I grew up on the edge of a city with little access to real countryside, so the tract of land between the railway line, Liverpool Road and the steel factory was our playground – a magical wilderness, destroyed long ago, that still comes into my dreams. Now, years later, living in Derbyshire and surrounded by hills and fields, the place I love best is again a wasteland – the old industrial site belonging to Tarmac. Thirty years ago this was a barren patch of land connected by five hundred yards of overhead conveyor belt (an odd structure made of iron girders and corrugated metal) to the nearby quarry. Every week the limestone would be trundled along the conveyor belt by truck and loaded onto the freight train to make its way to Derby and beyond. Then the quarry was closed and the railway too.
When I moved to live across the road from the site, seventeen years ago, the conveyor belt still hung over the fields. Tin huts, limestone boulders, and railway sleepers littered the abandoned site, and from the lane we could peer into a deep concrete-lined pool of water with a warning sign attached to barbed wire fencing.
Ten years ago the conveyor belt was dismantled, dismaying a few locals who thought it should be preserved as a monument – then slowly, and not so slowly, nature has taken over. Through the tiniest cracks in the densely-packed limestone, the buddleia, and rosebay willow herb appeared – then the ash, silver birch, and willow.
Today it’s the most beautiful area, dissected by wandering paths created by the feet of many dog walkers. There are orchids in abundance, dog daisies, wild roses, marjoram and thyme, and more shrubs and reeds, and mosses and ferns than I can name. In August the railways is edged with banks of golden seal and a tunnel of purple buddleia, where peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies rest and flutter. It was here one evening that I stopped to listen to the miraculous song of a nightingale on the branch of an ash sapling, and where, with my cousin, I delighted in an abundance of butterflies, so many different species, one September morning at the end of the poorest butterfly summer.
In a short time this area may be flattened under bulldozers and brick – just as my childhood wasteland was – to make way for a housing estate. It’s in the Town Plan and we all need houses, we are told.
Sometimes, when I walk through a shopping mall, or drive along a motorway, I wonder what would happen if we absented ourselves, for even a short time. How long before water seeps into cracks in the structure and the first weeds appear? How long before the concrete cracks, falls, and disintegrates under moss, lichen and fungi, and the first trees take root – until finally our marks all but disappear? Then it seems to me a ludicrous arrogance to think we can destroy a world that has so little need for us.
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.