Clay – squat-seated on London clay –
fired, fused, buff London Stocks from North Kent brickfields;
London built from herself,
Kent clay kiln-fused with North Downs chalk,
with London mud, sea-coal ash, and clinker
swept down on the tide to Sittingbourne
by long-spreet, rust-sailed, barge;
returning, skipper, mate, eighty tons of bricks,
stumpie butting up the gull-stitched estuary,
deck awash in fresh Thames lop, on port tack, starboard tack,
working up the inshore eddy against the main current
or slipping up with the tide, 32,000 bricks,
past square-riggers, steamers,
Gallions Reach, Woolwich, Greenwich, Deptford . . .
for Limehouse dock, through the lock,
and into the canal for Islington – Battle Bridge Basin.
Clay on clay, we’re all made of the same . . .
Kings Cross yellow brick, square clock-tower,
Cubitt’s, brick-unit, Italian-arched, Czar’s riding school.
No soaring Crystal Palace greenhouse for the Great Exhibition
to defy the rain, to delight the heart, to entice the sparrows
that shat on Queen Victoria
(the Duke returning fire – ‘sparrowhawks, Ma’am’),
but a plain train glasshouse; Great Northern’s London stocks,
joint-stock, limited liability, paying four per cent.
Kings Cross; brick, screen-wall arches,
tower clock proclaiming Railway Time to nation’s nerves a-quiver
(galvanised by electric telegraph,
no longer by focussed sun’s rays firing the noon gun),
fronting frowsty London;
Euston Road, Gray’s Inn Road, Pentonville, Caledonian . . .
Laminated wood, wrought iron, steel,
ribbed roof, glass hothouse vaults –
to suck smoke palms and plumes upward and outward
to melt into the fog, the ether, the London particular.
Next door, Saint Pancras’s red brick,
Scott’s soaring gothic sermon,
Burton beer-vaulted, barrel-unit, its utilitarian base;
Barlow’s iron roof-span vaults on stout ribs, proudly embossed
Manufactured by The Butterley Company Derbyshire 1867.
West again, Somers Town Goods Station, Potato Market,
metamorphosed into the redder brick, Midland Red paint,
of the British Library.
And further west, Euston’s doric arch (at which Pugin bitched),
Hardwick’s Hall, long ago bit the dust,
but not before I passed through, saw them,
en route by steam for Liverpool, slogging up Camden Bank . . .
Back along the Euston Road to Saint Pancras,
CTRL’s new terminal builds beside selected remnants –
German Gymnasium, Stanley Buildings,
Victorian iron-balconied model tenement blocks,
improbably still lurk, boarded, by Clarence Passage.
At the north end of Barlow’s roof, incongruous,
the new station block strangely abuts the old.
Fresh concrete carves through Kings Cross railway land,
traverses Belle Isle’s steaming ghosts, plunges into bank,
by primroses, old allotments, quick rust fox flash
near Black Dog Lane,
for Stratford, Thames Gateway and Channel Tunnel.
The map changes yearly, monthly, weekly, daily;
by earth and moon orbit, by globe’s revolution,
by sub-division of slow-spinning spheres;
the sun’s scapement ticks off lines of longitude,
here topography melts in time’s furnace; engraved in copper,
heliozincographed, at the Ordnance Survey; paper palimpsests;
lines blur, names and landscape all utterly changed.
Is any terrible beauty born?
At Kings Cross, on Boudicca’s grave,
here it was the Small Pock Hospital, there the Pleasure Ground,
and over there the Rope Walk (not Tyburn’s).
This rubbish heap rose a hundred feet, covered five acres,
sold for £15,000, fabulously sailed to Russia,
rebuilt Moscow, in 1818.
steel, glass, iron arches, pulled earthward by core’s gravity,
bend knees, strain elbows against retaining walls,
thrust to east and west,
hold open the escape forward, northward,
squeezed like a pip through the station throat,
past northern heights and watery fen,
over canny keel and coal,
leaping Forth and Tay (once caught by side-blast,
train and bridge plunged screaming).
Grim brick-arched walls; vaporous tunnel mouths, hanging grime.
Black tank-engines winged with condensing gear,
divers, mouths clamped on air-pipes,
plunge into the soot-black pit from York Road platform
for Farringdon and Moorgate, on the Widened Lines;
Holmes’s Metropolitan . . . steaming to Baker Street
underneath the arches . . . under heaven’s vault
pound up from the deep, by the Hotel Curve
into lighter, thinner murk;
stop at the sunk suburban platform (still on the steep up-grade),
pass Milk Dock, black Culross Buildings
(where Battle Bridge Road once spanned the tracks)
Gasworks Tunnel, Copenhagen Tunnel . . .
spit sulphur, swirl steam,
in Carel Weight’s watery London light,
or rich raking sun’s glow, red-blown tint
through London’s evening dust-lens.
Booking office clerk takes shillings, pence;
hands pasteboard ticket, date-punched,
to journey past Blake’s London world:
Maiden Lane, Belle Isle, Vale Royal, Pleasant Grove,
et in arcadia . . .
Copenhagen Fields, with a view sweeping down
over London chimneys and spires.
Eleven years old,
I crossed the river from Beulah Hill,
Sisley’s Upper Norwood, Turner’s Thames,
to wonder at all this; what was, what is.
In school uniform and cap,
with cocoa flask, sardine sandwiches, Mars Bar, box camera,
to capture the essence, suspected unknowable;
I knew then I couldn’t hold it, it would slip away . . .
I knew already that time betrays, that what I loved was going,
if not gone (new loves replace . . . ); life’s early lesson.
Time’s particles grain the image;
life’s grey or coloured dust, silver nitrate, paint pigment,
Daguerre, Corot, Monet, Degas, Seurat . . .
sensitive coat of 1959’s photographic emulsion.
Snapshots in time;
It don’t mean a thing; except
In the same brook none ever bathes him twice.
Proud hero engine driver, arrived from north,
resting, leans on cab side,
smiles kindly on schoolboy,
wipes hands on cotton-waste.
Fireman, aching from shovelled tons of coal
shot to firebox corners under the brick arch,
feet braced against rocking miles, swinging shovel,
clanging it off firedoor ring,
seeing flames sucked swirling and burning white
through tubes, up blastpipe;
slowly scrapes loose coal from footplate, hoses dust.
They drink tea from aluminium mug, enamel can;
eat corned-beef sandwiches.
Engine radiates heat, hums and sizzles, wisps steam, drips water;
they wait to return to shed.
At the departure platform, Papyrus fronts the waiting north,
400-ton train for Scottish run
fills with elided lives –
they’ve never had it so good –
they read about Sputnik, the economy,
human particles glancing off each other.
Crew tense, blower forces incandescent hell’s banked fire,
Pressure gauge needle quivers on red, safety valves straining;
my camera’s shutter clicks, light’s rays imprint.
driver leans, looks back, waits for ‘right away;’
blows steam and water,
ejector creates vacuum, releases brakes,
sets long cut-off for expansive steam, pulls on regulator . . .
willing her to grip, to start without slipping on greasy rails,
to climb, leaning into the bank;
no rear banker to help lift the load
up past Finsbury Park.
Stasis uncoils to motion;
alchemical atmosphere; coal, fire, air, water, smoke, steam –
elements and humours - explode, spurt and swirl
into Gasworks Tunnel, under Regents Canal,
beneath brick columns of ventilation shafts
(no longer surprise with sudden steam);
climb under goods station, the slow acceleration
by coal drops, granary, potato market:
Yorkshire coal, Lincolnshire spuds, Fletton bricks.
Burst out into Belle Isle’s grey brick chasm;
sheer sweating wall swings to left,
breaks into sudden up-grade lifting Down South London Goods,
and locomotives going back on shed, up to yard level
where steel ribbons thread brick arches -
Maiden Lane, York Way . . . No. 5 Arch -
patinated with the soots of decades, stone-capped,
gnarled tree-root forcing bricks apart,
under jagged tenement skyline silhouettes –
high grey half-gables, chimneys, churches, schools -
to goods yard and engine shed.
Top Shed (crescent, iron-horse stable,
destroyed as soon as closed, gone like Euston’s arch),
Derby Shed, Metro Shed, Running Shed . . .
A century of steam’s hissing names -
Sturrock, Stirling 8-footers, Ivatt Atlantics, Gresley Pacifics:
No. 1, Flying Scotsman, Mallard, Woolwinder, Cock o’ the North -
heroes, imagination catchers;
pulled Lord Salisbury to Hatfield House,
Leeds and Bradford wool-men, engineers, Geordie coal-owners,
merchant banking Quakers, racing record-breakers,
sailors to Rosyth and Scapa, for Battle Cruisers and Grand Fleet,
eyes screwed against cruel bite north and east,
for Dogger Bank and Skagerrack, Jutland
(to burn in cordite’s furnace, drown in trapped hull, feed dogfish
and eels), Horns Reef,
for arctic North Cape, North Sea, Narrow Seas, High Seas, Western Approaches . . .
soldiers, sailors, airmen, women, to factory, camp and airfield;
posted to France and Flanders,
Dardanelles, Mesopotamia, Macedonia;
for Phoney War and Norway, Dunkirk, Greece and Crete,
Western Desert, Atlantic, Normandy . . .
the burning skies over Germany, Hitler’s Götterdämmerung,
and freight engines, suburban tanks . . .
hurrying coal, explosives, munitions,
south under London, past Smithfield, Ludgate Hill,
smoking ruins below Saint Paul’s, over the river . . .
towards the front.
Sheer wall again, past Belle Isle’s brick half-mile,
past fogmens’ huts, gangers crouched over braziers,
signal boxes’ interlocked levers, men throwing and heaving,
switching and signalling, nerve endings of a complex control,
where puffing shunters’ buffers clang,
couplings chink, links hook or sway,
goods trains dissolve and form,
past brick arches, scape of rails, sleepers, iron chairs;
under soaring black pillars, steel spans,
sweeping North London Railway dockward.
No docks now; euphemistic wharf, quay, water,
for an insubstantial world – merchant bankers, developers,
estate agents, lawyers, web designers,
who toil less but certainly do they spin.
Quick steep down-grade joins from shed,
where Goods and Mineral Junction Box levers,
sweat- and cloth-polished, heave and swing to change points,
raise signals, give us the road . . .
Full bunkered engines, slip out onto down lines
At Copenhagen Tunnel mouth;
heaped tenders back onto holding road,
wait for the signal to drop through Gasworks Tunnel,
couple on . . . for Cambridge, Leeds, Bradford, Edinburgh.
Today, no smoke, no fog, in the sunshine, drizzle, seasons . . .
no trains from Moorgate hammer up the Hotel Curve
from the Metropolitan,
stop at gloomy heavy-awninged platform,
restart on 1 in 43 gradient,
slipping, spitting smoke and steam, gripping sanded rails,
sometimes two engines to lift the train up Holloway bank,
the Northern Heights;
past the turntable, plunge into Gasworks Tunnel
dip under the canal, climb again, still in tunnel
through dripping sooted brick miasma,
past Belle Isle, Pigeon House, Copenhagen Junction,
into Copenhagen Tunnel
(where Ladykillers look over railway tracks, signals, goods sheds,
engine shed, St Pancras spires, tip bodies into wagons),
under the market, gin palace, pubs.
Out and under skewed steel girders sweeping Up Goods over,
past Holloway, past old chieftains’ mounds –
Canonbury, Highbury, Finsbury –
past brick arches, stations, tunnels, bridges.
At Belle Isle now, from the top deck of the 390 bus,
lurching across York Way’s arches,
both ends eroding, nibbled by hungry JCBs:
construction workers, today’s navvies,
CTRL, white-helmeted, yellow-jacketed, tan-booted.
This was a new railway - Great Northern;
grew; main line, suburban, City, goods;
tracks doubled, tripled; cuttings widened, walls erected,
new tunnels bored, yards and sheds spread;
wars, steam, goods traffic passed, eastern tracks lifted,
yards derelict, ripe for redevelopment.
No workers in clanging goods yard,
sweating, shouting urban harpooners dodging shunting engines,
slinging hooked pole over buffer, under coupling links,
heaving on, flicking off, sorting and making up the goods
for the long haul north;
no fitters, cleaners, drivers, firemen,
wartime women, post-war Poles, Caribbeans,
raking, coaling, washing out,
in the mess-room with sandwiches, mugs of tea,
nor beer in York Way local after day’s or night’s work.
Damp, ratty, terraced streets gone . . .
replaced by good intentions, bad outcomes,
smack and crack, uncertainty, incoherence . . .
Love, life, belief, acceptance, community, gone;
railway’s proud working gone,
commitment betrayed or side-slipped,
by technological or market elision,
by capital’s greed, by Canute politicians claiming to control . . .
Brick bones, steel sinews,
fire and steam roaring, pulsing, throbbing, pounding . . .
into portals, under canal, up the gradient,
climbing one foot every hundred, past Belle Isle.
We dug this chasm, clawed these bores, kicked this clay,
forged this steel, hewed this coal and timber,
cut, welded, rolled, rivetted, these rails, these locomotives.
Washed out these boilers, raked out this ash, fed this fire,
forced this draught to suck flame through boiler-tubes,
built up this steam pressure (clamped down with coiled springs),
roasted steam with superheat, fed it through valves to cylinders
Where it rammed pistons, pulled wheels around,
surged against shining steel, jogged heavyweight elbows,
to slug, pound, grind against sanded rails,
then trot, sprint, run,
through Gasworks Tunnel
and under Copenhagen Fields.
Concept, text, terrestrial photos and binding
by Peter Chasseaud
Text ©Peter Chasseaud 2004
Aerial Photographs by kind permission of Simmons Aerofilms
Potters Bar, Hertfordshire
Lithographically printed in 24 point Gill Light
on 410gsm Somerset archival-quality paper
Edition limited to 50 copies
This is no …..