I am a child of the edgelands. The Black Country where I grew up, and where I still live, occupies a space between the city-sprawl of Birmingham and the woodlands that border the Severn and the Stour rivers which wind their way through its scarred landscape. The districts of Netherton and the Wrens Nest formed my understanding of the world, labyrinths of winding streets with pebble-dashed council houses piled up on one another, claustrophobic semis with paper thin walls. And yet within a few yards, a few moments walking, you could find yourself amidst unkempt scrubland, on the edge of motionless canals forming silent ribbons of rust, or scraping new trainers in the dust of dirt-tracks that opened onto industrial estates and scrap-yards like a new book.
I was savaged by dogs in Blackbrook Road in the early seventies. The animals had escaped from a compound: they were security dogs and like me they were displaced, the edgelands as a dead zone, the liminal space between. I had no place there and neither did they. They won. My four-year old self was no match for their street-wise ferocity.
The wastelands that surrounded the old Gibbons factory and the old Burton Road Hospital was a refuge for children aching for space and freedom from the confines of the Wrens Nest council estate. These swathes of nettles and grass bordered the main Dudley to Sedgley road and swept back onto the old coal heaps that loomed like great mole-hills on Dibdale Road. We often stood on the wall that formed the boundary of the hospital grounds, the ‘loony-bin’ as we so unkindly christened it, and from this vantage point you could cast your gaze across to the Black Hills and the Malverns, great curves on the horizon that might as well have been landscapes on the moon. Or else you could see high over the estate (if you wanted to) and then beyond to the Wrens Nest caverns. The estate where I grew up was trapped between these two areas of beauty, for there was beauty in the edgelands of ‘the top fields’ as we called them. Disappearing from home for long stretches of the summer, armed with a bottle of warm dandelion and burdock and a bag of Walkers, we would exhaust ourselves with endless games of football or cricket depending on the time of year. The old factory that squatted in the weeds and dust of the ‘bottom fields’ as we called it had always been abandoned, the ghost of a ghost of some past that we heard only our grandparents talk about. It was a magnet to boys eager for adventure and claimed the life of at least one poor soul who strayed too high, too far. The top fields have long gone, buried beneath red-brick houses, taking with it the memories of a thousand children.
As a child I found a strange beauty in the Shaver’s End waterworks. Its sloping walls could have been the walls of a castle: so incongruous, this edifice that stood proudly between the main roads of Burton Road and The Broadway. I was told it was a reservoir, and I imagined an immense sea lapping at the edges of its green walls. It is still there, a relic of my past, and I wrote a story, ‘An Inland Sea’, based on this fascination.
And when I left home and moved into my first house, that too was an edgeland place. I remember the estate agent calling it a ‘semi-rural property’: an end of terrace that would have belonged to a mining family perhaps. It lay back from a dog-legged lane that led out to the main road out of Gornal to Kingswinford. There was no back garden: only a disputed track that backed on to open fields that had long withstood the developer’s advances and was home to a few sorry horses that my neighbour, the scrap merchant, kept for business. The view from my front window was of an electricity pylon that crackled with bitter scorn whenever the rains came to form muddy red rivers that ran outside my back door. Lorries swept along the lane, shaking the foundations of my house. The road was a short cut to the breaker’s yard that skulked at the end of the road. We had a coal fire that didn’t quite work because the draw on the chimney was shot, and when the winds came, they caused smoke to belch back into the living room. We carted coal in an old wheelbarrow the hundred yards from the coal merchants.
It was the mid-1990sm, but it could have been the fifties.