This Fragile Townscape
I recently came across author Pauline Fisk’s interesting new blog, My Tonight From Shrewsbury. Pauline is fascinated by the less-known, the hidden and the curious side of Shrewsbury, which she celebrates in words and pictures. As someone who also loves the strange little details of Shrewsbury buildings, this is right up my street.
On the 14th of February, Pauline’s blog dealt with the subject of rooftop exploration. And this is something that I feel quite strongly about. Strongly enough to want to talk about it here, at more length than I could do in just a comment on her blog. Rather handily, there is a building under renovation a stone’s throw from her street door and from mine. I took a few photos from my living room window this morning, which illustrate one of my main concerns.
As the urban explorer Pauline interviewed told her, people don’t often bother to look up at the buildings they pass every day. I have lost count of the people I’ve spoken to who are totally unaware of all the little carved heads flanking the windows and doors of Shrewsbury’s railway station. They are great fun to photograph and use as inspiration for digital artwork. You’ll find a set of them here on Flickr. Also on Flickr is my photo-collection of hopper heads, the decorative tops to rainwater downpipes. Shrewsbury is rich in them – The Square, in particular, has some remarkably fine ones. These are things you can look at without leaving the ground or trespassing.
What bothers me in particular about people clambering about on rooftops, however well intentioned the explorers, is the sheer fragility of the buildings. Many - very many - of those fine plastered Georgian and Victorian frontages, with their sash windows, parapets and architectural flourishes, are just additions to the older buildings that were on the site before. It doesn’t take much knowledge of building materials to realise that a rigid brick front on a flexible timber structure, isn’t that happy a combination. And as hidden timbers rot and crumble, as the rumble of traffic, as roadworks, earth-tremors, alterations and the weather all take their toll, the cracks and chips appear. Patches, mortar and fresh plaster, and then more decay…
Look at what has been happening under the plaster on this building. The builders’ netting obscures some of the detail, but you can see the cracks and crumbling wood. Some urban explorer leans a little too heavily on a parapet, and a chunk of brick or stone drops into the busy street. While I know that the serious Urbexers are never intentionally destructive, our roofs and ledges won’t stand a lot of weight safely. And where the careful ones go, the less careful may follow. Some were on the roof right above my flat a few weeks ago. They may have taken only photographs, but they left three or four cigarette butts on the tiles, and I was quite spooked by the noise they made before I realised what was happening. Across the road, the pinnacles on the Darwin Shopping Centre have been bent and broken; one urbexer grabbed an aerial pole for support on the way back down and the television shop below lost its signal until a repair team could get out to re-align the aerials. Drainpipes are often brittle cast iron, held on with rusting nails. Tiles shift and crack, leading to water ingress and further damage….
Not just the less-careful follow them, either. To glamourise climbing buildings without proper precautions risks attracting those who are too young, too drunk or too thoughtless to be safe at a height. Accepting explorers as a feature of the skyline, also gives cover for those who are ready to be tempted by a skylight or a roof hatch, or simply by the lead on the roof.
When I was younger, had I been fitter and possessed of less common sense and a better sense of balance, I might have been tempted to take my own camera up there too. But now I am willing to forgo the grand views. And if I see shadowy figures on the Shrewsbury skyline, my first reaction is to let the police know about it. Not because I want to spoil innocent fun, but because I love our fragile townscape.