Metal and Dust chronicles hidden geographies and unusual spaces. We research and document parts of the landscape which are unseen, either because they are not meant to be seen or because they are deemed not worthy of being seen. These topics are explored through our signature blend of urban exploration, psychogeography and traditional historical investigation, with a particular focus on Newcastle and Gateshead in the North East England.
Newcastle – Polyphonic City
One of the defining characteristics of Newcastle is that people have been living in the area continuously for almost 2000 years, resulting in many different iterations of the city being built on top of each other. New versions of the city never quite overwrite the previous ones, and for millennia elements of one Newcastle have bled into each of the others. Despite flashes of masterplanning, the city’s development has been largely granular. This is perhaps best captured by Ian Nairn, one of Newcastle’s great champions.
[Newcastle] is built on one side of a hundred foot gorge, and the medieval town struggled up it from the quayside. […] On the flatter land at the top the early 19th century grated a new town on to the old pattern—not replacing it, but superimposing itself, so that today’s walker in Newcastle can have the benefit of both.
The 19th century threw bridge after bridge across the river, and, with a terrifying optimism I would not ask anyone to imitate today, coolly built a rail link across the old city between the castle keep and its gatehouse, spanning the old streets at an immense height. All these, acting together, have produced today’s Newcastle; a typical view is of steps, alleys, smooth classical buildings, railways bridges, all in the same view.
A few years after this was written in 1960, another layer was added to the city with the Modernist plan of Wilfred Burns and T. Dan Smith. This urban layering led Nairn to describe Newcastle as a great polyphony, echoing Brazillian geographer Milton Santos’s concept of ‘roughness’. For Santos, cities were ‘layers of modes of production that historically accumulate and overlap like sediments’, leaving debris in the landscape and built environment. By finding this roughness in the great polyphony we can begin to scratch the surface of a city with millions of stories to tell.
The Local Mission
When Iain Sinclair resolved to walk the orbital length of the M25 motorway in London he believed that ‘this nowhere, this edge, is the place that will offer fresh narratives’. Similarly, Nick Papadimitriou searched out‘thin places’ in his walks around Middlesex—places ‘where a sense of something other lurks just behind the visible’. In probing and prodding at the built environment, these two writers looked far beyond the bits of urban life we’re actually meant to look at and ventured into the hinterlands, liminal spaces and hauntological edgelands that don’t traditionally form part of a city’s narrative.
Metal and Dust aims to follow in their footsteps in the hope that it can reveal parts of history which are not represented in history books, heritage sites or the popular imagination—things like Newcastle’s failed skywalks, Gateshead’s unbuilt airport, the city’s forgotten circus, irreverent regional church animateurs, the secret architecture of the metro system, now-obscure 19th century Tyneside tourist attractions, fake heritage sites and dead malls.
In sterile lexicographical terms urban exploring is the exploration of abandoned, often decaying, man-made structures. A much more vibrant definition comes from one of its finest ever practitioners. Urban exploring, according to Ninjalicious is ‘a sort of interior tourism that allows the curious-minded to discover a world of behind-the-scenes sights like forgotten subbasements, engine rooms, rooftops, abandoned mineshafts, secret tunnels, abandoned factories and other places not designed for public usage. It’s an attempt to get past the ‘safe and sanitised attractions that require an admission fee’.
It’s another tool in the quest to get beyond what is seen and expose the roughness of the urban fabric. Our Urbex is national in scope and so far some of the places we’ve found include a wartime Ministry of Supply ammunition depot, an anti-aircraft supply base, decommissioned fluorite mines, crumbling coastal defences being swallowed by the sea, a disused viaduct, a National Coal Board bathhouse, a ghost council estate, an abandoned dock and the derelict remnants of various railway lines including a signal box, a station and a viaduct.
Metal and Dust’s Mythologies series looks at aspects of the landscape which have been the subject of myth making, urban legend or uncertainty, including England’s underwater cities of Dunwich and Plashetts, the M62 farm, the King’s Cross Lighthouse and plenty of others.
The Metal and Dust library is an attempt to curate the disparate media which inform and supplement our work. Our reading list, viewing list and listening list broadly covers topics like hidden geography, unusual uses of the space and anything which forces us to look at the landscape in new or subversive ways. We often post book reviews and overviews of theory which informs our work, as well as shining a light on art and artists whose work ties in with our interests.
Ian Nairn, Nairn’s Towns (2013)
Milton Santos, La Naturaleza del Espacio (2005), quoted by D.Z. Singh in Paul Dobraszczyk, Carlos Lopez Galviz and Bradley L. Garrett (eds.), Global Undergrounds (2016)
Iain Sinclair, London Orbital (2002)
Nick Papadimitriou, Scarp (2012)
Ninjalicious, Access All Areas (2005)