Research and Design Seminar: Dr Ian Thompson

Wednesday 27 January
Exhibition Area 4th Floor Claremont Tower 1pm
All Welcome

Dr Ian Thompson: ‘Reclamation and Erasure in the Great Northern Coalfield: A Photographic Investigation’

For my recently completed MA in Photography I explored and documented the outcome of projects to reclaim former mining landscapes in the Great Northern Coalfield (principally Northumberland and Co Durham).

I visited and photographed 10% of the 300 or so collieries that were active in 1951 (identified from the Colliery Guardian Guide to the Coalfields). The land reclamation programme which followed the closure of the last remaining deep coal mines in the Great Northern Coalfield is often described as an unalloyed success. The National Audit Office’s Regenerating the English Coalfields (2009) praised work by the Department for Communities and Local Government which reduced the proportion of derelict land in coalfield areas from 25% in 1998 to 11% in 2007. Fifty-four sites out of 107 had been put ‘back to working use’, either as public space or to enable private development of a total of 2,700 homes and 1.1 million square metres of employment space. The programme, said the report , helped to make former mining areas ‘more attractive places to live and work’, but it added that ‘many remain among the most deprived areas in England.’

But such documents say nothing about the quality or character of the landscapes which have replaced the landscapes of mining. A completely different view has been expressed by the ecologist and theologian John Rodwell when writing about the effects of the reclamation programme in South Yorkshire. ‘The absence of lineage in landscape may thus be as important as exile from it, such that disjunctions can uproot us even if we do not ourselves move. Now, in individuals, we would regard memory-loss as a pathology worthy of concern, our care, and of medication, yet little attention is being given to the extent to which community memory goes unprompted in landscapes devoid of reminders.’ Rodwell criticises the ‘unchallenging domesticated versions of the environment that are produced by landscape designers’ for being the kind of non-places which are, in anthropologist Mark Auge’s phrase, ‘curiously everywhere and nowhere’ (Auge, 1997). Moreover, research by Katy Bennett (2013) has shown how regeneration agencies have stripped coal mining from promotional material, deliberately underplaying the area’s industrial past.

My project sought to find out what remains of coal mining in the landscape. In many cases there was little to see, beyond perhaps a winding wheel or a tub set down beside a village as a memorial. In some cases the work of reclamation has tapped into pastoral imaginaries to recreate farmland or a country park. In others there has been some redevelopment, so the site may have become a housing estate or a business park. Other sites lie vacant awaiting redevelopment which may be a long time coming or might never come. The emblematic Angel of the North is sited where the pithead baths of Teams Colliery (The ‘Betty Ann’ pit) used to stand.

During the talk I will discuss some current trends in landscape photography, including the post-industrial sublime and the phenomenon of ‘ruin porn’. Is it conceivable that neglected periurban sites have become the dispersed heartlands of a new Picturesque?

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