The curious case of the sandstone wall, from Bristol’s old gas works, preserved in time to meet a fictional cyberpunk future.
I was walking alongside the historic harbour today, here in Bristol (England), past giant steel cargo cranes that now stand idle, whipped by wind and rain, bleaching in the sun as they silently straddle old railway tracks; past abandoned warehouse structures bluntly converted into art galleries, bistros or light industrial units – those that haven’t been demolished to make way for the plethora of modern apartment complexes.
This spate of intense re-development happened a little over a decade ago and casts the prolonged survival of this lonely sandstone wall into even sharper relief.
Standing by the SS Great Britain, looking out across the deceptively deep waters of the harbour I gazed at the eclectic sprawl of new construction on the far side – and there, sandwiched between pastel coloured concrete structures with balconies of reclaimed wood, my eyes locked onto the anachronistic ruins of the old gas works. Grubby sandstone flanks, grey with age, forming the outline skeletal remains of once potent industrial output (whale oil converted into energy) – the ruins a testament to bombing raids by the Nazi Luftwaffe in World War II. On one side the decayed shells are paralleled by a solitary sandstone wall, forming a lane that snakes – S-like – between the river and the main road that isolates the harbour area from the rest of the city.
Why has this lonely fragment of decaying architecture survived amongst the relentless churn of construction and redevelopment? Is it a similar story to the fantastically old Ear Inn, on Spring Street in Manhattan? Where circumstances unique to the single plot of land and formed in the early history of the area meant that cold-blooded property developers couldn’t bribe or buy their bulldozers and wrecking balls into the place.
Regarding the sandstone wall here in Bristol, I don’t know – but I’m just really happy it’s there. You have to go back 18 years to 1993 to understand why.
1993 – I’ve not long been living in Bristol and I’m renting a monster of a house in Hotwells. I’m working on the very first formative ideas for what will become my first published novel. God Seed. Although I didn’t write it until 1996, living in a different part of the city, I mapped out most of the core plot in Hotwells. Back then the whole stretch of Cannon’s Marsh was one huge wasteland of decrepit bombed-out shells of buildings. From Hotwells all the way to the city centre, where the bulging curves of the Lloyds’ building stood out alone amongst the ruins. I was looking for a location to set a major scene for the start of the novel, which is set in the near future (fitting into the Cyberpunk genre). The lead character, Adam Kyle, a documentary film-maker, is embedded with a group of corporate mercenaries as they meet an executive selling on stolen data. From the vast choice of locations available, I chose the lane bordered by a huge sandstone wall. Looking at this part of Bristol through a near-future filter, I reasoned that the area would eventually be developed – but I whimsically decided that this lane would be preserved.
Here I am, in 2011, and the entire place has been developed – except for this lane and the sandstone wall.
It’s rather lovely to do the harbour walk – a 3 mile circuit that loops round from the city, through Hotwells and back again, and pass this location every time. And every time I do, I think about Adam Kyle and the corporate mercenaries he’s embedded with. From that fictional moment, in a hypothetical cyberpunk future, everything goings horribly, sickeningly wrong – and not just for Kyle, but for all Humankind: the fate of which now hangs in the balance as dreaded agents of the Cthulhu Mythos, and an avatar of the Outer God Nyarlathotep weave together their plans for our bloody slaughter.
Talking of hypothetical cyberpunk future visions of this amazing city called Bristol. There’s a collection of stories available from Amazon called “Future Bristol” (ISBN: 9781934041932). I’ve not read it yet but I like the sound of it. One for the list!
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