Nicks in the fabric of the town Rob St. John March 2014 Ginnels are spaces in between: the paths and alleys that cut hidden channels through many towns in the north of England. Often following historical routes that pre-date urbanisation and are now squeezed by encroaching buildings, the dialect word for a ginnel varies across the north: snicket, gunnel, jinnel, twitchell, jitty, gitty, ten-foot, passage, shut. Ginnel and its variants are amongst a narrow set of dialect words which are still strong in daily life: a local knowledge of shortcuts and escape routes, yet to meet a linguistic dead-end.
In many cases, ginnels represent a tangle of lines: blurred spaces between what is safe and what is dangerous; what is natural and what isn’t; what is conserved and what is left to fall into ruin. Snickets cut nicks in the fabric of the town: routes to sneak along, cobbled channels trodden down. Moss on stone on moss on stone. Brambles tangled in barbed wire. Holly bushes poking through the dull, mottled metal of turnpike fences. Ragwort, buddleia and Japanese knotweed the ambitious upstarts amongst all the spikes and sharp edges. A quirk of planning laws mean that urban ginnels in Lancashire are managed by the countryside council, fertilising neglect and the growth of unruly nature: spaces for crime and twilight liaisons.
Walking these ginnels, I began to imagine grand shifts in scale. The routes themselves, when viewed from above, became the lines of mortar and moss that weave through the cobble and stone pathways. Lichen like overlapping islands of yellow, red, white and green: beacons against the washed out midwinter stone; organic barometers of pollution and disturbance. The slow creep and colonisation of the leftalone; the dark and the damp. Ginnels tangle the past and the present, picking paths centuries old. In Barnoldswick, a former cotton mill town on the side of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, the Pickles Hippings ginnel (known locally as ‘shitten ginnel’ due to its damp, muddy course across a stream) leads to the site of a short-lived monastery founded in 1147 by monks from Fountain’s Abbey. The monks left after six years, citing bad weather, crop failure and the number of robbers in the area. A new church was established on the edge of the town, again led to by a short, muddy ginnel crossing a stream. Back in the centre of the town, the Forty Steps (although there are only 39) trace the route between old workers cottages and the derelict mill. This route has recently been restored with new cobbles, which gleam in the over-saturated air. There’s not a spot of lichen or moss on show, nor any weeds, the ginnel’s lines refined and tidied. Here, ginnels join town and country, tracing well-trodden lines out onto the open moor.
Forty miles south down the Pennines in Rochdale, some ginnels such as the historic Walk have been restored and celebrated by the heritage industry, whilst many are left derelict and overgrown. Pigeon feathers ruffle silently in the ventilation fan from a restaurant along Stationer’s Entry – a dank, narrow nick through high buildings in the town centre - and there are heart shaped notches cut in the dirty cream tiling. Bull Brow is now painted bright yellow and red as part of regeneration work, an intentional lightening of the space, and a perhaps unintentional echoing of the bright mosses which thrive along other neglected, damp and self-willed routes.
Not far away in Middleton, Cankey’s ginnel is said to be haunted by the ghost of a resurrection man who used the route to transport dead bodies away from a churchyard to the river, and finally the medical school in nearby Manchester. When filming, we hopped over the churchyard fence to be met by a binman with a comprehensive knowledge of the area’s hauntings: a tour guide appearing right on cue.
GINNEL snicket, gunnel, jinnel, twitchell, jitty, gitty, ten-foot, passage, shut.
Cankey’s was the most recognisably urban of the paths we walked, lined with red brick, strewn with litter and graffiti, neglected but clearly well used. The edges of the oldest graffiti had eroded and worn, becoming mottled, organic and lichen-like.
A common thread of decay and occasional regeneration ran through this set of routes. Echoes of dialect language describing the landscape: the imperceptible slide into loss and change. What words, phrases, places and landscapes do we prioritise to save, restore and conserve? Why, how and for who? This project asked more questions than it yielded answers, a set of parallel lines of language and landscape: the ginnels and snickets cutting nicks in the fabric of the town. The film is intended to be similarly open, to invite you to draw your own lines between what you see and hear. -This film was shot over the course of a couple of weeks in January 2014 on digital and 8mm film. Additional still shots were taken on 35mm film, the negatives of some were treated with a mixture of water and moss taken from the ginnels filmed, and left for a week or two to undergo another round of development. It was also influenced by a research trip to the North West Sound Archive in Clitheroe Castle, Lancashire, where we listened to a set of oral histories on ginnels and snickets on reel-toreel tape. Thankyou to: Jonnie Robinson at the British Library for advice and information, the staff of the North West Sound Archive and Cyril Black. Funded by IdeasTap and the British Library Shot by: Sam Mcloughlin, David Chatton Barker, Rob St. John Edited by: Sam Narration written by: Rob and read by Cyril Black Design by David.