All of the Factory Chimneys are Gone. What’s in your Neighbourhood?

The small English town of Kidderminster is internationally renowned as a 19th century powerhouse of carpet manufacture. Sir Roland Hill, a son of the town, published his 1837 work, Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability, which ultimately led to the World’s first self-adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black. Other boasts include 17th century Christian rebellion and Led Zeppelin…well, one member specifically.

Kidderminster is now representative of what is commonly described as a ‘post-industrial town’. It is a town that has traced a bumpy road of decline since, at least, the 1970s and has yet to recover. Some years ago a ‘new’ town centre was built on the site of Brinton’s carpet factory. The former site of one of the great engines of carpet production is now redbrick, herringbone and chain stores gathered into an awkward ‘anytown’ and devoid of community focus. The ‘old’ town centre is now a place of many empty shop buildings punctuated by the odd chain store or thrift shop. Remnants of 1980s modernisation now look worn. The colours of post-70s optimism bled dry and lichen covered. Even graffiti art is absent; so often a symbol of gritty urban spaces devoid of Gentrification. Where is Banksy in this time of need? Could not one of his signature apparitions lift a dark corner of this once cultural hub? Would a local artist paint Vulcan ears and comedy spectacles onto the subject, should it be a figure? Perhaps.

On this Day of Archaeology, 2016, I am working on guidance for Neighbourhood Planning, the current vehicle for empowering local communities with a degree of control over how development will be integrated into their town, village or parish, and protect what is special. In its application, there is a perception of what constitutes archaeology and the historic environment. For many it is about historic buildings or areas designated with a high level of protection. Views, vistas and streetscapes are valued as too the mature trees and hedgerows that frame the skyline or sinuous country lane. However, in conversation with residents, talk will often turn towards the comparatively mundane yet magical places of a long passed childhood: the ancient stone cobbled alleyway used as a short-cut home; the ruinous Victorian shed with its ghosts lurking within the Ivy covered walls or the pasture field where a searchlight once swept the night sky in search of Heinkel HE111 bombers. These are the un-Designated and easily lost monuments of experience that define the spirit of place. Planning policy requires quantification, constraint and values defined by methods that will stand up to scrutiny. Nonetheless, value built from experience often thrives at the places in between grand designs and manicured landscapes. Perhaps however, it is an inevitable consequence of change that such places are conserved only in memories and the stories told. The short-cuts and dark corners are erased; the derelict buildings, all swept aside by the ‘masterplan’.

Kidderminster, February 2016 © A. Mindykowski

Ghost sign, Kidderminster, February 2016 © A. Mindykowski

Back in Kidderminster, in February, under a featureless winter sky, a window briefly opened back to a time when family run shops occupied almost every corner of every street. A modern advertisement hoarding had been removed after years of disuse revealing part of a painted advertisement from the golden age of residential streets as urban markets. With shaking hands, the modern urban explorer Tweeted about a ‘ghost sign’ #UrbanEphemera #CarryOnFlaneur. By contrast, for long-time residents – a now dwindling number in population – eyes became bright with memories of the old corner shop, Penny Chews sold by the genial shopkeeper who always had a smile on winter days. For this neighbourhood, at least, archaeology suddenly became tangible in a few faded letters.

Hidden landscapes and making places

“Local Government archaeology.” No! Don’t jump to the post about Sub-Roman ritual mud carvings in darkest pre-Shropshire just yet. This day has been about promoting the discovery of a hidden archaeological landscape and a partnership that is working to promote landscape conservation and creative design in placemaking and housing development.

One of the great pleasures of my job is seeing how discovery, research and interpretation of archaeological landscapes, their sites and artefacts is taken forward to create situations where conservation of the cultural/prehistoric/historic landscape is gaining greater status.

One area of great potential is in Green Infrastructure planning, which appeals to this landscape archaeologist because it is about connecting things up; big picture stuff, but not at the expense of the seemingly mundane yet ultimately special local sites. Traditionally, archaeology has not been part of Green Infrastructure planning with its focus on health, well-being and access nature. This is changing as those involved understand how the interaction between people and the environment has created the places we value. So, to see how a former Roman road will become a shared cycle way and footpath, bounded by hedgerows and trees that create great habitat for wildlife is, simply, wonderful.

As for the aforementioned hidden archaeological landscape, well, let me take you on a very short walk. Imaging a grey little road twisting its way through a large woodland area. Like so many other woodland lanes, but here you walk from the car into trees, no distance at all and yet through the undergrowth you see a group of pits, like small craters. These are the remnants of 17th century AD coal mining dating from just before the Industrial Revolution. Walk a little further and a prehistoric settlement enclosure looms on the wooded skyline. A great earthwork, yet it recedes quickly into the tangle of trees as you walk on. Back across the little grey lane and on a few paces more: a ruined farmstead appears set in fields that were carved out in the medieval period. The walk takes all of, say, ten minutes and yet you have discovered 1800 years of archaeology in that time. The Forest of Wyre has many similar discoveries and I am lucky that part of my job is about sharing and promoting the stories of this wonderful place.

Enjoy your discoveries and the Day of Archaeology that we all share.