Unofficial Britain by Gareth Rees

5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

We all have our favourite parts of this country, one of my is West Bay in Dorset, it is a beautiful place to visit on the Jurassic Coast at the end of Chesil Beach. Sitting by the sea watching the boats come in and out of the harbour is a lovely way to spend a day. But even in this beautiful spot, there are things that you probably haven’t noticed on the fringes of our society and have stories of their own to tell.

Gareth Rees has been collecting these stories for a while now and placing them on his web site, Unofficial Britain and for the first time, they have been gathered in this book. He begins with the electricity pylon, a mundane enough object that unless you look for them, they will escape your notice. Pylons were designed by the architect Sir Reginald Blomfield. He did a classical design inspired by the shape of Egyptian obelisks; they are far more ornate than they need be. Pylons divide people, a fair number consider them a blot on the landscape but there are others who see them in a very different light. These pylon poets appreciate them for what they are and their presence in the landscape. The pinnacle of this ‘Worship of the Hum’ is best expressed by the author David Southwall and his creation of Hookland, a collection of weird folklore drawn from ancient rituals.

The stone circle is a ritual space that were constructed in from the Neolithic era onwards. They still have a presence in the landscape today and many people are drawn to them. Some people see that circular features in the modern cityscape have a similar draw to those ancient ones, and Rees goes into some detail about Glasgow after seeing a map on the pillar of a flyover. It was a map of the inner ring road filled in black. Known as urban geomancy, people study maps in detail to read and interpret them, much like ley lines. Even a modern-day replica of a stone circle that he visits at the Coul Roundabout in Fife. Even though it is new, it still feels alive.

Anybody should be able to feel a connection with place, no matter where they grew up or where they live, even in the densest concrete jungles or the most monotonous suburban sprawls

If you were to imagine a haunted house, the film world has tropes that spring to mind. It would be at the bottom of a lane, the vegetation would be dark and oppressive, windows would be broken and so on. He is seeking ghosts that can be found in relatively modern homes and he heads to Grimsby to investigate the presence of a ghostly nun and other supernatural events in the town. Poverty and lack of investment have turned estates that were once full of life and people into ghost homes. We can project our fears onto any inanimate object.

Remnants of factories and industrial sites that are shadows of their former glory are other places where their presence is still felt many years after they stopped being the main employers in their towns. He talks about sirens that would sound for no apparent reason at night waking people up and old industrial sites that had sinister and secret uses, places that even now can raise hairs on the back of your neck. Edgelands have a life of their own, some of it is natural, plants that cling onto life in the most unexpected ways and some of it manmade and often slightly unnerving. Offerings that have always been left in spiritual sites can now be found in places that you wouldn’t expect like the underpasses of motorways and interchanges; he is with friends when he finds a vintage doll holding flowers. They have a raft of questions that this inert doll is never going to be able to answer for them.

We know almost nothing of ritual items left by our ancestors, so how will an archaeologist of the future interpret the things that we are leaving behind? Some features of the urban landscape have reached cult status, one of those was the Redcliffe flyover in Bristol; it has been replaced by a roundabout, but its loss was mourned by many. Near the M32 they find a shrine, though which god it is honouring is a mystery. Spaghetti Junction has 1 million vehicles pass along its twisting roads, but most are utterly unaware of the river that flows underneath it and the wildlife that it supports.

Landscapes overlay landscapes and if you know how and where to look you can see the past clearly. Rees is fascinated by the thin places of this country, places where the past and the present overlap and he see this most clearly in the industrial estates that you can find in every town and city and the desolate areas that are there if you know where to look. They walk along Bromley Hall Road, past salvage businesses and knackers yards and stop to look at the fifteenth-century hall that is remarkably still there and is the oldest brick building in London. Concrete multistorey car parks are a bit of an eyesore unless you happen to have a thing about brutalist architecture. When I drive around them, they always feel a bit too small for the cars that they are supposed to be sheltering. Rees is in Bristol to discover the stories he has heard about hauntings in a particular building.

Near where I grew up was a huge mental institution called Brookwood Hospital. Most of the residents were gone by the mid-1980s, bar a few inside a 6m high fenced-off building. Before the rest was flattened to build homes on we used to play in the partially derelict buildings on the site. I don’t remember any ghosts at the time, but it could be creepy. Rees recounts stories of those that have seen movement behind windows of hospitals in Manchester and of shrieking that disrupted filming in an establishment in Nottingham. To close he heads north on the M6, an almost ritualist journey that he remembers well from his childhood and it is fitting that he ends up in Tebay South Service station where there are standing stones that that fit in even though they shouldn’t.

Sometimes the present can haunt the living as much as the past

I thought that this was an excellent book. I like his curiosity in anything and everything that he sees, be it modern or ancient and he searches for meaning in some form in his subjects. It is a heady mix of folklore, history, landscape and cityscape writing and all built on the foundation of psychogeography. He writes well too and gets the balance just right between being fact and unease with his subject matter. If you have the slightest interest about the place that you live and want to find out what goes on in those tiny triangles of land which most people avoid, then this is a good place to start. Can also recommend these books that pick up on similar themes:

Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou

Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

Unofficial Countryside by Richard Mabey

Strange Labyrinth by Will Ashon

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4 Comments

  1. Liz Dexter

    He certainly gets the balance between unease and fact just right although I have been a bit nervous about what I might see on pylons since reading it (my review is out on Shiny tomorrow and I’ll have a more personal bit on my blog then too) and I was left on the edge of an industrial estate by a disused building just off the canal while my friend sought a place to pee in the bushes the other day and had thoroughly unnerved myself by the time she came back to get me!

    • Paul

      I have the feeling that he left the grimmest stories about pylons out. Look forward to reading your review(s) tomorrow. There are some seriously creepy places in our country if you know where to look.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    It sounds great, Paul. I loved Edgelands so I’ll certainly look out for this one!

    • Paul

      Edgelands was utterly brilliant.

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