really proud about with this play, so far, is that it seems to “work” in different ways for different audiences. For these people at Woodbottom Club, it provided an opportunity to look back and remember together — they carried on talking for hours (literally) after the performance, but were still thanking us for this “special evening” when they left. Conversely, our hosts last night at Amber Wharf are relatively new arrivals in Dockfield, and so the play helped to ground them in the history of the place and answer some of the questions they had about it. In the end, I suppose, that’s the great thing about storytelling… a story has a shape of its own, but it can mean different things to every spectator, depending on the interests and experiences they bring to it.

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Postscript. This was tonight’s performance — Wednesday April 19th — at Saltaire Brewery Tap. This week we came inside (no setting sun to warm us this time), and were joined by the biggest and most diverse audience we’ve had yet… Diverse in terms of both age and background. Gathered in two rows around our table, they included long-term Dockfield residents, more recent arrivals, and visitors from right out of town!

Indeed, among those present were a family from the Midlands… theatre and cinema enthusiasts who had come up to see the “magic lantern” collection at the Bradford Media Museum (an old-fashioned form of colour slide projection), only to discover that the collection has been shunted off down to London. They seemed delighted by our show, though (as if reassured that the North had managed to keep some culture of its own!). Despite knowing nothing about the Shipley area, they said that the history of industrialisation — that we tell through the microcosm of Dockfield’s story — was one they very much recognised from their own Black Country background.

“You’ve invented a new paradigm”, one of them told me afterwards. I confessed to not knowing what he meant. “A new model for doing plays,” he explained. “You could take this format and tell the story of anywhere.” And I suppose you could…  Personally, I wouldn’t claim to any enormous originality in the format of this piece: the component parts come from a range of theatre forms. But it’s true I haven’t seen them combined in quite this way before, or for quite this purpose (telling the up-close story of a place, through the use of characters, rather than the story of characters, that’s set in a place). As I say, though, what’s most special to me about this piece is the way that it seems to invite such spontaneous, conversational responses — even as we’re performing it.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks are due to Kat Martin, my wonderful co-performer in this piece, and to Simon Brewis – our director, who also guided us skilfully through the play’s development phase, from my initial draft script. Simon also took the pics of the Woodbottom performance. Thanks also Janet Wojtkow (whose pics I pinched off our Facebook feed, where she’d uploaded them), Paul Barrett (for the Kirkgate Centre pic), and Ruth Bartlett (for tonight’s Brewery pics).

Dockfield – going through Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes…

On Saturday 1st April, from 4pm-8pm, the Multi-Story Water project will be co-hosting a special event for residents of the Dockfield area at Saltaire Brewery – in conjunction with the Brewery and with Shipley’s Kirkgate Centre. It’s an opportunity for people in the neighbourhood to get together for a drink and a bite to eat — to celebrate Dockfield’s distinctive heritage and community — and to share some thoughts about what’s happening in the area now… Do come and join us!

IMG_2377Dockfield is in a state of transition today — just as it always has been. Residents and businesses come and go… buildings go up and come down. Right now, there’s a new residential building going up right at the junction of Dock Lane and Dockfield Road…

IMG_2378In this picture above, taken a couple of weeks ago, you can see the distinctive outline of the Amber Wharf flats — just across the canal from this construction site –about to be obscured by the rising walls of the new building. Of course, the previous building on this site was single-storeyed, but not this one…

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Not so long ago, the flats were still clearly visible across the site… And just last summer, the area was completely clear… just awaiting new development….

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The sense of ongoing change that, in many ways, defines Dockfield is perhaps summed up in the picture below… Here, on the other side of the Dock Lane junction, looking east, you can see a lump of old wood on top of a post… leftover from who knows what? … which currently serves as a makeshift sign for Saltaire Angling Association — warning away unlicensed fishermen…

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The sign makes a claim to private rights, but it’s clear from our interviews with local residents that the canal always used to be seen as a community asset. People fished in it, swam in it, you name it… One interviewee memorably referred to it as “the Leeds-Liverpool Lido”…

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The canal itself has been in a state of transition recently. Just last year, the Dock Lane swing bridge got a complete makeover… This followed on from the re-paving of the towpath the previous year – although the new surface only extends as far as the swing bridge (as you can see in the last but one picture, cyclists are then advised to switch over to the road from the rough track beside the canal).

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Here’s the lovely new, railinged platform area for the swing bridge operating panel. This has gone all high-tech and automated now, replacing the crank handle system that had been there for decades… It used to require 18 full turns, I’ve been told, to open or close the swing bridge… And if you didn’t do enough turns when closing it, then the bridge wouldn’t be lowered properly back into place, and there’d be a horrible banging noise any time a car drove across it… This would keep some nearby residents awake at night, so hopefully the new system is an improvement!

A continuing issue for residents, though, is the far more unsightly state of things directly across the swing bridge, where a big row of containers — effectively just skips full of weight to prevent them being moved — hugs the edge of Dock Lane…

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I’ve been told that the containers were put here some time ago to prevent travellers from moving onto the land just east of Dock Lane here, next to the canal… That land is still earmarked for new residential development, and the owners don’t want squatters.

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But I gather there are various complications for the site owners here — including a lack of existing service infrastructure (eg water and sewage pipes), as well as issues around financing etc. Whatever the reason, the site has remained empty since the last pre-fab industrial building was removed from it… leaving just an exposed concrete floor through which nature somehow finds its way…

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I must admit that the persistence of nature in this long-industrialised area is one of the things that appeals to me about Dockfield. There’s this rather lovely row of self-seeded birch trees, for example, which has grown up at the edge of what remains of the Bradford Canal (at its junction, here in Dockfield, with the Leeds-Liverpool…).

IMG_1406And then of course there are the local swans, much loved by the residents here, who have adopted the area and seem to be in no hurry to leave. For the last couple of years, they have nested right here, along the snicket alongside Junction Mill, that links from the towpath through to Dockfield Road…

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This picture is from last year… when the swans returned to nest in the same spot despite having been plagued by some unscrupulous egg-thieves the year before (or so I heard). I wonder if they’ll nest here again this year…? In the shadow of Junction Mill and the local razor-wire…

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Dockfield is a special place. An “island”, one resident told me, sandwiched between the river, the canal, Bradford Beck to the west, and – to the east – a road dead-ending in fields. It’s maybe not a place people come to visit, but it’s got a special history that we’ve been exploring through both interviews with residents and archival research. In April, we’ll be presenting the findings of this research in the form of a specially-written play, This Island’s Mine. We’re hoping to perform it (free of charge) in residents’ living rooms and kitchens, as a conversation starter… Just call us if you’d like to book us in! (Steve is on 07504 417323)

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Dockfield and Lower Holme: A story in maps

This time last year, I was trying to keep this blog updated with the crisis that was the Boxing Day flood of 2015. Thankfully, things have been a lot quieter this Christmas, so I’ve been able to devote a bit of ‘down time’ to some more historical water stories. Specifically, I’ve been puzzling over old maps, trying to figure out the history of how homes and industry developed in the Dockfield area of Shipley (and the Lower Holme area of Baildon, just across the river footbridge). It’s more fun than a jigsaw puzzle…

1837 Shipley Kirkstall turnpike plan

Dockfied is an area defined by water on all sides — the River Aire to the north, the Leeds-Liverpool Canal parallel to the south, and Bradford Beck to the west (flowing north to meet the Aire). But as you can see from this 1837 map, above, it was not even dreamed of at that point in time. Shipley was then a small town whose centre was slightly further west than it is now, clustered around the road leading off the original Canal Bridge (now Victoria Street Bridge), before the Otley Road bridge and Foxes Corner junction even existed. East of the Beck (or “Brook”, as this map has it), was simply farmers’ fields. By 1852, though — the date of this next map — there are sure signs of industrialisation…

Dockfield 1852 detail of larger Shipley mapNot far to the west, Salts Mill was nearing completion and about to open — in 1853. But here, in addition to Baildon Mill (the old water mill on the Aire, also visible in our earlier map), we can now see Junction Mill — in the spot where it still stands, directly to the east of Bradford Beck, and facing Junction Bridge — the original canal bridge that allowed horses to cross from the towpath of the Leeds-Liverpool to the towpath of the Bradford Canal (hence “junction”). Also in what’s to become known as Dockfield, there on the southern bank of the Aire, is another, as-yet unnamed “Worsted Mill“.

Neither of these two new mills would have had water wheels (or their attendant weirs). This was now the age of steam engines. But still, you need water to make steam. Junction Mill appears to have been getting its supply from the river via the “Junction Aqueduct” (Salts Mill had a similar pipeline set-up), but the smaller worsted mill had clearly opted to site itself right next to the river. This meant that it didn’t face onto the canal, as Junction Mill did, so to get access to this vital transport and haulage route, a road of sorts has been constructed between the mill and a small “Dock” on the southern edge of the canal. And a swing bridge (or “Turn Bridge”) has been installed to provide access across the canal itself. Notice that, at this stage, Dock Lane does not appear to extend any further: it is literally just a lane linking the riverside mill to the canal dock.

Taken together, the appearance of these two mills gives a clear indication of what the appeal of this area was to industrialists: you needed both the river for a ready water supply and the canal for transportation, and in the Shipley area you had both, running in parallel. Of course, rail is another transport option, and already in this 1852 picture above you can already see the clear line of what was then the Midland Railway, running roughly parallel to the canal, just to the south. But stations were fewer and further between on a railway, so the canal still had a clear appeal for its readier freight access (just as road haulage is, today, much more convenient than rail for most businesses).

Now let’s spool forward another 40 years, to the first modern Ordnance Survey map, printed in 1893:

Dockfield OS 1893 (first edition)Notice, first, the appearance of the words Dock Field on this map. The area has found its name — a name that presumably refers simply to the fact that there is a dock right there in the middle of a field… But the words actually appear next to the first row of houses in the area, which have no doubt been built to house the worsted mill’s growing workforce. These houses, now known as Dockfield Place, are still in use today. 

Notice, though, how the riverside worsted mill has now been dwarfed by the erection of the Lower Holme mill, directly across the river. This Baildon site, bought up by Titus Salt in 1850 (apparently before he decided where to site Saltaire), was sold on to C.F. Taylor in 1862, and it was Taylor who then built the large mill building next to the river (again, water supply…). He must also have been responsible for building the bridge across the river, in order to connect to Dock Lane and, thus, the canal dock. Although the present, 1960s bridge structure is just a footbridge, it must originally have been wide enough for wagons — which also explains why the road running down to it has always been full road-width (at least until the arrival of the controversial “landscaping” — aka a long row of dumped earth — that was left along the edge of the Wickes overspill car park when the site was redeveloped in 2014… still a sore point with residents!).

I can’t easily show you the Lower Holme cottages north of the mill, because in a quirk of OS mapping, there’s a key grid line that runs through here that always carves the mill and cottages onto two separate pages of the maps. So we’ll come back to the Baildon side of things at the end of this post… Sticking for now with Dock Lane, notice how — in the 1893 map above — the lane now continues alongside the railway and then underneath it by the canal junction. It then runs alongside the Bradford Canal (long since filled in, of course) to connect with the Leeds Road, just as it still does today. Finally in the 1893 map above, note also the massive expansion of railway sidings to the south of the mainline.

The next map is from 1908, just fifteen years later…

Dockfield OS 1908 revisionAt first glance you might think this looks much the same as in 1893. But notice the developments to the east of Dock Lane, between river and canal. A small row of houses has now appeared along the towpath to the east of the swing bridge — houses which still stand today on Dockfield Road (though the road did not yet exist when they were built). These houses and the other new buildings to the north have apparently been built to service the new Sewage Works that Shipley Urban District Council has recently been building. The long, rectangular in the top right of the image above will soon be more clearly delineated as sewage settling tanks. So… the outlines of the Dockfields “island” (as some residents call it) are now clearly defined: river, beck, and canal to the north, west and south, and wastewater treatment to the east…

The sewage works’ arrival was the result of developments in local government and sanitation around the end of the 19th Century. The SUDC was created from the old Shipley Local Board, and one of its main reasons for being was to bring proper drainage and sewerage to Shipley — by eliminating the old middens and cesspits, and providing new homes with proper plumbing. A new sewage main running west to east along the Aire valley through the whole of Shipley parish now emptied into these wastewater treatment works at what was then the easternmost edge of the town. Indeed, technically (as 19th C. maps make clear), the area east of Bradford Beck was in the parish of Idle, not Shipley, so in effect Shipley was dumping its waste on the threshold of its neighbour.

But Shipley Urban District Council was not done yet… Look at this next OS map, from 1922 (? ish).Dockfield OS 1922 probably

The new sewage works are more clearly labelled now. The worsted mill on the riverbank has now finally acquired the name of Dock Mill. But most strikingly, we now have the spanking new Dockfield Road, leading all the way up from Otley Road, at Baildon Bridge. The road has been built by the SUDC to provide better access to the sewage works and thus take the pressure off Dock Lane (which was no longer fit for purpose, with the mounting volume of traffic, and with that low bridge under the railway). Along Dockfield Road and the adjoining Dockfield Terrace (which links to the older homes nearer the mill) we now have two rows of early council housing — homes literally built by Shipley Council, with the very latest spec in plumbing and drainage… This was an early statement about the unsuitability of the old back-to-back homes in the Windhill area — visible in the bottom of the 1893 map above, and eventually demolished by SUDC in the years after World War II.

If we fast forward again to 1934, the full scale of Dockfield’s industrial development has now become apparent…

Dockfield OS 1934 (1)West of Dockfield Terrace, the Hammond Sauce works has now set up shop, and there’s also a weaving shed and small engineering works alongside the sauce. Dockfield Mills has now been built on the canal bank next to Junction Mills (also still standing today). Dock Mill itself has further expanded, and there are more buildings around the canal dock (presumably warehousing, to cope with the increased capacity now needed). This is Dockfield at its industrial height.

Now then… All of these map images are close-up photographs I’ve taken from the large maps on display to the public in Bradford Central Library’s Local Studies section. (There’s no indication there of any copyright issues with the maps, so hopefully I’m not breaking any laws here.) But for some reason the library’s big maps don’t go past 1934. After that we move to a different scale of OS mapping, but we also make a huge leap to 2003…

Dockfield OS 2003What’s perhaps most noticeable here, apart from the altered graphics, is just how little has changed since the 1930s. In the map above, Dock Mills is still there, and the various “Works” to the west of Dockfield Terrace. But Junction Mills has been renamed “Regent House” and Dockfield Mills is “Staveley House”. These name changes are indicative of a change in use from industrial space to office space, in this “post-industrial period” after Mrs. Thatcher murdered the country’s manufacturing base in the 1980s…

Notice, too, that at some point since the 1930s, the old canal dock has been filled in (the canal’s “super slow way” no longer being a viable freight transport option in this high speed era). More “works” have been built over the docks area, although — in 2003 — these are just about to be demolished. One of these buildings, Amber Works, will very shortly give its name to Amber Wharf, the new-build apartment complex built along the southern bank of the canal. (The first flats at Amber Wharf were sold in 2007 — right before the bottom fell out of the property market…) Dock Mills, too, will shortly disappear, to be replaced by the new-build riverside flats whose street address is still Dock Mill.

Notice that, at some point between 1934 and 2003, the OS maps also seem to have moved their grid slightly, so that the page cut-off now happens south of the river, rather than north of it… Below is the connecting page, from 2003, with Dockfield now linking clearly across to Lower Holme, via the modern footbridge structure…

Dockfield OS 2003 + Lower Holme

The Lower Holme mill has yet to be demolished (that would take another 5 or 6 years). And notice, on this map, that there are still “County Works” east of Dock Lane on the Shipley side of the river. Shipley’s sewage works were long gone by 2003, the wastewater treatment having been moved down to Esholt back in the 1950s (the land to the east that had once been an array of settling tanks and filter beds was redeveloped for more manufacturing, such as the Metal Box engineering plant that’s still there today). That said, there’s still a sewage pumping station next to the river, pushing the stuff on towards Esholt, and there are still electricity substations on this site, as on the map above. What’s changed now, of course, is that the County Works site has been sold off to the local success story that is Saltaire Brewery. Personally I’m a big fan of the Saltaire Blonde and their other beers, but next time you have a pint of theirs, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that it was brewed in a building that was once (according to the maps above) the “Refuse Destructor” for Shipley’s wastewater.

On that note, let’s cross the river again and jump back to the earlier maps for Lower Holme, across that OS boundary line…  Here’s the 1893 OS map for the area immediately north of the river, around the junction of Otley Road and Baildon Road:

Lower Holme cottages 1891The “inn” at the junction (aka the Junction pub) stands on the corner just as it does today. And south of Otley Road you can already see the distinctive twin lines of the Lower Holme mill cottages, also still standing. However, the area immediately west of these homes (where KFC is today!) appears to be green space at this point (note the little tree drawings!). The houses are separate from the mill itself, even though they’ve been built to house C.F. Taylor’s workforce. The mill is set back from the road because, as was noted earlier, it’s the water supply from the river that Taylor needs most. That and the canal access, across the river bridge.

Lower Holme cottages 1913

Jump forward to the 1913 revision (above), and the Lower Holme mill works are starting to encroach on the land west of the houses. There’s also been more development on the site to the east (also originally part of Taylor’s operation). And along the main road, notice the apperance of “Urinal” and “Trough” — all part of the public sanitation drive being pursued by Baildon Urban District Council at this time, in parallel with Shipley’s.

Lower Holme cottages 1934By the time of the 1934 revision, above, the houses are pretty much surrounded… Industry at its height! The mill buildings, of course, have all now been demolished — within the living memory of some of those still living on Lower Holme.

So all in all, this area is a story of industrial rise and fall… industries dependent on water supplies, water transport, and (arguably most important to the area’s modern development) water treatment. But if the manufacturing has largely gone, or transmuted into service-sector industries like brewing and (down Dockfield Road at Funopolis) recreation, it’s important to remember that the homes built to house the area’s workers are all still standing. None of these have been demolished, because they’re good homes… the solidly domestic legacy of a bygone industrial era.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canal Child

The recent celebrations for the bicentenary of the opening of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal were marked by all sorts of activities up and down the canal’s 126 mile length. Pasted in below is a charming document of one of these initiatives — a musical collaboration between “the bard of Saltaire” Eddie Lawler (also a good friend of, and collaborator with, the Multi-Water Story project) and the children of Saltaire Primary School. The film speaks for itself really, so I need say no more… Enjoy!

Rain on the Parade: Canal Bicentenary

Yesterday, Sunday 16th October, the Shipley area had a big occasion — the Bicentenary celebrations for the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. The canal was finally completed through to Liverpool in October 1816. But it’s worth remembering that its construction period dated all the way back to the early 1770s – when it was begun with cuts linking Skipton, Bingley, Shipley and Bradford… This area is key to the history of Britain’s longest singe canal.

IMG_1840To commemmorate the bicentenary, the Leeds-Liverpool Canal Society’s historic cargo boat, the Kennet is making a journey along the entire 126 miles of the canal. Having started off from Leeds on Saturday, it was coming through the Bradford area on Sunday.

Act 1: Shipley (or, The Silence…)

Getting off the train at Shipley station, in  a light drizzle, I headed past the Fox and across the main Leeds Road towards the little alley through to Gallows Bridge. Crossing the bridge to get down to the canal towpath, I then walked the short distance from there up to Shipley Wharf, expecting to see some signs of local celebrations. But the place was completely deserted.

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Apparently, news of the bicentenary had not, er, floated any boats in Shipley — despite the town owing much of its history to the canal. To be fair, walking from Gallows Bridge I did pass a few stray people standing around under umbrellas, who might possibly have been waiting gamely for the Kennet…

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… But it wasn’t until getting to the bridge under Salts Mill Road that I found the first clear sign of celebrations… a rosetted Rob Martin (former chair of Saltaire Village Society) waiting with his smartphone… His mission was to call the bell ringers in Saltaire Church as soon as he caught sight of the Kennet coming west…

Rob was sheltering sensibly from the drizzle, which was getting steadily heavier. He and I had a wee chat about what was happening in Saltaire. “You’ll find them under the bridge.” He said. “You won’t be able to get past.”

Act 2: Saltaire (or, Waiting for the Bells…)

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He wasn’t kidding about finding people under the bridge. This was the huddle beneath Victoria Road as I  came past Salts Mill. Didn;t look like many people from a distance, but it turns out there was a whole world under there! Hall Royds brass band were pom-pom-pomming away to try to keep everyone’s spirits up…

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And then past the bridge, lots of anoraked people were waiting on the towpath under rain gazebos (good bit of planning there by somebody!).

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I tucked in and stood around chatting. The general point of agreement was that everyone was patiently waiting for something to happen, but nobody was really sure what it would be or when. It all seemed classically English, somebody pointed out. Standing around in the rain for no apparent reason, but merrily cracking jokes about our own foolishness…

With no sign of the Kennet, still — and not even the church bells to herald its arrival — I decided to nose around the temporary signage that had been posted on the towpath, sandwich-board style, to mark the occasion… This was my favourite bit…

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As this colourful diagram-map confirms, we were standing alongside one of the oldest stretches of the canal (which of course predates Saltaire itself — it’s a key reason why Titus put the village here). Although apparently a stretch at the other end was also completed around the same time. It was a bit disappointing, though, that the signage (which seemed to be generic to the whole canal) didn’t do anything further to highlight the specific local history and significance of the waterway…

But never mind that — someone had convinced the Lord Mayor of Bradford that this anniversary was locally significant, and he here was now, complete with Bradford-crested brolly…

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And where the Lord Mayor goes, cameras also go. Just along the towpath I found a soggy-looking camera crew from BBC Yorkshire. They were there for Look North, they told me. Saltaire was clearly the scenic choice for telly…

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After much damp waiting from all concerned, the bells finally sprang into life and – shortly afterward – the Kennet hoved into view, heading slowly west… They looked at first as if they were going to try and moor in front of the brass band, just past the bridge…

IMG_1865… But then they seemed to decide that there were too many people huddled in there and it would be better to head a bit further along to a more open bit of towpath… Which is understandable but rather ironic given that the huddle was there to greet the boat…

IMG_1872So here’s the scenic shot, complete with Kennet, Salts Mill, and lots of brollies…

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The Kennet was decked out in bunting celebrating the “uniting” of Yorkshire and Lancashire through the completion of the canal. Red roses on yellow, and white roses on blue. And rather wonderfully, there was a big red and white rosette (a giant version of the ones that volunteer stewards like Rob were wearing) carefully sequestered in its own waterproof plastic bag…

The boat crew got off and the official ceremony got underway. Rather disappointingly, though, the ceremonials seemed to consist entirely of a photo op for the Lord Mayor. He duly posed for various shots with other someones, and with the costumed lady bargee to advertise the Canal Society’s Navigator beer… although to be fair I’m not sure the Mayor was quite sure what this bit was about…

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Anyway, the pictures were taken, the camera crew packed up, and everyone sort of drifted off. No speeches. No celebratory brass band serenade for the boat and the Mayor. Just a sort of general uncertainty as to what was happening. As I say, it all felt rather endearingly English…

Act 3: Hirst Lock (or, Something Lasting)

Drifting away from the general shuffling at Saltaire, I continued walking west, up to Hirst Lock. Here, I came across a lasting piece of signage marking the bicentenary…

IMG_1887This rather elegant noticeboard (helping to mask the eyesore view of the neglected old garden centre greenhouses beyond) has historical information about the canal’s significance in the area, and recommendations for walking routes. It’s a nice addition to the visitor offer in the Saltaire area, but it’s the work not of Bradford Council or UNESCO — but of that fantastic group of neighbourhood volunteers, the Hirst Wood Regeneration Group.
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Here on the lockable ‘news’ panel on the new noticeboard is news that HWRG have won, just this last week, a national award from Biffa — the waste disposal company — whose sponsorship enabled the construction of Hirst Wood’s new Nature Reserve (which opened last year on the other side of the canal). Well done indeed!

This year, HWRG have been continuing to maintain and develop the nature reserve, while also taking very seriously their “adoption” of a stretch of the canal — from Dowley Gap aqueduct, through Hirst Wood itself, Hirst Lock, and down towards Saltaire as far as the sports club. This adoption is apparent not only in the new signage and walk routes, but in strategically placed benches at intervals along the towpath, carved with the HWRG initials.

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These benches are a really welcome addition for walkers, enabling them to sit down and take in the surroundings for a bit. This sterling work by HWRG seemed somewhat overlooked, though, by the official celebrations. The Kennet duly arrived at Hirst Lock…

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…and then motored on straight past, with a few merry waves to the bystanders…

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Yet with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps, Hirst Lock would have been a much better place to have the official brass-band welcome and Mayoral moment — not only to acknowledge the new HWRG contributions to the canalside, but because there’s so much more space for onlookers! Instead of being crowded in a huddle on the towpath under the bridge, people could have spread out and appreciated the occasion a bit more. And the act of the boat going through the lock is also much more visually engaging for spectators than what had happened at Saltaire… But what do I know?

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As the Kennet disappeared off towards Bingley, the sun finally started to appear through the clouds, and Eddie Lawler rounded things up with a rendition of his beautiful new song, “Canal Child” — written specifically to mark the occasion (“I’m a canal child, born on a boat, brought up to keep the whole family afloat, for one hundred and twenty six miles…). The lyric celebrates the children who worked the canals back in the 19th Century, and the original idea was that Saltaire Primary School would sing the song with Eddie — there’s a verse or two specially written for them to sing chorally. In the event, though, not enough of the children’s parents were able to commit the time on a Sunday to bringing their kids and picking them up again, so (rather disappointingly) this plan had to be shelved. The song will instead be recorded with the kids this week, at school, as a video document instead.

Still, Eddie performed the song beautifully on his own, and against the appropriate backdrop of HWRG’s other new piece of canalside signage — a colourful mural also created with Saltaire Primary School children, under the supervision of Sharon Snaylam. It shows Bingley Five Rise to the left, Hirst Lock to the right, and canal boats in between. It’s a lovely, vivid piece of work in bold colours, which would not (at least in my view) be out of place in a modern art gallery. And it’s also fully waterproofed! 

IMG_1928As onlookers began finally to disperse, a group of the Hirst Wood Regen volunteers lined up for a celebratory group photo in front of the mural. Third from the left is the HWRG’s dynamic secretary, Pauline Bradley-Sharp — and third from the right, local Green councillor Kevin Warnes, who actively supports the group. I’m afraid I don’t know the other folk here, but nonetheless, I salute you all! Fantastic work making the canal and its surroundings seem loved and cared for. 

The Kennet will continue its journey across the Pennines all week, arriving in Liverpool next weekend. No doubt there will be more celebrations in other locations along the way. For me, though, this was a day that highlighted the value of hard work and longer-term thinking over empty ceremony. And the importance of carrying an umbrella.

 

 

Meadows and Bridges (…Looking back on a very busy few weeks…)

The Multi-Story Water team have had an extremely busy few weeks, so this blog has got a little behind with updates… We’ve had two big weekends — this last one, July 11th-12th (of which more shortly), and a fortnight before that, June 26th-28th, we were involved with two simultaneous water-themed festivals — in Shipley and downstream in Leeds.

The Shipley Street Arts Festival, co-ordinated by our friends at Q20 Theatre on Dockfield Road, was an ambitious attempt to combine traditional street entertainments in Shipley’s town square (jugglers, stiltwalkers, and the like) with a thematic emphasis on the town’s rivers and canal… So a second ‘hub site’ for the festival was down on the canal towpath beside the Ibis Hotel. Here’s what it looked like with the big letters SHIPLEY on display…

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Multi-Story Water was involved in various aspects of the festival — for example, there was a successful screening of our short film Wading to Shipley at the Ibis on the Sunday, and we’d also arranged with JBA Trust (based at Salts Mill) to display their water flume in the town square… It demonstrates different forms of water flow, when you place different kinds of constructions or obstacles in a channel. On one level quite technical, it’s actually really interesting to watch, and there was a lot of curiuos interest from passers-by…

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Our main contribution to the festival, though, was an interactive performance piece called Seven Bridgeswhich used the Ibis as its starting point. Spectators (participants, is probably a better word) toured themselves east along the canal towpath towards Dockfields in groups of 4 or 5, and along the way they were given some game-like challenges to complete. They also would encounter various performers. Here’s David Smith, for example, as a heritage tour guide from three hundred years in the future (2315), dressed as an ordinary canal buff from 2015 (geddit?), and pontificating about the significance of the “art” (aka graffiti) on Otley Road Bridge:

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And here’s Lynsey Jones, as a Victorian lock-keeper’s wife (who did all the work opening the locks…), talking to spectators on Junction Bridge…

Shipley Arts Festival. 28.06.15Participants would make their way as far as the old Bradford Canal pumphouse, on Dock Lane, where they would share what they had gathered en route, before returning the way they had come, accompanied by the performers…

Shipley Arts Festival. 28.06.15

There’s more pictures and documentation of Seven Bridges (Shipley) if you look under the “Performances” tab on our menu bar… But for now, let’s turn our attention to its partner piece, Seven Bridges (Leeds)which we presented on the same dates at the Leeds Waterfront Festival. The idea was to “bridge” the two festival locations, upstream and downstream, if only conceptually… Obviously the Leeds version was on a bigger scale, with bigger bridges, and this one took the form of a guided tour rather than a self-led journey… Here’s musician Eddie Lawler (on a day out from his home in Saltaire) kicking the piece off at Clarence Dock (with Crown Point Bridge in the background) with an old canal song about the founding of the Aire and Calder Navigation, which turned Leeds into a “seaport town” in 1700…

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But Eddie was just the “local colour” wheeled in to warm the crowd up by Don Freshwater (played by Steve Bottoms, below in the suit)… Don is a both little sinister and a little nuts… he claims to be the CEO of something called the “Leeds Re-Development Corporation”… As Don explains below (in front of Knights Way Bridge and Clarence Dock on the far side) the audience has been gathered as “consultants” to help decide how to redevelop the waterfront… The “ordinary people of Leeds” were never consulted in the past about these matters, so Don wants to consult them now… except that he doesn’t really, because he likes the sound of his own voice too much.

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Again, there’s more photos and more detail on this slightly barmy performance (with a serious edge to it) if you look under the “Performances” tab above. Both versions of Seven Bridges were very well received, and pointed us in some interesting directions for future work.

But in the interests of catching up with ourselves, let’s turn our attention now to this last weekend, spent in the flood plain meadow between the River Aire and the Higher Coach Road estate, west of Roberts Park (is it Saltaire, Shipley, Baildon..? you decide – there’s a case for all three). Preparations for the weekend began, in fact, a week earlier, when we sledgehammered a series of fence posts into the field in a rectangular pattern…

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Three fenceposts in a row… that’s Steve’s hand in the foreground, Pat Gledhill with the second one, and Matt Blakeley with the third, obscured by Pat because our line was so straight! (well…)

Notice how much longer the grass is than even last month (see previous post, “Meadow Madness”, where it’s much shorter and greener, with more buttercups visible). Basically Bradford Council have said that – with austerity cuts and the resulting loss of manpower and mowers – they will not cut the grass in this field as often as they used to. They did, however, oblige us by at least sparing the time to cut a swathe around our staked-out rectangle, so that by this last weekend, it looked like this:

DSC_0043On Saturday afternoon (July 11th), in the cleared area on the outside of the staked-out rectangle, we held a community barbecue for residents on the estate – with conversation, games for the kids, etc…

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This was part of our ongoing engagement with residents here, as we (and our colleagues at Kirkgate Centre) work with them on developing some plans for this riverside field… People would like to see a proper footpath, for instance, and other improvements, but the main focus today was the grass… Some residents, understandably, think it’s a disgrace that the grass has been left to grow this long — they feel it looks scruffy, and embarrasses the neighbourhood, and want us to pass on their anger about this to the Council. Others, though (perhaps a majority of those we spoke to this weekend?) seem to think that, if this is to be a meadow in future, then perhaps something more could be made of it — by planting colourful wildflowers, for example, and cutting at least some areas so that it all looks a bit more intentional and a bit less scruffy…

In an attempt to help focus this discussion, by drawing attention to what long grass is actually composed of up close, we created “A Meadow Meander” within the fenced off area. This is a mazy walk created by treading the grass down into a carefully planned set of looping pathways… So for example, in the picture below, you can make out a “Y” junction, where the “lie” of the grass could take you in one of two directions.

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As this picture also starts to suggest, left to their own devices, there are a LOT of different kinds of grasses and other plants growing in the field, and they merit some close up attention… “A Meadow Meander” is the creation of artist Baz Kershaw, and his Earthrise Repair Shop. Baz has created similar installations in various other UK locations, and for this one he had placed a series of jars on small plinths, to be discovered as you move around the maze…Picture3

Each of the jars contains a secret to be puzzled out — just as the winding paths in the grass also follow a particular pattern that visitors are invited to guess at… Baz calls it an “open secret”, because if you’ve done the meander, he’ll happily tell you what the pattern represents… but sorry, if you’re just reading this blog, we’re not going to tell you! The only clue we’ll share is that it might have something to do with the way that long grass looks a little like waves when it is played with by the wind. The River Aire, alongside this meadow, is not the only reason why the meander was appropriate for “Multi-Story Water”…

DSC_0044A Meadow Meander was presented both on the Saturday, along with the barbecue, and on the Sunday, when we put the entrance on the other side of the rectangle, right next to the riverside path. This meant that, where on Saturday it was mainly residents in the meander, on Sunday it was mainly passers-by — walking between Roberts Park and Hirst Wood. We wanted to get their ideas too, on the great meadow debate…

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A big thankyou to everyone who made the events described happen… and especially — on the Higher Coach Road estate — a huge thanks to Sarah Muller and to Stewart and Pat Gledhill for so enthusiastically helping to create (and indeed dismantle) the meadow meander… The fence posts are at Stewart and Pat’s as I write, and we have some future plans in store for them…

Pat Gledhill, with her Troutbeck Avenue neighbour Eric -- who kindly donated alcohol to the cause!

Pat Gledhill, with her Troutbeck Avenue neighbour Eric — who kindly donated alcohol to the cause!

 

 

 

Seven Bridges, Two Cities

The Shipley Street Arts Festival is coming up at the end of June (26th-28th), and this year is taking the river and canal as a linking theme. We’re delighted to announce that the Multi-Story Water project is working actively with Q20 Theatre to make this happen. In case you’re wondering whether there is any “street art” in Shipley, well lookee here…

DSC_0320A genuine (as far as I can tell) piece of Banksy graffiti, tucked away on the footpath that goes up to Gallows Bridge – across the canal – just up the hill from where Aldi and McDonalds sit by Bradford Beck. In case you don’t know his work, Banksy is a famously anonymous, Bristol-based artist whose graffiti has become internationally renowned. People sometimes rip down entire walls so as to be able to flog things he’s painted on them… This particular metal panel looks like its secure enough where it is, though. I’m not sure how long the painting has been there, but it’s tucked away in this wonderfully unassuming location… Here’s the image in close-up:

DSC_0318OK, that’s all I have to say about Banksy. But Gallows Bridge will be featuring as one of Seven Bridges in the Shipley area that will be linked by a looping promenade performance that we are making for the Street Arts Festival. I’m pleased to confirm that this will be performed by David Smith and Lynsey Jones (both of whom co-created and performed in our original Multi-Story Water tours back in 2012), and will be directed by Simon Brewis (who directed them). Always nice to keep things in the family…

Meanwhile, though, we are getting delusions of grandeur. Because simultaneously with the water-themed Street Arts Festival in Shipley, the Leeds Waterfront Festival will be running the same weekend. So to provide a kind of conceptual “bridge” between the two festivals, we will also be presenting another performance — with the same title, Seven Bridges — in Leeds. If you’re really keen, you might want to see both… (!)

DSC_0285This is me being anonymously artsy (if not banksy) while researching the Leeds end the other week. That’s Leeds Bridge you can see reflected in the plate glass — the crossing where the city began. Leeds’s whole history was built around the river, which is why it’s so strange that the city has sort of turned its back on the waterfront: you can live there for years and barely even be aware of its existence…

DSC_0304Here’s another of the Seven Bridges — Victoria Bridge, which was built (unsurprisingly) in the 19th Century to replace a longstanding ferry service. It’s one of the major road links to Leeds station … right beside Bridgewater Place — the unnecessarily tall building better known as “the Dalek”! But even though there’s a clue in the name — Bridge — water — place — you can drive across Victoria Bridge a thousand times and barely even notice that you’re crossing a river…

Now… notice the white, ‘canal style’ railings to the right of the shot above. That’s because this image was taken at the junction where the River Aire (aka the Aire-Calder Navigation) connects with the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. And here it is…

DSC_0303… the footbridge that crosses the end of Lock 1 on the Leeds-Liverpool… the very, very beginning of the 109 miles of canal, that goes through Shipley and all the way to the Mersey… Meanwhile, if you turn through 180 degrees and move upstream on the Aire a little (also in the direction of Shipley, of course…) you come to this…

DSC_0298This is the brand new entrance to Leeds Station, currently being built by Carillion. I like the sign on it: “this is civil engineering“! (as opposed to uncivil engineering…?) Notice that because space is so tight around the station, the building materials are having to be floated upstream on pontoons (in the foreground of the shot) in order to get to the site. Notice also the angle this shot is taken from… I was standing on – you guessed it – a bridge. Granary Wharf Bridge, to be precise — quite a new, modern one… That’s the western end of our Seven Bridges route… and here’s (almost) the eastern end…

DSC_0256This is the entrance to the weir and lock at Crown Point (Clarence Dock), with the Crown Point Bridge arcing overhead… another road bridge that you can merrily drive across without ever noticing the river… And in the shot below is the weir itself, viewed a little further downstream from Knights Bridge (footbridge)…

DSC_0261Notice the black holes in the middle of the shot here. Not technically a “bridge” perhaps, but this is where Meanwood Beck enters the Aire… a rather lovely beck that flows down through Meanwood Park and its attractive, surrounding valley, but then disappears into underground culverts before it gets close to the city centre (shades of Bradford…).

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This is Knights Bridge itself, viewed from the Clarence Dock side, and looking across to the building that operates as the headquarters for the Canal and River Trust in Leeds (hub of the CRT Northeastern partnership, if that means anything to you). Some very nice people work there… This bridge, as you can tell, is pretty modern, but I need to do some more research about it…

What strikes me here is the proliferation of white-painted metal, which even extends to these cage-like railings in front of the CRT building itself…

DSC_0262I like the little bit of signage here, pointing you to the next bridge (“hey, you’ve just crossed the river, fancy doing it again in the opposite direction?”). But there’s no shortage of signage in the vicinity of the river in Leeds… Check these out, for instance…

DSC_0239DSC_0242DSC_0251DSC_0272 DSC_0243Everywhere you go, it seems, you’re being warned that you’re on private property… that you are walking at the permission and indulgence of property owners… that you are on CCTV… There’s no sense in Leeds at all that the banks of a river might be public space, for anyone to walk along. The riverside paths are constantly broken up, interrupted by buildings or private spaces that you can’t enter. There is no “ancient right of way” here, in the way that there is in Shipley… And then the city wonders why people don’t engage more with the waterfront…

O Banksy, where art thou…?