Nairn: transpennine canal in 1972

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The BBC are sharing Ian Nairn’s journey’s across Britain, first broadcast in 1972, on BBC iPlayer. One of the episodes shared is a journey exploring the post-industrial North through a narrow boat journey – starting north of Manchester and concluding in the Leeds canal basin (where the canal joins the Aire and Calder navigation).

Of interest to me was how the canal had changed between 1972 and my present day experience of it. Nairn characterised it as a neglected, forgotten space, where there were great opportunities for development. At the time many stretches of canal had been neglected and were not navigable – Nairn’s journey followed an indirect route.

My observations:

  • Nairn and the film showed neglect and disuse – the canal and environment are unrecognisable from today. No cleared footpaths, empty derilict buildings / old warehouses, nothing in the way of new development. It was the image of a grim post-industrial landscape with traces of activity that had once been. Nairn himself championed considered development of such places and was clearly exasperated at the lack of any development.
  • The Skipton canal basin was unrecognisable from its current state – it was utterly unused and unkept. Now there are bars, caf├ęs, boat hire businesses, outdoor clothing store and a curry house. The canal space reinvented – just what Nairn was calling for. Why do I have an antipathy towards photographing this aspect? Perhaps because it is photographed by every tourist with a camera phone – I need to let go of prejudice and accept the cultural geography for what it is.
  • The spaces in between towns remain similar – the are surrounded by agricultural land. Perhaps changed little over hundreds of years. The idea of time standing still on certain parts of the canal comes to mind.
  • Perhaps the stretch of the canal that captured my attention more than any other in the program was the approach and terminal in Leeds. Kirkstall was a field of factory chimneys, which have long since been flattened, but left as empty undeveloped ground. The chimneys made the space more interesting – like statues commemorating past industries.
  • The canal basin in Leeds centre, behind the train station, is now surrounded by hotels, offices, bars and restaurants. In 1972, it was desolate and neglected but close to the heart of the city.

There is a geography of time evident from the comparison of 1972 to now. How place changes to space and back to place in the same spot, with the only things moving being time and, of course, culture.