What might constitute middle-aged kicks for those of us racing through the survey age-range tick boxes at a rate of knots? For my part, I’m not particularly interested in becoming a MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra), but, in much the same way that I personally am baffled by the popular pursuit of spending a month’s salary on a bike, acquiring a Tour de France fancy dress costume and pedalling off in the direction of Skeggy, I suppose one of my own favourite pursuits – exploring abandoned spaces – might attract a similar level of amusement and bemusement (possibly even opprobrium) were it to come up in everyday conversation.
Which, of course, it probably won’t, because most conversations that we have as humans – particularly as middle-aged humans – tend to be stultifyingly dull. Thus, when I go into work on Monday morning, the fact that I spent yesterday afternoon crashing through undergrowth in order to locate an inconsequential ditch in an overgrown brownfield site will likely as not go unmentioned. You know the score: ‘Morning! Good weekend?’ ‘Yes thanks. You?’ ‘Yes, not bad thanks.’
One of my favourite footpaths is the one that bisects the former industrial land (now cleared, other than a single tall chimney) to the south of the Wilkinson Street Park & Ride facility. This wasteland is bordered by the River Leen to the east and (partly) south, and a railway line to the west, and will probably eventually become a housing estate.
The wasteland areas to the north and south of the path, formerly home to factories carrying out soap manufacture and bleaching and dyeing, have tended in the past to be well secured by fencing, but I noticed on a recent walk that a gap had appeared in one of the fences (presumably courtesy of the local ne’er-do-wells), allowing access to the southern portion of the site.
Old and contemporary maps reveal the existence of a short length of watercourse in this part of the wasteland. In its truncated present day form, it appears to feed into the River Leen via a sluice near Meadow Brown Road. This watercourse is, in fact, classed as a drain. Not exactly a lost river, then, but I headed over to the area yesterday to inspect it anyway.
Stepping through the gap in the fence, and pointing myself roughly in the direction of the point where satellite and map imagery had shown that the drain meets the southern boundary of the wasteland, it was immediately clear that this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park (which, in hindsight, should have been abundantly obvious), so I was glad that I had my sturdy walking boots on. Passing a couple of rudimentary dens, I headed deeper into the site and stumbled my way through brambles and low-hanging tree branches before reaching the southern perimeter.
At this point, tracking the perimeter, I was making my way past fences behind which lay the back gardens of some of the properties on Meadow Brown Road, so it was necessary to make as little noise as possible, given that I was on private land. It wasn’t long before I spotted a manhole cover, which alerted me to the presence of a small channel of running water a couple of metres away, largely hidden by the undergrowth. Excited to have located the object of my quest – yes, I know, not exactly the source of the Nile, but a man must deal with the hand that he has been dealt – I knelt down next to the channel and observed that the water disappeared into a concrete pipeline which did, indeed, appear to lead in the direction of the sluice that fed into the Leen.
While retracing my steps, curiosity and a little luck helped me to discover the other end of the drain, which was completely hidden from view behind a bank. There, the water emerged from another pipe, which led from who knows where.
And here my brief tale ends. It would be interesting to discover the history of this short length of water. Late-19th Century maps seem to show that it was once part of a longer channel, which led from the area north of Wilkinson Street down to Bobbers Mill. Perhaps the bleaching and dyeing and/or soap works, when they appeared on the scene, then co-opted part of it.
It seems odd that this one, short section survives in the open.