It’s astonishing how much trouble taking an interest in one’s environment can cause in this age of paranoia.
Earlier this month, I found myself involved in a set-to with a security guard who appeared out of nowhere, blocking my route forward on a public footpath, after I’d been having a look through some hoardings at the crumbling warehouses near Nottingham station. He demanded, in a somewhat belligerent manner, to know what I was up to, and was less than impressed when I informed him that I didn’t see why I should tell him anything and was sorry that I couldn’t help him with his enquiries.
With that experience still fresh in my mind, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise when, whilst in the middle of taking a photo of a 1951 gatepost outside a deserted Firbeck Academy in Wollaton on a recent Saturday afternoon (the gate in question being a forgotten remnant of an earlier, more innocent time, when schools didn’t resemble maximum security prisons), I was rudely interrupted by a fat middle-aged woman sporting an Asda uniform and a Croydon facelift. The conversation proceeded thus:
‘Can I ask why you’re taking photos of the school?’
‘I’m interested in local history. Can I ask why you’re asking me why I’m taking photos?’
‘You’re taking photos of a school. It looks dodgy.’
‘I’m not taking photos of a school. I’m taking photos of a gatepost.’
‘Well, it looks dodgy. I’m allowed to ask you why you’re taking photographs.’
‘I’m taking photographs in a public place. I don’t have to tell you anything.’
At this point, a newly-arrived, thuggish-looking chap, dressed in a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms that have possibly never seen better days, having heard all or part of the conversation, started to put his own two penn’orth in:
‘It looks dodgy. You shouldn’t be taking photos of a school.’
‘Look, if you think something dodgy is going on, then that’s an indication of the way your mind works, not mine.’
‘You’re making yourself look guilty by arguing.’
‘I’m trying to make a point. Anyway, if I was up to something dodgy, I’m hardly going to stand here and tell you all about it am I?’
And so on and so forth. Eventually, they both head off on their way to whatever pitiful pursuits their limited mindsets allow for and I am left to contemplate whether I wouldn’t be better off sitting at home in my underpants watching Channel 5 on a daily basis instead of embarking on my beloved urban perambulations. Shortly afterwards, I encounter tracksuit-bottomed man once again. Unaware of my approach, he is peering furtively around the corner of a pedestrian subway. As I pass him, I resist the almost overwhelming temptation to comment upon the irony of the situation.
This daft debate was the second in a swift double whammy of deflating happenings. Twenty minutes previously, I’d disembarked from the number 35 bus, looking forward with great anticipation to my exploration of the Balloon Wood area – in particular, the triangle of land bordered by Coventry Lane, the railway line and Wollaton Vale. Keen to have a look at a striking circular modernist building slated for demolition that had latterly been occupied by Spices restaurant and was, prior to that, a pub called The Gondola (the name referencing the passenger-carrying compartment beneath a balloon, not the Venetian boat), it soon became obvious that I’d arrived a little too late. The building was no more.
A few relics remained – the roadside sign, the perimeter railings (with a banner attached to them advertising a £9.95 ‘Early Bird’ menu), a set of steps that now led nowhere and a safe lying on its side next to a pile of bricks – but life had moved on and another repository of memory had been eradicated.
In its days as The Gondola, the pub once served as the local for what architectural historian Elain Harwood called ‘Nottingham’s most notorious housing estate’, the Balloon Wood Estate, colloquially known as the Balloon Woods flats. The Balloon Wood Estate, consisting of 647 flats in interlinked seven- and six-storey blocks, was completed in 1970, but only survived for fourteen years before being demolished in 1984, a victim of construction and social problems that eventually made conditions there untenable.
Even by the standards of some of Nottingham’s other concrete jungles, the Balloon Woods flats seem to have been pretty grim. A 1974 article in Grass Roots magazine, a Nottingham publication, describes the estate as, ‘A concrete maze…looking uncomfortably like a prison – or a termite town, maybe… Washing flaps in the breeze on the balconies, children lean at precarious angles over the walls on the high walks, and the doors of broken lifts gape open, forcing tenants to climb the concrete stairs to reach their homes.’ In many of the dwellings themselves, meanwhile, ‘Tenants are used to black fungus growing on the walls, peeling wallpaper, and rain penetrating the ceilings of the top flats.’ Residents consist of, ‘…the homeless, those from clearance areas, people just out from the services, one-parent families, and old and single people with nowhere else to live.’
I wander around the area where the flats once stood. It’s inoffensive enough visually, and obviously a huge improvement on what went before, but there’s still an edginess to the proceedings. I’ve walked happily through St Anns, The Meadows, Radford and Forest Fields at all hours, but I feel vulnerable here, for some reason. A woman walks past, losing her rag completely with someone on the other end of the phone that she’s holding – not just shouting, but screaming into it with a level of vitriol that I’ve rarely encountered before on the streets of my home city.
I cross a footbridge and follow the railway line that runs to the south of the area. It’s part of the route that runs from Nottingham to Ilkeston and then onwards towards Chesterfield and Sheffield. A second bridge leads to a path that passes alongside the wood that lent its name to the flats. In some ways, this wood is a remarkable survivor. Looking at it on an overhead satellite view, it seems to be almost begging (from a developer’s perspective) to be razed to the ground and overwritten by a continuation of the housing to the south.
Balloon Wood, Balloon Wood Estate, The Gondola, The Balloon (another lost pub), the Balloon Houses (a pair of properties located at the top end of Balloon Wood until the mid 1920s)… Where did the balloon connection come from?
Theories suggest that either experimental work on a ballooning project took place here, perhaps initiated by a rich local hobbyist, or a balloon from elsewhere flew over (or landed in) the area at a time when such an event would have been even rarer than it is today. Meanwhile, a plaque on the front of the Fellows Morton & Clayton pub in Nottingham commemorates ‘Nottingham’s first successful balloon flight on November 1st 1813 by James Sadler’, so maybe an association with that event isn’t beyond the realms of possibility either.
Casting the net slightly further afield in terms of noteworthy Nottingham balloon associations, one of the locations demolished to make way for Victoria Station was called Balloon Court, while there is also an East Midlands saying that runs something along the lines of, ‘You’re daft, meduck – you follow balloons’.
The archives await.
On the final leg of my walk, I follow part of the former route of the Nottingham Canal, which once ran through these parts on its way towards Langley Mill, before it’s time for me to head for home.
An exploration of this interesting area is recommended. Just don’t take any photographs of the old school gate.