‘Plymouth Labyrinth’ was a recent multi-platform project, taking place over several weeks, treating the city of Plymouth as a mythological maze to navigate and decode with the aid of maps, an art exhibition, publications, games and guided walks. It was co-ordinated by Crab and Bee, otherwise known as Phil Smith and Helen Billinghurst.
I make the journey down to coincide with a guided walk led by Phil through the side streets around the RAAY Gallery exhibition space, that packs into its 90 minutes a bewildering array of games, stories, observations, discoveries, practical exercises with wool and clay, and magical rituals. Phil has the rare ability to draw mystery, meaning and intrigue from seemingly ordinary environments.
During the walk, Phil references an earlier excursion he and Helen had made to an abandoned rural village on the outskirts of Plymouth; large, modern homes that were bought out and emptied when the mining company Wolf Minerals reopened the quarry after a long period of disuse. A cluster of homes known as Drakelands (after the local Elizabethan explorer) now stand sealed up, their rose gardens and flower-potted patios now grown over with wilder flora.The company closed after a few years’ extracting tin and tungsten, leaving behind a devastated landscape and scarred community. Access to the houses is usually just a case of simply hopping over a fence and urban (or rural) explorers can have the disorienting but worthwhile experience of being in a pleasant domestic environment gone to ruin. These environments can inspire thoughts and feelings of time change, decay and impermanence and as such is best done with a friend, although in this case I didn’t. The friend is also useful in case you fall through the floor / get stuck somewhere / get caught by security. Phil cheerfully envisions bringing a refreshing gin and tonic to enjoy on the weed choked patio.
After the walk, back at Labyrinth HQ, Phil shows me where Drakelands lies on a map criss-crossed with a network of red wool, which represents key locations in the wider Labyrinth. Or rather, Drakelands lies just off the map. He provides a few clues about how I might get there and what to look for on the way, such as red wool, various forking paths and a decommissioned post box. The location is further than easy walking distance from the city, beyond the range of public transport and deep into the network of the sunken green country lanes that characterise the South West. All of these factors present Drakelands as an ever more attractive destination.
Later, I travel as near as is possible by public transport, then leave the main road on foot to access the maze of country lanes and footpaths that ascend through woodland over a mile or two, through to the quarry at the top of the hill. As the landscape becomes more rural, the houses become larger and the distance between neighbours greater. Along green tunnels cut through the woodland and past the curious improvisations and repairs often encountered in the countryside. A simple wire fence is bolstered by wooden inserts which prove to be the knotted tendrils of ivy creepers and strange, femur-like sections of a giant bamboo. The fence is purely functional, merely using the available material, but it has the appearance of a ritualistic warning to intruders. Later in a roadside ditch, a structure that takes me a few minutes to decode. Mossy wooden pyramidal forms glued to a board prove to be discarded schoolchild’s model of Giza, complete with gently rotting insulation foam dunes. It lies where a parent has thrown it from the car and where it will never be found. In Hemerdon, I note the local pub is called the Miner’s Arms - the first clue to the quarry’s existence.
The actual composition of the walls of these green lanes, the land they cut through, is something of a mystery to me. Some are clearly walls built up with local limestone but with many, the surrounding ground is level with the top of the wall, suggesting this is a channel worn through the land over time - a holloway. Now developed and tarmaced, the road level remains constant four or five feet below the surrounding fields. It can be at once comforting and disorienting: as with canalised walking, it can be difficult to assess exactly where you are. The vertical surface of these walls is a rather beautiful and verdant patchwork of greenery - the original living green wall. They occupy my attention throughout the walk: we don’t have them in Birmingham!
Further up Bottle Hill, Galva House provides another clue to the quarry’s existence: a mining chimney still standing near the entrance to a large sprawling home. This was a vent for the fumes generated by the mining process, dating back to the Victorian era. Near here, I rest for a moment against the gate into a field to survey the view back towards Plymouth. Soon after, a car comes to a halt behind me and a mother with three young children says hello and asks me if I’m local. I say no, just exploring and enjoying the scenery. ‘They’ve completely ruined it. I’m taking the kids to see where they could have grown up.’ It sounds like a long, painful story and I agree with her about the ruination, though I’m yet to witness the quarry directly. The family then whizz back to civilisation.
The encounter pre-empts a truly jarring revelation in the so far tranquil setting. As I follow the bend in the lane, the buildings and machinery of the quarry slowly sweep into view across the hill top horizon. Its arrival is so striking and transformative that it feels like a scene in a Sci-Fi film: the huge alien ship settling over a city, now in shadow.
Now that the quarry has announced itself, the effect the quarry has had on the landscape begins to be apparent. Just before the next house - High Post - a decommissioned post box set into the wall has been painted black to signal its demise: no-one lives here now. Suspicious gigantic boulders sit in the driveway in front of the closed gates of the now empty High Post. The rocks have been brought here by Wolf Minerals to ensure nothing further comes and goes through these gates.
The next house - Middle Drakelands - is accessed by a road blocked by a concrete cube and another epic boulder. This is surely Phil’s speculative G&T terrace. The house and garden arrangement makes the best use of the now-traumatised view across the valley. A sign warns that guard dogs patrol the area. I doubt the claim but as I prepare to climb over the locked gate, a man with a large dog arrives further down the lane. Instantly I feel like an intruder (which I am) and sheepishly shout a cheery hello. This gambit works, and I have a lengthy and revealing conversation with the dog walker about the nature of the disappearing residents and landscape, how long it has been going on, who resisted and the effect it has had on people. The big surprise is how short Wolf Minerals’ operation lasted: a mere four extra years of quarrying. This helpful gentleman also points out the location of other nearby empty houses.
With the dog walker now out of sight further up the lane, I hop over the fence aided by another boulder. It is an eerie experience to sense the speed with which the home was switched off, a sense of the building not having fully lived its life. The quarry opposite is still active in a security-presence sense: powerful lamps on site are lit throughout the daytime; being possibly watched adds to the sense of unease.
Round the back of the house, out of view of whoever may be patrolling the valley, I find a way into the building. The metal plate covering a ground floor window has been peeled back like a sardine can by previous plunderers in search of their own valuable metals. Entering feels like a burglary due to the newness of the abandoned home: too soon? The house has nothing to offer other than space and curious peripheral lighting. My phone’s torch reveals the ceiling trauma from copper miners in search of pipes and wires.
The sealed rooms are in near total darkness. The daylight that seeps through the edge of of the shuttered metal windows is actually rather beautiful - you don’t notice the pure whiteness of light until it is in pinpoint isolation. Then several ambiently lit bedrooms, cupboard doors flopping open, never again to contain. On exiting, I find a clue to the former residents’ life here. A haunting photographic negative on the mantelpiece reveals children playing against the backdrop of the sealed up windows.
The next non-neighbour is a good half mile away down another leafy lane. A large abandoned house set into a hillside, again in alarmingly good condition. I decide not to follow the plunderers’ route along a conservatory roof to access an upper bedroom window, now smashed open. On an outbuilding on the elevated side of the grounds is a clue to the previous occupiers, in order of age and height. Jonathan Passmore and Terry Griffin 1 / 8 / 90. Their right handprints seal an expanse of plaster. A son and friend helping out over summer? Or is this an early record of the exodus?
In the driveway below, partially engulfed by unchecked flora, is a powerful emblem of decay. A white Morris Traveller is slowly falling to pieces there, one asset the family decided not to bring with them. It is a melancholic moment for me, for this was the same model and colour as our family car in the 1970s.
It was in this car that I experienced my first taste of the English south coast. Plymouth Labyrinths aside, Dorset, the Isle of Wight, Devon and Cornwall already have a mythical meaning for me as the destination of family holidays between 1977 and 1983. A five hour journey from Manchester on the sun-scorched leather back seat, singing folk songs with my family and arguing with my sister. The memories are fond and vivid, not least because my father, a professional photographer, captured our travels in a series of spiral-bound albums. The joy came also from leaving behind a landlocked, rainy Manchester. Seaside, Summer holidays, lighthouses and fossils made the SW a highly charged and much loved destination. Years later, when I’d learnt to drive and had my own income, Devon and the Isle of Wight were obvious early destinations. Seeing the car in this condition, in the somewhat fragile mental state of trespassing someone else’s past, was a grating moment. Every moulded curve, the slender steering wheel, the folded cardboard glove box interior and the other interior fixtures of the car were all intensely familiar. Treasured memories in ruins.
The true fate of the car - our family car - was that is accrued rust and dust in the garage: a restoration project that my father never completed before his death…or indeed ever really started. This sad encounter signals the end of my explorations and I begin to make my way back to Plymouth central, stopping off at the Miners Arms for an introspective G&T. The pub makes the best use of its outside space: a grassy terrace of tables affording a good view of the city. Ideal for miners.
There, some leisure Googling:
The name ‘wolframite’ is derived from German ‘wolf rahm’, the name given to tungsten by Johan Gottschalk Wallerius in 1747. This, in turn, derives from ‘Lupi spuma’, the name Georg Agricola used for the element in 1546, which translates into English as ‘wolf's froth’ or ‘cream’. The etymology is not entirely certain but seems to be a reference to the large amounts of tin consumed by the mineral during its extraction, the phenomenon literally being likened to a wolf eating a sheep. Wolfram is the basis for the chemical symbol W for tungsten as a chemical element.
Wolf Minerals’ curious name solved.
…Sometimes I think of a joke, make myself smile and then find myself thinking of all the times in history that joke has surely been made before, taking pride in being a part of that long but unprovable tradition. Before I leave The Miners Arms to make the last bus of the day, I think of the youngest employees from the quarry from years gone by, trying to get served here for the first time. ‘Sorry, we don’t serve minors’, deadpans the landlord each time.
In April 2011, I revisited the South West many years after those early Summer holidays, to attend the 2nd International Research Forum on Guided Tours conference at the University of Plymouth. I was on a year’s sabbatical, having quit my job with no clear idea of what I would to do next. That I attended this conference suggests I already realised guided tours might become something greater than the occasional local history walk I would do back home. That year, there was a sense of true freedom in my life: I’d resigned from an impossible job and now had the luxury of being able to set my own agenda. Not necessarily with future work in mind - just things I felt like doing. The last time I’d had this degree freedom was in childhood. The first event on the IRFGT programme:
West End Twalk: Phil Smith leads a ‘mis-guided tour’ of Plymouth’s West End, plaiting the everyday and the hidden into a local ‘mythogeography’. Weaving together different strands of the area’s history, everyday life and magical associations, the tour is a performance of the unexpected and the ordinary made extraordinary.
This walk / talk (the ‘Twalk' in the title) transformed the way I thought about my own walks and indeed all guided walks: the revelation that they need not be about sharing local history research, and the guide’s knowledge and interpretations could be creative and meaningful. Critiquing a charity shop’s window arrangement on New George Street: how would that yield anything worthy of inclusion in a guided tour? I remember thinking that. Phil revealed the subtleties of the window display creator’s design and intention, and the archetypes and mythologies they tapped into. A small but meaningful piece of theatre, and an affectionate appraisal of the creative gesture.
Later on the tour, the group was positioned on an elevated walkway, looking down into a vast second hand furniture shop, as from the balcony of a theatre. Phil framed the situation and activity below as being a deliberate and biting satire on the contemporary human condition. Since then, I can choose at will to make light of a difficult situation by entertaining it as a clever parody.
I make sure to revisit this shop during my P-Lab explorations. It is pre-empted by an encounter on Phil’s walk with The Old Morgue, an odd cafe, events hub, second hand furniture and nicknacks emporium with a chilling past. When a photograph of this curious old shop front appeared earlier in the exhibition, I presumed it to be a surreal photomontage. To encounter it in reality on the walk is astonishing; mythical Plymouth made real. Returning to the 2011 furniture store - housed in a former Toys ‘R’ Us - seems critical to the further pursuit of these myths. These days, it purveys a higher class of crappy furniture but sadly the elevated vantage walkway has been sealed off from the direction of the carpark. The walkway still transects the huge unused space above the shop floor. Arriving with a specifically theatrical outlook, I see all sorts of other narrow, arial walkways around the glass canopy over two stories that remind me of a set-piece from West Side Story. Presumably the walkways were installed for window access and maintenance but they would also be ideal to use in a live performance meta-satire of consumerism in a shattered, post Brexit economy. Wonderful!
Later in my Plymouth excursion, I experience the Fractal Harbour Illusion. A walk to the other side of a harbour often involves misjudging the distance. The unreadable scale and irregular shape of bay with various unexpected and uncrossable inlets mean you may end up walking maybe three times the distance you expected. The Harbour Illusion is a labyrinth that has caught out unwary Mancunians, Brummies and other land-locked lubbers throughout history. To solve it, simply keep the sea to your left and eventually you will emerge.
The next day, on the final day of the Plymouth Labyrinth events, I arrange to meet Crab and Bee to share my explorations of Drakelands and beyond. A nice symmetry occurs: by chance, the harbour-side restaurant I select is also where they first formulated the idea for the project and which has just come to a conclusion. A final clue that in this spot myth and reality are perpetually interweaving: floating below us in the marina, a yacht with its name lettered white on blue on the stern: