An Industrial Vanishing Act... Even if at first you feel physically or emotionally distanced from something or someplace, isn't it strange how such a void seems to intensify your own sense of attachment?
I grew up in Charlestown, a small village on the south coast of Cornwall which (until recently) was a working port at the heart of the British china clay industry and home to an Iron foundry. However, I only developed an acute cultural affinity towards such industrial aspects of where I live when, slowly, they began to be ground out of existence – a direct result of the cheaper mineral alternatives available in developing countries, such as Brazil.
The foundry itself was constructed in 1804 to provide iron for use in the china clay industry, and it employed much of the local community until, in 2002, it was forced to close because of the accelerating decline of mining in Cornwall. You could place this on a par with much of the recent deterioration of British industry, but the damage caused in my village, and throughout Cornwall, seems to run far deeper than higher unemployment rates and economic fragility. You can sense that the real damage has been inflicted symbolically. A region whose culture and heritage draws pride from its working communities has suddenly had to come to terms with the idea that it is being undermined, and the reality of this is quite sobering.
I chose to shoot this location the week before it was due to be demolished, partly to document the Foundry’s decline, partly in anger (applications from local businesses to buy the site were rejected by the council, and ‘Wainhomes’, a faceless housing corporation, acquired it instead, despite overwhelming local opposition because the house prices would be too high for local buyers). Inside, it looked like a war zone, a vandal’s playground. Windows had been smashed, walls knocked down, graffiti scrawled on the walls, toilet cubicles destroyed… I felt like a stranger in my own village- this wasn’t how I remembered the foundry before the industrial vanishing act.
Even weirder, local kids had used materials from the site to construct a skate park in the upper floor of one of the warehouse because there is nothing for them to do in the local area! Why should teenagers have to be driven to play in such a dangerous environment, or turn to vandalism for their kicks? I was taking pictures, but I felt that I shouldn’t have been able to… something should have been done to stem the anger and frustration that had managed to seep down from the adults into the youths of the community so that this hadn’t happened. This symbol of cultural, economical, industrial and communal decline made me realize all we stood to loose, and so I was drawn closer to my roots.
If you visit Charlestown today, you’ll see the foundry site as you drive down the hill into the village. The main foundry building has been incorporated into an apartment block, but – ironically- the current economic decline has forced building to grind to a halt. The charm of the rest of the village has been brilliantly adapted to the tourist industry, and has recently gained UNESCO world heritage status, but you can’t help but imagine how good it would feel to still see the white traces of clay on the road, and hear the buzz of the foundry up the hill.
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