Abandoned Places

 Abandoned places have always intrigued me. I wonder about the story behind them and the people who lived or worked there. A recent article in The Guardian by David Bramwell described the ghost towns in Britain as mostly having been abandoned after the Black Death in the 14th century. The worst affected areas were Norfolk and Suffolk where the plague-infested ships landed. There is little left of many of them. Some were requisitioned by the military for use at the outset of World War 2 and practices for the D-Day landings. In East Anglia and other parts of the East coast, erosion is also a major problem due to rising sea levels. In late May this year, people in homes on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent were evacuated. As I write, one home has fallen from the cliffs and others are threatened. On our journey around the British coast we visited Rattray in Aberdeenshire which was abandoned in the 18th century when shifting sands blocked the harbour and covered the buildings.

Growing up in Scotland, the Highland Clearances which took place mostly in the 18th and 29th centuries are never very far away and the ruins of old crofts are found in many places. When we visited Sutherland in 2015, I learnt that people farming in the glens were removed to the coast near Bettyhill. Unfortunately, they did not know how to fish or possess any boats. We stayed for a week in a cottage near Skerray Harbour. From the harbour, Eilean nan Ron – the Isle of the Seals is visible, with ruined houses on it.

Between 1820 and 1938, this was home to several hardy families. They were forced to leave as the population was reducing in numbers (some having emigrated to North America or Australia) and getting older; making it hard navigate the 90 steps up the steep cliff from the harbour to the homes. They tried to settle nearby and were given £100 by the Duchess of Sutherland. In 2018 we visited the St Kilda archipelago which lies 40 miles beyond the Outer Hebrides.  Having been inhabited for 4,000 years, it was abandoned in 1930. It now has a military and a radar base and a few National Trust for Scotland employees are there for part of each year as well as a flock of Soay Sheep.

On our trips overseas we have also found derelict and abandoned places. Route 66 passes several towns left behind when the interstates were built.

The Meramec Bridge in Missouri carried Route 66 after its completion in 1932. Resorts arrived and working-class resort called Times Beach opened nearby in 1925. It was home to almost 2,000 people. In the late 1960s Interstate 44 arrived and bypassed this and many other communities. Times Beach was evacuated in 1983 because of dioxin contamination resulting from contaminated fuel being used to deal with a dust problem in the streets and to deter birds from crops since the 1970s.

In 2011 we travelled on the Indian Pacific train from Perth to Sydney. The route crosses the Nullarbor and is the longest straight stretch of railway in the world at 478km. We made a stop at Cook in South Australia, a town created in 1917 when the railway commenced. It depended on trains for food supplies and now all their water as well. When we visited, we were told that the population was two people and one dog. It became a ghost town in 1997. The eucalyptus trees were planted in 1982 and do provide some shade. We had a couple of hours to wander around before getting back on the train.

Somewhere to visit on a future trip to the South West USA is Cerro Gordo, an abandoned silver-mining town which was purchased in 2018 by a guy who wants to restore it. It is about 200 miles from Los Angeles. In the 19th century around 4,000 miners lived there. It was renowned for gun fights and there is even a rumour that Butch Cassidy was there once. The town was abandoned in the 1930s and the 22 buildings were just left. The guy who now owns it plans to restore it and provide accommodation for visitors.

Planning a long drive

Giving up on my long walk unexpectedly at least gave me some more time at home to plan the remainder of this summer’s trips and the long drive we are starting at the end of summer. Our trips in July and August are in the UK but at the end of the month we set off for what will probably be our longest drive. A couple of years ago I found this book in a charity shop:

It was written in 1970 and describes the author’s trip around Australia and planted the idea in my brain. We have done longish drives: 2,500 miles or so on Route 66, 3,500 miles on the transcontinental Lincoln Highway in 2016 and a month driving around New Zealand in 2017 but this will be the longest. There is a Facebook group ‘Planning a lap of Australia’ although the majority of people in it are Australians who will be camping. Some have sold up everything to spend several months or years on the road. I have been to Australia on several occasions, the longest for two months in 2004 when I spent my Churchill Fellowship in Victoria, carrying out some research at a university in Melbourne and discovering some of the state on my weekends off. I stayed for some of the time with a friend in Woodend and on my first weekend, decided to go for a day hike on Mount Macedon. On the drive over there, my first wild koala ambled across the road in front of me and I saw several more on my walk. My city friends in Sydney, who had only seen koalas in reserves and zoos, called me ‘the koala magnet’. Our last trip was in 2011 when I attended a conference in Freemantle, we met up with friends in Perth and then took the Indian Pacific from Perth to Sydney, a four night and three day train journey which crosses the Nullarbor Plain

and then stops at Kalgoorlie, Adelaide and Broken Hill before going through the Blue Mountains (last visited in 1997) and descending into Sydney.

One of the interesting stops on the train is Cook – a former water station only populated by two people and a dog.

So now, we are pretty organised with car hire, accommodation, visas etc all sorted and house-sitting planned. On the way round we have plans to catch up with several friends and family and divert to interesting things.