Pilgrimage. Journeys to refresh the soul, to satisfy spiritual longings long left unnourished. For millennia humans have crossed ocean and mountain, setting off on quests. It is the bread and butter of our literature, stories of dark forests filled with goblins and Hobbits, mythical cities forever on the edge of our horizons, forever tantalizingly out of grasp. That religion has cornered the market in pilgrimage matters not; this week I made my own (secular) pilgrimage to a place that had long fascinated me, drawn me, whispered in my restless ear.
A good pilgrimage should leave one feeling emotionally replete, nourished, inspired. So in the early afternoon one Sunday I ascended a sharp hill in quest of the mythical city of Park Hill, a Socialist Utopia, a land where milk floats once floated along streets in the sky. A land of black and white photographs, architects in huge NHS spectacles grinning and children playing freely under blue skies, miles and years from the smoke and effluent filled slums of yesteryear. It is a place I had read about, had viewed in films, argued over with the enemies of Brutalism. As I climbed the hill, every bit as exciting as Golgotha or the Land of Rejaz, I felt my senses soar. I was here, Avalon was reached, the quest over.
The site was clearly divided, to the left a new Park Hill prospered, recently renovated, the shells gutted and replaced with achingly cool apartments, bright in colour. But to my right lay the ruins of my quest, the rotting corpse of post-War planning, the rat-filled remains of the Welfare State. It was quiet, eerily so. Birds gathered in sinister entities, their crowing dark and wary. Every window was covered in wire mesh, balconies filled sodden discarded clothing, and at regular intervals one could discern intimate insights of domestic life lost, children’s drawings, a washing line. The lift doors were rusted shut, dead and carrying milk floats no more. I savoured the quiet. I touched the damp concrete, the holy relic I had travelled to venerate. Pilgrimage is not free of ritual, whether one is expected to light a candle and be in enveloped in a golden wax-scented halo, or recite formulaic prayers. For the secular pilgrim of bricks, mortar and concrete however the day consists of photography, in the light touch of fingertips on cold, hard stone, and in peering through cracks at interiors of once-loved homes. In one, I could discern upended floor tiles, browned on the bottom with streaks of glue, and the gentle fluttering of paper. What rodents and ghosts inhabited the tomb-like interior now? I inhaled the mulchy smell. Park Hill will thrive once more, those damp, dark ruins torn out and dried, replaced with brightly coloured flats, with gleaming chrome kitchens and fresh Italian coffee sipped on balconies. The pilgrims return home, their journeys finished and their souls at peace, their curiosity sated.
And night falls and shadows lengthen over the derelict city on the hill. The rats scuttle undisturbed and the ghostly laughter of children echoes in the still playgrounds. And if you listen carefully the phantom milk floats hum their way along the abandoned streets in the sky.