We stayed over in Dudley in West Midlands just south of Birmingham, in a very nice upmarket hotel at the weekend. The hotel was almost empty. It was/is part of a complex called Merry Hill, a late-nineties development of offices/shops/apartments, by the canal.
As I understand it, the Local Authority were in possession of a disused industrial site plus some government enterprise zone grant money. Unfortunately no-one, certainly none of the large developers, was much interested in putting any of their own money into a development project in grimy south Birmingham; the site was contaminated and undercut by mine shafts, out of the way and as downmarket as it is possible to go.
I suppose it is hard to criticise what the developers created given the backstory of an old industrial site, local politics and changes of government. The Council eventually chose a small-scale local developer called Richardsons; quite likely because they were the only ones willing and able to take it forward but what they have produced appears to me now to be a ghost town. Empty flats, or half-empty which is probably worse because it means you can’t sell; closed bars that on the Friday night we were there should have been heaving with couples and singles looking for a good night out; the almost empty hotel . . . how sustainable is that? Car parks with only one car parked: just asking to be vandalised. One or two people walking dogs and a few men fishing in the canal. It’s clean. Tidy. Well cared for, it hasn’t been abandoned as such. Someone is still trying.
But it looks as though it was doomed from the beginning. High floor, low ceiling, is how it could be readily described in other words its upward potential is limited. The architect’s plans must have looked amazing at the time: the canal winding its way through the middle, actual boats tied-up at canalside, trees over here, shrubbery over there, stick figures jogging along the towpaths, all the apartments turned in toward the canal rather than out to the remainder of the contaminated site. But then the Contractor got hold of it and the project was progressively watered down and obligations renegotiated. The flats are seven stories high, was that in the approved plans? They are way out of scale with the rest of the buildings. There are no shops, just bars. It’s all in a beige brick, all of it, no changes of texture or even colour with bog-standard metal doors and windows either bright green or blue to the facades. Bog-standard planting too: low-maintenance [actually, no maintenance] greenery that gives nothing away to the hard-edge builder basic block paving scheme.
It might have worked if they had tried harder to maintain the quality the designers and planners had originally specified. Might. Now it is unattractive, it even has a sense of being out of the way, an island, soulless and generic like a suburban industrial park.
And no-one wants to be there any longer than they have to be, so you have the beginnings of a ghost town.
We have ben to Nevada a few times and one of those times we went to a real ghost town. There are in fact a lot of ghost towns in Nevada, even more in California.
The Tourist Board have a kind of map showing where they are located but in fact as unarmed foreign tourists we thought it best to take advice from one of the guides and they pointed out seven or eight where they were certain that there were no one-off residents keeping an eye out for unarmed foreign tourists. Like us. The one we chose was around fifty miles away from Las Vegas although there was an opportunity to visit another one which had only been uncovered three or four months previously, when South Lake Tahoe had receded due to temporary climate change. But we are not historians or academics and the pleasure of walking around eighteen-sixties dripping wet/drying-out wooden buildings just held no appeal.
So we went to the first one which incidentally featured a tourist attraction on the outskirts, a disused silver mine. The ghost town was much as one would expect; dry as dust in the high desert with boarded up buildings, faded signs, a surprisingly wide main street and nobody around. No cats, no dogs. No tumbleweed, although we saw lots of that down in Arizona. The mine was extremely interesting, with a good, knowledgeable guide who led you down tunnels lit from the ceiling by bare bulbs strung through pit-props. We went deep into the mountain then trekked all the way back again. You would never be permitted to do that here in the UK: Health & Safety would not allow ten people to go underground into a mine without two weeks training and orientation first. I assume it had become a ghost town when the mine ceased to be profitable.
I believe there are ghost towns or more specifically, ghost housing estates in Northern Ireland. I’ve not visited one first-hand. I am not sure but I think they are situations caught on the wrong side of an invisible sectarian line.
If you drive out past Stanhope in County Durham and into the North Pennines you can visit the remains of two lead mines; one is open-cast and the other is part open-cast and part conventional shafts. I have been to both. The nearest town is Nenthead which comprises one street, two pubs, four shops and a variety of farming suppliers plus maybe twenty houses, all of which appear to be for rent. Someone, a developer one presumes, has constructed a mini-housing estate of sixteen new houses on the edge of the village. They are all up for sale: all empty. Two of them look as though they have been sold then put back on the market and one of these could be occupied because there was a car parked outside the day I drove through.
Weird and no real explanation from me. The houses are substantial; detached, brick-built, when everything else in the county is stone but they all have good-sized plots, not packed densely together, four beds, cheap as chips [£225000, the builders can hardly be covering their costs at these prices] and in another location, would have been sold out long ago. Okay the weather is notoriously awful in Weardale but I can’t quite see what has gone wrong. Perhaps there are no schools?
At the very least they could find a market as second holiday homes.
Riccarton Junction [a real place] is a ghost town: it was the main theme of my book. Kiri had been studying the loss of the lace-making industry in Nottingham for her dissertation and how not only had the local economy suffered but the whole way of life for the community, the women, friendships and families, all swept away with nothing to replace them and that, when they go, rightly, wrongly, naturally or by imposition, something irreplaceable is lost.