Eloise and I share a fascination with derelict or awkward spaces. We find abandoned buildings, service stations, and other liminal spaces endlessly interesting.
So do I!
This is why we found it strange that most writers’ retreats take you away from these spaces, towards somewhere quiet, remote, and separate. The idea to start a retreat that did the opposite arose naturally from this.
We did the pilot by ourselves at Peterborough Service Area, and it was hugely inspiring. Since then TLR has grown steadily. We even managed to get Arts Council England funding for our latest project at Alton Towers.
Personally, I’m a fan of writing in limbo places. In a theatre audience before curtain-up; travelling on the Tube. There’s something inspiring about the sense of being in a between-time, displaced from your usual surroundings, adrift with just a notebook and your eager mind. They feel borrowed and somehow urgent because they won’t last long. When I discovered Liminal Residency, it made me think of that.
That’s a beautiful way of putting it. It reminds me of the Amtrak Residency – an American Residency based on a series of long-distance trains. I often make connections and untangle ideas while travelling. Something about moving through a landscape seems to lead to looser and wilder associations in my brain.
There’s something liberating about the sensation of being carried, being taken somewhere. Especially if you’re not having to drive, you’re in someone else’s hands. It’s a kind of trusting abandoned state, like sleep.
Do you write whilst on the Tube? When I lived in London I found it great for thinking… but often difficult to actually get any writing done!
I think about it. But the journeys I make aren’t long enough for a sustained write. And often, I can’t get a seat.
As means of transport go, it’s quite an intense and stressful one.
Liminal Residency is about overlooked places. Motorway service stations; Heathrow Airport; the theme park at Alton Towers. We’re probably not supposed to give much thought to them; for most people, they’re transit stops on the way to somewhere else. What are you aiming to do when you explore these places?
Part of it is simply recognising the importance of these places. However mundane or disposable they might be to most of the people who visit, they still have a history.
So much history! Think of the number of souls that pass through these places.
We think it’s as important to recognise and record and engage with this history. Why do only some places get to be historically significant? More life is lived in a service station than in a historic castle.
I love that.
We’re also hoping to find something different. Everything you write arises from everything you experience, and so by exploring different places and seeing different things we hope that something new – something which wouldn’t otherwise have arisen – might come to the surface.
You seem to pick urban places, and a particular kind of urban place – they’re sealed off, almost like kingdoms.
That’s a good way of putting it – for Alton Towers in particular, which feels to me like a small city; a place with different districts, different zones. A world comprised of several other smaller worlds. And definitely a kingdom. After all, it has a castle in the middle. Have you ever been to Alton Towers?
I’ve been several times. I first went as a kid, before the theme park was installed. There was a ruined house and a garden. My parents were interested in the gardens. I only had eyes for the soot-blackened walls, the empty window holes, the sense of collapsed grandeur. I was miffed that we didn’t explore that, but had to look at flowers and greenhouses. I wanted to see the traces of the life that were lived there, the fireplaces half-way up the walls, the panelling in the rooms, to imagine the people who walked on the floors that had now fallen in. I was very young but it made a powerful impression. Derelict country houses feature strongly in my work – in my novel Lifeform Three and my travel memoir Not Quite Lost.
I’m always fascinated by the different stories and experiences people have of it.
In your Alton Towers book, my favourite part was the Park Map Errata, where you listed features that had been forgotten. Some would have been handsome and noteworthy in their day, such as the Victorian bathing pool or the stately home ruins. Others were less so, such as the disused toilet block, but still would, when they were used, have seen heavy human traffic, stories, brief encounters. Their empty state seems so elegaic and resonant. I’m not sure I have a question about this, I simply liked that you documented them!
The derelict toilet block is almost mythic to me. I worked at the park for several seasons and thought that I knew it well. I imagine that guests who go to the park every year believe that they know Alton Towers well too – to discover that there are abandoned portions of it lurking just out of sight is as exciting as finding a sealed room or a forgotten city… even if it is just a toilet block in the end!
‘As exciting as a sealed room or forgotten city…’ That’s exactly how I feel. It’s the sense that everything can change. As if time is a curtain. Pull back ten years and a place is lively and thriving; an essential hub. Close those ten years and nothing is there but brambles.
I also feel as though things become invested with a kind of importance by being neglected. The gardens and the Towers are vital, if only because so few people care about them. They are, in a sense, an endangered species of place – something that to me makes them compelling and urgent.
Let’s talk practicalities. Do you run into problems with security on these premises or do you make special arrangements? I’m thinking particularly of Heathrow Airport, where you walked the perimeter and got lost in the internal transport network. How did you get access?
We always try to make arrangements and let the places we’ll be visiting know what we’re doing. This usually doesn’t work. Heathrow, for example, is such a vast place – a collection of a thousand different interlocking organisations. Unless you have exactly the right contact, a lot of money, or a lot of good will, it’s near enough impossible to get permission to do anything. Which isn’t, of course, a reason not to do something.
We had a little luck with Alton Towers – and hopefully as we grow people might start returning our emails. You never know; we’d love to be invited somewhere one day.
How does the residency work? Can any writer take part or do you choose participants with particular aims or attributes?
We try to be as open as possible, but having a limited budget means that we can only take along a few people to each Residency. We try to pick writers and artists who have a connection with the place… or whose work might lead to an interesting interpretation of it.
It’s also pretty important that someone is on board with the whole idea. Engaging with a place in this way is sometime uncomfortable, sometimes tiring, sometimes weird. You might not get much work done during the period of the Residency. You might end up skulking around an abandoned toilet block or going on a vision quest in a theme park. It requires, I guess, at least a bit of a sense of humour.
Or curiosity and wonder!
For each location, can you pick out a magical or unexpected highlight?
At Peterborough Service Area that would definitely be the tiny, hand-built church made of wood and corrugated metal in the field behind the service station. It was a surprise find, and strangely remote, utterly beautiful. I don’t know how many of the thousands of people who stop there each day have ever discovered it.
Alton Towers – we weren’t expecting to be able to get into the Towers themselves, but there’s a curtained off archway on the exit line from Hex, and through there we had access to the whole building. It’s gorgeous, empty and echoing, filled with balls of insulation fluff and piped-in music for the benefit of the (zero) guests who go there every day.
At Heathrow… probably the old pub on the boundary. It’s hundreds of years old, and has remained stubbornly in place despite numerous attempts to destroy it. It feels completely out of place, but it’s gorgeous; once upon a time it was a refuge from highwaymen and robbers.
I have a friend who used to work in border force at Heathrow. He’s fascinated by the echoes of ancient places and has a collection of news cuttings about the villages that pre-dated the airport. He’s also an author, more famously known for his alternate history novels, but one of his preoccupations is liminal spaces. He wrote a haunting short story about people lost in the no-man’s land at the edge of a motorway. (In case you’re interested, search for John Whitbourn’s Binscombe Tales.)
If practicalities were no object, what would your ideal residency location be?
We’d love to do something in an abandoned building, possibly even an abandoned theme park. There are a few in the UK, including Loudon Castle and the old Camelot amusement park. Practically, it’s tricky, but it’s something that would be wonderful if it came together.
How does the residency work feed back into your own art?
Each Residency has sparked off new interests – new things that I want to write about. It’s changed the way I feel about space as well. The number one positive thing that being involved with TLR has done for me is to enhance my ability to notice things – see stuff that I wouldn’t before. Once you start you can’t stop. I have an appreciation now for hidden detail that I didn’t have before – and I constantly see that coming through in my writing.