Under the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the UK population has had to stay inside their homes and venture out only for specific tasks and within clear restrictions, for example to acquire medicines, for essential shopping and during one daily sanctioned session of exercise. Regulations have now eased, but slower in Wales. During this time, local landscapes have looked and felt different on so many regards: not simply ‘less busy’.
Living in North Wales, I’ve hardly driven at all and stayed very local to home. Whilst children’s playgrounds are shut to my kids, many familiar spaces have been accessible for walking and cycling during government-sanctioned daily exercises. As previously stated, I’m lucky with my locality: there is so much to see and so many places to go. Moreover, I’ve long avoided other people as much as possible anyway: with one daughter with ASD and fearful of dogs off leads, and another with ADHD, we’ve been social distancing from other people as part of our standard routine because of the many issues and stresses it can create.
Yet despite being fortunate with my locality and already sensitive to social distancing, the lockdown has still seen considerable changes for me and my kids.
We traverse the landscape differently: I’ve taken extra care to avoid busy locations and pinch-points for pedestrians as much as possible. Wherever we are, we avoid people by at least 2m to respect social distance (although I’ve encountered my fair share of covidiots who have walked at me without consideration for themselves or those with me).
We go to different places. Not only are schools shut, but also we cannot access places and spaces we usually frequent, from Chester Zoo and National Trust properties at Erddig, Chirk, Powis Castle and Bodnant Gardens, Cadw properties such as Flint and Conwy, to local country parks now closed, churches and countryside walks. For variety but also because I’m walking further, I’ve found footpaths locally which I’ve hitherto not explored. Furthermore, the reduced road traffic makes dangerous spaces accessible again on foot and bike. Cemeteries and churchyards have featured, where open.
We encounter different things: as well as seeing unusual wildlife emboldened by the reduction in traffic, the new walks and cycles are taking us to fresh sites, monuments and landscapes that differ from those we usually encountered. Moreover, we are coming across many traces of lockdown material cultures: signs and displays marking the lockdown (more on these in a future post).
Yet in this post I wish to briefly sketch something else that I think is different. I’d suggest that, in addition to the eerie ghost town empty spaces we have been experiencing, we have perhaps noticed more attentively those parts of our landscape which have long been in limbo. These are lockdowned landscapes from before the lockdown. I refer to buildings and sites that are locked up, neglected, and where slowly entropy is taking them towards ruination. Here are some examples.
First up: in the Wrexham area, there remain dozens of disused chapels, neither fully ruined nor in a state of use:
Abandoned houses too:
Abandoned motor vehicles and tractors:
And also former shops and industrial sites:
The most fascinating example is a digger that was clearly left behind by the builders of a housing estate and has long languished between reasonably new houses for over a decade. Owned by no one, on land seemingly the responsbility of no one, it exists in limbo next to expensive 4, 5 and 6-bedroom luxury houses, bizarrely part-guarded by a fence.
We might also go beyond ‘lockdowned’ material culture and buildings, to consider signs of decay and delapidation more broadly. Look at this pair of sections created following the removal of a collapsed section of retaining wall: entropy in process!
And this road-name fixed to a house, looking like it has seen better days.
And the occasional burnt-out car.
And while fouling and fly-tipping have increased massively during the lockdown, some farms have long been accruing their own tips.
This is just a reminder of how we have long lived in lockdowned landscapes resulting from the complex fortunes of businesses and hosueholds, recessions and underlying precarities, all lurking on our doorstep, and just waiting to join the archaeological record! Likewise, our landscapes are full of detritus and decay.
These are melancholic traces, and they find a new resonance during the pandemic lockdown: in hindsight they look like heralds of our future.