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Travelogue I23

August 20, 2016

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.

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