In order to reach the museum, we had first had to walk back the length of the street and then cross the goit of which I have made much ado. So I whiled away some few minutes by relating to him my experience with the brick wall behind which I had expected to find an old factory interior, mold and dark heavy with the years. In their place, there had awaited only grey skies and the sense of a meeting missed.
My story, if so it can be called, was reaching its end when we came to the narrow waterway separating Sheffield from island. Safely tucked within brick walls and culverts, the goit had, with industry’s passing, taken back somewhat of a wild appearance as long grass and weeds clumped on small islets, perhaps the result of sediment buildup, islets which, so I speculated, would one day outgrow the narrow bounds which the goit set them. A brick bridge brought us across to the museum premises where the sights confronted the viewer all at once.
In short order, we came across: a metal container, three meters perhaps in height and width, and strongly riveted, formerly used, or so I presumed, to transport molten steel through the ironworks, and at the upper edges of which continual heat exposure had crumbled away the rim, and now holding but a feeble sapling, leafless at that time of year; a block of flats, red brick, with plate glass windows and balconies, fitted out, as best I could guess, with the latest comforts which society had to offer; farther on, the chimney house in the same red brick, but with noticeably fewer windows and openings, their numbers perhaps willfully thinned out, as I could find hints of their blocked-up and walled-over brethren, and above all of which the titular chimney rose to thrice the house’s height, though darker in color than the supporting, whether due to smoke or the poor lighting I knew not.
This short walk the length of the goit left us before the museum entrance where, given the late hour and pub plans, we opted not to pursue the tour inside. Before turning back, G. directed my attention to an ovoid metal monstrosity, more than twice the height of the metal container seen earlier, and which resembled nothing so much as a slightly deformed, iron egg, open at either end. The accompanying legend identified it as the world’s largest surviving Bessemer converter. If, at the time, I was sure to have remarked on its scale and marveled at the human industry and mental exertion underlying its creation and implementation, the term “Bessemer converter” would have remained opaque.
Indeed, these words proved at once too full and too empty, the knowledge required to make sense of them rendering the signifiers inaccessible to the layman, for which reason this term remained impenetrable for several days more, until such a time as I bothered to look the term up. From the elementary explanations which I later found, it would seem that the opening at the ovoid’s bottom served to blow air through the molten metal being processed in such a way that the various impurities found in the pig iron oxidized and effectively vanished from within. A combination of gears, levers and steam engine tipped the converter forward until the resultant steel poured from the opening at the ovoid’s top.
The last mouthful of IPA swiftly disappeared, and, with it, my reflection on the Bessemer converter and its manner of applying heat and air in ingenious ways so as to burn away the inessential and leave behind a product of uniform composition. Looking back, I can say that this travelogue may stand at odds with that process inasmuch as I have tried to leave the account’s inessential intact. Whether this in some way precludes its future usefulness remains to be seen, but I feel it of a kind with the lowly pig iron. That will I only know upon having reached its end.
G.’s flatmate had at some point or other joined us in the course of my pondering and made her introductions. Our lively discussion continued over a simple dinner and after-dinner pints in their evening haunt where we took more than a few minutes to lay the groundwork for a sociological study on English pubs. In the way of data, we managed in short time to juxtapose the way in which pub occupancy transcended social classes, the ambivalent relationship between burgeoning pub culture and ongoing gentrification in post-industrial cities, the reasoning underlying the choice of carpet over hardwood. In hindsight, these data points seemingly stand over and against the other in logical opposition and yet fall through in their very real coexistence in one and the same space.
So, from my final day in England, I can say only that I came out of it with little in the way of concrete conclusions, save that carpet was a poor choice indeed for all that happens in a pub.
Wounds. Such was the romantic conclusion at which I arrived in order to explain why the railings had not been replaced. It was perhaps as erroneous as any other I came to, and I did not ask G. to indulge my wonderings further. Instead, we continued on down the street, in time taking a seat at table and bench on a patio overlooking the city. The pints before us proved to be the first of many, as we would carry out an extensive survey of the North’s watering holes before the trip was over and through. By the end of it, we had learned rather more of each other’s conversational penchants.
Sipping at a black IPA, I lent a more careful ear to the Yorkshire accent of which G. had made a minor art in the course of five or six months. It briefly occurred to me that my companion knew all manner of ways in which one might unhinge the jaw, loosen the tongue and reshape the palate in order to teach oneself a new accent. Perhaps thirty minutes into our pub talk, the desire came over me to show him to what extent I could only fail in a similar effort, and I noted, not without a certain pleasure, the surrounding tables’ surprise to hear two grown men speaking French in the Steel City.
The time between mouthfuls allowed ample time to think back on the late afternoon stopoff at Kelham Island, on our way back from the Peak District. The Kelham Island Quarter, to the north of the city center, at once gave off the impression of being overbuilt and falling apart in that the quarter’s structures ranged from newly built blocks of flats and fully repurposed industrial spaces to empty lots and tumbledown factories. Before the city’s ongoing urban renewal project, the passerby could hence take in at a glance the full span of a building’s lifecycle, beginning with groundwork and frame, then to receive walls and fittings, in order to shelter human activity, only for the human to pass out of it with the fittings and, later, the walls, frame at last falling away to leave one to start over.
As my time with a search engine would later reveal, Kelham Island had known humbler times as meadowland and owed its name, and subsequent transformation, to the 12th century digging of a goit or mill race or leat, depending on local speech. One could cast such linguistic muddle aside by simply noting that the goit consisted in a channel dug between an upstream stretch of the River Don and its lower reaches and that the artificial waterway allowed for the beginnings of industry due to the smoothly sloping bed, steady waterflow and increased control over the water level. If the goit in question had in the beginning powered only a corn mill, with the new island remaining in large part meadowland, goit and island’s piecemeal development passed a threshold in the 1820’s with the setup of large-scale ironworks. The 1850’s witness the finetuning of reliable steelmaking machinery and so ushered in, if not a golden age, a century-long highwater mark for Sheffield.
We had parked the car in a sidestreet, hemmed in by tall brick walls, in which the few doors and windows were invariably blocked off by plywood, cinderblock or chainlink. At a short distance from the car, I happened upon a doorway where a careless construction worker had perhaps forgotten to close the chainlink gate behind, an opening of which I took full advantage. Taking care not to draw attention to myself, I first stepped up to the door and peered about the edge. Yet the sight before me banished all thoughts of hiding from my mind, for the brick wall setting street off from interior was all that remained of the latter. In its place, a level, gravel lot opened up, not a blemish on it, apart from two backhoes picking over the carcass of the abandoned workshop to one end.
Some seconds later, again aware that I was trespassing, it occurred to me to pull head and feet back and rejoin G. in the street, from where we continued on to the Kelham Island Museum.
We met without incident on the road back, with a short stopover still to be related. All the same, G. heaved a sigh of relief as he pulled into the space before the house. We stepped out and locked up and made our way through the tunnel, its nickname still good for a laugh. The back door thrown open, we lugged our things through the kitchen before dropping mine in the house’s front room and my companion’s upstairs. Unburdened, we returned to the kitchen and proceeded to retrace the path by which we had come in.
Once again outside, G. took notice of my interest in the low brick wall enclosing before the house and the iron nubs evenly spaced along its top. He asked me what I thought they might be and why. At a glance, I was able to determine that they survived from some wrought-iron structure, perhaps a fence or railing. As to the why, I felt myself at something of a loss, and I said as much.
G. drew nearer the wall so as to point a few key clues out. First, the nubs were not of uniform height. Nor were their tops completely flat. This suggested that the nubs had been cut, though not all at once but, instead by individual hands and machines. Moreover, the considerable rust build-up suggested that the cutting went back a good number of years. Lastly, the location gave a strong hint, as well, for iron structures typically ran along the top of a garden wall with the sole purpose of closing it off.
At this point, he turned and asked, in his quiet way, whether there came to mind any events of the past century necessitating the removal of wrought-iron railings from gardens public and private. Only then did the pieces fall into place for me. Naturally, during the Second World War, these garden railings had joined so many others as scrap metal at the foundry with the sole purpose of becoming munitions. So had a nation made weapons of the mundane and the purely habitual.
I had, of course, come across London gardens which the scrappers had similarly plundered. Yet those showed one key difference with the garden then before me: civil authorities had since replaced the former, with the only clue to their one-time disappearance a paragraph of text that few bothered to read. From what I had seen, all scrapped London railings had undergone replacement, as nowhere were nubs to be found.
Looking up the road and down, I could see that Sheffield’s private citizens, civil authorities, or both had not seen fit to follow London’s example and had left nubs as were. G. would later point out, in other parts of the city, still more extensive remnants of the scrapping effort. Such as it is, I cannot say with any assurance whether the decision not to replace owed to a historical movement or to a cost-saving measure. The nubs seemed, however, to provide a certain unintended memorialization, as so many wounds having closed with the years though still visible for all those who would care to look. There could be no swapping one wound for another.
The way back would have largely passed without remark, were it not for a mysterious millstone, one of a set scattered below the ridgeline, with nary a clue as to their origins. Speaking for myself, if not for G., I could say that I had always been taken in by the unexplained, as well as the work of imagination by which one might furnish an explanation and thereby fill in a corner of world picture left theretofore untouched by the sciences. So I set to my task and tried my best to drag my companion into the exercise with me.
Though I sighted some millstones which stood propped up at the base of the rockface, either alone or in groups, the one under consideration lay just off a stretch of the earthen track which we had earlier skipped by cutting across to the nearest stone outcropping. From the crust of white-blue lichens, I supposed that the stone had occupied this place for a number of years, albeit not so many as to have begun sinking into the ground beneath. Apart from these suppositions, the stone’s present situation provided little evidence to help the would-be explainer make sense of the unexplained phenomenon.
Casting my eyes about, I could see no buildings of any size in the immediate surroundings. If I could make a set of structures out in a valley near what I took as the southern horizon, that set had rather more an industrial look about it and would have had little use for millstones and no reason to deposit them here. Additionally, from my time above, I felt comfortable in asserting that a windmill had not stood upon the ridge. After all, we had encountered neither ruins nor groundworks. Yet the lack of explanation constrained me to reach the conclusion of just such an entity’s existence, for I was, all things told, at a loss to explain how the millstones had come to rest there. Perhaps they had simply proven too difficult to cart off with the rest of the structure, yet innocuous enough to leave lie at the outer bounds of a national park.
When solicited for his opinion, G. seemed equally puzzled, so we left the matter at that. Crossing the yellow and brown expanse separating us from car, we talked over our plans for the evening. In the end, we decided to leave the car before his home on the hill and settle in for a round or three at the public houses nearest his home.
Our eyes on the ridgeline ahead, we crossed the half-kilometer separating the nearest section of ridge from the shoulder where we had left the car. We followed a well-worn earthen track, two meters wide, with loose stone embedded therein to slow erosion. The slope remained manageable for the moment and so was the going easy. The track carried on straight ahead for another hundred meters before bending left to run beneath the ridgeline, a parallel path to that line traced by plate movements.
While, to either side, the land rose and fell gently beneath the stubble of sheep-shorn grass and ungrazed scrub, the ridge threw itself up menacingly as if to hinder the wanderer’s progress through the heath, and its bare piles and outcroppings of grey stone seemed two shades darker against the overcast sky behind. I might even so far as to say that, from a distance, the grey mass gave off the air of a stronghold, with the way its flanks broke near vertically from the surrounding ground.
Without a doubt, I could easily picture a defensive structure like the ridgecastles which I had on occasion learned of when perusing the internet late at night. In contrast with a spurcastle, wherein both outlying defenses and inner keep clustered about a single central stone formation unapproachable on three sides, the ridgecastle offered more in the way of spectacle in that it drew itself out in a series of keeps and gatehouses running the full length of the ridge, content with being unapproachable from a mere two sides. From my late night readings, I had come by the impression that spurcastles far outnumbered their ridge cousins in Europe and Southwestern Asia, although I could not speak for other parts of the world.
Nor could I say precisely why it seldom occurred to castlebuilders to opt for the ridgecastle over the spurcastle. Perhaps it proved a simple question of geometry, one open side providing less exposure than one. Unless it were not instead a question of economics and logistics, in the sense that the spur variant called for fewer materials and a more concentrated worksite. Then again, it could just as likely owe to another set of considerations altogether, for all that I knew of medieval castlebuilders’ mindsets.
By that time, we had cut off from the parallel track and reached the base of the ridgeline. After a few minutes looking over the near-vertical rockface, we managed to locate some way’s down from our initial approach a sloping path upwards through a grassy defile. A minute’s walk brought us at last to the top of the ridgeline from where we could see that the stone formation stretched into the distance for miles and farther still than we could see either way. Both near and far, a few colorful specks advanced along that stone causeway towards a destination which necessarily remained obscure for me, the watcher.
Yet watcher again became wanderer, and we shortly came across the first of those specks, now become fellow humans, headed in the opposite direction. As was my habit on the old ways, I raised a hand and offered a few words of greeting at their passing. Both parties then made rapid progress away from one another as the level ridgetop track offered few obstacles, with the exception of a rock scramble now and then, and thus allowed one to cross the countryside far more easily than one might have done in the heather and isolated stands of fir. In places, the track led out to the ridge’s brink, from where my companion and I leaned out to get a better idea of the rockface’s height. At a glance, we estimated that the rock wall fell away some ten or twenty meters in places, a sheer drop and nasty spill for the uncareful.
In time, the wind picked up and bit through the loose layers in which we had clad ourselves for our impromptu outing, driving us behind one of the larger boulders lying loose atop the ridgeline. My companion made the most of the leeside shelter to remove lighter and cigarette from pocket and take a pull while I attempted to gauge the distance between our boulder and the next high point down the way. I judged it to be beyond what we could reasonably manage in the short time remaining us and told G. as much. He gave his assent, carefully pocketed his butt, and we took the old ways back.
Over the course of our meal, G. told me more of those sights around, such as Sherwood Forest and the Peak District National Park, and of his recent outings thereto so as to acclimate both to car and to driving on the left ahead of our trek north. I listened, rapt, to his descriptions of the Peak District and could only interject from time to time that I should greatly like to see it one day. Sensing my desire to wander, G. suggested then and there that, come the afternoon, we make for the Peak District, given its proximity to Sheffield.
After settling the bill, we retraced our steps over stream and before the occasional mosque back to hill and home. My companion disappeared through the tunnel only to reemerge some minutes later with a rucksack and a large bottle of water in hand. Fumbling for the keys, he managed in time to get the door open, and we set off for the national park.
This marked my first extensive outing in an English car, the ride from the railway station to G.’s having been relatively short in length. So, while simultaneously acting as navigator, I made the most of the opportunity to observe to what extent English roadways turn everything on its head. I remarked as much to the driver, who spent the next few minutes illuminating me on how unsettling it was to know that his every instinct was wrong.
Indeed, his first movements of head and hand could not help but be unfaithful. For, as he explained, his right hand inevitably reached to shift gears though that action now belonged to the left. Likewise, he made to look over his right shoulder when overtaking when he should instead turn to look over the left. The car, as an extension of the body, had been turned about on itself, so G., as the body so extended, had also been turned about on himself.
Despite not driving, my own reactions throughout the trip proved misleading as, like the driver, I would often check what I imagined to be a blindspot or would attempt to enter the car from the driver’s side, rather than the passenger’s. All the same, with two of us in the effort, driver and navigator, we managed to correct for enough of our false instincts as to travel in a reasonable approximation of safety. After twenty minutes or so, we had climbed considerably from Sheffield’s lowlands and now passed fence, hairpin turns and loosed sheep into the park’s outskirts.
The first days of spring found the plantlife much as winter had left it: yellowed grass, heather gone to rust. Not for the first time that trip did the vegetation strike me as alien, more precisely, as barren, sparse or otherwise diminished, far more than what I knew possible from my childhood spent on fruitful plains. With the car, we rounded a last flock of sheep crossing the way before coming to a halt, two hundred meters on, at a shoulder where a number of cars awaited their occupants’ return. G. cut the engine, engaged the parking brake and pointed the way to the nearest ridge. Content to receive instruction, I followed.
As I put fox guides out of mind, I could at last turn my attention back to our then destination. Our steps carried us in time to a secondhand shop not far from the city’s outskirts. From the road, I gave it a look over and made a swift mental catalogue of its outward features: a collection of glass bricks for garden or home decoration; the discarded metal sign from a one-time “northern brasserie”; rusting frames for nightstands given over to the elements; the facade’s dirty brick and flecked paintwork; without forgetting an assortment of handpainted cards affixed to the facade and promising all manner of finds therein. In all, the outside could rightfully be considered unassuming by secondhand shop standards.
Yet once through the front door, the exterior’s unassuming quality fell away before the inner tumult. While one might reasonably expect a measure of tumult from any secondhand, given the social purpose as a repository for things unwanted, this impression owed more to the shop’s architecture. For I found the place to be comprised of several uneven levels, which had seemingly crashed into one another and, generally, fit ill at the joints. Certainly, the owners had done much to smooth this rough quality through careful placement of ramps, short steps and hidden stairwells, as well as the choice clearing out of walls. But there nonetheless lay over the shop’s inward existence all the clues necessary to follow its growth from meager, one-room beginning to sprawling, multi-room present.
Thinking back on this time, I can now imagine G. having related as much to me through our tour of the different floors and rooms. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that I have, of my own built up from nothing this recollection and that he gave no such independent confirmation of the shop’s steady takeover of building and neighboring structures. Whatever the truth of the matter, the cards on the premises had not lied in that many finds indeed lay inside, and G. served an excellent pilot through oxbows of linens and fabrics, eddies of glassware and banks of cast-off furniture.
Display cases occupied pride of place in the shop’s organizing logic and stood ready for the treasure hunter, brimming with unusual castoffs. Among their number I counted a 1940’s contact lens set, complete with dropper and instructions, for a mere forty-eight pounds. At a glance, the lenses appeared too large by half for human eyes, so I wondered whether the first lenses had not in fact covered the eye’s full surface, the ocular globe closed off from the world by glass sheath. So had their user lived free from that decade’s distorting effects. The same case held everything from replacement clock batteries to leather cases for poker dice.
Elsewhere, our inspection found us perusing old postcards, maps and prints, for which my companion had an admitted weakness, or posing for an obligatory photograph, beneath empty birdcages, in all manner of headwear, most notably a deerstalker, which I had turned up in one musty corner. Outside, morning shadows grew shorter, as did the list of rooms still to be visited, until, some minutes later, Victoria’s decidedly impassive bust showed us the door. Back in the cool morning air, we set our sights on a pub at the other end of the road. Over vegetarian sausage and porter, we would soon thereafter discuss afternoon plans and come to an unexpected resolution.