Disused buildings are an inevitable feature of urban landscapes. Businesses move premises and areas become undesirable; think of Hull’s ‘ghost estate’ or Liverpool’s deserted Garrick Street, where houses were sold by the council for just £1. Disused buildings and sites are a waste of valuable land, and can be addressed in two ways: demolition or re-development.
Deciding which can be controversial. In my corner of Leeds, debate is currently raging over whether to preserve or build over a historic Victorian train tunnel. Yet there is a consensus that something needs to be done – that abandoned structures cannot be left as they are.
But what happens when these sites or structures hold a deeper significance? ‘Dark sites’ – places where tragic or sinister events occurred – exist across the UK. We tend to associate them with haunted natural landscapes, like Mother Shipton’s cave, named after an alleged witch; the ‘witches cottage’ unearthed near Pendle Hill, or the ‘devil's cauldron’ at Lydford Gorge.
But dark sites also exist in towns and cities: institutions, prisons, residential properties. If these sites are abandoned, the practical solution is again to demolish or re-develop. Psychologically and culturally, however, the stakes are very different. Dark sites occupy a prominent position in the urban landscape, attracting curious visitors and urban explorers. They also exert a powerful psychological influence, generating urban legends and providing a physical repository for fears and anxieties.
So what do we do with these most sensitive of abandoned spaces?
At sites where individual acts of violence took place, demolition, the opportunity to raze and start again, is tempting. In Gloucester, the home of murderers Fred and Rose West was flattened by authorities who removed the rubble and crushed it at a secure site – partly to prevent morbid souvenir-hunting but also, as the BBC puts it, “as a way of expunging the sense of evil linked to the place.”
In these cases, dark sites exert such a psychological hold that only ritual destruction feels appropriate. Even then, the space cannot be fully cleansed: the path that now runs over the site of the West’s house is an attempt to restore normalcy, but the gap formed between the other houses is a clue that something isn’t quite right. Demolition may have been the only real option, but even then the empty space acquires an eerie presence.
It’s unsurprising that communities want to physically erase the sites of violent crimes. In other cases, though, dark sites hold a deeper historic and social significance that can be commemorated. In these cases, redevelopment offers an alternative to demolition. High Royds Hospital was a psychiatric institution in Leeds which closed in 2003 and turned into housing. I remember walking around the site in the early stages of redevelopment. The grounds felt desolate, and it was easy to imagine the abuses that took place there.
They may feel abandoned, but disused sites like High Royds still attract visitors – most notably ‘urban explorers’. Urban exploration – the practice of entering and documenting abandoned urban structures – is not restricted to dark sites, but the theme of urban decay lends itself to the macabre (one of the most common images of High Royds is the white mortuary table).
‘Urbex’ photography can have a restorative function, shining a light on forgotten histories and helping to tell the stories of people who were ignored in life. Sometimes the focus on morbid details has the opposite effect, turning dark sites such as High Royds into a gothic house of horrors and its former residents into ghosts. In both cases, though, the increasing popularity of urban exploration shows the power of dark sites to catch the imagination.
These days High Royds is a high-end housing complex named Chevin Park. I’m not convinced Leeds needs more luxury housing, but I’ll admit that the re-development has restored a sense of normalcy. Its history hasn’t been forgotten: the water-tower is visible for miles around, and heritage walks are occasionally held on the estate. But High Royds is no longer an abandoned curiosity visited primarily by urban explorers and ghost-hunters. By moving a new community into the complex’s Victorian core, the development visually preserves a troubling part of our history whilst showing that some dark sites can be successfully re-integrated into their local environment.
Dark sites are not just abandoned spaces. They invite exploration, generate urban legends, and disrupt safe suburban landscapes. For these reasons they might be viewed as public spaces, even if many are fenced-off and privately owned.
When we talk about towns and cities we understandably focus on utility – transport links, housing. Disused sites are rarely thought of as contributing to the urban environment. For better or worse, though, dark sites exert an important influence on our towns, cities, and communities, and the question of how and whether we can live alongside them will remain relevant as long as they exist.