Dark Arches, Leeds

So here’s the River Aire as it runs through the centre of Leeds — a dozen or so miles downstream from Shipley and Baildon… This is the view out from beneath the Dark Arches under Leeds Station. Only the Victorians would have decided to build a train station across a major river…

Anyway, point is, the other weekend Leeds played host to OVERWORLDS AND UNDERWORLDS (May 18-20) — the city’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad (whatever that is), on which around £1.2 million had allegedly been spent bringing in the international art duo, the Quay Brothers, to present a large scale installation and performance event around the City Centre. A centrepiece of this was the various things happening under the dark arches in a kind of Tim Burton-esque gothic fantasy…

There were various rooms with various strange, dance or movement activities going on, lit with stark and moody lighting (the woman in this image went on to do a passionate little dance duet a moment later, with some random bloke who turned up to join her). These bits and pieces felt a bit unsatisfactory to me, and they paled into insignificance next to the way that the space itself — and the river — had been lit for theatrical effect…

This photo (like all of these, shot on my mobile phone) doesn’t do any justice to the spectacle of the swirling, gurgling River Aire as it rushed through the Victorian archways, cut by chiaroscuro lighting and accompanied by eerie, ambient music.

In this shot you can’t quite make out the river itself for the lighting, but I loved the way that an old security feature — this coil of ancient, cobwebbed barbed wire — had been picked out and turned into a kind of shadow opera on the ceiling…

And then there was this bit — the centrepiece of the installation — where a whole row of arches had been lit up with projections. The glass ceiling of the Victoria Quarter — the covered shopping arcade at the other end of the Quays’ city centre installation zone — had been transplanted through light onto the stone ceiling of the Dark Arches. This was a really extraordinary thing to behold (again, the photo doesn’t do it any justice), and I really liked this idea of “site specific art” being made “specific” by trading the features of related sites!

Having said all that, though… and leaving aside the question of where exactly the million quid went (!?) … the whole experience seemed kind of inadequate as an expression of the river and the architecture. We were provided with spectacle, certainly, but that was about it — there was little to no sense of narrative involved here, and I learned nothing about this amazing location and its history other than what I could see visually. Still more problematic was the sense that this installation had just been flown in by outsiders. Had the people of Leeds had been consulted in any way over its development, or involved in its delivery? (except perhaps to wear hi-vis vests and mind the doors)  There was a vital sense in which the human dimension of the site was therefore lacking, even as the river ploughed on regardless….

All of which is by way of saying: I hope we can do something rather different in Shipley, on that bit of the Aire, come September. We’ve a miniscule fraction of the budget to work with, but the people and their stories are already giving us vastly more content….  (Hope we don’t blow it.)

Invisible…? (a review of the travel literature…)

[posted by Steve Bottoms]

I’m responding here to Simon’s post, “Shipley before the River”, which makes some interesting points about the apparent invisibility of the town’s river (I’m assuming he means the Aire, though there’s also Bradford Beck of course) within the town itself…. That is, he couldn’t find any evidence of the river being represented in images, signposts, local amenities, etc. This is intriguing, given that Shipley owes its existence to its waterways: as Ian Watson’s helpful Shipley History website suggests, the original pre-Norman settlement was probably established here because it’s the place where two rivers meet… and then the town owes its modern, industrial identity and expansion to the establishment of the Leeds-Liverpool canal (which is of course fed by the Aire) in the late 18th C. Therea again, perhaps it’s that very industrial heritage — the old waterside mills etc. — that create a distance between the more lived-in parts of the town and the waterways themselves. So perhaps this disconnect has been here for a very long time?

It’s on the north side of the river that people actually live close to the water, and of course technically the north side of the river is Baildon, not Shipley at all! I’ve asked a lot of people what difference that makes, and the consensus seems to be – well, not much. Maybe Shipley and Baildon are a bit like Newcastle and Gateshead, all one thing really. And of course it’s all supposed to be part of Bradford now… Traditionalists might complain about this: Shipley once had an independent town council of its own, before being absorbed by Bradford in the 1970s. But the nature of jurisdictions is that they get blurry anyway: it was Shipley council that, during the 1950s, built the housing estates on either side of Roberts Park, on the north side of the river — so these were Shipley council houses, but the tenants paid rates (as opposed to rent) to Baildon council. Confused yet?

But to return to Simon’s points about the relative invisibility of the river in the town, we could turn that round and mention the relative invisibility of the town from the river. I’ve been doing a bit of a “literature search” in books about the River Aire, and it’s striking how totally overlooked Shipley is in these accounts. So for example, Ron Freethy’s Exploring the River Aire (one of those old-style, well-illustrated, paperback guide books) traces the river from its source at Malham all the way to Airmyn (the village where the Aire meets the Ouse), mentioning all points of interest along the way. There’s a section on Saltaire and Titus Salt, which includes a photograph of the Boathouse before it was a pub, with rowing boats for hire moored outside it… (by all accounts, this picture must have been taken quite a while ago! – though there’s no publication date on the book)  But the next section is simply called “Onwards to Leeds”. This mentions “The journey from Shipley into Leeds”, but Shipley itself doesn’t rate a mention except as something to be left!

It’s a similar story in John Ogden’s Yorkshire’s River Aire (this one does have a publication date – 1976 – and a foreword by Jimmy Savile!). There is a chapter titled “Titus Salt” which talks about Bingley as well as Saltaire, and then the next chapter is called “Bradford”, and deals with Bradford Beck as a tributary of the Aire… But this is then followed by a chapter “Mainly about Flying” (featuring the fascinating tale of Leeds/Bradford airport – or Yeadon airport as it once was). Shipley rates all of two sentences at the start of this chapter, simply by way of acknowledging the point at which river and beck converge… “The town is a busy, stone-built centre of the worsted industry and today appears on the map to be a mere northern extension of Bradford. But for goodness sake don’t say that to a local inhabitant; they are fiercely proud of their own identity.” Wow – belittling and patronising all in one go!

A more recent entry in this minor literary sub-genre of “books tracing the River Aire downstream” is Andy Owens’s Walking on Aire (4ward books, 2010), which is a vanity-published comic travelogue written by a Halifax-based would-be Bill Bryson. It’s actually quite entertaining at times, and pleasingly self-deprecating in tone (Owens moans about having to do his epic navigation of this “exotic” river on spare weekends, going home in between times to earn his keep…). Once again we start at Malham, and wend our intermittent way to Saltaire, but then – interestingly (?) – Baildon features quite prominently as “the next port of call”, where “I could find nothing whatsoever to say about the place”. Owens recounts pub conversations with local yokels drinking “Black Sheep’s Muff” in which he desperately tries to unearth something worth saying about Baildon, and eventually discovers tidbits such as the fact that the late lamented Countdown presenter Richard Whiteley was born here… But after spending four whole pages finding Baildon comically uninteresting, Owens moves on downstream to Charlestown — without Shipley even rating a single mention. In other words, it doesn’t even rate as a place about which to say that there is nothing to say!

All of this creates, for me (because I’m weird?), a kind of inverted intrigue… Shipley (and/or Baildon) figuring as a kind of negative zone or black hole of contemptuous neglect in accounts of the Aire. And yet Saltaire, which is technically part of Shipley (isn’t it?), is this jewel-in-the-crown World Heritage Site… Go figure, as our American cousins might say.


Shipley before the River

[posted by Simon Brewis]

This Friday, May 4th, I had my first day working on Multi Story Water Shipley. I thought I’d start by doing a little research. Rather than head straight to the river I wanted to get some contect of place and how the river might shape local identity. So I decided to spend some time in the town itself and search for evidence of how the river might be present in the town. I was looking for pubs, hotels and road names that referred to the river. I kept my eye out for public art that referenced water. I was almost expecting that at some point I would turn a corner and there would be an embankment or some other public architecture to bring people to the river. However after an hour there was no sign of the impact of the river in the town centre.

I grew up in Bedford, or ‘Beda’s Ford’ in old speak. In Bedford  the river runs through the heart of the town geographically and culturally, so i found the lack of evidence of a river a bit strange. But then I thought about my now adopted home town of Leeds, or ‘Leodis’ which means ‘people of the river’ in old speak. Now in Leeds we are barely aware there is a river even though the place is named after it! So perhaps I have come to expect too much? After an hour of searching I finally found something,  this picture on a notice board in the Town Hall:

After limited success in my first mission I decided to play another game I sometime enjoy in a new place. I search for maps of a place that are produced in that place. I like this game because I think how the local people map a place speaks volumes about it.

Still in the Town hall I found a brochure documenting good pubs in Yorkshire and there was a map, hooray! But no! Shipley wasn’t even on the thing! So I asked a man who clearly worked there if the map was right that there were in fact no decent pubs in Shipley? It turned out that the man was called Chris and he was the caretaker at the town hall. He was very quick to inform me that there were lots of good pubs and he corrected the map for me, here it is:

So now I know about ‘Fanny’s’ on Saltaire Road, ‘The Junction’ in Baildon, ‘Don’t Tell Titus’ (apparently named because the founder of Saltaire, Sir Titus Salt, was Wesleyan and therefore had little love for boozers…so this one was a secret)  and ‘The Boat House’. You will notice that Chris also put Baildon on the map…but he didn’t go far enough to mark Shipley on it? Apparently Saltaire was good enough? As I kept looking I started to notice a trend that in Shipley…Shipley was often was not marked on a map and that maps of Shipley were nowhere to be found. All I could find were maps and information about Saltaire!?

I braved the drizzle and went in search of the local Library, which was initially difficult to distinguish from the Asda. From what I can tell Asda might have helped build it? Is this a bit of modern day corporate philanthropy? Perhaps I will have to chase this up at some point…I met Sarah and Rebecca who were working on the counter in the Library. They seemed happy to talk, although they seemed slightly confused when I asked about maps of Shipley. However diligently they did find me one in a dusty folder under a desk, but it was still not one I could take away with me (and the river wasn’t on it).

I asked them why they thought I might be struggling to find maps of Shipley? Then I asked what, as a visitor to Shipley, what were the points of interest that I should see? The girls looked genuinely quite taken aback by the questions and one of them politely attempted to answer, and her answer contained the word I kept encountering… ‘Saltaire’. I quickly followed up by asking why when I looked for maps or points of cultural significance in Shipley that all I find is information about Sailtaire? They explained that Sailtaire is a ‘World Heritage Site’ which apparently puts it in the same league as the Pyramids!  Rebecca theorised that perhaps Shipley was a ‘cultural poor relation to Saltaire?’ My instinctive reaction was to feel a bit sorry and perhaps annoyed on behalf of Shipley. Has it had a raw deal? Has its cultural identity suffered because of what is happening next door to it?

Finally I asked Rebecca about the river and whether it was an important part of Shipley’s identity? She told me that she had lots of fond memories of the river and particularly ones that related to family outings as a child. She thought the river probably was important to people in Shipley but perhaps subconsciously rather than consciously? I thought that was a really interesting answer and something I want to find out more about. Is the river something that people appreciate without realising it? Rebecca and Sarah were really helpful and considering they are both local I hope I can find some way of engaging them with the project later on.

So as I head in the direction that Chris at Town Hall had told me the river was in I all ready have two questions to answer:

  1. Firstly, is it true that Shipley struggles with itself because of Saltaire? I spoke to a Policeman who told me it didn’t really matter because it is all Bradford anyway.
  2. And secondly, just because the river is not immediately celebrated in an obvious way is it still important to people in Shipley and if it is how is it?

If anyone has any thoughts please feel free to leave a comment.