What should cities do with ‘dark sites’, where tragic or sinister events occurred?

High Royds Hospital, Leeds. Image: 0742 Mark Mozaz Wallis/Wikimedia Commons.

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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.