‘Flights and Traverses’, my walk through the lower reaches of the medieval town of Sheffield on 2 June 2013, was an attempt to pull together the traces of walks from which I have produced a number of poetry narratives. I describe them as traces because they follow journeys taken over a seven or eight year period – a timespan during which the territories and features which populate the poems have changed – and continue to change. Also, the routes I originally followed were made in the wake of people living and dying (mainly dying, as these moments were the focus of many of the poems) over a hundred year period (1840 – 1940) in which the town/city changed massively; and the events described in the latest – the Blitz of December 1940 – themselves dramatically altered the basic topography of the area. I was therefore recovering faint (and, in places, imagined) tracks, the route markers for which (the poems) have themselves begun to acquire an historical quality.
How, then, to devise a route which will provide an audience with an authentic, lived experience? One which invokes not only the sense of presence of my subjects, the victims of flood and firestorm, the gangsters and the mourners – and the characterised identities of their town; but also something of the ways in which my original journeys infected me with whatever it was that stimulated the writing in the first place. Moreover, would I be able to traverse the many journeys, made for many different motives, in different townscapes, by day and night, in winter and in midsummer, and produce something coherent and resonant? Or would I just be the worst kind of tour guide, marching folk from site to site, armed only with half-truths and anecdotes?
My approach was to return by the same routes. Just as I had done when I first got a whiff of each of the stories, I sought out the primary sources. Maps, photographs, inventories, names. Twentieth century grids held up to the light to show the ghost-limbs of the ancient town of the Wain Gate and the Hay Market, corroborated by the lanes and field boundaries of Fairbank’s 1771 drawing. Where things had changed (like the Workhouse, which apparently had to lie at the edge of town, wherever that happened to be at the time), remnants remain in the names of streets. Others suggest evolution: Under the Water is long-gone, replaced by Bridge Street (though the river was revenant in 1864, leaving houses along the Street inundated). Like the stark photographs of the Blitz, the skeletons of stores, pubs and picture houses mark out the fabric of the past – and evoke an emotional response. What had got me going, in other words, would offer others a way in. At least, that’s the hope.
Rob Hindle, June 2013
Rob Hindle’s ‘Flights and Traverses’ city walk started at Lady’s Bridge and finished near Alma Street in Kelham Island, close to the site of the former workhouse on the edge of the (old) city (and one of the areas affected by the Flood). Listen to a recording of the final stage of the walk below (the first poem is ‘The Workhouse: 3′ (from Some Histories of the Sheffield Flood) and is followed by the closing section of his sequence ‘Dore Moor to the Marples Hotel’, which reimagines the Blitz and its aftermath). Recorded and edited by Brian Lewis for Longbarrow Press.